Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Love, Actually is, All Around . . .

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the law and prophets hang on these two commandments.” Matthew 22:37-40

Scripture asserts that there is nothing more important than love. But what is love? What does it mean to love someone? Can it be defined? Is it a feeling or an action?

The movie, Love Actually (2003), explains this concept very well. Here is Hugh Grant’s opening monologue. “Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion is starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed. I don’t see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often it’s not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it’s always there. Fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. When the planes hit the twin towers none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge. They were all messages of love. If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that love, actually is, all around.”

Every Christmas I watch this movie, and always find something new of note. I watched it again last night, and edited my annual post on this. A number of characters’ lives are woven together in seemingly separate stories to define the full meaning of love.

David is the newly elected British Prime Minister. He falls in love with Natalie—a “plump,” average looking girl from the “dodgy” end of Wadsworth. Message: Love transcends positions of power, stature, or social class.

Daniel is a man who has just lost his wife to cancer. She had a 10-year-old son, Sam, from a previous marriage. During the movie Daniel and Sam grow closer than any father and son could. Message: Love is greater than the biology of family (ask anyone who’s adopted).

Sam, on the other hand, has a huge crush on Joanna—a girl at school with the same name as his mom. He does everything to get this girls attention, including learning to play drums. Message: True love knows no age. Even a crush is love. No one is immune from the “total agony” of falling in love.

Sarah is an interesting character. For two years she has had a crush on Karl, the “enigmatic chief designer” at the ad agency. He is interested in her, but she has a problem—her brother is in a mental institution and calls her day and night. She has no time for romance. In the end, she picks her brother. Message: Love as loyalty is sometimes greater than love as romance.

Harry is Sarah’s boss at the office. He is married to Karen, and has two children. They’re just an average suburban family. But Mia, his sexy secretary wants him! She plots ways to seduce him. He buys her an expensive necklace, but his wife finds out. She feels betrayed, hurt, and angry, but in the end she chooses to stay with him and be a loyal mother and wife. Message: Love is greater than seduction—loyalty is love as well.

The next character is Jamie—a writer who finds himself “alone again” in a cottage in the south of France. The housekeeper is a Portuguese girl named Aurelia. She can’t speak a word of English, he can’t speak any Portuguese, and neither of them can speak French! And yet they fall in love without ever communicating a single word. Message: Love is ineffable—it transcends language.

Billy Mac is a hilarious character. He is an ex-heroin addict pop star trying to make a comeback. On Christmas Eve he shows up at his manager’s apartment and confesses that he’s the “love of his life.” Message: Men can love each other and not be homosexual. That’s something our culture isn’t real comfortable with because people don’t see friendship as true love—but it is.

Jack and Judy are body doubles in the adult film industry. They meet on the set and then film several sex scenes completely naked. This is, oddly enough, “just work” for them. Then, close to the end, Jack walks Judy home, and as he leaves, she softly and shyly kisses him. He jumps down the icy stairs in joy. Message: Love is greater than sex. Sex is not always love, and sometimes love involves no sex.

Lastly, Mark is in love with Juliet, his best friend’s wife. Mark suppresses his feelings for her by giving her the cold shoulder. He calls this “a self-preservation thing.” Eventually she finds out, and after he confesses that he will love her forever, he walks away and says, “Enough. Enough now.” Can you love someone you can never be with? Yes. Message: Love, however strong, sometimes has to be unrequited.

Love has so many facets, so many twists and turns, so many pathways. It’s like John Lennon said, “All you need is love.”

Friday, December 23, 2011

“The Word Became Flesh": Christmas and Sacramentality

During my final seminar at seminary a few years ago, the professor went around the table and asked each of us to state our theology in a single word. (This was a more succinct form of the “stand on one leg” test) Taken aback by being put on the spot, I mumbled something about Barth, to which the professor replied, “You don’t believe that at all—that’s not you!” Slightly embarrassed, it did give me pause for thought, and began a process of questioning and winnowing down everything I thought I believed. Today, my one-word answer would be “incarnational” or perhaps “sacramental” might be a better way to phrase it. What do I mean?

There are certain ineffable actions that surpass words. A kiss, for example, is a physical act that communicates things that are impossible to fully put into words. The most important things in life are difficult to put into words. That’s why we have poets—to explore and probe the borders of language, and to create new metaphorical possibilities. If you have a wonderful experience—seeing a sunset, falling in love, hearing a symphony—whatever it is, you very quickly run out of adjectives to describe what happened. Words alone make us feel empty. The sacraments are like that. They are actions that communicate beyond words. Unfortunately, post-enlightenment rationalism still infects much of Christianity to the point where we think that reality is an intellectual formula. We think that reality lies in words, when, in fact, the New Testament shows that it works the other way: “The Word became flesh.”

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God . . . The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” John 1

That is what Advent and Christmas is all about. The word Advent means “coming” or “arrival.” The focus of the season is on the celebration of the birth of Jesus, and the anticipation of his return. Advent is far more than simply marking a 2000-year-old event in history; it is celebrating the revelation of God in Christ whereby all of creation will be reconciled to God. That is a process in which we now participate, and the consummation of which we anticipate. We affirm that Christ has come in the flesh, that he is present in the world today through his church, and that he will come again in power. Advent is characterized by a spirit of expectation, anticipation, and longing. There is a yearning for deliverance from the evils of the world. We hope that God, who sometimes seems distant, will rule over all His creation in truth and righteousness. It is that hope that once anticipated the coming of the anointed one—the Messiah. That same spirit now longs for his return to come and set the world aright!

Over the past four weeks we have remembered that God’s people once cried out in oppression and anguish, “How long O Lord?” The answer is that God has always been the Holy One in the midst of sinful people. The desire of His heart has always been to dwell with us. And then, when we least expected it, under the boot of oppression, in a night without light, came THE Light; in a world without hope, eternal hope was born; in the midst of despair, we heard the singing of angels. As we now celebrate Christmas, look past the hustle, the gaudy tinsel, and the crass commercialization. Remember that Israel’s prayer was answered that night so long ago in small Bethlehem, and our prayer remains the same: “Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel!”

But there is something far deeper to those Christmas thoughts. I have been pondering this all week. I have a habit of posting one thought from worship every Sunday on Facebook. Last Sunday I noted the following, “The anticipation of Advent ought to imbue the church with a sacramental understanding of the incarnation. There can be no true spirituality without sacramentality.” What does that mean? What is “sacramentality”?

It means that all reality is potentially the bearer of God’s presence and the instrument of God’s saving activity on humanity’s behalf. This principle is rooted in the nature of a sacrament as a visible sign and instrument of the invisible presence and activity of God. 

Christianity sees in Christ the full embodiment of God. Since God became human, then God is seen, touched, and heard in the context of human living. “He is the Image of the invisible God.” This is the principle of sacramentality. The church celebrates certain rituals (primarily baptism and communion) that make the saving presence of God tangible. They are moments of encounter with God that deeply affect our lives. Christ is present, LITERALLY, in baptism and communion. What we celebrate during Christmas is a tiny preface to this ongoing reality.

Most Evangelical Christians do no think in these terms, and it certainly does not describe my own church heritage. Leaving baptism aside for a separate discussion, I was raised in a tradition that eschewed any “real presence” of Christ in the Eucharist. It was done “in remembrance” of Christ’s death and resurrection. That’s remembrance ONLY. Anything beyond this radical Zwinglian understanding was deemed “too Catholic.” I currently attend a church where the Eucharist is celebrated once a month. While many of us would like to celebrate it weekly, that too has been deemed “too Catholic.” Both churches sadly miss the point. Christianity affirms that God became human in the person of Christ, that we are receptacles of the Spirit, that the church collectively is the body of Christ on earth, and that Christ’s presence is mediated to us through real and tangible elements. Much of Christianity has become, in a sense, too spiritual. The obsession with spirituality that is disconnected from physical reality, and the preaching of salvation as a plan to escape this world is, at best, a reversal of what Christianity has always taught, and, at worst, a return to some early heresies!

But sacramentality embraces more than sacred rituals. It also promotes the idea that we live in a sacred world because it has been created by God. For this reason, every tangible element of creation from the natural environment to human persons provides an opportunity to encounter something of God’s presence. Understood in this way, the principle of sacramentality affirms that as we study and explore the human condition, as well as the natural environment, we are actually discovering more about the presence of God.

C.S. Lewis stated this brilliantly: "It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no 'ordinary' people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”

Merry Christmas!

Monday, November 07, 2011

Moral Bank Accounts

Over the past week the furor and media frenzy surrounding Herman Cain’s alleged sexual harassment has got me thinking about a principle I use to assess someone’s character. I call that principle, “Moral Bank Accounts.” It’s almost impossible to neatly categorize people as either “good” or “bad” since life and certainly human behavior can only be described in shades of moral gray. The rules are rarely clear. Motivation cannot be fully ascertained or understood. “Good” people sometimes do bad things. “Bad” people sometimes do good things. Moral certainty and judgment of others is a rare and expensive luxury!

If you've ever heard of a “Ponzi scheme” you will surely assume that Charles Ponzi was a bad man. He cheated many people out of their money. But a new biography reveals that a few years before inventing his scheme, Ponzi had given a fair amount of his skin so it could be grafted onto a woman who was dying of severe burns. He suffered extreme pain from this act of generosity, which saved a person's life. Yet who would ever associate Ponzi with anything except scamming people out of their money?

People all have “moral bank accounts.” Just like a monetary bank account into which we make deposits and also withdrawals, we make moral, behavioral deposits into, and withdrawals from our moral bank account based on the multitude of actions we engage in during our lifetime. Some obvious villains make so many withdrawals that no imaginable good they can do will change the balance. But that’s the exception, and a bit of a disclaimer. I believe that people should be judged this way, rather than on the basis of every little thing they do. I started thinking this way years ago when Bill Bennett, author of the “Book of Virtues,” was railed against because he gambled away large sums of money. The gambling paled in comparison to how much good Bennett has done. We need moral perspective. It’s the only way to balance justice and mercy.

Without the perspective that a moral bank account gives us, we exaggerate the good done by bad people, and the bad done by good people. God is the ultimate judge, but in the meantime, moral judgments must be made by us humans. Charles Ponzi heroically saved a woman's life at a great personal price. His money scheme was awful; but he was not. Oscar Schindler saved many Jews during the Holocaust while being unfaithful to his wife. Yet we regard Schindler as a moral hero. I am all for pursuing moral clarity and calling good “good” and evil “evil.” But we lose the war against evil and the war for good when we lose moral perspective. We all have moral bank accounts, and it's good to make deposits because we all make withdrawals!

Monday, August 22, 2011

Law School: A New Call to Ministry

My admissions essay to Southern Methodist University's Dedman School of Law:

“You shouldn’t say that in church!” The elder said it to me with a sneering kind of condescension that was half amusement and half judgment. “Why not?” I replied with the kind of naïve enthusiasm that could only come from a new convert. “Because it’s too political. People don’t want to hear about politics in church!”

That conversation happened on Sunday, January 30th, 1994 in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. That is a date I will never forget. I was nineteen, had only been a Christian for two months, and was watching history unfold rather messily as my home country seemed to teeter on the brink of a racially charged civil war. We didn’t expect that only three months later, Nelson Mandela would assume the presidency in a peaceful election that some heralded as “miraculous.” Pre “Truth and Reconciliation,” we fully expected chaos and violence.

For reasons I still do not fully understand, I was asked to deliver the sermon at my home church. The message that I prepared was one of reconciliation, but more specifically, that it was the church’s responsibility, as Christ’s ambassadors, to be stewards of peace and to be fully engaged in ushering in a new era of justice in our country. Those who heard my sermon that night were kind to me, but the elder was right, my message was deemed “too political,” and therefore, by definition, not spiritual enough.

The following month I left my home in South Africa to make a new life for myself in the United States. Part of that new life was responding to the call of ministry. I pursued a theological education with the same rigorous enthusiasm that had characterized other challenges in my life. I was a young, foreign student with little money to spare, yet knowing that I was serving a much higher purpose, I found great joy in the life of the mind. After graduating from Dallas Christian College, I went to graduate school at Baylor University, and then Seminary at Abilene Christian University. Though I had served with churches since 1998, I was ordained to the ministry in 2005, when I received the Master of Divinity degree.

Over the course of my ministry I found that the church tends to talk about salvation as a future expectation for individual people – almost as a means of escaping this world. I heard Christians jokingly refer to baptism as “fire insurance.” I began to struggle with this understanding of the church’s role as a harbinger of some future spiritual reality, rather than engaging in the struggle for peace and justice here and now. In a sense, Christianity has become too spiritual. That is, the concerns of the church have become otherworldly, with Christians focusing their attention on the afterlife. While the pursuit of utopianism is also dangerous, such a focus tends to miss the political, social, and economic implications of God’s Kingdom breaking in here and now. The church I grew up in regarded the phrase, “Social Gospel” as near heresy, and today’s Evangelicals have the same reaction to the phrase, “Social Justice.”

As a means of broadening my experiences, I joined the Acton Institute’s Free and Virtuous Society in 2004. This is an organization that seeks to integrate a Judeo-Christian understanding of the human person with moral truths and free market economic principles. In 2005 I received certification as a mediator after studying at Abilene Christian University’s school of Conflict Resolution. My involvement in these programs brought me into close contact with several lawyers. It was refreshing to be around these men and women. They had an excitement about their profession and about making an impact for good that I hadn’t seen or felt in a long time. I think that was the genesis of my fascination with the study of law. But life was comfortable in the recesses of the church - as long as I didn’t rock the boat too much! So I buried myself in my work as a minister, fully believing that I could do more, and that I could make changes where others had failed.

In the summer of 2008, the toll became too much to bear. My wife and I separated, and were subsequently divorced in May 2009. (I won’t go into all the details of our failed marriage here because many of those details are, and should remain, private.) For a host of personal and professional reasons, I could no longer lead the church that I dearly loved, and resigned my ministry in August 2008. You’re only a leader if others are following! A whirlwind of loss and hopelessness took everything I had spent the better part of a decade building up. I didn’t know where to go, who to turn to, or what to do with my life. Worst of all, I felt abandoned by the church.

And then, while sitting in Starbucks one afternoon, I gazed at my coffee cup, and read the following “The Way I See It” quote by Scott Turow:The law, for all its failings, has a noble goal - to make the little bit of life that people can actually control more just. We can’t end disease or natural disasters, but we can devise rules for our dealings with one another that fairly weigh the rights and needs of everyone, and which, therefore, reflect our best vision of ourselves.” 

After reflecting on that sentiment, it struck me that the study of law and a career as a lawyer was not leaving the ministry, but a new way to be faithful to my call to ministry. That may seem odd to some people, but in my way of thinking, both lawyers and ministers are supposed to promote and fight for a better world here and now. When people are at their weakest, it is either a lawyer or a minister that takes them by the arm, stands shoulder to shoulder with them, and gives them the greatest thing a person can have – hope! That ideological conviction is my primary reason for pursuing the study of law.

There are practical, career oriented reasons as well. Since receiving certification as a mediator in 2005, I have offered my services as a mediator and conflict resolution coach. However, it is difficult to establish one’s self in this field without having studied law. I believe that a law degree will give me the necessary credentials and professional clarity to effectively work as a peacemaker in our society.

Since March 2009 I have worked for Christian Relief Partners as their “Liaison for African Projects.” This aid organization is assisting with the development of a community in South Sudan. We are developing a sustainable model tied to the local community, including skills training, economic development, education, and agricultural programs. South Sudan has just voted to secede from the North, and establish their own country. I have traveled to the Sudan on two occasions now, and as I continue to invest myself in building up the new nation of South Sudan, I believe that a law degree will grant me the credentials that will open many doors.

In short, my desire to study law is born out of the same conviction that allowed me to answer the call to ministry. Or better stated, Christian Relief Partners has a simple, one sentence vision: “We believe that the world can be a better place.”

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

The Banality of Evil

“The plan was to kill people." That is what Jeremy Morlock told an army judge after he participated in a "kill team" of soldiers in Afghanistan who brutally targeted civilians and then staged the bodies to look like dead insurgents. The soldiers took humiliating photos of the murdered civilians, and some even kept body parts as mementos. Morlock has been sentenced to 24 years in prison.

The above paragraph (as mild as it is) describes evil. It also describes abject stupidity, but let’s stay serious with “evil.” Admittedly, the word has been overused to the point of exhaustion. What do I mean when I refer to an action as evil? By the word “evil,” I refer to human behavior that is intentionally harmful to others.

But even with neat definitions and parameters, it is difficult to reconcile the image of a clean-shaven, all-American Morlock with the Morlock who sat so calmly in a courtroom and described the vicious murder of innocent people for sport. And how can you explain the actions of the other soldiers in the kill team, or those who actively covered up for them?

Grappling with the issue of evil is frustrating for me because oftentimes “good” or “normal” people commit the worst kinds of evil. Two writers have been valuable: Hannah Arendt and Henry David Thoreau.

Hannah Arendt
In her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, (1963) the political theorist Hannah Arendt opened a unique window through which to gaze upon evil. Jewish by birth, Arendt escaped Nazi Europe in 1941 and later became a naturalized American. In 1961, on behalf of the New Yorker magazine, Arendt reported on the Jerusalem trial of Adolph Eichmann, who had been instrumental in administering the Nazi death camps.

She opened the trial's transcript in order to examine a sadistic monster, but she closed it without finding one. Like his fellow Nazi Heinrich Himmler, who went from being a chicken farmer to heading the notoriously brutal SS, Eichmann seemed to be an ordinary man simply carrying out orders. Arendt coined a term - the "banality of evil” - partly as a way to describe Eichmann's demeanor during the trial, in which he denied all responsibility for the holocaust on the grounds that he was just following orders; he was obeying the law.

Eichmann showed no guilt, malice, or insanity. The most remarkable emotion he displayed was a tendency to brag. Arendt called this bragging, “the vice that was Eichmann's undoing” because it led him to speak of atrocities that he had not been ordered to commit. To Arendt, it seemed Eichmann would rather die as a war criminal than live as a nobody.

Arendt continued to elaborate on how seemingly ordinary people can commit terrible acts simply because those acts were performed in a systematic manner and within a sanctioned context - a context that discouraged accountability by rewarding obedience. A reviewer of Arendt's book observed that the Nazis had "normalized the unthinkable."

Arendt's insights also applied to the more mundane atrocities. For example, the seizure of Jewish property ceased to be theft if it was done through proper paperwork, stamped, and filled out in triplicate by a government clerk. Those who processed the forms or inventoried the goods were simply doing paperwork and inventory; they were "honest" people just doing their jobs. (How many times have you heard that line?)

The same was true (then and now) of prison guards, special police forces, and an obedient judiciary. They obeyed laws or orders without questioning. The law assumed the role that conscience played in other people.

People obey for many reasons. Some see it as a path to success. Others fear the consequences of disobedience. Many, like those who do the paperwork to facilitate theft or murder, view their jobs as routine and boring - as far from evil as imaginable. They simply want to collect a paycheck or acquire a pension, and they give no thought to the content or consequences of their actions.

Arendt's complex explanation of “the banality of evil” offers us insight into Morlock and his kill team in Afghanistan. They were in an environment that systematically dehumanized Afghans. The military culture also dehumanized the individual's moral conscience and erased personal responsibility. (Ever seen “A Few Good Men”?) Despite the parallels, however, Morlock does not fit neatly into Arendt's paradigm. For one thing, he cannot fall back on “obeying orders” as an exculpatory argument. Of course he tried this argument, suggesting that a superior officer in his unit had suggested the kill team, but no one receive official orders. Their repeated cover-ups reveal that they knew their actions were wrong by some standard.

And now to one of my favorite authors:

Henry David Thoreau
Thoreau offers further insight. In his work, On Civil Disobedience, Thoreau objected to majority rule because the views of the majority do not always coincide with what is morally correct. Every human being has a fundamental obligation to discover for himself what is just and then to act according to his conscience, which is inviolable, even if it contradicts the majority or the law. It is precisely moral conscience that makes us fully human.

It is within the military that Thoreau saw the greatest relinquishment of moral conscience. Thoreau contemplated soldiers who would march off to die and to kill strangers in a conflict they know is unjust. He asked whether those soldiers retained or relinquished their humanity when they replaced their own moral judgment with the dictates of others. Thoreau concluded that once a man abandons his moral judgment, he becomes a machine; his body becomes a mere tool to be used by those in power.

Thoreau wrote,
“The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. They are the standing army, and the militia, jailers, constables, posse comitatus, etc. In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgment or of the moral sense; but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well. Such command no more respect than men of straw or a lump of dirt. They have the same sort of worth only as horses and dogs. Yet such as these even are commonly esteemed good citizens. Others - as most legislators, politicians, lawyers, ministers, and office-holders serve the state chiefly with their heads; and, as they rarely make any moral distinctions, they are as likely to serve the devil, without intending it, as God. A very few--as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men--serve the state with their consciences also, and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated as enemies by it.”

Many consider service to their country to be an automatic virtue, but it is a dehumanizing vice whenever it involves the abandonment of conscience. Soldiers like Jeremy Morlock point guns at strangers who have done them no harm. When you systematically strip away a man's conscience and then give him a gun with little accountability, the worst within his humanity is likely to surface. Or perhaps Thoreau is correct - his humanity itself may disappear.

Arendt stated, “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.” If so, then the first step toward evil for most people is agreeing to shut down the mind. And that is precisely why, like Jefferson, “I have sworn, upon the Altar of God, eternal hostility toward every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”

Monday, July 25, 2011

What is a Good Person?

“I have learned to control my desire to do evil; it is now my desire to good that gets me in trouble.” Jewish saying

As I have struggled recently with trying to understand my own sometimes bad and inexplicable behavior, I have become less interested with the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” and much more fascinated with asking, “Why do good people do bad things?” To say that only bad people do bad things is to have a simplistic view of a complicated world that rarely operates in black and white, but rather in shades of gray. It is usually what we term “good” people who do bad things. But why?

The answer may be quite simple. (It may also be anathema to religious and socially conservative people.) We tend to see the things going on inside of a person (personality, motives, desires, morals, upbringing, etc.) as more important in regulating behavior than the forces outside of the person (context, situation, societal, and peer pressures). Because we have an elevated view of the individual and the power of choice and free will, we tend to downplay the power of context and situation, while seeing ourselves in control, and other people in altruistic terms. We think that people have an inner core that dictates and determines their actions. We call this their “true self.” The “real” Charles for example. So we classify ourselves and others in terms of kinds of people – “good” people, “bad” people, “strong” people, “weak” people, “moral” people, etc.

But all these labels may be erroneous. Maybe there aren't different “kinds” of people. Could it be that there are simply “normal” people in quite different situations? Without getting into the Milgram Nazi guard experiments (Google if you must), configure the situational context a certain way and you can make some people look weak or evil, and others look strong or moral. This doesn’t mean that situations alone determine our behavior, but we tend to dramatically underestimate the power of context and situation. How many times have you heard someone say, “I would never do that!”? This is precisely what sets us up for wrongdoing. We tend to overestimate the strength of our character. We see ourselves as a “kind” of person – a good father, a good husband. To see ourselves in this way is a mistake – a very costly one. Trust me.

This principle applies to all moral issues - addiction, sexuality, theft, spending, violence, revenge, and on and on. Situations have way more power than we think. Consequently, “good” people wander into situations that cause them to falter.

My advice? Treat your own virtue with suspicion. Your strength can easily become your weakness. Guard it jealously! Don't believe your character alone is sufficient to carry you through. The world is littered with the ruined lives of those who said, “I don't know how I could have done that (fill in the blank). I’m not that kind of person!”

Friday, June 24, 2011

This is Africa!

I love Africa. I was born in Africa. I grew up in Africa. Most days the sights and sounds and emotions of my childhood are as vivid as last night’s storm. I can’t describe what it’s like to experience those unique sights, sounds, smells, and tastes. Africa is not the célèbre cause of the month for me, or a photo opportunity. The first 20 years of my life were spent in Africa. The people are full of joy, welcoming, and hospitable. In South Africa, Kenya, Uganda, Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and the Sudan - I have always been accepted warmly. I’ve marveled at the Cape of Good Hope, climbed Table Mountain, smelled the pines of Tstsikamma, heard the roar of Victoria Falls, and stood at the convergence of the Luangwa Valley, as the mighty Zambezi rolls towards Cabora Bassa. The vibrancy and pain of Africa is imbued on my consciousness.

Some experiences and sights and sounds and emotions cannot be translated. I vividly recall my thoughts and feelings just a few months ago while sitting on the edge of the mountain overlooking lower Boma in the South Sudan. Watching the sun slowly setting to the west, thousands of feet below me, the Gia villages were lighting their evening fires. To the north relief vehicles looked like ants scurrying back and forth. Far off in the distance thunderclouds were emptying torrents of rain – as if nature itself was trying to cleanse the land of its bloodshed and sorrow. The rhythmic drumbeats of the Jonglei village gave an eerie but calm impression. In the afternoons you can still hear the occasional volley of gunfire, as if the SPLA need to remind everyone that they control the mountain. These sights and sounds peel back emotions that aren’t felt often. How can such a beautiful place be so full of sorrow? The human suffering makes it hard to breathe – as if there is a weight on one’s chest.

The reason for the overwhelming sadness is that most of Africa is a continent without much hope. According to the Hoover Institution, two-thirds of African countries have either stagnated or shrunk economically since independence in the 1960s. Most African nations today are poorer than they were in 1980 - by wide margins. It’s hard for well-intentioned people to acknowledge that poverty is not a cause, but a result of Africa's problems. According to the Netherlands-based Genocide Watch, since 1960, around the time of independence, about 9 million black Africans had been slaughtered through genocide and mass murder. The Congo leads the way with 2,095,000, closely followed by the Sudan with 2 million, Nigeria and Mozambique with a million each, Ethiopia: 855,000, Rwanda: 823,000, Uganda: 555,000 and hundreds of thousands more in other countries.

The economic observations are just as daunting. According to the World Bank it takes mere days to incorporate a company in Canada. In Mozambique, it takes 153 days. And Mozambique's company law has been unchanged since 1888. In the midst of the unending demands that the west do more, would it be unreasonable to suggest that, after 123 years, the government of Mozambique might also be obligated to do something about its regulations?

Meanwhile, next door in Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe's government is being given hundreds of thousands of tons of emergency supplies from the UN's World Food Programme. At the U.N. the head of the WFP emphasized that the famine was all due to drought and Aids, and nothing to do with Mugabe's stewardship of the economy. Ironically, it was during the G8 summit, devoted to Africa, that Zimbabwe's government ordered those commercial farmers whose land had not yet been confiscated to cease all operations.

What African countries need most, the West cannot give. What Africans need is personal liberty. That means a political system where there are guarantees of private property rights and the rule of law. If you were living in some impoverished African village, would you want any “wealth” if there were the constant likelihood that the government, or some irate chief, or some marauding tribe will come through to destroy everything?

The Index of Economic Freedom, published by the Wall Street Journal, lists Botswana, South Africa and Namibia as “mostly free.” World Bank GDP rankings put Botswana 89th ($2,980), South Africa 94th ($2,600) and Namibia 111th ($1,700). Is there any mystery why they're well ahead of their northern neighbors, such as Mozambique 195th ($210), Liberia 201st ($150) or Ethiopia 206th ($100)?

The lack of liberty means something else: A nation loses its best and brightest people first. According to the last census, there were 881,300 African-born U.S. residents, of whom I am one. Want to end poverty in Africa? The first step must be removing those petty dictators who rule throughout that continent. Dictatorial mini-giants such as Robert Mugabe. Yes there's hunger and poverty in Zimbabwe; but the blame is to be placed squarely on Mugabe, not on a lack of help from the west. The G8 summit?  Don't look for any discussion on getting rid of Africa's dictators and warlords. It will be about wealth redistribution, and government-to-government aid with many strings attached.

But state-to-state aid ignores the value and potential of the human person. When we put the person at the center of our economic thinking, we transform the way we look at wealth and poverty. Instead of asking what causes poverty, we ask what causes wealth? What conditions are prime for human flourishing from which prosperity can grow? In echoing what the PovertyCure Network has outlined, it is time to move:

  • From aid to enterprise.
  • From poverty alleviation to wealth creation.
  • From paternalism to partnerships.
  • From handouts to investments.
  • From seeing the poor as consumers or burdens to seeing them as creators.
  • From viewing people and economies as experiments to pursuing solidarity with the poor.
  • From viewing the poor as recipients of charity to acknowledging them as agents of change with dignity, capacity, and creativity.
  • From encouraging dependency to integrating the poor into networks of productivity and exchange.
  • From subsidies and protectionism to open trade and competition.
  • From seeing the global economy as a fixed pie to understanding that human enterprise can grow economies.

But most importantly, it is time to view all people as free beings created in God’s Image. When you let someone’s humanity connect with your own soul, everything changes! Here’s an excerpt from my journal on a trip to Zambia:

“Today we drove to the Chadiza district on what may or may not have been a road to do two medical clinics - one in Chadiza, and one in a village called Kabvuwa, right on the Mozambique border. James and I rode with Wellington, but we still managed to get lost getting there, so we showed up fairly late in the afternoon. Being lost on the Mozambique border is not good! You cannot imagine a poorer or more remote place on earth. The villagers had been waiting for hours, but when they saw our van kicking up dust on the road, they got up, and welcomed us with joyful singing. And then we got to work. We gave out pills, cleaned sores and burns, and we pulled lots of teeth. As the sun started to set we worked frantically to help as many people as possible – even pulling teeth in the dark with only one small flashlight. I was helping Laurie with wound care. A young girl, maybe 9 or 10 years old, wearing a bright blue shirt came to us with a severe infection in her eyes. We cleaned out her eyes with water and cotton swabs. The girl was clearly in severe pain. But when I looked her in the face, and we made eye contact she flashed me a beaming smile like I had never seen before. It was a look of relief and gratitude and true happiness. In the poorest, most remote spot I have ever been to a little girl showed me true happiness. The emotion of the moment flooded over me, and I couldn't hold back the tears. I had to sneak around the corner and sit in the van for a few minutes so the rest of the team wouldn't see me not smiling. They don’t know that the constant smile is a mask I wear for their benefit. I'll never know that little girl's name, I’ll never see her again, but she’s why I keep coming back to Africa.”

Instead of the familiar refrain, “This is Africa,” let’s pray, “God bless Africa!”

Friday, February 25, 2011

Return to the Southern Sudan

Christian Relief Partners has been involved in the Southern Sudan for a couple of years now. Last month a historic referendum was held in which the south voted to secede from the north and establish independence. This comes after a bloody twenty-five year civil war that decimated the country. Now this brand new country needs to put aside inner strife and inter-tribal conflicts and stand together.

In African countries that have experienced genocide, civil war, and tribal violence, the role of community in fueling hatred and inciting violence is impossible to ignore. Greed has prompted many African leaders to use communities as pawns - using their poverty and hopelessness to stir up dissention and hatred, and creating an environment of fear and hostility. Even as these conflicts are managed and new leaders come into power, the resentments and tribal hatred continue to fester, so that some of these communities are always on the brink of violence. It is becoming more apparent that those taking over leadership in post-conflict areas, and trying to rebuild their communities must play a significant role in tearing down these barriers of hate by promoting peace, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Leaders with the desire to create lasting change in Africa are increasingly collaborating with Christian organizations to seek training that can help them as they steer communities towards a more peaceful future.

The power of true biblical forgiveness is a model that has already resulted in transforming communities all over the continent. Obviously, many communities are still shackled with generations of hatred and resentment. Remarkably, the fledgling government of the world’s newest country is now seeking help to train government officials, civil leaders, police officers, and lawyers in peacebuilding, conflict resolution, trauma healing, and servant leadership.

In my capacity as Christian Relief Partners’ Liaison for African Projects, I will be departing for the Southern Sudan on March 8th along with some of the board of SEA Partners. It is a chilling kind of excitement to be hands on involved in the establishment of the world’s newest country! My itinerary will be as follows:

March 10-14: Meet with ministers and teachers in Boma, Southern Sudan.
                        Distribute food aid from the U.N. World Food Programme
March 14-16: Meet with government, civil, and religious leaders in the capital of Juba.
                        Meet with representatives of Joint Aid Management (JAM) in Yei.
March 16-18: Meet with leaders in the village of Biong to discuss the establishment of a  
                        new Christian school.
March 19: Return to Nairobi, Kenya.

After this trip I will develop a curriculum based on conversations with government and church leaders that will result in the training of teams traveling to the Sudan, as well as ministers in the Southern Sudan. This project will be titled, “A Model for the Training of Ministers as Agents of Reconciliation and Communal Peacebuilding through Biblical Forgiveness in the Southern Sudan.”

As you can imagine, such a trip costs a great deal due to the logistics of getting in and out of the Southern Sudan. If you have supported this work in the past, or if this is something you are interested in supporting, please contact me at: charles@partnersonline.org. Every bit helps, and your kindness would be greatly appreciated.

Peace and Blessings

Thursday, January 06, 2011

A Brief Note on Men, Women, and Relationships

Recently, I have given a great deal of thought to the universal problem that men and women fall in love, but do not truly understand each other. Perhaps this is brought on by my annual “Love Actually” Christmasthon, or by the fact that deep down I’m a lovesick fool, or just plain pathetic, or overly analytical, or perhaps it is because my own history of tried and failed relationships reads like Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade. What I’m trying to say is that I’m not the expert, just someone who has tried and failed, and thought a lot about those failures.

Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, purportedly said that after all his years of research, he still did not know what women want! Perhaps that is a question best left for women to answer. What I can do is say precisely what men want and need, and it is something that only the woman they love can fully provide. And it’s not what everyone thinks it is!

There are many misperceptions regarding male needs. For example, here is an old joke that illustrates a stereotypical misperception regarding male sexuality:
A heading reads: How To Impress a Woman
Beneath that heading: “Compliment her, respect her, honor her, cuddle her, kiss her, caress her, love her, comfort her, protect her, hold her, wine and dine her, buy things for her, listen to her, care for her, stand by her, support her, go to the ends of the Earth for her.”
That long list is followed by: How To Impress a Man
And beneath that: “Show up naked. Bring food.”

As with most stereotypes there is some truth to this, but it is not fair or accurate to men. So what do men most want? Answer: To be admired by the woman he loves. Men need admiration. A man needs to be admired by his wife (for the sake of clarity, let’s keep the discussion within the context of marriage). More precisely, a man needs to feel that his wife admires him, looks up to him, and trusts him. A man needs the rush of knowing that if his wife believes in him he can conquer the world. One proof is that the most devastating thing a woman can do to her man is to hold him in contempt. That is so devastating to a marriage that, over time, it is often more toxic than infidelity.

Contempt is the same as public humiliation. It is so despicable a behavior that it is hard to describe effectively. We’ve all seen it at the mall: the brow-beat husband and father scurrying two steps behind the wife, drooping shoulders, carrying the diaper bag or purse or whatever – only rushing to fetch the minivan! Or the wife who only has criticism for her husband at their friend’s dinner parties, or the woman at church who says, “I have three children. Two I gave birth to, and one I married.”

Of course, this means that in order to gain a woman's love, a man must be admirable. Boys know this instinctively. Young men often reveal how much harder they work at something when they know girls are watching them. If a woman “falls in love” with a man she does not admire, that love will not last. Conversely, a woman can always fall in love with a man she has come to admire first.

To be admirable, then, a man needs to exhibit three qualities:

Like the legs of a tripod, all three are needed. A man who has strength, but no integrity (honesty) is simply macho; a man of integrity, but no strength or ambition is weak; a man with ambition, but no integrity is a crook.

To be admirable, a man must exhibit strength in the world and at home as a husband and father. That means making tough decisions, leading with certitude, sometimes saying “no,” and always doing so with the utmost kindness.

Likewise, integrity has to be a borne from the kind of honesty that imbues character. It comes from seeing the folly in something you’ve done, and wishing you could change it, but you can’t – you have to press forward with courage and resolve, and the conviction that you will never lie again. Then you will gain character, because, in the words of Danny Devito in The Big Kahuna, “honesty will reach out from inside and tattoo itself across your face.”

Ambition must not be confused with material success. Having ambition does not mean that a man is wealthy, but that he is a goal oriented hard worker who wants to improve himself. Plenty of men who earn relatively little are still admired by their wives because they have a work ethic that is not lazy, and looks to the future.

So as it turns out, everybody wins. Women get what they want, men get what they want, children get what they need – good homes and role models, and society gets what it desperately needs – men of strength, integrity, and ambition!