Racism and Riots

I was a junior in high school when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. My industrial arts teacher, a full bird colonel, briefly stopped by in his fatigues. 

Cities, including my own Baltimore, exploded with pent-up violence. National Guard and active military just back from Vietnam patrolled the streets in armored personnel carriers. Tanks rolled down our eerily quiet lower middleclass neighborhood after the 4:00 PM curfew. Police checkpoints stopped every vehicle at intersections. A five-foot high sandbag trench was erected across 25thStreet. The parking lot of Memorial Stadium was fenced so that magistrates could set up folding tables to process the hundreds arrested for curfew violations. Most of the inner-city was on fire. The aftermath looked like areas bombed in World War II. 

Baltimore 1968
Baltimore 1968

In classes, we debated the why’s and the now what’s. Our pacifist Anabaptist English teacher was challenged to come up with practical solutions. He started by suggesting official vehicles mounted with loudspeakers slowly patrol all the predominantly black areas [1] to project apologies for systemic racism.  We booed and rolled our eyes. We were not an all white class, but we were mostly white. My black classmates suffered silently. Most of us were politically liberal. We protested the war in Vietnam, wore “Make Love, Not War” buttons, supported Eugene McCarthy. We were not racists. None of this was anything we needed to apologize for.

We had no real concept of a nation that was founded on land stolen from Native tribes and built its economy on the unpaid labor of people stolen from Africa. We did not understand that Jim Crow segregation, convict leasing, lynchings, and domestic terrorism thwarted post-Civil War reconstruction. 

The country elected Richard Nixon. Law and order. His war on drugs ignored the drugs of choice in affluent suburbs and targeted inner cities. It was a war on African-Americans. Mass incarceration, fatherless families, and underpaid, over-worked mothers resulted in children left vulnerable to the familial support of gangs. 

Schools in low-income areas were grossly underfunded. Housing was substandard. Slumlords gouged money from renters while refusing to provide healthful living conditions. 

Before and after the Baltimore riots, I tutored inner-city children. One little boy had most of his outer ear missing. Rats chewed it off as he lay in his crib. The little girl I was helping with reading was developmentally delayed. A coal-fired utility plant pumped mercury into the air near her home causing intellectual impairment. Another was brain damaged because she was so hungry as a small child that she ate the lead-filled paint chippings off the windowsill. 

Federally enforced redlining kept African Americans isolated in areas where rent drained their incomes, making home ownership impossible. Their children and grandchildren would have no inheritance. Federal agencies purposely designed freeways so they cut African-American neighborhoods off from employment and transportation. Black people were the last to be hired and the first to be fired.

I’ve been occasionally stopped by police officers. I have never feared for my life. Police officers have killed eighty-two African American women, men, and boys in the last six months.[2]

Driving while black, jogging while black, walking while black, even bird-watching while black, is met with suspicion, fear, and assumed criminal activity. 

African Americans and Hispanics comprise approximately 32% of the US population, but make up 56% of those in prisons. Jail populations would drop 40% if non-whites were incarcerated at the same rate as white people. Hispanics and African Americans represent 12.5% of illicit drug users, but 29% of those arrested for drug offenses and 33% of those incarcerated on drug charges.[3]

Typically, compared to suburbanites, African Americans have less access to healthcare, live in food deserts where healthful food is unavailable, breathe air that is more polluted than average, are subjected to crowded living conditions, have fewer vocational opportunities, must make longer commutes to and from work on public transportation, have received poorer education, and are subjected to dehumanization because of the color of their skin everywhere they go. 

My family was far from rich, but they were able to feed me good food, provide a home in a safe neighborhood, help me with my homework, send me to good public schools, and help me buy my first car and my first home. None of that is available to most of my African American friends. I am privileged simply because my skin in lighter. 

The nation elected Barak Obama. A black president! Perhaps a post-racial society was on the horizon.

No. Backlash. Donald Trump. “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” White supremacy. Thin blue line. It’s us against them. Make America white again.

Death after death. 

Rejection after rejection. 

Doors slammed in faces time after time. 

Frustration and anger build and build. Then a cop suffocates a man in the street and all that pent-up anger explodes. 

It’s not quite on the same scale yet, but today’s headlines take me back to 1968 Baltimore. So little has changed. So little progress has been made. Where is the mountain top? Where is justice? Will America ever live up to its own ideals? 

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8 NIV)

Say their names. Black lives matter. They matter to God. They had better matter to us. 


[1]Whom am I kidding? In 1968 Baltimore, every neighborhood was segregated – there were no predominately anything neighborhoods.

[2]https://newsone.com/playlist/black-men-boy-who-were-killed-by-police/item/80/ accessed 1 June 2020

[3]https://www.naacp.org/criminal-justice-fact-sheet/ accessed 1 June 2020

What in the World is this doing in the Bible?

The Song of Songs that is Solomon’s, or, Canticles[1] is the most enigmatic book in the Bible. Like Esther, Song of Songs makes no mention of God.[2] Esther alludes to God and makes it easy to see God working behind the scenes. Not so here. Song of Songs is an erotic, passionate love poem in which two young lovers are ravished with one another’s sexuality. That bothers a lot of people.

After living a very promiscuous life, Augustine of Hippo was converted to Christianity and lent his skills to integrating Platonic philosophy with Christian doctrine. Among other things, he invented the idea that God designed sex for only one purpose – to make babies. Any other use of sex was deemed sinful. That became the dominant (if not practiced) view in occidental civilization for nearly 17 centuries. It led to Victorian prudery, the belief that contraception is contrary to God’s will, and an exalting of celibacy over marriage. Sex was basically wrong and to be avoided if possible, albeit occasionally necessary to propagate humankind.

That all blew up in the sexual revolution that began in the late 1950s. Sex as duty, sex as a necessary evil, was tossed out and replaced with sex as recreation. “If it feels good, do it.” Sex is fun. Enjoy it whenever and with whoever you want. 

Then came sexually transmitted diseases and broken hearts, so the idea of recreational sex was tempered with “be safe, make sure you’re ready and you really care about the other person.”

Long before the sexual revolution, even long before Augustine, is the Song of Solomon, a delightful, passionate, joyous, explicit celebration of sex. Song of Solomon denies both prudery and free sex. The two people in the Song of Songs are quite obviously totally committed to each other. They are monogamous. They give themselves abandonedly to each other in thorough guiltless enjoyment and heated passion. We humans are designed as sexual beings and are free to fully and lavishly enjoy that within committed relationships. The woman in the poem warns her female friends, however, not to stir up sexual passion before they are ready. Her advice works for males as well. It’s a fire that can easily get out of control.

OK, but still, isn’t the Bible the book about God? Shouldn’t, therefore, all the books of the Bible be about God? 

Enter the theologians. 

No one knows when Song of Songs was written, but it was around by about the third century before Jesus was born and it was accepted into the Jewish canon as scripture. Rabbis have long taken it as an allegory of the love God has for Israel. Christian theologians built off of that and have for two millennia viewed the book as an allegory of the love between Jesus and his bride – the church, the people of God.

Both of those views make sense. There are hints of backstory in the poem. One not entirely far-fetched possible but imaginative backstory is that King Solomon disguised himself as a simple shepherd in order to take walks in the countryside without being harassed. (It’s hard to be alone when you’re a celebrity.) On one of those walks in what is now Lebanon, he met and fell in love with a simple village girl. They pledge their troth to one another. He tells her he’ll come back and get her and marry her. She waits. The royal entourage shows up one day, complete with the king riding in his palanquin. The king emerges, and lo and behold, he is her shepherd lover! They ride off into the sunset and live happily ever after.

Jesus came as simple peasant, won our hearts, and left promising to come back for us. When he does, we who are engaged to Jesus[3] will be wed and enjoy “the marriage feast of the Lamb.” And, we will live happily ever after. 

Whether or not we can follow an analogy like that in the text, its lesson is true. If we read the lines spoken by the man in Song of Songs as the words of Jesus to us (and the words of the woman as ours to him)[4], we gain a deeper awareness of the radical scandalous love God has for us. We discover, for example, that, we are all fair and beautiful in God’s eyes and that Jesus loves being with us.

There’s yet another lesson in Song of Songs.

Song of Songs is filled with garden imagery.

In chapter 2, the male voice sings: 

Get up, my dear friend,
    fair and beautiful lover—come to me!
Look around you: Winter is over;
    the winter rains are over, gone!
Spring flowers are in blossom all over.
    The whole world’s a choir—and singing!
Spring warblers are filling the forest
    with sweet arpeggios.
Lilacs are exuberantly purple and perfumed,
    and cherry trees fragrant with blossoms.
Oh, get up, dear friend,
    my fair and beautiful lover—come to me!
Come, my shy and modest dove—
    leave your seclusion, come out in the open.
Let me see your face,
    let me hear your voice.

For your voice is soothing
    and your face is ravishing
.

Chapter 4 speaks of

Ripe apricots and peaches,
    oranges and pears;
Nut trees and cinnamon,
    and all scented woods;
Mint and lavender,
    and all herbs aromatic;
A garden fountain, sparkling and splashing,
    fed by spring waters from the Lebanon mountains
.

And in that same chapter, the woman sings:

Wake up, North Wind,
    get moving, South Wind!
Breathe on my garden,
    fill the air with spice fragrance
. (MSG)[5]

In Canticles, the garden is abundant, fruitful, lush, copious, and verdant. It reminds us of Eden before the fall, and stands in stark contrast to the thorn and thistle infested Eden after sin enters the system. 

As Genesis opens, all is chaos, disorder. God speaks and brings order into the chaos, light into the darkness, beauty into bareness, life into a lifeless void. It is good. It is very good. It is beautiful. But it’s not complete.

God invites humans, created in the divine image, to partner with God in expanding Eden until the whole earth is a garden. That’s what “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth,” means. God is saying much more than have a bunch of kiddos. The humans are to guard the garden against evil forces and expand it out into the remaining disorder in the cosmos. They mess up. They let evil in and they don’t extend the beauty of Eden.

If we fast-forward to the last book of the Bible, we see the culmination – the whole cosmos is a beautiful garden-city. Heaven comes to earth. Earth and heaven wed. Thy will be done, as in heaven, so on earth.

Between Genesis and Revelation sits the Song of Songs. Throughout, it not only celebrates the love of two people, but also the restoration of harmony. When the first humans sinned, discord resulted. There was discord between people (“It’s the woman you gave me!”), discord in nature (thorns and thistles), and discord with God (“Adam, where are you?”). Dissonance everywhere.

Look around today. Dissonance. Discord. Pollution. Fouled air. Oceans full of plastic. Species going extinct. The environment raped for profit. Police killing black men. Riots. Income inequality. War. Lies. People selfishly refusing to protect others from pandemic viruses. People claiming to be Christian while supporting policies and politicians diametrically opposed to the teachings of Jesus. Dissonance. Discord.

The Hebrew word teshuqah(תְּשׁוּקָה)is very rare. It occurs only three times in the Bible. It means a desire or a longing. At the fall, God tells the woman that she will desire her husband but he will rule over her. In Genesis 4, God warns Cain that sin desires to snatch him. And in the Song of Songs (7:10), the woman declares, I am my beloved’s, and his desire is for me.

See the contrast, the reversal? 

  • Genesis: Sin, fall, discord, environment out of whack. 
  • Song of Songs: harmony, congruence, a flourishing garden filled with fruit and nut trees. 
  • Genesis: the woman’s longing will be toward her husband. 
  • Song of Songs: the husband longs for his bride. Partners. Equals. Two strong independent people ravished unselfishly with one another. 

Unity. Harmony. Peace. Justice.

How? Not by ignoring wrong. Not by excusing injustice. Not by violence. Unity, harmony, peace, and justice in the environment and in society come from nonviolent, self-sacrificing, other-oriented, altruistic, cruciform agapé love. A third way. The way of the cross. The way of Jesus. 

Celebrate with me, friends!
    Raise your glasses—“To life! To love!”
(5:1)


[1]You’ll see it abbreviated S of S, Song, or Cant

[2]The closest that any verse comes to mentioning God is 8:6, which in some versions reads: Put me like a seal over your heart/ Like a seal on your arm. /For love is as strong as death, / Jealousy is as severe as Sheol; / Its flashes are flashes of fire, / The very flame of the Lord. Most translations leave out the word “Lord”, as, for example, NASB, “a vehement flame.” NIV and NET read, “a mighty flame.” The reference is to burning passion, not to God.

[3]Baptism is our engagement to Christ. The second coming is our wedding procession. The marriage feast of the Lamb is our reception. 

[4]Helpfully, many translators mark who is speaking in the text based on the gender of the Hebrew nouns. Otherwise, it’s hard to tell sometimes.

[5]All scripture quotations are taken from THE MESSAGE, copyright © 1993, 2002, 2018 by Eugene H. Peterson. Used by permission of NavPress. All rights reserved. Represented by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.

Song of Songs and the Key to Harmony with God, Others, & Nature

Weep. Wait.

I’m a hospital chaplain. I’ve been around grief. Some people deny what is happening. Others get angry and lash out, blaming, for example, a physician. Those of northern European decent may try to keep a stiff upper lip. Those of African or Latin decent may fall on the floor in loud wails. The only wrong way to grieve is to try to force yourself not to grieve. 

The iconic painting by Norwegian Edvard Munch that he titledThe Scream of Nature[1]depicts the blending of uncertainty and uncontrollability in nature with human anxiety. The chaos of nature has invaded the human psyche. The painting perfectly depicts a panic attack. 

Today, nature appears to have run amok. 

The United States leads the world in COVID-19 infections and deaths. At last count, there have been about 100,000 coronavirus deaths in the USA.[2]The US has 4% of the world’s population and over 25% of the COVID-19 deaths. One hundred thousand souls; 100,000 moms, dads, sisters, brothers, children, parents; 100,000 souls created in the image of God; 100,000 human beings for whom Christ died. And that’s just in this country. 

The most vulnerable are the hardest hit. The homeless, those living in poverty, those who must go to work at jobs where they have to be around others, those who live in crowded spaces, those with underlying health conditions and little or no access to healthcare. The 22% of US counties that are predominantly African-American have 52% of the COVID-19 cases and 58% of the COVID deaths. Systemic institutionalized racism. 

If my heart does not break, if I am not deeply moved by those statistics, I must question whether I am in touch with Jesus at all. It is time to grieve. It is time to lament. It’s the only way to get to hope. There are no shortcuts. 

Had cities and states not been practicing public health measures (wash your hands, stay social distant, wear a mask[3]), the situation would have been far worse up to this point. Out of 331 million people, only 13 million have been tested. The virus is airborne and easily transmitted. Simply by saying hello, a person with no symptoms can infect dozens of others. 

As much as we long to “go back to normal,” we never can. We are in a liminal space. 

“Liminal” comes from a Latin word meaning “threshold,” so liminal space is that place we get into when we have left the familiar, but we haven’t yet entered the new thing ahead. It can lead to disorientation, anxiety, confusion, a feeling of displacement, and depression. A woman has worked her entire adult life when advancing technology makes her job skills obsolete and she is unemployed. An unwanted and uninvited divorce occurs. A baby dies in utero.  A man becomes a widow at the age of 60. The economy that was humming along is suddenly in depression. Many find themselves unemployed. The shop goes bankrupt. A deadly virus is all around us with no treatment and no cure. Anxious feelings arise. “What’s next?” “Now what?” Without hope, humans fade and die. 

It is a mistake to despair; it is a mistake to latch onto simple answers; it is a mistake to sink into self-preservation at all costs. But we cannot jump directly from liminal space to hope. First, we must lament. A lament is a passionate expression of grief, sometimes set to music, or expressed in poetry. It is the wail of The Scream.

Richard Rohr writes: “Liminal space, or the place of waiting, is a unique spiritual position where human beings hate to be but where the biblical God is always leading them. It is when you have left the tried and true, but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else. It is when you are finally out of the way. It is when you are between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer. If you are not trained in how to hold anxiety, how to live with ambiguity, how to entrust and wait, you will run … anything to flee this terrible cloud of unknowing.”

We try to flee that “cloud of unknowing” in various ways. We scheme and plan. We call on all our resources to get us out of this liminal space. We distract and deny. Some of us go numb. Some of us pretend the whole thing is a hoax. Some of us promote magical cures. Some of us try to exploit the vulnerability of others to make a buck. We are tempted to try and pin the blame on somebody somewhere. Some of us get depressed. Most of us feel anxious, like we’re living in The Scream of Nature.

Jewish people have been forced into liminal spaces at various times in their history – the Babylonian exile (circa 586 BC), the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman army in 70 AD, wholesale slaughter at the swords of crusaders, the Holocaust. Displaced from all that was familiar – homes, families, friends, careers – where was God? 

Jeremiah wails in the Book of Lamentations. In the first four chapters, he speaks in the first person. His is a personal lament. In chapter five, the pronouns shift to plural – he is lamenting with the entire nation. 

There are many psalms of lament in out Bible. Some are individual laments, like Psalm 22 – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Others are psalms of communal lament.[4] Communal lament is entering into what our neighbors are feeling, putting ourselves in their shoes, feeling their pain, expressing their pain, weeping with this who weep.

Here’s the kicker:

We hate being in liminal space. 

We will try anything to get out.

Distract. Deny. Blame. 

BUT…

God always leads us into liminal space.

It is only there that we learn that God is all we need. 

Without hope, we perish.

There is hope on the other side of liminal. 

BUT, we can only get to the hope by going through first individual, then communal lament. 

Lament is gut-wrenching. Lament means weeping, wailing, pouring out our hearts in complaint. Lament means reviewing what God has done in the past, expressing regrets, asking for answers (that rarely come), and crying for relief. Lament means venting to God. Lament can never be rushed or bypassed. 

Most of us seek to avoid, deny, distract, blame, ignore, or despair. Pop a pill. Have a drink. Buy some stuff. Defy the authorities trying to keep you safe. 

God has a better way. We so want to do something. God says, first, join with your sisters and brothers and pour out your hearts in lamentation, wailing. Let yourself grieve deeply. 

Then, do nothing. Nothing but look at Jesus. Just look. Wait.

Wait. Wait. Sit with the uncertainty, the ambiguity. 

“Restore us, O Lord God of hosts! Let your face shine, that we may be saved!” (Psalm 80:19)[5]

He gives power to the faint,
    and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
    and the young will fall exhausted;

but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
    they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
    they shall walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40:29-31)[6]


[1]https://www.edvardmunch.org/the-scream.jsp

[2]https://epidemic-stats.com Accessed 2036 hours GMT on May 23, 2020. Source: World Health Organization

[3]The reason to wear a mask is not to protect us. Face coverings other than medical grade PPE like N-95 masks do little to protect the wearer. The reason to wear them is because it protects others from a virus you may have without knowing it. Wearing a mask and practicing social distancing is a way we love our neighbors like Jesus told us to. 

[4]Psalms 12, 44, 58, 60, 74, 79, 80, 83, 85, 90, 94, 123, 126 & 129 are community lament psalms. 

[5]The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®). ESV® Text Edition: 2016. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. 

[6]New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Lament. Wait. Trust. Wait. Psalm 44

The Scream of Nature by Edvard Munch

Why Am I Following Jesus?

“God is so good! He answered my prayer!” Yes, but God would still be good had God not answered your prayer. God is good all the time. 

Why are we following Jesus? To escape hell? To have a happy life? Gain inner peace? Answered prayers? Deliverance from troubles? What is our motive?

It pretty much bothers everyone who reads Jobthat the book depicts satan in God’s presence making deals and bets with God at Job’s expense.

In the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) satan is not equated with our concept of a personal devil. The word “satan” is a Hebrew word (שָׂטָן) that means adversary. It is not a proper name. The figure here in Jobis more like a challenger who is invited into God’s presence. This satan does do some very bad things, however. 

No one knows who Job was. No one has definitive proof he existed or did not exist. However, it would be quite rare for Jewish writers of the Hebrew Bible to simply make up nonexistent people, so the safest assumption would be that he was a real person.

According to the text, Job lived in southern Arabia, probably in the southeast corner of Mesopotamia somewhere in the neighborhood of 1200 to 2000 BC, perhaps in the area that is now Yemen or Ethiopia. We gather that from the references to the Sabeans and Chaldeans in 1:15-17. Jobis included in the Dead Sea Scrolls, so it must have been written prior to the second century BC. It belongs to the genre of Hebrew Wisdom Literature, and, therefore, most scholars agree that it was most likely a very old legend about a real man who lived centuries prior, whose story was written down a few hundred years before the birth of Jesus. 

Jobis wisdom literature. Wisdom literature was written by Jewish sages to instruct. Proverbs and Ecclesiastes are also wisdom literature. Village wisdom records short, pithy sayings, framed as parental instruction, as in Proverbs 20. Royal wisdom deals with palace politics and instructs bureaucrats on how to conduct themselves. Proverbs 23:1-3 is an example. Theological wisdom often deals with controversial topics, such as the existence of God. (See Ecclesiastes 3:19-21.) Unlike the prophets, who received their messages directly from God, Jewish sages gained wisdom by observing nature and wrestling with why the universe does not always seem to make sense in light of having been created by a good and loving God. 

Much of Proverbs is based on the retributive principle, i.e., the belief that righteous people are blessed and the wicked are cursed – a cause for every effect. In Proverbs the theme arises often – be righteous and God is pleased and will bless you. That is generally true, but not always. Which brings us to the book of Job. Job is theological wisdom.

The retributive principle works fine as a generalization, but can easily lead to a quid-pro-quo transactional faith – following God, obeying God for what we get out of it. The contemporary prosperity gospel is an example. The motive is wrong. I give in order to get; my faith is based on bargains with God. My obedience is conditional. 

The promises made in the context of retributive wisdom literature are not guarantees. They are observations about how things can be expected to normally go. For instance, Proverbs 29:14 promises, “If a king faithfully judges the poor, his throne will be established forever.” That may be true in some heavenly eternal sense, but that’s not what the author had in mind. The author was observing that, generally speaking, when a ruler cares for the poor, God blesses his or her reign. But that may not always pan out. There are exceptions. 

Job’s three friends assume the retributive principle. In their minds, there must be a reason why all this bad stuff has happened, so they seek to ferret out the sin, the errors, the cause. Like the apprentices of Jesus, the friends of Job assume a causal connection for the tragedies. In John 9, Jesus’ followers ask, “Who sinned that this man was born blind? Him? His parents?” Jesus doesn’t answer the question. Jesus is not interested in “why;” he is interested in what we do now. Do not look to the past for reasons, but rather to the present and future for purpose. It is far more godly to relieve suffering than to assign blame. 

Proverbs assumes that if you’re a good person things will go well for you. Now enter Job’s world. Here’s the godliest man you can possibly imagine, yet he suffers unimaginable tragedy and loss. 

The satan, the adversary, the challenger, asks the central question: “Does Job fear God for no reason?” Why is Job a God-follower? Is he following God for what he can gain? Is he following God because doing so is the way to prosperity and blessing? Is he doing so because it leads to having a happy family? Is his a transactional faith? 

How many sermons and sermon series have been preached with the implied message, “Follow Jesus and you’ll have a great marriage, wonderful family, financial success, inner peace, joy, a guarantee of eternal life?” Am I following Jesus only so that I can escape hell? If there were no hell, would I follow him? What is my motive for being his?

The central question: What is my motive? Why am I following God?

Job is entirely innocent. His friends sit with him in bereaved silence for a week. That, by the way, is the best thing we can do when loved ones suffer loss. Ministry of presence – just be there – don’t say anything. Weep with those who weep; don’t lecture them. Let the suffering person speak. Just listen. 

Then Job’s friends started talking. That was their mistake. Long poetic dialogues take up most of the book – three friends locked into the retributive principle, assuming Job must have done something to cause all this suffering. In their minds, there has to be a reason. 

Job’s responses are in the form of lament. God never rebukes or challenges lament. Even Jesus prayed a prayer of lament in the garden and quoted a Psalm of lament on the cross. It is never wrong to weep, to grieve, to feel the weight of loss. 

Out of nowhere, a young know-it-all punk named Elihu pops up. He rebukes everybody and insists that all suffering, all evil that can befall a human, is divine justice. He insists that God causes everything. Job’s three friends ignore him. Job ignores him. God ignores him. The best thing you can do with a theological know-it-all is ignore him. 

In chapters 38 and following, God speaks. Surely, God will supply the answers to the riddles of theodicy. No such luck. 

Ancient Neareastern people saw the natural world as lacking order. It was neither good nor evil. It was amoral, without will-power. God brings order into the natural world. God is moral. There are, however, evil forces at work – the devil, fallen angels, principalities, powers, spiritual wickedness. Those evil forces seek to disrupt God’s order with disorder. They are immoral. 

God’s message to Job (and his friends) demonstrates that there are many things beyond their understanding, the universe is more ordered than they know, things are not as chaotic as they seem from the human perspective. God does not imply that God causes everything. God is not depicted in the book of Job as doing anything to hurt Job. But, at least for now, this is simply the way the universe is. It is moral, amoral, and immoral all at once. The long historical arc may bend toward justice, but injustice remains. Bad things happen to good people. The question for us is not whybad things happen, but howwe respond to them. 

Some of the bad things that happen to us are our own fault. If I drive drunk and cause an accident, I am to blame. If I smoke a pack of cigarettes a day and get lung cancer, I’ve no one to blame but myself. 

Other people cause some of the bad stuff that happens to us. They might injure us, cheat us, betray us, or pollute the air we breathe and the water we drink.

Still other things are amoral. Viruses, for example, have no will of their own. Viruses don’t target sinful people specifically. So, we ask, why would God create viruses? Without viruses to control them, bacteria would wipe out all other life on earth. But, why not, if you’re God, create viruses that only target bad bacteria, not all the good bacteria and certainly not humans? 

Back to Job. The question of why is never answered. God simply describes some of the intricacies of nature. There’s more order than we realize. Nature is unfinished. Creation groans for completion. Jesus died and rose again to redeem the entire cosmos. God is rescuing all of creation, making all things new.  God’s kingdom will come to earth. Everything is not yet as it will be.

God references two ancient Neareast chaos monsters – behemoth, the land monster; leviathan, the sea monster. In the minds of ancient Neareastern people – both are part of the amoral non-ordered natural world, but here depicted as under God’s control as playthings. There is more order than you know, Job. It’s not all ordered yet, but it’s not as chaotic as you assume.

And Job repents. Of what? He did nothing wrong. He was as close to sinless as a person (other than Jesus) can get. He was falsely accused. What was his error? 

I think Job’s error was assuming that the universe should make sense to humans. 

But the essential question of the book is answered. Why is Job serving God? Is he doing so for the benefits? What is his motive? 

It turns out, Job is following God simply because God is God and Job is Job. Creator and created creature. King and subject. “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him.” 

Obedience is where it begins. God is God. I am not. God speaks. We obey.

We circle back. What is my motive for obedience? Am I simply to obey because I have to, because the consequences of disobedience are horrific? In Job, God seems capricious. There may be more order in the universe than I’m aware of, but there’s still a lot that seems arbitrary. Where is God in all this? 

A transactional faith relationship won’t do. The retributive principle doesn’t always hold true. Some things have no answers, at least in this life. 

So, now what? Blind trust? Is God saying, “Just trust me, I know what I’m doing?” Is this a blind leap of faith? 

Fast forward. Jesus. God incarnate. “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father.” “I and the Father are one.” God is exactly like Jesus. There is nothing unchristlike in God.

Yes, the universe still seems arbitrary, capricious, irrational, and at times, heartless. Yes, bad things sometimes happen to very good people. 

But the essence, the heart, the core, of all reality is perfect, unconditional, universal, eternal, impeccable, cruciform love.

I trust. I obey. Not for what I can gain. Nor for what I can avoid.

I trust; I obey because I am saturated with divine love, grace, mercy, forgiveness, and kindness. I see the beauty in God’s face. I spontaneously respond in a love that trusts Love, that knows God tenderly cares for me, that I am God’s beloved, that nothing can separate me from God, that God’s will and way are not only what is best for me, but are the true paths of eternal joy. 

Why are we following God? What is our motive? 

St. Francis’ Famous Prayer with some additions marked by parentheses

Peace Prayer of Saint Francis

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;

(Where there is fear, let me sow shalom, wholeness and peace)

(Where there is guilt or worry, let me sow hesed, steadfast lovingkindness)

(Where there is timidity, let me sow courage and boldness)

(Where there are conspiracies, let me sow truth)

(Where there is prejudice or rejection or judgment, let me sow acceptance and mercy)


Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy. 
O divine Master, 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 in giving that we receive, 
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, 
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.

QAnon

Poisonous Fruit

Conspiracy theories, both on the left and right sides of the political spectrum, provide abundant evidence of the devil’s subtlety and deceitfulness. 

QAnon is an elusive, hard to define, impossible to pin down, widespread, and highly influential source of extensive conspiracy and misinformation. It lurks on the fringes of the Internet and is disseminated by people of all ages and from all walks of life. Most of them are decent, moral, well-meaning folks. Many are unaware they are spreading lies. People tweet and re-tweet, post and re-post, without checking for truthfulness. In the 1960s a mantra was “if it feels good, do it.” These days, the mantra is “if it fits my preconceived ideas, spread it.”

An anonymous person, who calls himself (or herself) Q, drops cryptic hints, which are then interpreted and circulated by others.  Those hints provoke speculation but cannot be verified. “Q” is an allusion to Q-level security clearance, given only to those with top-secret nuclear authorization. The assumption is that Q is a person (or persons) with inside information about deep corruption in the government.[1]No one knows who Q is. Speculation includes Donald Trump[2], a top-secret government agent, a small group of insiders with special clearance, a succession of such people, or an invention of Russian hackers.[3]

To generalize, QAnon asserts that a person known only as Q is a US military intelligence insider who has proof that corrupt world leaders are torturing children all over the world, plotting the destruction of America, and are embedded within the so-called “deep state” of professional bureaucrats. QAnon believes that Donald Trump has been appointed by God[4]to defeat those corrupt powers, which, according to one Q post, “must ALL be ELIMINATED.” These corrupt powers include Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama, and are enabled by many Democrats, political liberals, and some progressive Christians and people of other faith traditions. QAnon asserts that there is a worldwide cabal that must be resisted. QAnon maintains that this collection of corrupt officials is plotting to form a New World Order, but will be defeated and replaced by a “Great Awakening.”[5][6]The allure of special insider knowledge attracts devoted followers.[7]

QAnon often makes prophetic predictions about the future.[8]QAnon insisted that COVID-19 was fake, then shifted and declared it was manufactured in a lab by Barak Obama and Dr. Anthony Fauci[9]. QAnon maintains that “liberals” to defeat Donald Trump at the polls are exaggerating the coronavirus pandemic. QAnon was behind the extensively debunked “pizzagate” conspiracy.[10]QAnon claims that the worldwide faction of corruption will inevitably be destroyed with the support of “true patriots” who search Q’s postings for clues. Q predicted the arrest of Hillary Clinton and said that she and Barak Obama had a 16-year plan to destroy America with drought, disease warfare, famine, and nuclear war. Q predicted that the Robert Mueller report would fully exonerate Trump. None of that happened. When prophesies don’t pan out, QAnon shifts and adjusts as did the Millerites (now the Seventh Day Adventist denomination) who predicted the return of Christ on October 22, 1844, and as did the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who predicted the second coming in 1874 and again in 1914.  

In order to believe QAnon’s assertions, a person must reject the Enlightenment ideal of rational logic, abhor mainstream news outlets, mistrust “liberals,” reject mainline institutions (including traditional seminaries, churches, and universities), dismiss inconvenient science, label as “fake news” anything that would contradict the conspiratorial narrative, be suspicious of career politicians and bureaucrats, and battle apostates. If they are Christian, Q followers must reject the nonviolent cruciform message of the Lamb of God and replace it with an American warrior god. The gods of QAnon are militarism and national exceptionalism. Mars and Caesar. Civil religion. 

But QAnon is not just a fringe group of crackpots. One of its most prolific promoters is David Hayes, a former paramedic and evangelical Christian in Arizona. Better known as PrayingMedic, the handle he uses when he posts, Hayes has over 300,000 followers on both Twitter and YouTube. One of his videos has been viewed over a million times, and his books are selling well. It is also a mistake to assume QAnon is aligned with the Republican Party. Some Republicans in office promote and follow Q; others do not. 

Adherents resist being pinned down. Some are armed militia “patriots,” others are Tea Party Libertarians, still others are white supremacists, aging proponents of the John Birch Society[11], struggling factory workers, Sunday School teachers, or ordinary grandmothers baking cookies. Some are members of evangelical churches; others are not. As near as anyone can tell, they appear to be predominantly white, suburban or rural, and strong supporters of Donald Trump.[12]

A few QAnon followers have turned to violence, which is why the FBI classified QAnon as a domestic terror-threat in 2019.[13]A white evangelical father of two named Edgar Welch gathered an arsenal of guns and drove from his home in North Carolina to a pizzeria called Comet Ping Pong in suburban Washington, DC where he blew the lock off a door expecting to find a basement (the pizzeria has no basement) where Hillary Clinton and company were trafficking in child pornography.[14]It was all lies. And it all came from QAnon. In 2018, a QAnon adherent in California who planned to attack the Illinois capitol was arrested with bomb-making materials. Another heavily armed man in Nevada blocked traffic to the Hoover Dam with an armored truck demanding the release of Hillary Clinton’s emails. On line messages posted by QAnon adherents are sometimes grotesquely violent. 

Conspiracy theories are nothing new in America, but this one is exacerbated by the availably of technology that allows for the dissemination of unchecked assertions. Social media has handed a megaphone to everyone. It would be a mistake to simply call it a far-right conspiracy. It is more of a “don’t trust any political, academic, scientific, or media elitist” conspiracy. It sees Donald Trump as a messianic savior but goes beyond Trump. In 2016, Russian hackers, having spread disinformation to divide the electorate, assumed Hillary Clinton would be elected president and were ready to proclaim the results “rigged” and “fake.” Armed vigilantes stockpile ammunition and weapons in case Donald Trump loses the 2020 election. Regardless of who is in office, QAnon asserts that the downfall and violent destruction of this assumed worldwide collection of corrupt officials is certain. This is presented as prophecy.

What makes this movement different (and in my opinion, more dangerous) from past conspiracy factions is that it has strong elements of being a new religion. Once people accept something as religious truth, the game changes and violence often becomes inevitable. Misplaced religious fervor has caused some of the most horrific violence in history. The assertion that followers of Jesus were unpatriotic atheists led to crosses, stakes, and lions for the first three centuries of Christianity. Islamophobic conspiracy theory led to the crusades during a rash of millennial madness that interpreted biblical prophecy to conclude that the second coming would occur somewhere around 1000 A.D. The Black Death was interpreted as prophetic judgment in the 16thcentury and led to scapegoating and persecution. Antisemitic and end-times conspiracy theories were behind the rise of the Third Reich. 

According to historian Norman Cohn,[15]all end-time movements have in common the fact that they arise in places experiencing rapid social and economic change where there is highly visible spectacular wealth unavailable to most people. That defines American culture in the mid 21stcentury. Billionaires with more wealth than most nations are living lives of unimaginable opulence while millions have no health insurance, and 50% of citizens in the USA have no savings and are living from paycheck to paycheck. Wide acceptance of same sex marriage, large numbers of immigrants seeking refuge, the shifting abroad of low-skill jobs, mass exodus from traditional faith communities, demographic changes that assure that conservative white Christians will inevitably soon be a minority, and the insistence on the availability of abortion for anyone who wants it at any time during pregnancy – these things threaten the status quo and create fear in those who have traditionally held power. 

The language of white evangelical Christianity has come to define QAnon. Q fairly regularly quotes scripture. The QAnon narrative is woven into the kind of apocalyptic biblical interpretations I once taught. Couple a misreading of scripture with societal upheaval, shifting mores, wealth inequality, and perceived threat to those who thought themselves in the driver’s seat, and you have a culture ripe to latch on to the blatant lies and unverifiable assertions of QAnon. Add guns, armed “patriots” claiming to be Christians, and a toxic political environment that demonizes those with opposing views into the mix, and the situation becomes explosive. 

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “You shall know them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:16) The fruit of QAnon includes suspicion, anger, distrust, lies, scapegoating, violence, division, disunity, jingoism, and generalized paranoia. The fruit of following Jesus includes unconditional forgiveness, nonviolent resistance, love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, and self-control. 


[1]Corruption that goes beyond the United States and includes a worldwide faction of powerful politicians, financiers, academics, scientists and religious leaders united for the purpose of destroying American ideals.

[2]Trump has re-tweeted QAnon postings over 100 times and used language associated with Q. 

[3]See, The 2016 Election Was Just a Dry Runby Franklin Foer in The Atlantic, Vol. 325- No. 5, June 2020.

[4]Most of the white evangelical followers of Q who support Donald Trump are under no illusion that he is moral. They know his history of underhanded business deals and sexual immorality, but they claim God has put him in office to defeat this alleged worldwide consortium of corruption. Trump is likened to Cyrus the Great, the pagan king of Medo-Persia who protected the ancient Jews. 

[5]“Great Awakening” is a reference to two historic revivals in American history, one in the 18thand another in the 19thcentury. 

[6]Nothing Can Stop What is Coming, by executive editor Adrienne LaFrance, The Atlantic, Vol. 325- No. 5, June 2020

[7]Biblically, special insider knowledge known only to the enlightened is the stuff of Gnosticism. 

[8]The stuff of divination

[9]World-renowned immunologist and physician, and, since 1984, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious diseases.

[10]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pizzagate_conspiracy_theory

[11]https://www.britannica.com/topic/John-Birch-Society

[12]But of course many supporters of Donald Trump are not QAnon devotees

[13]https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2019/aug/1/fbi-says-qanon-conspiracy-theories-domestic-terror/

[14]https://academic.oup.com/ccc/article/11/1/100/4953075

[15]The Pursuit of the Millenniumby Norman Cohn is a classic book first published in 1957 by Oxford University Press.

The Gospel According to Job

imago Dei

That humans are created in the image of God is clear from the opening chapter of the Bible. But, what does it mean to be the imago Dei? Obviously not physical appearance. God is not so limited. Augustine followed Plato in asserting that what makes a person human is her capacity for reason. Therefore, to think rationally is to be in God’s image. Others expanded the imago Dei to include capacities such as the capacity for empathy, to love and be loved, to form and maintain relationships, or having a conscience to distinguish right from wrong. In addition to various capacities, the biblical creation stories give humans a calling and a task as part of the imago Dei. 

Our calling is royal. Our task is priestly. We are a kingdom of priests. 

In the ancient neareast, everybody believed that the king, pharaoh, emperor was the image of the gods. Everyone believed that once the high priest ceremoniously blew into the statue/idol of the god in the god’s temple, the idol became an image of that particular god. Everyone believed the gods created humans to be their slaves so the gods could take it easy. Ancient religion was reciprocal – the gods need the food and housing humans give them; humans need the gods to protect them from disasters.

The true and living God needs nothing. The true and living God creates only out of love. 

In Genesis, God creates God’s own temple – it’s a garden; it is nature in its purest form. Then God puts God’s own image in the garden and breathes divine life into them. “And Adam became a living soul.” (The Hebrew word “Adam” means “human;” “Havvah” (Eve) means “life” – together, they are human life.)

Then, God gives the humans calling and a task. 

Their calling: They are royalty. They can hold their heads up. They have dignity, meaning, purpose. None of them are expendable. None are of a lower caste. All are precious. They can come boldly before the throne of grace as accepted children rather than as condemned slaves. They can lament, doubt, and question – God is not offended. They are gifted. They are gifted with grace, love, shalom (wholeness, wellbeing), hesed (unconditional everlasting lovingkindness). Their core identify is beloved. 

They are given a task: Care for the garden, steward creation. Expand the garden. Spread God’s love and grace everywhere to all beings. Use the authority, the power, given by God to serve as Jesus served. Forgive. Refuse to retaliate. Respond nonviolently, lovingly. Be other-oriented. Expand the kingdom of God; conquer evil, defeat injustice by practicing self-sacrificial cruciform love. Be with Jesus to learn from Jesus how to be like Jesus. 

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