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Every Monday (except for vacation), Pastor Ryan Ahlgrim will post a scripture passage and commentary, inviting readers to submit their comments for a readers' dialogue. You are welcome to join the conversation!

Time to Grieve Together

Before the blood had dried from the Parkland, Florida school shooting, the news media and various national organizations were already weighing in on the gun control debate. Several voices pleaded for space to grieve before turning this tragedy into a debate, but they were not heeded. Perhaps the perception is that honoring a time of grief–without debate–favors the gun-rights side of the debate. Perhaps the perception is that if we don’t immediately point to the problem of the easy availability of guns we will be dishonoring the victims and sticking our heads in the sand. Perhaps the perception is that if we do not strike while the iron of anger is red-hot, we will have no chance of making legislative changes.

All of these perceptions, I believe, are wrong. After the national tragedy of a mass shooting, the first thing we need is several days of setting aside our gun debates so that we can just grieve properly. There are multiple reasons why I believe this is so.

We need time to know all the relevant facts. Before we launch into a gun debate, we need to know as much as we can about the shooter, about motive, about the weapons, about how the weapons were procured, about possible warning signs, about security, about law enforcement efforts, and about relevant laws that were or were not carried out.

But more importantly we need to come together as one society–liberal and conservative, black and white, rich and poor, Southerner and Northerner–to cry, to feel the pain. We need to do this in order to feel solidarity, to be reminded that despite our ideological divisions we are still one society and we share a common humanity and a common desire for innocent people to grow and thrive and live in peace and security. We need to exercise compassion together and be encouraged by each other and build trust with each other. Mass violence can either tear us apart as a society or it can actually make us more unified. But we can become more unified only if we have time to grieve together.

When we immediately launch into blaming a segment of society for society’s ills, that segment of society immediately puts up a defense, and that segment of society gets emotionally cut off from full grieving and cannot feel the full pain of the victims. For instance, when gun-control advocates immediately blame supporters of the NRA, supporters of the NRA shift from grieving to defensive anger. Now the supporters of the NRA cannot fully grieve; they want to grieve but they also have to be looking over their shoulders to make sure no one is trying to take away their gun-rights while they cry. Hearts are softened not by starting arguments but by letting people grieve fully and enter into the pain of the victims’ families.

If we truly want a shift in attitudes about the availability of guns–the types of guns and who may legally own them–then we should be cultivating collective grief that involves as many people as possible.

Obviously it is impossible and unrealistic to prevent individuals from immediately beginning gun debates on social media following a mass shooting. But I think it is possible, and even realistic, for the major organizations on both sides of the gun debate to agree that after a mass shooting they will not comment for three days in order to honor the grief of the victims.

After several days of grieving as a nation, after several days of seeing one another’s tears of compassion and actions of generous love, after several days of being together in solidarity and sharing a mutual identity, then we can do the careful work of studying the facts and proposing reasonable steps toward a solution.

I think both sides need to learn more facts. Liberals perhaps need to ask: Why is it that gun violence has been plummeting in this country during the last two decades while the number of guns has skyrocketed? May it be that the number of guns, by itself, is not the key factor in society’s level of violence?

Conservatives perhaps need to ask: Why are mass shootings (and gun violence in general) so much more prevalent in the U.S. than in any other country? What are the social factors, somewhat unique to the U.S., that make this country so much more prone to killing one another?

Can we agree to let the government study gun violence in our society in more depth, with scientific rigor?

Might it be that both sides could come to some common agreements about who should have their gun rights restricted? Can we find some consensus on what kinds of weapons are not allowable for individual ownership? Can we mutually support policies and programs that will aid the mentally ill and foster a kinder, gentler society?

American society wants this kind of cooperation and wants agreements found. I think we can get there. Part of the process, though, is to do some healthy grieving together.

Perhaps churches have a role in showing society how to do this.

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“Remember that you are dust”

This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Growing up in a Mennonite church, I knew nothing about Lent. But when I was in seminary I worked as an assistant minister in a United Methodist church. In 1982 I participated in my first Ash Wednesday Service, and it was one of the most meaningful services I had ever attended.

The lighting in the building and sanctuary was dim; the organ played softly. We read scripture litanies calling for repentance, and long prayers of confession. An elderly, distinguished retired pastor gave a fiery sermon, confronting our failure to do justice, followed by a call to examine ourselves, deny ourselves, and prepare ourselves during the season of Lent. Then we came forward to the altar, silently, to receive a smudge of dark gray ashes on our foreheads, in the shape of the cross, as the pastor solemnly told us, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

I was so moved by that service that as soon as I became a pastor, in 1984, I instituted an Ash Wednesday observance in my Mennonite congregation.

But why does the pastor, at the height of the service, tell people, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”? Isn’t that morbid? Isn’t that a denial of our hope in eternal life? But before we can enter eternal life, first we must accept death. I think that is perhaps the central message of Ash Wednesday and of Lent.

We all rationally know we are going to die, but we mostly live in denial of it because it scares us too much. Because of our fear and denial of death, we try to make ourselves at least seem immortal. We spend exorbitant amounts of money on diets and pills and vitamins and treatments and chemicals in order to squeeze as many minutes into our own lives as possible. We pursue every pleasure, always looking for something new and exciting, to distract us from death and to try to make life meaningful. We try to create monuments of metal, stone, paper, digital memory, or flesh that will outlast us and somehow keep us alive. These are the selfish pursuits of an ego in dread.

But as Jesus said, those who try to gain their lives will lose them, but those who lose their lives for his sake will gain them. It is only when we live our lives for that which is greater than ourselves that we truly begin to live. It is only when we lay down our lives for the sake of God’s righteousness that we enter Life. The Prayer of St. Francis concludes by saying, “Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”

So first we must face our mortality, not deny it or evade it. We are not immortal. We came from the dust and we will return to the dust. We should not try to become immortal or seem immortal. Instead, we must let go of the selfish ego and turn our lives over to love. Love–care for others and their well-being–is what is immortal. But even here we must be careful that we do not love others so that we become immortal; that is simply hidden selfishness. We must accept our own death. We must accept our finitude. We must place our finite lives entirely in God’s hands. Only by dying to ourselves may we hope in life.

This is what Jesus did. After much anguish in Gethsemane, he accepted suffering, torture, and death. He accepted that God’s hope must come through letting go of life, doing God’s will alone, and trusting in God. There is no empty tomb without acceptance of death and living for God.

I am no spiritual hero. I fear death. But each day I breathe in the love of Jesus and the power of his Spirit. In little ways I keep practicing self-giving love. And in the end I trust God to do whatever God will do. No matter what happens, I will be guided by love.

Sacred Super Bowl?

“They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles.” (Isaiah 40:31)

I wasn’t planning on watching the Super Bowl last night. I’m astonished and impressed by the perpetual skill of the Patriots, but I don’t like them; and since they were heavily favored to win (again), I was going to skip it. But my wife wanted to see the Super Bowl commercials, so we went ahead and watched the game. Wow. Definitely one of the best football games I have ever seen. And even better: the Eagles won.

I have mixed feelings about NFL football. On the negative side are the following:

  • It is physically devastating to the vast majority of players. We have long known it ruins knees; now we know it also ruins brains.
  • The NFL tried to cover up and deny what it knew–or suspected–about brain injuries.
  • The NFL owners are greedy tyrants who pressure cities into building expensive stadiums the cities can’t afford.
  • The NFL is a shameless self-promoter trying to convince us that football and football merchandise is the most essential basis of our social life.

Because of these and other factors, my zeal for football has waned over the past three decades. On the other hand, I still find NFL football compelling for a variety of reasons:

  • It is the ultimate team sport of physical skill, complexity, and strategy.
  • It combines periods of tension when the teams are doing their secret planning in the huddle and brief periods of explosive energy when the ball is snapped.
  • It combines two completely different methods of offense: the run and the pass.
  • It combines different methods of scoring: touchdowns, field goals, extra points, 2-point conversions, and safeties.
  • It combines three different sets of players per team: offense, defense, and special team.
  • It has an odd-shaped ball that can bounce in unpredictable ways.
  • It has colorful accoutrements and ritualistic displays.

But what I find most intriguing about NFL football, especially the Super Bowl, is its religious aura and function. In cities such as Indianapolis (where I pastored for 19 years), the church schedule has to accommodate the Colts schedule. Commitment to watching the Colts is often higher than commitment to attending church for many otherwise active churchgoers.

I am intrigued that we personally identify with a team simply because it plays in our city or in a city near us. Somehow, its successes become our successes, and its failures become our failures. In the late 1980’s I was on cloud nine for 24 hours after each Bears victory, and I was literally depressed for 24 hours after each loss. I had melded with a group of men I had never met, knew little about, and had almost nothing in common with. How weird is that?

I am intrigued by football’s religious patriotism . The game begins with the national anthem and the unfurling of a giant American flag across the field. These must be respectfully treated by the players or accusations of sacrilege will rile the nation. Clearly, the football game (and other major team sports) function as a civil religion with sacred rituals that must be respected.

At the end of the Super Bowl last night, as the Lombardi trophy was being carried past the Eagles players, each player touched or kissed it in a kind of ecstasy. It was moving to watch. Then the trophy was brought up to the stand and the coach and key players were invited to make short speeches. The coach thanked “Jesus Christ my Lord and Savior,” and three players gave “the glory to God.” Clearly, this was a sacred event.

I am pretty sure God did not give one team victory over the other (much as I wish God would). Nonetheless, the Super Bowl functioned in a somewhat religious way. Rituals were observed that created a sacred time and place and assured all was done “right.” At the end, supporters of the Eagles felt a collective salvation, and supporters of the Patriots felt a collective tragedy and abandonment by the forces of the universe. Those officially representing the Eagles, who received salvation, gave God the ultimate credit.

“But it’s only a game,” I say to myself. But what is a game? A game is a structured counter reality with its own set of rules that we enter into, and it enables us to experience unique and collective ecstasies and salvation. Does that not sound like religion? The ancient Mayans played a ball game that was completely entwined with religious ritual and meaning–and played to the death. The ancient Greeks played sacred games at Olympia for a thousand years, and those games imposed on the many warring Greek city-states a collective peace and a sense of collective identity. To say “it’s only a game” is to misunderstand what games are and what they do to us.

I’m still trying to unpack all of this, but I am coming to recognize that our collective sports do function as a kind of religion with their own sort of experience of the sacred. A game is a pale imitation of genuine salvation–wholeness for all of life and relationships–but it is perhaps a step in the right direction, bringing together strangers into a brief unity, and undeniably thrilling in its moments.

Why We Need Religion

Every once in a while in the newspaper I read about a new study that demonstrates the health benefits of religion. According to the reports, on average, those who attend religious services on a regular basis feel better about their lives, have a stronger sense of purpose, enjoy better health, and live several years longer. Of course, correlation does not mean causation. Maybe people who practice healthy habits are more prone to being religious, rather than religion leading to a healthier life. But I suspect religion has a lot to do with mental and physical health. Religion helps us find our place in the universe, grounding us and making sense of things, giving us meaning. That can’t help but make us more well.

Recently I came across a sociological study that demonstrated that religious people are also more generous with their time and money. Unsurprisingly, religious people donate immense amounts of money and time to their religious institutions. But what I find surprising is that in addition to that donated time and money, religious people, on average, still give more time and money than non-religious people to their communities and secular charities. There is something about religion that makes us much more socially cooperative and altruistic.

I was also interested to learn that religious communes–communities that share resources and work together–have been far more successful than secular communes that were founded on an ideology. This is true both for 19th century utopian communities founded in the U.S. as well as 20th century Israeli kibbutzes. When a group has a religious basis and religious practices, it tends to last longer.

Why is this? What is it about religion that does a better job of gluing people together, enhancing cooperation, altruistic behavior, and better health? I think it is its connection with the sacred. Religion is a group practice of ritual that connects the members to a reality that goes beyond the mundane reality of work and survival. Religion connects us to a deeper reality where we find such things as meaning, coherence, beauty, and goodness. It also connects us to one another–especially to the others who share the religion–as well as to the entire universe.

A number of researches in the past decade have been suggesting that religion is a human evolutionary development that made possible humanity’s unique capacity for super-social behavior: a high level of cooperation that has led to the development of culture, science and technology.

Of course, religion can also be a source of conflict between groups as well as with science. So it matters how we practice religion, and it matters even more what beliefs and attitudes come out of our religion. A “good” religion must foster nonviolence and an attitude of deep caring toward all people as well as toward the animal kingdom and the environment.

The Christian faith is grounded in an encounter with a self-giving God of unconditional and unconquerable love, embodied in the ministry of a human being. This gives the Christian faith a powerful basis for being a “good” religion as described above. But we Christians need to make sure that our practices and attitudes conform to this basis. Too often the Christian faith has been high-jacked and wildly distorted by the desire for political power and dominance, or by a narrow-minded nationalism, or by fear of those who differ from us. The result is something that looks quite different from the ministry of Jesus.

Humanity needs religion. It needs to connect with the sacred in a way that enhances human cooperation. In a world where a scientific worldview is often blind to the sacred, and in a world where sick religion gets all the attention, we need a healthy and healing religion more than ever.

Trump and White Evangelicals

By now, we’re probably all tired of one-year analyses of President Trump. But I’d like to look at his first year from a more spiritual perspective and ask what effect Trump’s presidency may have on the white evangelical church in the U.S.

80% of white evangelicals voted for Trump to become president. That’s an astonishingly high level of support, but that doesn’t mean they liked Trump. In fact, many had to hold their noses at his behavior and rhetoric as they voted for him. He got their votes only because they could not bring themselves to vote for Clinton. They voted for him because they thought he would do a better job of supporting evangelical political concerns.

At the top of the list is opposition to abortion. Evangelicals and Catholics share a deep concern that our society has lost a sense of sanctity for human life. The word “sanctity” is crucial to understand. In other words, there is something sacred about human life. We cannot make moral decisions about human life simply on the basis of pragmatism or “the greatest good for the greatest number.” If human life is sacred, then there are moral absolutes that not only affect how we decide issues like abortion, but also human embryo research, euthanasia, etc. (However, evangelicals are not necessarily consistent on this point; compared to the average American, they more strongly favor the death penalty, torture, and the use of warfare.)

Evangelicals and Catholics also share a strong concern that religious practice and religious conscience are being driven out of the public square (and the marketplace). They vigorously advocate for the right of individuals to refuse to participate in actions that go against their own religious teachings or conscience. This has been most visibly on display regarding whether to issue marriage licenses or make wedding cakes expressing congratulations to gay couples. By a narrow margin, our society now supports gay marriage, and it is now legal; but will religious people and institutions be allowed not to participate? What looks like bigotry to one side of the debate, is about religious freedom and conscience on the other side. Evangelicals and Catholics do not want to see the U.S. become so secularized that we become like France–where it is illegal to publicly display one’s faith. (Evangelicals are not always consistent on religious freedom and conscience; they favor it for Christians and Jews, but have often been hostile toward giving the same rights to Muslims. The argument offered is that America is built on a Judeo-Christian foundation, without which it will fall apart.)

White evangelicals have also been strong supporters of other ideals such as personal responsibility, an orderly society, free-market capitalism, small government, and the importance of strong marriages and intact families.

Given these moral and political concerns, Trump looked a lot better than Clinton to the vast majority of white evangelical voters. And over the course of the past year, Trump has delivered: appointing a conservative anti-abortion Supreme Court judge (and many other conservative federal judges), stripping federal regulations, beefing up border security, lowering taxes, and presiding over a soaring stock market.

But the question which white evangelicals must ask themselves is whether they made a deal with the devil. To get what they wanted, did they have to bend the knee to some demonic principalities?

To support Trump, white evangelicals have had to downplay or ignore what is obvious: Donald Trump is a narcissistic child whose ambitions are so great that he is willing to destroy even good things that stand in his way. He treats women with vulgarity. He plays on white racial fears. He speaks contemptuously of Latino and African immigrants (even legal ones)–even though those immigrants commit fewer crimes and are harder workers than the average American. He calls our most important and respected newspapers the enemy of the people and labels anything he doesn’t like as “fake news.” He lies constantly with a total disregard for facts. He cozies up to Putin–the ruthless dictator of an authoritarian regime that poisons opponents, invades a neighboring state, interferes in our presidential election, and constantly spreads false and divisive news in the American media for the purpose of dividing us and weakening our faith in our own institutions.

Whatever policies of President Trump evangelicals may support, it seems clear that this presidency has polarized the American public even more greatly than it was before, making us more fearful of one another, and his statements have been toxic to our democratic institutions. Our president has deep character flaws that could potentially lead to catastrophe.

In light of this, I think white evangelicals must be much more willing to publicly confront and condemn Trump’s egregious behavior. If they do not, they will lose spiritual and moral credibility–the only credibility that matters in a faith community.

Both political parties stink if you get too close to them, which is why the faith community should not endorse either party or their candidates. On the other hand, we, like the Jewish exiles in Babylon 2600 years ago, must work for the welfare of the city we are in. We must be involved in both (all) political parties, bringing our perspectives and our conscience.

Moral Conservatives, Ethical Liberals

In both our political and religious lives it is becoming increasingly difficult to see “the other side” as moral. To many Democrats, it is indisputable that Republicans are either ignorant dupes or bigots. To many Evangelicals, it is obvious that liberals are cynics or relativists plunging us toward social ruin.

I just finished reading a book which helped me see the problem in a new light: Jonathan Haidt’s 2012 book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Filled with amazing information, its most important insight is that our moral choices are based far more on intuition than on reason, and that humanity has developed six moral intuitions: care for others, freedom from oppression, proportional fairness, group loyalty, respect for authority, and guarding purity taboos or sanctity. Haidt makes the case that each of these moral intuitions helped us survive through the process of evolution; in other words, they each have a purpose.

Now here’s the epiphany: those who call themselves liberal overwhelmingly favor and use the first two moral intuitions and, to some degree, override or distrust the other intuitions; whereas those who call themselves conservative give roughly equal weight to all six intuitions. Liberals highlight the rights and equal value of each individual, whereas conservatives also give strong attention to individual responsibility and the need for cohesion and working together in a society, respecting legitimate authority and social taboos. The first two intuitions tend to put individuals first; the other four tend to give weight to maintaining the bonds of the group.

For instance, a liberal is more prone to favor affirmative action programs that try to redress a long history of discrimination, whereas a conservative is more likely to view such programs as violating fairness. A liberal is more prone to favor indiscriminate welfare programs for the poor and unemployed, whereas a conservative is more likely to promote responsibility by withholding help from those who are not seeking employment. A liberal is more likely to support kneeling during the national anthem as a respectful protest, whereas a conservative may see such behavior as undermining patriotism and the sacred fabric that holds society together.

Democrats often claim that blue collar workers have been duped by Republicans to vote against their own economic interests (since it is the Democrats who more likely provide financial assistance); but the truth is that blue collar workers are voting for other values as well. Economic self-interest is not the highest ethical value for either side!

One side is not right and the other wrong. Both sides are acting morally, motivated by deep moral intuitions. Haidt suggests that we need to understand each other better, and respect each other’s moral intuitions. We may still disagree over the best moral course of action, but at least we will not think the other side is the devil.

Let me give an example from the life of the church that has vexed me. Right now, within my own denomination (Mennonite Church USA), there is strong disagreement over whether to support gay marriage, and what action should be taken toward Mennonite pastors who officiate gay marriages. Those who oppose gay marriage are not bigots; much more likely they are motivated by a desire to preserve: sexual purity, respect for sacred authority, and group cohesion and loyalty. Same-gender sexual behavior (including marriage) seems intuitively taboo to them. On the other side are those who want to liberate gays who have been oppressed for so long, giving them the same advantages as heterosexuals. Both sides have strong moral intuitions.

Pastors who violate the policies of MC USA or their Conferences by officiating gay marriages do so to promote the rights of individuals and the biblical principles of compassion and justice; they are also likely motivated by loyalty to their supportive congregations. But those pastors are ignoring other moral intuitions: the legitimate authority of their Conferences that hold their ordination credentials, and their responsibility to be loyal to the Conference when exercising that credential. Pastors who officiate gay marriages may be striking a brave blow against tyranny, but they are also putting their moral intuitions ahead of those of the faith community as a whole, severely damaging the ability of that community to survive as one.

So there is no easy moral solution. Any approach will violate a legitimate moral intuition. Personally, I favor gay marriage. But my moral intuition also tells me to work with the faith community until we can move together.

Does this mean all choices are moral choices? No. We also make choices based on pure selfishness, greed, lust for power, fear, etc. We should still confront behavior that violates the moral intuitions that bring about our individual and social welfare.

Best Religious Movies

As we head into Christmas, I thought it might be fun to list what I think are the best religious movies ever made. A couple of caveats: by “religious” I mean movies with overtly Jewish or Christian themes; by “best” I mean I liked them and found something truly notable in them. I include only movies I’ve seen! So here they are in chronological order:

Sergeant York (1941): This Academy Award winner tells the story of the decorated World War I hero (played by Gary Cooper) who started out as a pacifist because of his Christian beliefs.

Going My Way (1944): Another Academy Award winner, it tells the heart-warming story of a priest (played by Bing Crosby) who turns around a failing parish.

The Robe (1953): Overwrought and silly in places, it nonetheless has a splendid performance by Richard Burton as a Roman soldier who is traumatized by Jesus’ crucifixion.

Friendly Persuasion (1956): Gary Cooper lifts this Academy Award-winning gentle movie about a Quaker family at the outbreak of the Civil War.

Ben-Hur (1959): Deserving of its 11 Academy Awards, this epic film excels in its story of a man (played by Charlton Heston) who crosses paths with Jesus when his life is ruined and filled with hate. Best chariot race ever!

Spartacus (1960): More of a political movie than a religious one, it nonetheless belongs on this list. Based on the true story of an escaped gladiator (Kirk Douglas and an all-star cast) in search of freedom and dignity.

Jesus Christ Superstar (1973): It’s the music that’s great. A rock opera that insightfully depicts the last days of Jesus’ ministry.

Godspell (1973): Once again, it’s the music that is notable, rather than the movie itself. A vibrant and modern musical re-telling of the Gospel story.

Life of Brian (1979): In this Monty Python comedy, Brian–born at the same time as Jesus–is mistaken for the Messiah by fanatical followers. A critique of our culture and a satire on shallow faith, the movie strays into irreverence and poor taste at the end.

Chariots of Fire (1981): The surprising winner of Best Movie of the year, this true story about British athletes who ran in the 1924 Olympics explores the challenges of faith.

Babette’s Feast (1987): Is this a religious movie? You decide. The first Danish movie to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, it tells the story of two elderly spinsters whose lives are transformed by a French refugee cook.

Shadowlands (1993): The true story of C.S.Lewis (played by Anthony Hopkins) and his transformation by his wife (played by Debra Winger), and the crisis of faith he suffers when she dies of cancer.

The Apostle (1997): An insightful portrayal of a Pentecostal preacher (played by Robert Duvall) needing redemption.

Prince of Egypt (1998): A well-made animated movie about Moses and the Exodus, with some memorable songs.

Dogma (1999): An extremely foul-mouthed and bawdy comedy about two fallen angels (Matt Damon and Ben Affleck) who are exiled to Wisconsin but have a plan to get back into heaven. The movie is fresh and even serious about some of its theology.

Of Gods and Men (2010): The true story of a group of French Trappist monks who live peacefully with their Muslim neighbors, but who are kidnapped and killed during the Algerian Civil War.

Noah (2014): Director Aronofsky is careful not to add anything that directly contradicts the biblical account, and yet he brings new creative insight and poignancy to the strange and terrible tale of the Flood. A star-studded cast (Russell Crowe is excellent), but unfortunately lacking in ethnic diversity.

Silence (2016): Martin Scorsese’s hypnotic and realistic tale of 17th century Jesuit priests who struggle with the meaning of faith as they face torture in Japan.

What did I miss?