Empathy and the Kingdom: Part 3, The Scale of Empathy

I recently read Endangered Gospel: How Fixing the World is Killing the Church by John Nugent, a book that has gotten some attention on various blogs.

As you might surmise from the title, the central thesis of Nugent's book is that the church is endangering the gospel by trying to fix the world. That analysis might strike some of you as strange. Isn't the church supposed to save the world? Isn't the church trying to make the kingdom of God come to earth as it is in heaven?

Yes, Nugent answers, the church is trying to save the world and trying to make the kingdom come to earth. But the church has gotten confused, Nugent argues, about just how God is working to accomplish these goals.

Succinctly, in the words of Nugent, the church isn't trying to make the world a better place but is, rather, seeking to become the better place in the midst of the world.

For every problem facing the world the church--the better place--is God's response and active intervention. God is saving the world through God's kingdom people, a community who invites the world into God's better place.

Nugent's vision here of the church and the world is rooted in the Anabaptist tradition and should be familiar to students of Yoder and Hauerwas. The church is a counter-cultural polis (city) that exists in the midst of the world where the reign of God is displayed and enjoyed.

My focus on Nugent's book in these posts is more interested in psychology than upon ecclesiology, though the two, as I'll eventually argue, are related. Specifically, in this series we are wrestling with the scale and scope of empathy and compassion.

Over the last two posts we've been thinking about the problems related to empathy, and a lot of those problems happen when empathy becomes universalized. True, we are called upon to love the whole world, but the scale of a universalized compassion, turbocharged by the 24/7 social media feed, may be unsustainable, exhausting and damaging to us physically and emotionally. Providentially or evolutionarily, our empathy is been wired to work on the scale of local, face to face interactions. And for most of human history that's where compassion lived and thrived.

Perhaps, I'm suggesting, our empathy is ill-suited to an age saturated by cable TV and social media.

This is not to suggest that empathy for the suffering of world is bad or wrong. Just that universalized empathy will face a suite of temptations that need to be attended to. And for the most part, I'm arguing, these temptations are not being attended to. If anything, by encouraging a non-specific, free-floating and universalized empathy the church makes the situation worse.

So what's my suggestion?

My suggestion is that empathy works best--is most effective and healthy-- when it works at a proper scope and scale, and that if we don't attend to the scope and scale of our compassion we'll be pulled toward all the dark things we've talked about over the last two posts. We'll be pulled in so many different directions we won't settle down to specific and concrete work. We'll focus on emotionally venting and virtue signalling on social media over stepping away from our screens to love others sacrificially. We'll keep contributing to the culture of outrage rather than working shoulder to shoulder with people who vote differently. Lastly, we will burn ourselves out, growing increasing anxious, outraged, depressed, and stressed.

Maybe, I'm suggesting, empathy has a "sweet spot," a scope and scale that makes it humane, effective and sustainable--relationally, emotionally and physically. And that "sweet spot" appears to be a local, face to face community.

And that brings me back to Nugent's argument that the church isn't tasked with fixing the world but is, rather, called to be the better place in the local community.

Perhaps the means of God's mission--the local family of God--is a perfect match for the "sweet spot" of empathy. We love the entire world, but that love manifests itself, and is most effective and sustainable, when it is poured into a group of people I share face to face life with. In this way I love the world universally and generally by loving specifically and intimately.

I'm suggesting a possible fit between ecclesiology and psychology, a fit between God's means of saving the world and our moral hard-wiring. I'm supplementing Nugent's argument with a psychological observation that when the church universalizes its mission--fixing the world over being the church--it universalizes its empathy, bringing along all the problems we've been discussing. Dilution of impact. Outrage and political polarization. Social media solidarity over concrete acts of care. Emotional burnout. And so on.

To be clear, lest there be any confusion, we are talking about means and ends.

We love the world and seek its salvation. That's the end.

But means toward that end, I'm suggesting, is local and intimate. 

Prison Diary: Joe's Gift

Joe, who is an older Hispanic man, is a part of our set up crew. Joe gets to the chapel early to set out the chairs and put out the songbooks.

But what Joe takes particular delight in doing is going to get Herb and I a cup of tea or coffee. Inmates don't get access to these drinks, but Joe can get them if he's bringing them to us, the volunteers.

Now, prison is all about getting an edge, working the gray areas through daring, smooth talk, deception or a hustle to get access to something. So in the case of getting Herb and I drinks, Joe could work this to his advantage. It would be entirely expected and predictable. In getting coffee or tea for us Joe could grab a third cup and pour himself a drink as well. In fact, when Joe does bring back a pitcher of tea or coffee any inmate around rushes to get some after Herb and I pour our drinks.

But not Joe. Joe never drinks what he brings us.

I asked Joe about that this week. "Joe, there's more tea here. Why don't you get a glass."

"Oh," Joe replied, "I don't drink the coffee or tea I bring you. I don't want anyone to ever think that the reason I bring drinks to you is so that I can have one. I just want to bring the drinks to you, to say 'Thank You' for ya'll coming out here each week."

Joe's gifts are truly gifts. 100%. There's no hustle. He denies himself to make sure of that--for us, himself and the onlooking inmates.

Week after week, Joe brings us a drink, and never gets one for himself.

Empathy and the Kingdom: Part 2, Empathy + Social Media = Continual Collective Freakout

In the last post I raised some questions about empathy.

Empathy is a good thing, but there are some issues with compassion that we should pay attention to.

For example, empathy can pull our compassion in so many different directions that our efforts to help the world become so diffuse as to have no impact. Empathy also tempts us toward anger, hate and violence in the fight for justice and righteousness. Empathy also causes us to seek emotional catharsis over self-sacrificial love. Lastly, empathy, as a stress reaction, can lead to burnout, chronic anxiety, depression and physical exhaustion.

So those are some of the problems with empathy. But before move on with this series I'd just like to pause to note how social media has made all these empathy problems so much worse.

Before the rise of social media our empathy was local and neighborly. The scale of compassion was personal and face to face. Empathy prompted us to respond to the needs of our immediate community. Tragedies struck, but these were the shared traumas faced together by the community. Drought. Tornado. Fire. Economic downturns. Plague. Floods.

Nowadays we experience these traumas on a daily and universal scale. Because of social media and cable TV compassion never gets a day off. If you are a compassionate person not an hour passes without the news bringing you images or news that breaks your heart or fires your outrage.

Instead of aching for our neighbors and local community our hearts break for the entire world 24/7.

And while that is a good thing, there is a social, emotional and physical cost to the continual collective freakout caused by the advent of social media. Emotionally, we are not wired to carry the sufferings of the world 24/7. The scope, scale, and unremitting suffering of the world is too much for one heart to carry day after day, year after year. Empathy in the age of social media can ruin us, spiritually, emotionally and physically. But what else can a compassionate person do when the next tragedy strikes?

All that to say, I think the problems we noted in the last post about empathy have been massively amplified by social media.

As social media hits us with tragedy after tragedy and injustice after injustice our empathy is pulled in a million different directions, causing our impact on the world to become more and more diffuse.

Social media has also become an outlet for moralistic aggression, a place where we fight, call out, and denounce the Bad Guys in the world. Empathy-fueled social media is often anger-fueled social media.

Social media also captures and traps our empathy. Our empathy causes us to write, post, Tweet, Like, re-post or re-Tweet about the latest tragedy or injustice. By posting on social media we get an emotional outlet, but rarely does this "virtual helping" translate into concrete acts of sacrificial love for people we care for face to face.

Finally, if empathy is a stress reaction then chronic exposure to tragedy and injustice on social media is, perhaps, the number one reason we're all so stressed, depressed, and anxious. Christians have become emotional wrecks.

In aching online for the entire world 24/7 we've lost the local and intimate scale of empathy where compassion is sustainable, healthy, relational, tangible and effective.

And maybe that's where the kingdom of God comes in.

Empathy and the Kingdom: Part 1, What Is So Bad About Empathy?

I'd like to write a few posts wrestling with how empathy functions in the kingdom of God.

I've been kicking around some thoughts about this subject, but I have hesitated to share them. Why? Because in the course of these reflections I'll be taking on some sacred cows. Some of the posts in this series will be disorienting for some readers. By the end of the series I hope to have us in a pretty good place, but to get where I'm going we will have to rethink some things.

But that's why I hope you visit this blog. To watch a theological high wire act. Something different and out of the box. Something to puzzle you and make you think.

So this series will be one of those "experiments" in theological reflection. Follow along and see what you think.

I want to start off with a problem and then think toward a solution in these posts.

To lay my cards on the table, the problem is empathy and the solution is the kingdom.

So let's start with the problem. What's so bad about empathy?

Let me be clear that empathy is foundational to our ability to show kindness, compassion and love. We must cultivate empathy and practice empathy. Empathy is a critical component to being formed into the image of Jesus.

But that's about as far as we take our reflections about empathy. Compassion is good, so let's all be compassionate. And yet, there has been a growing chorus among psychologists and ethicists suggesting that, while very good and necessary, empathy has some issues that we need to pay attention to. For example, see Paul Bloom's essay "Against Empathy" or David Brooks' "The Limits of Empathy." The claim is that if you don't pay attention to the problems with empathy your compassion can take you into some very dark places.

So, how can empathy be a problem?

Let me describe five problems with empathy:
1. Ineffective Empathy
When our heartstrings are pulled toward a multitude of charitable and social justice causes our resources become spread and diluted, decreasing their ability to make an impact. We all know the statistics that show how much of the charitable giving being done in the world is often misdirected, ineffective or even harmful. Empathy is flowing by the truckloads, but it's not making the world any better. And sometimes empathy makes the world worse. Watch Paul Bloom's short video on this subject.

Christians are aware of this problem. Consider all the (virtual) ink that has been spilled about how short-term mission trips to the Third World are a form of poverty tourism. Our empathy pulls us toward these sorts of trips and ministry efforts but their effectiveness is seriously in doubt. In short, empathy--a compassionate desire to help--doesn't always lead to actual helping. Another example here is the whole When Helping Hurts conversation.

2. Empathy and Violence
Much of the violence done in the world is motivated by moralistic aggression. Moralistic aggression occurs when the Good Guys use violence to defeat the Bad Guys, Bad Guys who are hurting people in the world. In short, empathy can lead to violence. The example Paul Bloom makes in the video above is how our empathy was used by the Bush administration to create public support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The dark side of empathy is that it causes us to demonize people. A lot of our politics is motivated by empathy, care, and concern for the suffering in the world. But that empathy creates moralistic aggression toward political opponents. Angelic Good Guys fighting against demonic Bad Guys. Empathy drives a lot of our politics, which is a key reason our political discourse has become so angry, polarized, and uncivil. 

3. Empathy and Sacrifice
Feelings aren't actions. One of the problems with empathy is that it privileges feelings over actions. When we feel empathy the temptation is to look for an emotional outlet, like taking to social media to write a Facebook rant or a string of angry Tweets. These are outlets that create the illusion of "doing something" that are more emotional catharsis than action.

In short, we can feel loads and loads of empathy but still not do anything. How many of us have sat under a convicting sermon or testimony, completely gut-checked, to have that feeling evaporate by the time we sat down to lunch after church?

Empathy is vital, but it's a far cry from self-sacrificial love. We're addicted to compassion. We take a pass on agape.

4. Empathic Distress
Empathy is a stress reaction. When we witness the distress of others we sympathetically feel their distress in our own bodies. We get upset, sad or angry. Or all of these feelings at the same time.

Consequently, empathy creates an emotional and somatic burden. As we watch social media and cable news our empathy triggers sadness, anxiety and outrage. Minute by minute, day after day, month after month. That load of sympathetic stress leads to empathy burnout. Chronic anxiety. Depression. Physical exhaustion. Emotional numbness.

In short, if we are not careful our empathy can ruin us, emotionally and physically.
So this where we'll begin this series, with raising some questions about a sacred cow.

We consider empathy to be foundational to cultivating a Christ-like character, compassion heralded as the singular Christian virtue.

But might empathy create some real problems for us? Problems we are not paying attention to?

And if so, maybe we need to think harder about how empathy functions in the kingdom.

The Metaphysics of Gratitude

Yesterday I mentioned my students presenting their research at the SWPA conference. At SWPA I also got to hear Robert Emmons present about his research on gratitude.

Emmons is the world's leading expert on gratitude. You can check out a popular treatment of his research in his book Thanks!.

Toward the end of his talk, after reviewing the positive benefits of gratitude and how gratitude can be fostered, Emmons turned to more conceptual issues. One of the issues he raised was the distinction between gratitude for and gratitude to.

Gratitude is a social emotion, the thankfulness we feel having receiving a gift (or some benefit). Gratitude implies a gift, which in turn implies a giver. This is gratitude to.

But what about gratitude for? Emmons raised the question of environmental gratitude. Can you feel gratitude for the sunrise, a beautiful mountain, for life itself?

To be sure, we can feel lucky and fortunate for all these things. But without a giver can we, properly speaking, feel gratitude for these things?

In short, since gratitude is a social emotion might feelings of gratitude--environmentally and cosmically speaking--require a metaphysical framework? Gratitude to a giver?

And this isn't only about emotional states. When we feel grateful we take care of the gift, cherish it. Being grateful for the world and life prompts us to take care. By contrast, when we don't feel grateful we don't take care. In short, gratitude is associated with ethics.

So there is a reinforcing matrix here of metaphysics, gratitude and care.

Faith, worship and ethics.

My Students

Beyond my graduate thesis students, regular readers know I also mentor undergraduate students.

This year I had eight amazing students present two projects at the Southwestern Psychological Association conference.

Being with and spending time with these students is the best part of my job. ACU students are awesome.

Kaitlyn, Taylor, Madi and Lareina presented on the experience called "fear of missing out" as it relates to social media usage. Here's the abstract of their research:

Why Wasn't I Invited?: Fear of Missing Out and Social Media 

Introduction
Psychological research has recently begun to focus on the social anxiety symptom called "fear of missing out" (FoMO; Przybylski et al., 2013). FoMO is the anxiety people experience when they feel left out of an experience that others, often friends and social acquaintances, are enjoying. Observing the lives and activities of others on social media should exacerbate the FoMO, but to date no research has been conducted examining the associations between social media and FoMO.

Method
Two-hundred and seven participants (75.5% female, Mean age = 30.5, 66.8% Caucasian) completed measures of excessive reassurance seeking (Joiner, 2001), self-esteem (Rosenberg, 1965) and peer attachment (Armsden & Greenberg, 1989). Participants also completed a generalized measure of FoMO (Przybylski et al., 2013). Finally, participants completed a measure developed for this study assessing social media induced FoMO. This scale included six items, each with the prompt: "When scrolling through Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook and other social media feeds, I often feel..." Example items include "sad that I'm missing out on the fun my friends are having", "excluded and left out because my friends are together without me" and "disappointed that I wasn't invited."

Results
Overall, the generalized FoMO and the social media induced FoMO measures were positively correlated (r = .57, p < .001). Social media induced FoMO was positively related to excessive reassurance seeking (r = .42, p < .001) and interpersonal dependency (r = .39, p < .001). Social media induced FoMO was also associated with lower self-esteem (r = -.39,< .001). In regards to peer attachment, social media induced FoMO was related to decreased ability to communicate with peers (r = -.21. < .01), lower trust of peers (r = -.35, p < .001) and increased alienation from peers (r = .41, p < .001).

Discussion
Overall, the results suggest that FoMO is being exacerbated by consumption of social media. In general, FoMO in response to social media appears to be associated with lower self-concept (low self-esteem, interpersonal dependency) and difficulty in meeting interpersonal needs (low trust, inability to communicate, alienation).

Diamon, Jessie, Grace, and Corynn investigated the associations between the "Dark Tetrad" personality traits and rape myth acceptance. Here's the abstract of their research:

No Means Maybe: Rape Myth Acceptance and the Dark Tetrad

Introduction
Sexual assault continues to plague America, and college campuses in particular. A contributing factor to the incidence and prevalence of sexual assault is the acceptance of rape myths, a nexus of beliefs where blame is shifted from perpetrators to victims. Although numerous studies have examined the demographic and personality factors associated with the acceptance of rape myths, few studies have examined the associations with the Dark Triad personality cluster (Narcissism, Machiavellianism, Psychopathy). And no studies have examined rape myth acceptance with the Dark Tetrad cluster, where everyday sadism is added to the suite of anti-social personality variables.

Method
One-hundred and forty-six participants (Mean age = 26, 75.3% Female, 77.4% Caucasian) completed the Illinois Rape Myth Acceptance scale (McMahon & Farmer, 2011). Participants also completed an assessment of the Dark Triad (Jonason & Webster, 2010)--narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy-- along with a measure of everyday sadism (Buckles & Paulhus, 2014).

Results
For the entire sample, all the Dark Tetrad variables were associated with increased acceptance of rape myths: Sadism (r = .40, p < .01), psychopathy (r = .33, < .01), Machiavellianism (r = .18, p < .05), and narcissism (r = .15, p < .05). These correlations were also run separately for male and female participants to explore gender differences. For male participants, all the correlations between the Dark Tetrad variables and rape myth acceptance remained significant, and generally increased: Sadism (r = .36, p < .05), psychopathy (r = .45, < .01), Machiavellianism (r = .32, p < .05), and narcissism (r = .40, p < .05). For female participants, narcissism (r = .09) and Machiavellianism (r = .12) were unrelated to rape myth acceptance. However, among female participants psychopathy (r = .26, p < .01) and sadism (r = .42, p < .01) were significantly related to rape myth acceptance.

Discussion
Overall, the results of the study suggest that personality factors contribute to rape myth acceptance. Specifically, for male participants higher scores on all Dark Tetrad traits were associated with greater rape myth acceptance. For females, only the Tetrad variables associated with decreased empathy--sadism and psychopathy--were associated with rape myth acceptance. These results suggest that individuals with personality traits associated with decreased empathy are prone to beliefs that minimize or marginalize the suffering of victims.

Prison Diary: The Lockdown Is Over!

After four weeks, the lockdown is finally over. Our study met this week!

As you can imagine, it felt like a reunion and homecoming. The greeting line Herb and I form as the men enter the chapel was particularly joyous and enthusiastic. Our singing was happy and loud.

I asked about the lockdown, how the men fared, how I'd been worried about them as the weeks passed. All in all, they reported, it was a good lockdown, as lockdowns go.

Why?

First, it was cool and rained twice. Cool temperatures make being locked in your cell more bearable.

Second, the men were allowed to go to the showers more regularly compared to past lockdowns. That also makes life in close quarters with a cellmate more tolerable.

And lastly, cheese. On lockdowns the men are fed in their cells with brown bag lunches, mostly consisting of sandwiches.

"This year," John told me, "they put cheese on our baloney and salami sandwiches."

Cheese does make everything better.

The Jesus Option

Rod Dreher's book The Benedict Option is continuing to generate conversation, so I wanted to revisit my recent post contrasting Rod's vision of the BenOp with what I've described as a progressive vision of the BenOp.

To summarize my recent post about a progressive BenOp, I contrasted Christian culture with cruciformity. Rod tends to focus his discussions of the BenOp upon preserving Christian culture: orthodoxy, liturgy, and piety.

My concern with making culture the focus of the BenOp is the same concern Jesus leveled at the BenOp proponents of his time and place: the Pharisees.

My argument is that a progressive BenOp will focus not on culture but upon cruciformity, spiritually forming cross-carrying followers of Jesus. Another way to make this contrast is that Rod's BenOp is inspired by medieval monasticism, where the BenOp I'm describing is inspired by the gospels.

Examples of these sorts of BenOps are the Catholic Workers, the new monastics, and the L'Arche communities.

Now, readers have pushed back on me for characterizing these BenOps as "progressive." Can't orthodox and traditionally conservative Christians practice lifestyles of radical care and hospitality? Wasn't Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker, orthodox, pious and traditional in her ethics?

If so, why describe these BenOps as "progressive"?

This is a fair point. Three reflections/responses.

First, I called these BenOps "progressive" as I was trying to show fellow progressives how we need and can create a BenOp. That is, I was casting a BenOp vision for progressives. Thus a "progressive vision of the BenOp."

Second, Rod hasn't included these communities in his BenOp descriptions. The Catholic Workers, new monastics and L'Arche don't appear in The Benedict Option. Presumably because these communities are focused more on radical hospitality than preserving Christian culture (orthodoxy, piety, liturgy). They don't hit the bulls eye for him, so they aren't great exemplars of his vision. Which is fine, but for a progressive like me these communities are precisely on target, especially when you have Jesus as your target rather than medieval monasticism.

In short, I used the label progressive because BenOps focused on radical hospitality seem to fall outside of Rod's vision, precisely because of what makes them so attractive to progressives.

Third, but the point is well taken. Conservative Christians can create these sorts of communities as well. So a more inclusive label may be in order.

I've suggested calling these cruciform BenOps the Franciscan Option. But since these BenOps are focused on the gospels another name could be the Gospel Option, or even the Jesus Option.

Community as a Monastic Calling

In yesterday's post I shared a quip I offered my son Aidan:

"The crucible of your irritation is the arena of your moral perfection."

I went on to speak about family life as a "domestic monastery," the intimate sphere where we pursue holiness in the hard work of living with and getting along together. It's in the irritations and frustrations and tedium of family life where we struggle toward sanctification. Family life is a monastic calling.

But really, it's not just family life. Any community will do. The irritations at work or at church all become the crucibles where we strive toward moral perfection. I'm reminded of one of my favorite quotes from Jean Vanier:
Community is the place where our limitations, our fears and our egotism are revealed to us. We discover our poverty and our weaknesses, our inability to get on with some people, our mental and emotional blocks, our affective and sexual disturbances, our seemingly insatiable desires, our frustrations and jealousies, our hatred and our wish to destroy. While we are alone, we could believe we loved everyone. Now that we are with others, living with them all the time, we realise how incapable we are of loving, how much we deny to others, how closed in on ourselves we are.
In this sense, community itself--any community--is a monastic calling, the crucibles where holiness is pursued and formed.

The Domestic Monastery

As a father I can say some pretty weird things to my boys.

The other day I was was goofing around in the house, being loud and annoying. You know, acting like a Dad.

The boys laughed and Aidan, in mock irritation, said "Dad, please stop. You're being annoying."

And then I quipped, "Boys, the crucible of your irritation is the arena of your moral perfection."

That is what passes for fatherly advice in our house. The crucible of your irritation is the arena of your moral perfection.

I went on to explain to the boys.

Prior to the Protestant Reformation the monastery was the place where you went if you wanted to pursue a life of holiness. The religious vocation within the monastery was the "arena of moral perfection."

But with the rise of the Protestantism a shift occurred. The focus of religious life moved from the monastic to the domestic sphere, marriage and family life became the arena of moral perfection.

In short, in Protestantism the domestic life is a monastic calling. Domestic life is the place where we pursue and struggle toward holiness. Domestic life is the arena of moral perfection. 

It is in domestic life where you learn to serve and obey. It is in domestic life where you learn discipline and self-mortification. Because it's not always about you in a family or a marriage. Sometimes you have to sit through your sister's piano concert. Sometimes it's your turn to wash the dishes. Sometimes you have to care for the sick, wait your turn, and share your things.

It's in domestic life where we struggle toward the Fruit of the Spirits. Patience, gentleness and self-control. Love, peace and fidelity.

We struggle toward these virtues, as monks do in a monastery, in the daily grid where very different personalities come together to do the work of making a life together. We get angry with each other. We forget each other. We make mistakes. And, yes, we get irritated with each other. Especially when your Dad is being annoying.

These are emotional, interpersonal crucibles where we are morally tested. Here, in the mundane domestic flare-ups, is where the furnace of purification burns. In the midst of the tedium, irritation, and hurt feelings we are being salted with fire.

Family life is the crucible that becomes the arena of our moral perfection.

Welcome to the domestic monastery.

Reviving Old Scratch for $2.99!

If you've not picked up a copy of Reviving Old Scratch: Demons and the Devil for Doubters and the Disenchanted I wanted to let you know that for the month of April Fortress Press is having a massive ebook sale.

Currently, the ebook for Reviving Old Scratch is just $2.99.

And if you already have a copy check out all the other deals Fortress Press is having on ebooks.

More details can be found at Fortress Press' Twitter feed.

Prison Diary: Training

The unit was still on lockdown this week. I did find out, however, that my training was about to expire. So I'm scheduled to have that again on April 22.

It's not particularly easy to become a volunteer at the prison. You don't just show up on the doorstep. It starts with an application to Huntsville, where they do a background check. Once that is cleared you have to attend a training session. These aren't offered very frequently, so you may have to wait a few months. Once the training is done that record is sent back to Huntsville and you wait for them to officially approve you.

None of this process is fast. It can take 3-4 months to get approved. So you have to be patient.

Once you get approved every two years you have to go back through the training. That's what I have to do in a few weeks.

The training mainly consists of teaching you how to avoid being manipulated. Usually through flattery. Inmates talk to you, creating the impression that you are unique and special, that you share a special bond and intimacy. Once that bond is created then comes requests for favors. Can you do this for me? Carry this out? Bring this in? Contact this person for me?

Obviously, you're working in a prison, so you run into the "dark triad" traits a lot. Narcissism, Machiavellian and psychopathy. And it's hard to sort through actual intimacy and manipulation. Psychopaths can be extraordinarily charming.

I share a lot about the consolations of prison ministry. But as I share in Reviving Old Scratch, this is one of the desolations, the vigilance you have to maintain to keep from being manipulated, the care you need to take to monitor boundaries and handle requests for special favors. There's always the question gnawing at the back of your mind when you're getting close to an inmate, "Is this for real? Or am I being played here?"

We like to think that we have some infallible social radar that can tell us when and who to trust, but the waters are murky and the signals often mixed.

Prepare Your Eye to See God

The Lord, the teacher of love, full of love, came in person with summary judgment on the world, as had been foretold of him, and showed that the law and the prophets are summed up in two commandments of love.

Call to mind, brethren, what these two commandments are. They ought to be very familiar to you; they should not only spring to mind when I mention them, but ought never to be absent from your hearts. Keep always in mind that we must love God and our neighbor: Love God with your whole heart, your whole soul, and your whole mind, and your neighbor as yourself.

These two commandments must be always in your thoughts and in your hearts, treasured, acted on, fulfilled. Love of God is the first to be commanded, but love of neighbor is the first to be put into practice...

Since you do not yet see God, you merit the vision of God by loving your neighbor. By loving your neighbor you prepare your eye to see God...

Consider what is said to you: Love God. If you say to me: Show me whom I am to love, what shall I say if not what Saint John says: No one has ever seen God! But in case you should think that you are completely cut off from the sight of God, he says: God is love, and he who remains in love remains in God. Love your neighbor, then, and see within yourself the power by which you love your neighbor; there you will see God, as far as you are able.

Begin, then, to love your neighbor. Break your bread to feed the hungry, and bring into your home the homeless poor; if you see someone naked, clothe him, and do not look down on your own flesh and blood...

In loving your neighbor and caring for him you are on a journey. Where are you traveling if not to the Lord God, to him whom we should love with our whole heart, our whole soul, our whole mind? We have not yet reached his presence, but we have our neighbor at our side.

Support, then, this companion of your pilgrimage if you want to come into the presence of the one with whom you desire to remain for ever.

--St. Augustine

Wash This Way: Instead of a Coffee Shop How About a Laundromat?

I wanted to update you about Wash This Way, the laundromat our dear friends Mike and Kathy started.

As regular readers know, the origin story of the laundromat began when my wife Jana went to our neighborhood laundromat and had a terrible experience. Her experience prompted me to write a post about "third spaces," how they are disappearing, but how churches should use laundromats to create them.

So I wrote the post Instead of a Coffee Shop How About a Laundromat? 

That post got a lot of attention, and I encourage you to read the comments of that post to see all the different ways churches are using laundromats to serve their neighborhoods and create third spaces.

In our neighborhood, Wash This Way opened a few weeks ago and it going great! Check out the Wash This Way Facebook page and note all the reviews. And as expected, Wash This Way is becoming a third space, a place where every part of Abilene intersects and mingles together. One Wash This Way review:
I'm so glad that my friend told me about this place! Our washer AND dryer are on the fritz and this mama of FOUR desperately needed to do some laundry. I was able to wash three loads (with my 2yr old and baby in tow) in less than an hour. The facility is clean and the staff is friendly and helpful. I'll be back!
Having watched Mike and Kathy start a laundromat, let me revisit and update my original post.

Why a laundromat instead of a coffee shop?

First, watching Wash This Way everything I said in my original post is true. If a church wants to create a neighborhood third space, a space where neighbors are served and the demographic groups of the city mix and mingle, a laundromat accomplishes this better than a coffee shop. Just walk into Wash This Way and you'll see for yourself.

That said, laundromats are very expensive to build. The land, the building, the machines. This capital investment may cause churches to step back. Churches don't generally take out loans to start businesses.

But I think they should. For two reasons.

At least in our city and neighborhood, the laundromat was a good business investment. It might not be in your location, but here in Abilene it was. As one Facebook reviewer for Wash This Way said, "This laundromat is an awesome, modern and much needed addition in Abilene."

All that to say, for many churches, yes, it might be strange to take out a loan for a laundromat, but it can be a great business decision, a source of revenue that could the church could use for other ministries.

The second reason churches should start businesses is highlighted in this Wash This Way review: "Wow best laundry mat ever!! Great place and it gave people jobs!!!"

Churches struggle to get out of the trap of benevolence ministries, with all the problems we've read about in books like When Helping Hurts. But if churches want to get into the business of empowerment, they need to start running businesses alongside their food pantries. Churches need a way to give people jobs. And a laundromat is a great place to do that.

We'll see you at the laundromat!

Slaying the Dragon: Part 6, You Can't Have a Victory If You Don't Have a Dragon

To revisit the point I made in Part 1 of this series, when we step into the narrative of Scripture we are stepping to a "warfare worldview."

God's rule, reign and kingdom on earth comes about by God defeating and taming the great powers of Creation.

In the Old Testament some of these great powers are the powers of the deep. The ocean itself is a great power, representing the forces of chaos and disorder. Consequently, God rules over the deep by defeating and taming the great sea dragons Leviathan and Rahab.

Eventually, these dragons begin to be associated with geo-political powers, what the New Testament calls "the principalities and powers." Egypt is called Rahab, Pharaoh is called a dragon. So, just like God's taming of the great sea monsters, in the Exodus God "slays the dragon" by emancipating his people from slavery. They even pass through the sea.

In short, as I mentioned in the last post, in the Exodus the image of "slaying the dragon" at the dawn of creation becomes an image of salvation. In addition, "slaying the dragon" goes on to become an eschatological image of a Second Exodus and New Creation. What God did at the dawn of creation God will do again at the dawn of New Creation. What God did in delivering his people in the Exodus God will do again in the Second Exodus. All this is pulled together in the image of "slaying the dragon." For example:
Isaiah 51.9-11
Awake, awake, put on strength,
O arm of the Lord!
Awake, as in days of old,
the generations of long ago!
Was it not you who cut Rahab in pieces,
who pierced the dragon?

Was it not you who dried up the sea,
the waters of the great deep;
who made the depths of the sea a way
for the redeemed to cross over?

So the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
This is the matrix of imagery--Creation and Exodus, New Creation and Second Exodus--that sits behind the War in Heaven in Revelation and the slaying of the dragon:
Revelation 12.8-10
And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, 8 but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.

Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming,

“Now have come the salvation and the power
and the kingdom of our God
and the authority of his Messiah,
for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down,
who accuses them day and night before our God."
When we read about the defeat of the dragon in Revelation we should be thinking of New Creation and Exodus. Because of the warfare worldview of the Bible salvation and New Creation are described in the Bible as "victories." The establishment of God's rule on earth as it is in heaven assumes the slaying of the dragon.

All that to say, to draw this series to a close, one of the reasons I wrote Reviving Old Scratch is that many doubting, liberal and progressive Christians who are drawn to Christus Victor atonement theology generally lack the warfare worldview that allows Christus Victor theology to make any sense.

Specifically, given their great skepticism about the devil many doubting Christians have no theology of the "dragon," no clear sense about what is defeated and tamed in the establishment of God's kingdom on earth, no clear sense about why Jesus is described as "victorious."

Because you can't have a victory if you don't have a dragon.

Slaying the Dragon: Part 5, The Dragon Pharaoh

I want to return to the association between dragons and Egypt.

Recall from Part 3 that Rahab, the great sea dragon, is also a name for Egypt in the Old Testament. Then in Part 4 we noted that the sea dragons Rahab and Leviathan are proper names for specific tannin, the Hebrew word for "sea monster" or "dragon."

Another connection between Egypt and dragons comes from Ezekiel where Pharaoh is twice called a tannin:
Ezekiel 29.3
Speak, and say, Thus says the Lord God:

I am against you,
Pharaoh king of Egypt,
the great dragon sprawling
in the midst of its channels,
saying, “My Nile is my own;
I made it for myself.” (NRSV)

Ezekiel 32.2
Mortal, raise a lamentation over Pharaoh king of Egypt, and say to him:

You consider yourself a lion among the nations,
but you are like a dragon in the seas;
you thrash about in your streams,
trouble the water with your feet,
and foul your streams. (NRSV)
The point for drawing out the connection between Egypt and dragons--the nation called Rahab and Pharaoh called a dragon--is two-fold.

First, as we noted in the first post, the Old Testament image of dragons is a precursor for the New Testament language of "the principalities and powers." The association between Egypt and dragons is a nice illustration of this. And we can also note in this association how the "dragon" of Egypt involves a mix of the spiritual and the political. Political in that Egypt was a nation state and a geo-political power. But also spiritual in that the power of Egypt was due to the gods of Egypt and Pharaoh himself, considered to be the Son of Ra.

Second, and now getting to the point of this series, the association of dragons with Egypt brings out Exodus and New Exodus themes.

"Slaying the dragon" becomes an image of salvation and liberation.

Prision Diary: Bilingual Bible

The unit was still on lockdown this week. That's three weeks in a row. That's typical, so I hope we can be out there next week.

In the meantime, let me talk about Spanish.

About 30-40% of the men in our study are Hispanic. And many of them struggle with English. Thankfully, you can understand more of a language than you can produce. So the Hispanic men generally track with my classes.

But I've always wanted to connect more with them in Spanish. If I had just one wish I wouldn't ask for a million dollars, I'd make myself bilingual.

Since starting the Bible study at the prison I've tried to teach myself Spanish. Rosetta Stone. Duolingo. It hasn't stuck. I've discovered that I'm really bad at languages. I learned that last summer in Brazil.

But I keep wanting show honor to the Spanish speakers in my Bible class. So here's my latest plan.

I've purchased a bilingual Bible, the New Living Translation parallel with the Nueva Traducción Viviente (NTV). The NTV is the Spanish version of the NLT, the translation I use out at the prison.

My plan is that, during the study, when I'm reading a text, I'll switch over from time to time to the Spanish. Especially for passages with some special theological weight: 
Pues Dios amó tanto al mundo que dio a su único Hijo, para que todo el que crea en él no se pierda, sino que tenga vida eterna.
For gringos like myself, that's John 3:16.

I hope to accomplish three things with this bilingual Bible:

1. Simple honoring. I'm not learning the language very well, but this allows me to insert Spanish into the class.

2. Built in Spanish lessons! As I read, I'm going to make mistakes. The men will correct me. When they do I'll be weaving Spanish lessons into the study. It'll help that I'm not just listening to the word. With the Bible I'll be able to look at the words as the men help me pronounce. I think I'm a language learner that needs to look at the words. I have a bad ear for language.

I also hope that, over time, with a Bible I'll build up my religious vocabulary. Rosetta Stone and Duolingo start you off with words like "bread, "blue," "car" and "shirt." I need a religious vocabulary to use in the study.

3. Flipping the power relations. Liberation theology 101, baby! Related to #2 above, in making mistakes and having the men teach me we're switching social locations, making them the teacher and me the student.

We'll see how it goes. Lift a prayer that the lockdown ends soon.

Slaying the Dragon: Part 4, Haunts of Foul and Hateful Beasts

The Hebrew word that gets translated as "dragon," "sea monster" or "great sea creature" in the Old Testament is tannin. Both Leviathan and Rahab are tannin.

For example:
Genesis 1.21
So God created the great sea monsters [tannin] and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. (NRSV)
...
So God created the great creatures of the sea [tannin] and every living thing with which the water teems and that moves about in it, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. (NIV)
Another example:
Job 7.12
Am I the Sea, or the Dragon [tannin], that you set a guard over me? (NRSV)
...
Am I the sea, or the monster of the deep [tannin], that you put me under guard? (NIV) 
So again, both Leviathan and Rahab are tannin, dragons and monsters of the deep.

And yet, if you look into the word "dragon" in the OT you will stumble upon some confusing translations:
Isaiah 34.13
Thorns shall grow over its strongholds, nettles and thistles in its fortresses. It shall be the haunt of jackals, an abode for ostriches. (NRSV)
...
And thorns shall come up in her palaces, nettles and brambles in the fortresses thereof: and it shall be an habitation of dragons, and a court for owls. (KJV)


Isaiah 35:7
The burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. (NRSV)
...
And the parched ground shall become a pool, and the thirsty land springs of water: in the habitation of dragons, where each lay, shall be grass with reeds and rushes. (KJV) 
So how does "dragon" in the King James Version become "jackals" in other translations?

Well, it's because the plural of tannin in the Hebrew (tannim) is the same as the plural for a different animal, jackal. Consequently, when tannim is encountered in the text the translator has to determine which animal--dragon or jackal--is being referred to.

So what do translators do? They tend to look at the ecosystem being described. If the ecosystem is water then the word is translated as "sea monster" or "dragon" (for example: Psalm 74.14). But if the ecosystem is in a desert many translators go with "jackals."

But complicating this picture, and more on this in the next post, is how tannin can also refer to serpents and snakes, animals that are found in deserts.

Regardless, the imagery of tannim--dragons or jackals--in a desolate place is used throughout the OT as imagery for the judgment of God. A "haunt of jackals" or a "habitation of dragons" is a demon-infested place. For example:
Isaiah 13.21-22
But wild animals will lie down there,
and its houses will be full of howling creatures;
there ostriches will live,
and there goat-demons will dance.

Hyenas will cry in its towers,
and jackals [tannim] in the pleasant palaces;
its time is close at hand,
and its days will not be prolonged. (NRSV)
...
But wild beasts of the desert shall lie there; and their houses shall be full of doleful creatures; and owls shall dwell there, and satyrs shall dance there.

And the wild beasts of the islands shall cry in their desolate houses, and dragons [tannim] in their pleasant palaces: and her time is near to come, and her days shall not be prolonged. (KJV)
...
But desert creatures will lie there,
jackals will fill her houses;
there the owls will dwell,
and there the wild goats will leap about.

Hyenas will inhabit her strongholds,
jackals [tannim] her luxurious palaces.
Her time is at hand,
and her days will not be prolonged. (NIV)
I've highlighted in this text where the demonic imagery comes from, beyond the reference to jackals and/or dragons. Again, you'll note some translational differences in Isaiah 13.21: Is it goat-demons, satyrs, or wild goats?

This Hebrew word here--saiyer--can be translated as either "male goat" or "devil." It's a word where the devil gets associated with goat imagery. So translators of Isaiah 13.21-22 have to determine what image is being invoked. Is the reference zoological ("wild goat," NIV), mythological ("satyr," KJV) or demonological ("goat-demon," NRSV)?

Whatever it is, it's not good. A haunt of tannim is not a good place to be, goat-demons or not.

All this--haunts of dragons, jackals and goat-demons--is imagery that is used in the book of Revelation to describe Babylon:
Revelation 18.2-3
He called out with a mighty voice,

“Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!
It has become a dwelling place of demons,
a haunt of every foul spirit,
a haunt of every foul bird,
a haunt of every foul and hateful beast."
And what's interesting is how this haunt of hateful beasts is described in political and economic terms:
"For all the nations have drunk
of the wine of the wrath of her fornication,
and the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her,
and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxury.”

Slaying the Dragon: Part 3, The Dragons and the Powers

In the last two posts I've said that the great sea dragons Leviathan and Rahab are associated with the New Testament language of principalities and powers.

This is can be seen in the Old Testament in how Rahab is a name for the great sea dragon as well as for nations hostile to the kingdom of God.

For example, in the last post we looked at the three instances in the OT where Rahab describes the great sea monster defeated by YHWH (Job 9.13, 26.12; Ps 89.11). For example:
Psalm 89.8-11
Who is like you, Lord God Almighty?
You, Lord, are mighty, and your faithfulness surrounds you.

You rule over the surging sea;
when its waves mount up, you still them.

You crushed Rahab like one of the slain;
with your strong arm you scattered your enemies.

The heavens are yours, and yours also the earth;
you founded the world and all that is in it.
But Rahab is also used to describe nations hostile to God, Egypt in particular. For example:
Isaiah 30.7
Egypt's help is worthless and empty;
therefore I have called her
“Rahab who sits still.”

Psalm 87.3-4
Glorious things are said of you,
city of God:

“I will record Rahab and Babylon
among those who acknowledge me—
Philistia too, and Tyre, along with Cush—
and will say, ‘This one was born in Zion.’” 
In these texts we see the image of the dragon--Rahab--being use to describe a political entity--Egypt--that is hostile to the rule of God.

And we also see a political vision of the "slaying of the dragon" motif. The dragons are defeated in Psalm 87 when the great political powers of the world--the Leviathans and the Rahabs--are brought into submission to the kingdom of God.

Rahab and Babylon, along with other political dragons, we be among those who acknowledge God.

In Psalm 87, the City of God comes to earth when the dragons are slain. This echos Jesus' victory over the powers:
Colossians 2.15
And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

Slaying the Dragon: Part 2, The Other Sea Monster

Again, most Bible readers have come across the great sea monster Leviathan in the pages of Scripture, perhaps noticing this dragon because there are many cultural references to Leviathan outside of the Bible. But there's a second, lesser known sea monster in the Bible as well.

Beyond Leviathan, the other sea dragon in the Bible is Rahab:
Job 26.10-12
He marks out the horizon on the face of the waters
for a boundary between light and darkness.

The pillars of the heavens quake,
aghast at his rebuke.

By his power he churned up the sea;
by his wisdom he cut Rahab to pieces.

Psalm 89.8-11
Who is like you, Lord God Almighty?
You, Lord, are mighty, and your faithfulness surrounds you.

You rule over the surging sea;
when its waves mount up, you still them.

You crushed Rahab like one of the slain;
with your strong arm you scattered your enemies.

The heavens are yours, and yours also the earth;
you founded the world and all that is in it.
Many commentators have contrasted the non-violence of the Jewish creation story in Genesis 1 with the violence of the Babylonian creation myths. For example, in the Enuma Elish Marduk kills the dragoness Tiamat, the primordial goddess of chaos who ruled the oceans. After slaying Tiamat, Marduk uses the parts of her body to create the world.

In the Babylonian myth, creation happens through killing and violence. This violence is missing in Genesis.

And yet, some see hints of the Enuma Elish in the biblical references to Leviathan and Rahab. Creation doesn't happen through violence in the Old Testament. But the chaotic elements of the world, represented in the great sea dragons Leviathan and Rahab, are tamed and subdued. When the Spirit of God moves over the chaotic deep and begins to speak a creative, ordering Word, this is imagined as a victory over the chaos and the deep, the taming and victory over of both Leviathan and Rahab.

I'll have more to say about Rahab in the next post, but just a final observation about slaying dragons and the warfare worldview of the Bible. Again, in the New Testament the Great Dragon becomes associated with Satan. And in calling Satan the Great Dragon the New Testament authors evoke the great dragons of the Old Testament, Leviathan and Rahab, and God's victory over them in rightly ordering the world.

The kingdom of God, creation and new creation, involves a victory over the dragon.

Slaying the Dragon: Part 1, Satan and Sea Monsters

One of the reasons I decided to write Reviving Old Scratch was internalizing the point Greg Boyd makes in his book God at War.

Specifically, Greg argues that we don't appreciate what he calls "the warfare worldview" of the biblical drama.

At the heart of the warfare worldview is the observation that creation resists God's just and benevolent rule. This produces a "war" to establish God's kingdom on earth.

To be sure, we understand this war Christologically. The war we fight is the "war of the Lamb," the victory of love Jesus wins on the cross.

In the book of Revelation this victory is won by defeating "the Dragon," who is identified as Satan:
Revelation 12.7-9
Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.
As I describe in Reviving Old Scratch, in the New Testament Satan comes to stand for how the deep structural elements of the cosmos--"the principalities and powers"--resist and rebel against God's invasion to establish His Christ as "Lord of All." This power struggle between Christ and the Dragon is what we witness in Revelation 12:
Revelation 12.4-7
The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born. She gave birth to a son, a male child, who “will rule all the nations with an iron scepter."... 

Then war broke out in heaven. 
In the Old Testament "dragons" aren't associated with Satan. In the Old Testament the cosmic foundations of creation are described as great sea monsters--dragons--rather than as the principalities and powers. Sea monsters in the Old Testament and the principalities and powers in the New Testament are related concepts, representing creation's deep, structural resistance to the reign of God. When Satan is described as "the Dragon" a bridge is built between God's battles with sea monsters in the Old Testament and God's battles with the Powers in the New.

You're probably familiar with one of these sea monsters. The great multi-headed sea dragon Leviathan is mentioned six times in the Old Testament (Job 3.8, 41.1; Ps. 74.14, 104.26; Is. 27.1).

Foreshadowing the events in Revelation 12, in the OT God is described as becoming a victorious, saving king by defeating the great dragon:
Psalm 74.12-14
But God is my King from long ago;
he brings salvation on the earth.

It was you who split open the sea by your power;
you broke the heads of the monster in the waters.

It was you who crushed the heads of Leviathan
and gave it as food to the creatures of the desert.
Psalm 74 depicts an event that happened in the past. So even more relevant to Revelation 12 is how Isaiah 27.1 gives a future-oriented, eschatological twist to the defeat of Leviathan:
In that day,

the Lord will punish with his sword—
his fierce, great and powerful sword—
Leviathan the gliding serpent,
Leviathan the coiling serpent;
he will slay the monster of the sea.
This event, God's defeat of Leviathan, is pictured above in Gustave Doré's famous engraving "The Destruction of Leviathan."

In the next post I want to write a little bit about a lesser known dragon in the Old Testament.

Prison Diary: Shakedown Holiday

Not a whole lot for the diary today. The study didn't happen this week because of the "semi-annual shakedown."

Two times a year the prison goes on lockdown for a shakedown. During the shakedown the inmates are confided to their cells. The guards then go from cell to cell to perform a shakedown. A shakedown is a search for contraband. The guards tear the cell apart, looking through everything the inmate owns. Flipping through the pages of every book. Inspecting every container. After the shakedown the inmates pick up the mess and put their cell back together again.

Because surprise is important for the searches, the shakedown is never announced ahead of time. We get no notice. So twice a year we drive out the prison only to be told that the semi-annual shakedown has started. We turn around and go home.

The shakedown takes a few weeks to complete. It's a miserable time for the inmates. Sitting confined in your cell for weeks. Having your cell torn up.

But the shakedown does give us two holidays a year. It's a hard on the inmates, but it's nice to have a few weeks off twice a year to re-charge your batteries and spend a few Mondays in row at home with the family.

Mercy is the Lifeblood of Fasting

There are three things, my brethren, by which faith stands firm, devotion remains constant, and virtue endures. They are prayer, fasting and mercy. Prayer knocks at the door, fasting obtains, mercy receives. Prayer, mercy and fasting: these three are one, and they give life to each other.
Fasting is the soul of prayer, mercy is the lifeblood of fasting. Let no one try to separate them; they cannot be separated. If you have only one of them or not all together, you have nothing. So if you pray, fast; if you fast, show mercy; if you want your petition to be heard, hear the petition of others. If you do not close your ear to others you open God’s ear to yourself.

When you fast, see the fasting of others. If you want God to know that you are hungry, know that another is hungry. If you hope for mercy, show mercy. If you look for kindness, show kindness. If you want to receive, give. If you ask for yourself what you deny to others, your asking is a mockery.

Let this be the pattern for all men when they practice mercy: show mercy to others in the same way, with the same generosity, with the same promptness, as you want others to show mercy to you.

Therefore, let prayer, mercy and fasting be one single plea to God on our behalf, one speech in our defense, a threefold united prayer in our favor...

Fasting bears no fruit unless it is watered by mercy. Fasting dries up when mercy dries up. Mercy is to fasting as rain is to the earth. However much you may cultivate your heart, clear the soil of your nature, root out vices, sow virtues, if you do not release the springs of mercy, your fasting will bear no fruit.

When you fast, if your mercy is thin your harvest will be thin; when you fast, what you pour out in mercy overflows into your barn. Therefore, do not lose by saving, but gather in by scattering. Give to the poor, and you give to yourself. You will not be allowed to keep what you have refused to give to others.

--St. Peter Chrysologus

God Pursues Us Even After Death: The Harrowing of Hell and Universal Reconciliation

For Protestants one of the more obscure parts of the Christian tradition is the Harrowing of Hell.

The word "harrowing" comes from Old English word hergian which means to plunder, seize, or capture.

The Harrowing of Hell refers to Jesus' decent into hell to break down the gates of hell to release humanity from the captivity of the Devil.

The Harrowing of Hell appears to be referred to, if only obliquely,  in a couple of passages.

For example, in his Pentecost sermon in Acts 2 Peter describes Jesus as having gone to "the realm of the dead":

Acts 2.27, 31
because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead,
you will not let your holy one see decay.

Seeing what was to come, he spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay.
What did Jesus do there in the realm of the dead? Passages in 1 Peter and Ephesians are used to answer this question:
1 Peter 3.18-20a
For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago...

1 Peter 4.6
For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to men in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit.

Ephesians 4.8-10
This is why it says:
"When he ascended on high,
he led captives in his train
and gave gifts to men."
(What does "he ascended" mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.)
The Ephesians text is ambiguous. Perhaps descending to the "lower, earthy regions" is simply a reference to the Incarnation and not the Harrowing of Hell. But 1 Peter seems to describe Jesus preaching the gospel to the dead, to "spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago."

I'd like to take a moment to reflect on the import of the Harrowing of Hell in these texts for theologies of universal reconciliation.

Specifically, in many doctrinal systems death is believed to end your moral and spiritual biography with God. Your status--Saved versus Lost--is set and fixed at death. After death your relationship with God is set in concrete, never to be changed.

But the Harrowing of Hell, one of the oldest doctrines of the church, suggests otherwise. Death did not end the moral biography of the "spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago." Death did not permanently fix an eternal fate. Christ's salvific pursuit of sinners continued after death.

For many theologies of universal reconciliation this is a key point of dispute with those who endorse eternal conscious torment, and even annihilationism. Is your relationship with God eternally fixed at the moment of death? Does God's salvific pursuit of sinners continue after death?

According to the Harrowing of Hell God pursues us, even after death.

They Left Him to Die Like a Tramp on the Street

I've written about how I've become a huge fan of Hank Williams' gospel recordings.

One of my favorite songs isn't a Hank Williams original but a cover, though Williams' cover is what brought the song to the awareness of a larger listening public.

That song is "A Tramp on the Street." When Williams recorded it the song had been bouncing around for some time among gospel and country artists, the song's exact origin of some debate among them. The cover of this song that caught Hank Williams' attention was done by Molly O'Day.

"A Tramp on the Street" was written by Grady and Hazel Cole. Starting with an image from The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus from Luke 16 the lyrics of Hank's cover go like this:
Only a tramp was Lazarus' sad fate,
He who lay down at the rich man’s gate.
He begged for the crumbs from the rich man to eat.
He was only a tramp found dead on the street.

He was some mother’s darling, he was some mother’s son.
Once he was fair and once he was young.
And some mother rocked him, her darling to sleep.
But they left him to die like a tramp on the street.

Jesus who died on Calvary’s tree,
He shed his life’s blood for you and for me.
They pierced his side, his hands and his feet.
Then they left him to die like a tramp on the street.

He was Mary’s own darling, he was God’s chosen son.
Once he was fair and once he was young.
Mary, she rocked him, her darling to sleep.
But they left him to die like a tramp on the street

If Jesus should come and knock on your door
For a place to come in or bread from your store
Would you welcome him in or turn him away?
Then God would deny you on that great Judgment Day.
You can hear Hank Williams sing the song here.

A Progressive Vision of the Benedict Option: Cruciformity Over Culture

Rod Dreher's book The Benedict Option is now out with lots of reviews and commentary appearing online.

As regular readers know I've made the argument on this blog that progressive Christians need their own version of the BenOp. In fact, progressive Christians already have a rich history with the BenOp, witness the Catholic Worker and the New Monastic movements.

That the BenOp is as important for progressive Christians as it is for conservatives, though for different goals and reasons, is highlighted in Ross Douthat's review of Dreher's book:
And [the BenOp is for] not only conservative churches. The basic model could be applied just as easily to non-Christian faiths, and it could be embraced by the progressive Christians who find Dreher’s vision — and Chaput’s, and Esolen’s, and Russell Moore’s — too dogmatic and rigid and anti-modern.

Being a bit of a dogmatist myself, I’m skeptical that a robust institutional Christianity can be built on the premises of contemporary liberal theology and the cultural shifts that it accommodates. But that’s all the more reason for liberal Christians to set out to prove the conservatives wrong, to show that monasteries and missionaries can come forth from progressive fields, to effectively out-Benedict Option the reactionaries and force us to concede that we misjudged them.

In doing so they wouldn’t be abandoning political engagement, but they would be laying a foundation for faith’s endurance when political activism fails. As fail it so often does, as both progressive and conservative Christians have learned at different times across the last few decades — and may soon learn again. 
That's exactly the point I've been making about progressive Christianity's need for a BenOp, how our imagination for resistance has been captured by statism.

But as Kaya Oakes points out in her review of Dreher's book, there will be big differences between conservative and progressive versions of the BenOp.

Specifically, Oakes highlights the point I've made, that a progressive BenOp will live into Jesus' practices of radical hospitality. This, I've argued, combats the temptations toward phariseeism in conservative calls for the BenOp, the same temptation that Jesus battled in his debates with the Pharisees concerning their rival visions of the BenOp in the gospels. To highlight this difference I've called the progressive vision of the BenOp the Franciscan Option, as the early Franciscans were an intentional monastic community who specialized in living among and caring for lepers.

Basically, a progressive BenOp will look the same way Jesus' BenOp looked to the Pharisees: A community that embraces the unclean, privileges empathy over piety, isn't overly pious, and is the friend of sinners.

Again, read my summary post highlighting why progressive Christians need a BenOp and how a progressive BenOp differs from the conservative version.

But for this post I'd like to simplify and distill the contrast.

The basic contrast between a progressive and conservative version of the BenOp is this: cruciformity over culture.

Whenever you hear Dreher and other conservative Christians talk about the BenOp the focus is on preserving and investing in Christian culture. The focus is on doctrine, orthodoxy, values, moral codes, spiritual practices, Christian institutions, and liturgy. The conservative vision of the BenOp is focused upon creating a group of Christians who are appropriately orthodox and pious.

By contrast, a progressive BenOp is focused upon cruciformity, people who are spiritually formed to exhibit the self-donating love of Jesus--for enemies, lepers and the sinners of the world.

As we all know, orthodoxy does not produce cruciformity.

Neither does piety.

Neither does liturgy.

A progressive Christian BenOp isn't interested in preserving Christendom or medieval monasticism. A progressive Christian BenOp is interested in forming Christ-followers who care for the least of these, a people who locally practice the works of mercy.

From a progressive Christian perspective, then, preserving Christian culture, in and of itself, is pointless. Worse, it's Pharisaical. Jesus wasn't all that interested in orthodoxy, piety or liturgy. The Pharisees were, but Jesus wasn't.

So why do progressives need the BenOp?

Progressives need the BenOp because you don't fall out of bed loving the way Jesus loved. Cruciformity requires practice, discipline, intentionality and communal accountability.

More, to cut off a conservative objection, cruciformity also requires holiness, as holiness, in the progressive imagination, makes us increasingly other-oriented and available to each other. (My deeper exploration of the connection between holiness and love is in Chapter 12 of Reviving Old Scratch). For progressive Christians holiness is kenosis.

Progressive Christians need a BenOp because social justice, while vital and important, isn't the same as cruciformity. Progressive Christians need a BenOp because being a Democrat isn't the same as cruciformity. (Similar to how, for conservative Christians, piety, liturgy and orthodoxy aren't the same as cruciformity.)

Progressive Christians need a BenOp because you can be right on all the political issues, but unless you're sharing life in a local leper colony, an abandoned outpost of empire, practicing the works of mercy, you're not living into the cruciform life of Jesus.

We need a BenOp because a worshiping community caring on the edges of empire is vital in forming cruciformity. And here I agree with the the work of James Smith, but with a crucial difference. (For more on this point this is my progressive twist on Smith's "you are what you love".) Witness the hospitality of the Benedictines and Franciscans, along with the Catholic Workers, the New Monastics and Jean Vanier's L'Arche communities. These expressions of radical hospitality flow out of shared community and a culture rooted in gratitude, promise-keeping, truth-telling, and hospitality.

And on that distinction, creating a Christian culture as a means toward forming cruicformity versus preserving a Christian culture as a pious and orthodox end in itself, is the contrast between a conservative and a progressive BenOp.

Prison Diary: The Currency That Binds Everyone

I'm fascinated by the prison economy.

Money isn't allowed in the prison. Families can deposit money into an inmate's account which can be used in the prison commissary, the place where inmates can buy things.The products purchased from the commissary then become used in the prison economy.

Without actual money the paper money used in the prison are stamps.

What's intrigued me about stamps, as I've asked questions about the prison economy, is how their value might be inflated or deflated. How much is a stamp worth?

While it's been hard to nail the specifics down from the guys in the Monday night Bible study, it does appear that the basic laws of supply and demand affect the value of stamps. To explore this more see this essay written by a Texas inmate, "In Prison, Stamps Are the Currency That Binds Everyone."

Join My DMin Class on Hospitality at Fuller!

I'd like to make you aware that I'll be teaching a class on hospitality this August for Fuller Theological Seminary's DMin program.

Anyone interested in either auditing the course or Fuller's DMin program will need a theological Master's degree and can contact Debi Yu, the Admissions and Student Affairs Advisor, for more information.  Debi can be contacted at dmin@fuller.edu or (626) 584-5315.

The class I'm teaching is a week-long intensive class entitled "The Call to Hospitality." The course description and learning outcomes can be read here.

As can be seen from the description and outcomes, the class will attempt to connect hospitality to spiritual formation.

Why?

Well, hospitality is hard and hospitality, welcoming and neighboring initiatives often flounder. True, a few passionate souls throw themselves into these efforts, but welcoming the stranger often fails to become infectious and contagious. People welcoming on the margins often feel lonely and abandoned, wondering when the rest of the church is going to show up. I know I feel like this a lot of the time.

In short, you can't just tell people to be more hospitable. Nor can you preach a church into becoming more hospitable. Hospitality has to be cultivated through practices of spiritual formation. Hospitality is a capacity that must be trained and practiced. That's the big focus of my Fuller class.

But if you can't attend the class don't worry, I do hospitality equipping for churches all the time. Just give me a call.