Sunday, November 22, 2015

Hurt My Feelings, I'll Hurt Your Livelihood

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.

Fortunes are being made these days by opportunists in what I call the Indignation Industry. All you have to do is claim that someone has offended you in some way and you may be able to wring a nice little court settlement out of them for your "pain and suffering" while the people who run afoul of such sensitivities can lose their job, or their business and their social standing. The threshold for violating such standards are very low indeed.

In 1974, in the wake of the Watergate scandal, journalism schools were bulging with young writers like me intent on becoming the next Woodward or Bernstein. In my newswriting class, we learned the legalities of liable and slander: you can express any opinion you like about someone as long as you do not accuse or imply that they have done something immoral or illegal. You can call somebody and idiot as much as you want, but you cannot call them a crook unless you know it to be factual and can back it up. Even then, unless they have been found guilty in a court of law, you cannot report it in the media as fact. This is why news outlets, when reporting on an arrest, must refer to it as "alleged", as in "police allege that Smith held up the bank." Until there is a conviction in court, "alleged" is the required qualifier. But to say something that merely hurts another's feelings, though tacky, is something we endure as a cost of having freedom of speech.

Yet aside from crime reporting, the landscape has changed dramatically over the last 20 years or so. Nowadays employees regularly attend "sensitivity training" classes to avoid the slightest misstep in their language and behavior, lest they offend someone. The ways that this can happen are many and they are nuanced. Suspensions, firings and lawsuits can result from the slightest violation. Public figures are often skewered in the media for perceived insensitivities and careers can be tarnished as a result. College campuses today are aflame with protests akin to the 1960's as students demonstrate against "micro aggressions" and "triggers", meaning even the slightest perceived slight of race, gender or some other aspect of humanity's ways of differentiating ourselves. College faculty and staff live in fear that they will be drummed out of their positions for the slightest misstep.

It seems we are divided and antagonistic against one another more than ever. Our society is hypersensitive, ready to be aggrieved at the slightest insult, even if the offender doesn't intend or even realize they've caused offense. Technologically we've advanced in fantastic ways. Relationally, we've regressed perhaps and equal amount.

So we have arrived at the unhappy place where if you commit the intangible offense of hurting someone's feelings, you can be punished in very tangible ways that cost you your livelihood. Some observations:

First, such obsessiveness over the faintest shades of perceived insult is an aspect of our affluence. We have the luxury of getting the vapors over some picayune offense because we don't have much else to worry about. This is why you see such hypersensitivity and the public protests in the western nations of Europe and America, recumbent as we are in our wealth compared to the rest of the world. When you aren't too worried about whether you'll eat today, whether your village water supply is contaminated with cholera or whether some terrorist wants to kill you, your mind can wander to other bogeymen of your own imagining.

Second, our unity as a nation has become frayed and tattered because we have lost a shared belief in a common ideal, that America is a nation made up of diverse people aspiring to make their lives better because we have freedom to do so. In those countries like I just described, where life is more a matter of mere survival rather than prosperity, often the hindrance to upward mobility is the lack of freedom due to corrupt and oppressive governments. America has prospered because America is free, or has been largely so for most of it's history. Though societal prejudices may exert barriers to some ethnicities and cultural identities, they can be over come by anyone, and there is hardly a place on the planet with better opportunities to improve one's lot in life than America. Yet that tremendous blessing and opportunity has become overlooked. We ignore that blessing common to all of us, even disparaging the nation that grants such freedom, and turn on one another, biting and devouring one another. Because we take for granted the freedom we have, we see one another as enemies whom we believe are holding us back in life.

Finally, we've lost the quality of being big hearted. We are becoming small, narrow and touchy. We've forgotten what it means to shrug off a thoughtless comment, to have the maturity to ignore a slight or insult. We are coddled and self-entitled with the result that it's all about us. Me, myself and I are our three favorite people, so it's no wonder we are so thin skinned. Rare today is the person who, if someone makes some tacky remark, can simply think to themselves, "Oh well. So what?" or even better, give them the benefit of the doubt that they meant no harm.

To attain that level of maturity requires that we become other centered, that we allow God to build in us the unselfish love that Paul describes in the passage from 1 Corinthians cited above. If we allow the Spirit of God to grow that unselfish love within us, grievous slights will occur less and when they do we will be quicker to let them roll off of us rather than stick and provoke. We can become more forgiving, and with that will come a more unified people supportive of one another, less combative.

It might drain the profit out of the Indignation Industry, but the riches that will replace it are far more lasting and gratifying.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

How Should Christians Handle the Starbucks Cup Situation?

Social media is abuzz about Starbucks management's decision to not put any sort of Christmas decoration on their cups other than them being red. Another rumor is that the employees are not allowed to wish customers "Merry Christmas". One post I saw said "Starbucks hates Christians" and someone else has urged that when the Starbucks employee asks your name, tell them "Merry Christmas". That way, when your drink is ready, they are forced to say "Merry Christmas". Hah! Gotcha!

When I was a younger man I might have agreed with such methods, proud member of the ranks of Combative Christianity that I was. But age has sanded down my reactionary edges. Now I'm more apt to make a few observations first, maybe even see if Scripture gives us some insight. Wish I'd learned that sooner.

First, both the decision for the cup design and forbidding employees to say Merry Christmas (if true) was made way up the command structure of Starbucks. To confront the employee at the counter over decisions made by their upper management is harassment of someone who has no say so in those matters. Why should we make their job a hassle over something for which they have no control?

Second, do you really believe "Starbucks hates Christians", even if someone in upper management did or did not make a disparaging comment toward Christians in the past? Or do you think that every employee of Starbucks hates Christians? Does that mean that the person serving you behind the counter does? I know a woman who goes to Starbucks everyday because one of the employees is a dear Christian friend. We cannot paint every Starbucks employee with a broad brush.

Third, aren't there much greater concerns in the world for we as Christians to be passionate about than this little tempest in a teapot? There are situations where we are truly called to stand for what is right and for justice. Store employees not saying "Merry Christmas" is not a hill on which to die in the cause of justice. We must learn to choose our battles.

What insight can Scripture give us in such a situation, where we perceive someone is slighting us, "dissing" us as believers, or to whom we perceive we should offer correction? Let the apostle Paul guide us from 2 Timothy 2:24-26:

And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth..."

We are to be gentle and kind even with those who oppose us. And really, as I indicated above, the person behind the counter is not likely to be "opposed" to you. Tying up the line of people waiting for their morning caffeine fix is not the place to conduct cultural warfare. If you feel the need to express yourself on matters like this, write an email to the person responsible for the decision, but even then, seek to persuade, not vent.

Our mission in this world is to win people to Christ, not win arguments. Snarky, cheap shot tactics will not win hearts to the Savior. Those methods only satisfy some fleshly impulse to get even with someone for a perceived disrespect of our beliefs.

A better approach? Thank the person behind the counter for their service in a gracious way. Ask them how their day is going and maybe about some aspect of their life. Take interest in them as a person, not as a target to be taught a lesson through some manipulative stunt. Stuff a couple of dollars into the tip jar and wish them a Merry Christmas. Then come back in the future and continue the relationship. Rather than alienating them from Christ through immature behavior, we might through our kindness as Paul exhorts, "lead them to a knowledge of the truth." That is what we are called to do in this life.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

It's Not All About "Getting to Heaven"

What I have come to label as Americanized Christianity presents a view of the Christian life that in many ways varies significantly from Scripture and church history. One such variance is the almost universal emphasis on "getting to heaven" and this being virtually the sole reason for devoting our lives to Christ.

The Bible actually says very little about heaven, but much more about the future resurrection of all who have ever lived. Jesus taught about "the kingdom of heaven", but that teaching was about the principles and laws of how God's kingdom functions, not about the afterlife. The principles of the "kingdom of heaven" are about how believers are to live and relate to others in this life, as prelude to what the world will be like when Christ returns and brings his kingdom to earth.

What the Bible does talk about frequently is the resurrection. The Old Testament prophets spoke of the great "Day of the Lord" when the dead would be resurrected from their graves to face judgment. Virtually nothing is said in the Old Testament about heaven as an abode for departed spirits, but it says much about a the great day of the resurrection. Daniel chapter 12 is an example:

“At that time Michael, the great prince who protects your people, will arise. There will be a time of distress such as has not happened from the beginning of nations until then. But at that time your people—everyone whose name is found written in the book will be delivered. Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake:some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.

When Jesus went to Lazarus's tomb, He told Martha "Your brother will rise again." Her response was, "Yes, Lord, I know that I will see him in the resurrection." Notice Jesus didn't say "Your brother will go to heaven" and Martha didn't say, "Yes, I know I'll see him in heaven one day." That's because the Old Testament...the inspired Scriptures up to that time... spoke of a future resurrection, but not about going to heaven.

This doesn't mean that there is no heavenly realm. Paul spoke of being caught up "to the third heaven" where he saw and heard things beyond his ability to describe. There are other references to a heavenly place in Scripture. So heaven is perhaps where we abide until the resurrection day. But Paul also says that on that day "the dead in Christ will rise first", and that's the resurrection. And note that they "rise", indicating they have remained on the earth until that moment.

And then what? The saints that arise will then reign over the earth with Christ and the earth will become "the kingdom of God" or "the kingdom of heaven", what God intended the world to be like before Adam and Eve rebelled and the world became fallen. Now the earth will live and function as God intended in the beginning.

Until that day, we who have devoted our lives to Christ are to live as Christ did, to model Christ and His kingdom to those who have yet to be born into the kingdom through faith. We are to live lives guided by His Spirit, lives of generous, unconditional love and kindness, being other centered. A theology that promotes receiving Christ in order to "get to heaven" is a theology that starts off with the wrong emphasis, an emphasis on the self-serving punching of your ticket to heaven just to escape the gruesome alternative of eternal separation from God. Instead, we receive Christ so that we can become like him and minister to the needs of others, and in so doing, invite others to join us as citizens of Christ's kingdom.

Whole books have been written on this subject and my point here is not to deny the existence of heaven. I believe in heaven, but not in the way that we have distorted it. Perhaps as the result of the "me" centered hedonism of our culture, Americanized Christianity's theology virtually ignores the resurrection, substituting it with an eternal abode in a sort of cosmic Disneyland of endless bliss, leaving unanswered what the purpose of it all is. The resurrection has been virtually forgotten and more importantly, this theology ignores the purpose of the resurrection, when God through Christ reconciles all things to Himself and restores the earth to the way it was meant to be. Resurrected believers from all of the ages reign with Him over the earth, each one having a purpose to carry out and to give glory to God. It's not one long eternal vacation cruise. We have a purpose to serve in God's kingdom on earth and in glorifying him forever.