Love without Limits

For the last week and a half, I have been working as a manual laborer in a secluded area called Lake Basin.

Lake Basin is at a high elevation, distant from any major urban centers, and was in pre-Independence times “settled” by Europeans who treasured the region for its lack of malaria-carrying mosquitos, its ancient and verdant forests, and its fertile soil, perfect for coffee, tea and sugarcane. Later, in the 1960′s after Kenya gained its independence, the region was acquired by the government and sold to a group of Quaker missionaries, who constructed a state-of-the-art agricultural training center on a choice, 300-acre plot at the peak of the region, overlooking the surrounding valleys in a 360-degree vista that continues as far as visibility will allow. Kenyans from miles around came to stay in its posh dormitories, eat in its grand dining hall and bathe in its elaborate bathrooms, all while they received free training on how to become better farmers (and incidentally, Quakers).

But things fall apart. Where Lake Basin once possessed its own generator and electric infrastructure, only one, solitary pole remains, stripped of all its metal components. Where a pump once supplied the entire complex with fresh water, it now lies in disrepair, and moreover no one can remember where the pipes it supplied are buried. The road is overgrown and is only identifiable by the stunted height of the plants that cover it. A mechanic’s bay and workshop, now infested with wild bees, is the only evidence that farming here was once mechanized; otherwise one would assume that the corn, sugarcane and cows that cover the landscape have always been planted, cultivated and harvested by hand, as they are now. All of the buildings – long abandoned – look like the ruins of an ancient civilization, many having already lost their roofs and walls, and most sheltering lizards, bats and monkeys rather than the people for whom they were built.

How did this happen? How, in thirty years’ time, did a successful mission project become a testament to the unrelenting forces of erosion and decay?

The story, as it was told to us by an old man in a nearby village, goes as follows: Sometime in the 1970′s, the Quaker missionaries who founded the training center were unable to secure funding for its continued operation, so they turned it over to the control of the East Africa Yearly Meeting. The Kenyan Quakers, now at the helm, were initially able to secure funding from the government, but when that too dried up, they were forced to raise capital by renting out their land and facilities to a corporate firm called the Lake Basin Development Authority. Corruption – which is ubiquitous in Kenya and does not stop outside of the Church – motivated those same Quaker leaders to eventually shut down the training center entirely and cease all maintenance, in order that they might maximize the amount of rent money they could pocket. By the mid-1980′s, the whole of the Lake Basin property was openly and shamelessly being run as the personal fiefdom of the church elders.

In the early 2000′s, the incumbent church leaders, now of the Lugari Yearly Meeting, were ousted, and a new generation of leaders were elected to renovate the area with the aim of benefitting the whole church rather than its leaders. Funding was solicited from outside Kenya, and with the help of British Quakers a new project was undertaken – the construction of a “cattle dip,” which is a structure that is used to regularly wash cows, thereby preventing parasitic infections. Unfortunately, the structure was very improperly built, was never finished, is currently falling apart, and most of the funds raised for its construction were stolen by that newer generation of leaders, who proved to be just as untrustworthy as their predecessors.

Once again the leaders were ousted, and a new group of leaders – this time composed of younger Kenyans who (I am told) do not fatalistically accept corruption as part of the Kenyan identity – were placed in charge of the facility. However, no foreign organization has been willing to donate funds to the Meeting ever since these repeated experiences of embezzlement and misallocation, and only in the last two years has the organization with which I am working, AGLI, solitarily stepped forward to try one final time to reverse the fortunes of this beautiful but fallen Eden.

I was at first very discouraged when I heard these reports, and I questioned why I should spend three and a half weeks doing back-breaking work to renovate an area that could very well be wrecked again by the short-sighted greed of church leaders. I have since put that worry behind me. It is my goal for this week’s entry to explain why.

I begin with some review. Last week, I concluded that a Christian is beholden to no hard-and-fast rules, yet simultaneously that rules are extremely useful as precedents, guides and indicators of what Christian love – properly practiced – might look like. A good example of this is found in Luke 18:22, where Jesus advises a rich man to “sell everything you have and give to the poor.” As Clement of Alexandria wryly notes, this command cannot be extrapolated into a universal rule; “For if no one had anything, what room would be left among men for giving?” (Who is the Rich Man That Shall Be Saved?, XIII). This is not to invalidate Jesus’ suggestion, however; it is quite possible that the rich man in question had no other way of purifying his heart, for “nothing is more pernicious to the soul than uninterrupted pleasure” (XLI). But as we read Jesus’ words we must use our best judgement to determine its applicability to our own life, for “[w]hat corrects my lack of love may only make your situation worse” (Bondi, To Love As God Loves, 11). This is why Jesus asked us to “[b]e as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves” (Matt. 10:16, emphasis added).

Using the above analysis, we can conclude that Jesus’ command in Matthew 5:42 to “Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you” is not an absolute one. To illustrate: a starving Christian should not be expected in all times and in all places to surrender whatever food he or she has left, as soon as it is asked for, especially if he or she is supporting children and the one who is asking has no real need for the food. Of course this is an absurd, extreme and totally hypothetical case, but it serves to demonstrate that Christian love does not always obligate our unquestioning charity to anyone who asks. Thus, my dilemma regarding the Lake Basin can framed as follows: if charity is not in every case obligatory when requested, then can I refuse to give my labor to the Lugari Yearly Meeting, since my work might well be wasted and my contributions looted?

Before continuing, it is worth noting that many Christians have come to be very discerning with their charity, narrowly defining the Biblical term “brother” as fellow Christians, as fellow countrymen, or as people who adhere to some set of arbitrary standards held by the believer. For instance, it is very rare that Kenyans give anything to the street children I mentioned in my first post, even when asked with tearful ardor, because the perception is that anything they are given, even food, will be sold, with the proceeds being spent on glue. Most homeless people in the United States are similarly derided as drunks or addicts, and many fundamentalist Christians balk at charitable outreaches toward Muslims. Relatedly, the NGO with which I am volunteering advises that no food, money or gifts should be given to anyone who asks, because it “encourages a begging mentality.”

I can’t help but feel unsatisfied with these rationalizations against charity. Of course I myself have ignored plenty of solicitations at home and in Kenya, employing the exact same reasoning I just condemned, but doing so always leaves a pit in my stomach, and causes me to remorsefully recall Jesus’ words: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me” (Matthew 25:45). Indeed, when one ponders how Jesus interacted with, loved and lent assistance to prostitutes, tax collectors and thieves, one can only conclude that unique and defining characteristic of Jesus’ ministry was the boundless, limitless nature of his love, which reached out even to those who, according to worldly standards, did not deserve respect or charity. To the downtrodden he gave hope; to the sinners he gave a second chance; he fed the hungry, healed the sick and in no case did he ever tell someone that they were beyond redemption or unworthy of our love. The Parable of the Prodigal Son is the perfect encapsulation of this message: no one should be given up on, and no one can run out of second chances. Roberta Bondi puts it wonderfully: “[T]o love the people in our lives to whom we are naturally related, including our friends, this is not the full intention of the command of the gospel to love. Rather, we are also to love strangers, people we know to be criminals, the difficult neighbor, people who mock what we stand for, even our enemies. We are to love them, not out of a superior attitude, but with a real love that sees them as human beings, beloved of God, and yet flawed just as we are ourselves. And we are to love them, not just at a distance, but up close, as separate individuals, and in concrete ways, involving our actions, as the gospel requires. We are not to say ‘You fool’ to them, or ‘He does not deserve my care‘” (33, emphasis added).

Thus, accepting the possibility (or even likelihood) that the Lake Basin renovations will go to waste and be consumed by corruption, I have resolved nevertheless to put my shoulder to the plow over the next two weeks, digging trenches, repairing the road, reinstalling the water system and renovating the buildings, simply because of the possibility that my efforts will effect a positive change in the fate of the area. Matthew 5:48 commands us to “be perfect… as your heavenly Father is perfect,” and insofar as the perfect Jesus poured love equally upon Peter and Judas, the Jews and the Samaritans, the meek and the strong, so too should we, in emulating His perfection, distribute our love unconditionally. It is the goal of Christian living to love as God loves, and, although there is room for prudence in deciding how to help someone in need (to give cash to an addict is to literally love him or her to death), we should never turn our backs completely on a person, no matter how “undeserving” they allegedly are, because “love never fails” (1 Cor. 13:8).

One final thought: I asked a few weeks ago why a non-Christian should desire a conversion to Christianity. The answer, in my opinion – and the one sustains my own faith – is threefold. First, Christianity allows the practitioner to disregard temporal and materialistic measures of success, which non-Christians should envy given the impermanence and insecurity of worldly accomplishments. “[S]tore up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matt. 6:20). Second, Christianity provides the practitioner with existential ease, as I described in my entry entitled ‘Happiness,’ for “[m]y yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:30). Thirdly and finally, Christianity provides converts with a vehicle for the cultivation of love, as I have attempted to elucidate in this entry, and such a boundless love is, I would contend, universally recognized as a virtue, although an impractical one according a world which demands individual success often indirectly or directly at the expense of others.

In short, the appeal of Christianity should manifest in the lives of Christian practitioners. Non-Christians should be moved to convert because they see something in practitioners that they want for themselves. Therefore Christians who don’t take seriously the command to “be perfect,” and who don’t cultivate their love, exhibit their contentment and renounce their greed do a great disservice to the faith, because one of their primary functions should be living as a testimony to the power of the Incarnation.

On both the subject of love without limits and the subject of living testimony, we can learn much from the example of the martyrs:

“Early Christians did not regard martyrs as victims, but as people who manifested the power of God. When faced with Rome’s coercive threats, the martyrs held fast to their freedom and their relationships within their Christian community. They would not surrender these to an oppressive power. Rome chose to kill them, but they chose to preserve life in paradise.They had already experienced paradise in their earthly life, and they knew death would not take that from them. Their witness encouraged others to trust that violence in the worst forms imaginable could not separate them from their beloved community or cut them off from their source of life and power. A martyr’s death was a paradox; in refusing to submit to unjust power, the martyr witnessed to the true power that generated paradise on earth. The martyr’s testimony to the power of God exposed the impotence of Rome. Historian Peter Brown notes that martyrs turned cities into religiously contested spaces. Both the empire and the church viewed the contest as a ‘public clash of gods.’ Unlike contemporary ideas of martyrs as lone, heroic individuals, early Christian accounts did not emphasize ‘their purely human courage.’ Instead, their heroic deaths revealed that they had a ‘mighty God in them,’ and demonstrated the impotence of the ancient gods of the city. Brown asserts, ‘Those few who died for Christmade the power of their God seem overwhelmingly present to the many’” (Brock and Parker, Saving Paradise, 66, emphasis added).

Mildred in the Desert

Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.  – Isaiah 43:19

Last Monday a group of residents from Hillside Court piled into a passenger van and drove forty minutes outside the city to Goochland County to volunteer at the farm. These visits are one of many ways Shalom is working to address the diverse and complex contributors to food insecurity in targeted neighborhoods. Volunteers come and see the farm in action, learn a bit about growing food, get down to work mulching, composting, planting or harvesting, and walk away with bags of produce they had a hand in producing and what was hopefully an instructive and meaningful experience. For some folks in the group last week this was their first time stepping foot on a farm; for others it was their first trip to Shalom; but for Mildred it was like going home.

Mildred lives in Hillside Court, one of many government housing projects in Richmond. The closest grocery store is over four miles away and, like over fifty percent of residents of Hillside, Mildred doesn’t have a car. For most residents that trek must be traversed on foot or on the city bus – either endeavor is a serious time commitment, given the bus ride is about an hour and a half one way. Aside from the collard greens growing in a tub beside Mildred’s front door, the closest sign of fresh food might be a few sad-looking, overpriced, under-purchased bananas or apples on the counter at the corner store. Hillside is what urban planners and other people who study food systems would call a food desert. Mildred is what I would call a deep spring.

When I first met her I was on a site-visit with my boss, Dominic, to an expansive grassy plateau that sits above Hillside, a potential location for Shalom’s first urban farm. Mildred greeted Dominic with a wide grin and the biggest embrace her tiny frame could offer my 6’7” boss. Turning her dark, glowing face to me, she offered one of those great smiles and her wrinkled hand, small but strong. After catching Dominic up on neighborhood happenings, she led us to her front door where she proudly displayed the cluster of collard greens growing from the tub Shalom had provided in a container gardening workshop at Hillside several months before. She glowed as she told us about the many collard-garnished meals she’d enjoyed out of that one little collard patch. It was a tiny oasis in the food desert that stretched for miles around, kept verdant by Mildred’s well-deep devotion, free-flowing love and weathered hands. As Dominic and I drove off, he assured me Mildred knew more about growing food than either of us.

I didn’t remember her when she stepped out of the van on Monday; our previous meeting had been so brief that her wide smile and tiny frame seemed to me only vaguely familiar. It wasn’t until I watched the deep way she looked at the fields, heard how profoundly she breathed in the fresh country air, that I recognized her as Mildred, keeper of the oasis in the Hillside desert. Then I could almost see the dewy contentment hovering cloudlike over her wide brimmed hat, the joy pooling around her boots. As we picked cucumbers together under the baking sun, memories, stories, and bits of farming wisdom flowed out of her like sweet water, and I drank it all up.

She told me about the farm she grew up on with her eleven brothers and sisters. It had been in her mother’s family for generations. She told me about how hard they all worked, her sisters around the house with her mother and she in the field with her father and brothers. You couldn’t keep her inside, she said. She told me about her father’s old plow mule (he never did switch to a tractor), how he’d head for the barn at noon everyday, like clockwork. Mildred’s father could be in the middle of shaping a bed and that mule would start off toward the house, clear across every one of those straight rows. She stood up from her bent-over cucumber-picking position as she told me this in order to gesture dramatically with her arms before bending over again, this time from laughter. She told me about the chickens and the milking cows, and the shelves stocked with canned and pickled things her mother put up for the winter. She told me about how bitter times could be – she went a whole year without shoes – but how sweet the watermelons were on a summer afternoon, straight off the vine, a Sunday treat.

Mildred told me, “Ask me something about the city and I won’t have any idea. Ask me anything you want about the country and I’ll know. I’m a country girl.” I don’t know about all the turns in Mildred’s long road from the farm in North Carolina to projects of Richmond – her father got sick, her mother went blind, she followed her fiancé north, then the wheelbarrow filled up with cucumbers and we were on to the next task. And I was left with my head swimming, my heart saturated with Mildred’s story. To think that Mildred’s tub of collard greens is the only remnant of her beloved farming life makes you wonder how that bubbling spring of a lady isn’t a bucket of tears. Yet somehow, miraculously, there doesn’t seem to be even a drop of bitterness in her. She’s a deep spring – she draws from a deep Source.

My encounter with Mildred has left me not with any particular or profound theological insight, but with a thirst – for righteousness like a mighty stream, for justice like rolling waters – and a hope in the deep spring in the Hillside desert.

Nuns on the Bus and In(ter)dependence Day (Some More Thoughts on Community)

Standing in church last Sunday I could sense in myself a familiar unease as the beginning chords to “America the Beautiful” soared from the organ pipes to the vaulted gothic ceiling above. Despite the Catholic Church’s recent politically charged actions, I, more often than not, take my church and state to be separate, and comfortably so. I have always felt a decided distaste towards religious patriotism and patriotic religiosity. The idea that the United States has any special right to God’s truth, favor, or love strikes me as not only uncomfortable but untrue. And I have been often deeply troubled by the religious right’s narrow appropriation of Christian teaching and values. But even as I squirm at the thought of religion and politics mixing, I am beginning to understand the necessity of their interaction and the great potential for their healing dialogue.

Last week I reflected on the need for and pursuit of community in light of a global industrial capitalist economy. For Wendell Berry, a body politic or a “public” is very different from a community. In his formulation, the least common denominator of the public is the individual, whereas a community cannot be reduced beyond a marriage or a family – microcosms of community. A public does not hold the same sense of belonging to the land and to one another cultivated in community nor the responsibility that accompanies that sensibility. And while I believe the pursuit of community is deeply needed, at times in Berry’s writing the goal seems idealistic or archaic, achievable only in some agrarian small-town fantasy. But if community is to offer any hope to this country and this world, as I truly believe it does, then its principles must be practical and scalable in this country and in this world. And that means they must somehow function in and through the two major human organizations of our day – the church and the state. That same Sunday I half-heartedly sang the patriotic recessional hymn, I caught a glimpse of how community might be the common ground on which religion and politics meet, nourishing the integrity of each.

On Sunday the “Nuns on the Bus” visited Shalom Farms. This group of religious sisters toured the nation to raise awareness broadly about how Catholic social teaching should inform Catholic political sensibility and specifically regarding the morally reproachable Ryan budget, which proposes reducing the deficit by cutting funding to programs that support the most vulnerable members of our society. Having stopped in eight other states, the nuns made their way to Richmond and the office of Representative Eric Cantor before finishing their tour in Washington, DC. At each stop, the Nuns on the Bus visited a congressman supporter of the budget and a “mission site” that represents a community response to the needs of the people this budget would most hurt. When they visited Shalom, I was struck by how the sisters’ position as members of a particular community had equipped them to engage the political realm – and the world – in a special way.

Monastic community is often painted in an unflattering light – pious navel gazers hoarding their holiness in a life safely removed from the squalor of the real world, or something along those lines. Even having met monks and nuns who utterly defy unfair stereotypes of this kind, I sometimes struggle with whether or not religious community adequately answers the call to be “in the world,” particularly with regards to cloistered communities. While the Nuns on the Bus are not of the cloistered variety – many of them are social workers or work in other helping professions – they do represent something of great value that I think all monastic communities can teach us: they “get” community. It was after-all a religious sister, Mother Theresa, who said, “If we have no peace it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” That sense of belonging, of community, was so evident in the Nuns on the Bus. And what was so amazing to realize was that the same sensibility nurtured by the sisters’ communal life informs their engagement with the rest of society – i.e. church and state. It is their intrinsic sense of community that allows them to understand their responsibility to the world outside their order – that they belong to it and are responsible for it. Far from cutting the sisters off from society, their religious life draws them more deeply into it, in service to their neighbors and toward an ever-expanding sense of community. Their value of community, learned and practiced in their immediate religious community, enables them to hold the Church and the state to the same standard, and pursue the transformation that would make the Christian community and the American community worthy of that word.

Wendell Berry has probably never used the word community to describe the church or the nation. A community for Berry is necessarily local – it cannot be abstracted from its relationship to a particular place. But I am realizing now how our immediate communities can teach us a way of being in relationship with one another that is not confined to a church building, a city district or a county line. If we can see the interconnectedness – mutual belonging and responsibility – of our individual selves within small communities, we can begin to see the same principle holds true on the larger scale. When we understand ourselves as belonging to a particular community in a particular place, we can begin to understand that our community belongs to a larger one, and that to a larger one still until we can finally see ourselves as belonging to the entire world. Our communities are not self-sufficient any more than we as individuals are. Rather, every individual is taken up into a community and with it into the membership of all creation. Thus local communities can become classrooms for learning the values that create and nourish a global community.

Priest and spiritual writer Henri Nouwen observed, “There are many groups that have been formed to protect their own interests, to defend their own status, or to promote their own causes, but none of these is a Christian community. Instead of breaking through the walls of fear and creating new space for God, they close themselves to real or imaginary intruders.” This describes the sort of religiosity and patriotism I balk at. If our devotion to our church or to our country is based on an “us and them” mentality, it will never lead us to the Kingdom. A “community” understands little of community if it cannot see itself as belonging to something larger than itself, if it is insular or exhaustively self-serving. If, however, our love for our church and our country grows from a sense of mutual belonging and toward a community that encompasses the entire world, then I can’t see how it wouldn’t. If we could celebrate interdependence (as my boss instructed me to do upon giving me the 4th of July off from work) and practice it as a nation, this would radically change our government and our relationship with the rest of the world. If we could embody as a church the interdependence that we as a church teach, we could be that change – the Body of Christ building up the Kingdom.

“Community,” Nouwen writes, “is grounded in God, who calls us together… The mystery of community is precisely that it embraces all people, whatever their individual differences, and allows them to live together as brothers and sisters of Christ and sons and daughters of his heavenly Father” (Making All Things New, 83).

I Cannot Lie

Earlier this week I had the privilege of participating in a three-day Alternatives to Violence Program basic workshop. It was actually my second time doing so – I attended one in Rwanda last summer – but far from being redundant, the workshop turned out to include a great deal of new content, and, better yet, it provided me with a new opportunity to hear the perspectives, concerns and experiences of Kenyans regarding the 2007-8 violence as well as the violence that might (but hopefully, won’t) mar the 2012 / 2013 elections.

One of the participants, an older woman and an elder in her church, related a rather depressing story: On a Sunday, after she had lectured some members of her congregation on the importance of forgiveness following the ’07-‘08 violence, one of her listeners came to her house to see her many hours later, in the dead of night, and wordlessly beckoned her out of outside and down the road. After a lengthy and totally silent walk together, they were outside of the house of the village chief (the Kenyan equivalent of a mayor). The congregant then motioned for the elder to peer inside through a window. “Do you see that mattress?” She did. “The chief took it from my home during the violence, and now he isn’t even using it. How can I possibly forgive him, when my children and I spend every night sleeping on the floor?”

Another disturbing tale, this time forward-looking, was recounted by one of the workshop’s facilitators. Apparently he was recently engaged in peacemaking activities on the slopes of Mount Elgon when some adolescents, who recognized that he originated from the same tribe as they, cautioned him to take heed of “the way the wind is blowing,” and offered to sell him an AK-47 and 50 bullets for 10,000 shillings – around $120. Apparently the rifles, which are acquired in Uganda, are disassembled into their constituent parts, hidden inside sacks of potatoes, smuggled piecemeal across the border and then reassembled and sold to customers who are allegedly looking to “defend” themselves in the event of tribal war (there is, of course, nothing defensive about the “defense” they are envisioning). Reassuringly, however, I have since learned that arms trafficking is still relatively uncommon, and that private gun ownership remains a rarity.

So what, then, is the constructive advice that the AVP workshop offers for the amelioration of this violence in Kenya? A complete answer to that question would theoretically require a full three days as the workshop does; however if the reader will bear with another story or two, then the AVP principles can perhaps be unveiled via vivid narrative rather than a tedious description.

One graduate of the AVP program, we were told, was seeking to stop some cattle rustlers who had been habitually targeting his village. Nobody, not even the police, would agree to assist the man. So he went alone, in the middle of the night, and sure enough he discovered several adolescents from a neighboring village, armed with bows and arrows, herding the village’s cattle through a pass. He approached them quietly to get a better look at their faces, but when he accidentally stepped on a dry twig and made noise, the gang of three immediately spotted him, nocked arrows and raised their bows to silence him. The man responded by raising his arms into the air and waving, as though he was signaling to other men stationed elsewhere in the pass. This caused the rustlers to immediately drop their weapons and flee, on the assumption that they had been surrounded. The clever man subsequently collected the cattle and took them back to their rightful owners.

Another story we were told, which similarly demonstrates AVP principles, involves a young child whose parents were about to enter into a (physical) fight. Just as the father had grabbed a cow-whip and the mother a broom, and the two were starting to circle one-another, the child notified his parents that their pastor was approaching the house. Immediately the whip was thrown underneath a bed, and the wife pretended that she had been sweeping and singing. However, the kicker of the story is this: the pastor was not coming, and indeed never had been; the child had lied to prevent his parents from fighting.
There were two themes uniting the two stories. The first and obviously commendable one was the use of a creative, nonviolent solution as opposed to an obvious but violent one. The second, however, is more morally questionable: the use of deception.

“I cannot lie,” one of the participants objected upon hearing the second story, “it is against my faith.” That the man issuing this objection also happened to be a pastor afforded his concern especial credibility, and a debate soon erupted within the circle of AVP participants as to whether or not the ends (nonviolent solutions) justify the means (lying).

I myself found this question rather perplexing, so I have dedicated this week to a search for its answer. What I ended up with was a general (but by no means perfect) framework for the handling of all ethical issues facing the Christian. But, returning our focus to the issue of lying, I found – much to my surprise – that the opinion of early Christians was surprisingly non-committal on the subject. One account explains:
“Abba Alonius said to Abba Agathon: ‘Suppose two men committed murder in your presence and one of them fled to your cell. When the police, coming in search of him, ask you, ‘Is the murderer with you?’ unless you lie, you hand him over to execution’” (quoted in Bondi, To Love As God Loves, 49).

Note that Abba Alonius does not give a definitive answer as to what a monk in such a situation “should” do. He merely points out that a monk who tells the truth in this situation effectively passes the death sentence onto the murderer. By implication, the same monk robs the murderer of any chance at repentance, atonement and justification. And thus, Abba Alonius would seem to suggest, the most loving course of action in this scenario is to break a Christian precept and lie.

But what if the murderer goes on to murder others, or both the monk and the murderer are caught in the lie? In this case lying only leads to a worse result, and a truthful admission of the murderer’s presence would clearly have been the more loving option. We can conclude, therefore, there are ethical situations in which no general ‘rule’ can guide us. As Roberta Bondi explains: “It must have been a great temptation to the early Christian monastic to try to codify the moral law for himself or herself in such a way that there would be no ambiguity left, that one could always know what to do without having to take responsibility for the suffering of others that might result from one’s moral action. Unfortunately, there was no way to avoid having to use one’s own judgment” (50).

Bondi is wrong, however, to call the Christian’s use of his or her judgment “unfortunate.” It is, rather, a gift. Christians, instead of acting as moral robots, beholden to a inflexible set of rules that they had no part in creating and that may or may not account for the particularities of a given situation, have been set free from such a lifeless legalism, and have been entrusted with the same moral creativity that God possesses. It is apparent that God trusts us more now than ever before, insofar as “the law is not for the righteous but for the lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious” (1 Tim. 1:9), and, “[n]ow that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law” (Gal. 3:25). Jesus was correct to declare, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (Jn. 8:36)!

We should quickly realize, however, that with great power comes great responsibility. Paul is explicit in warning us about the dangers associated with our moral freedom: “You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one-another in love. The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ […] So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other so that you do not do what you want” (Gal. 5:13-4, 16-8).

Everyone can relate with this idea; virtually every day we partake of thoughts or even actions that we didn’t intend and that we immediately regret. But what is the best way to conceptualize this struggle between sinful desires and the Spirit? One model, suggested by Martin Luther, posits that within us there is both an inner and an outer man, and “[i]n the same man these two are opposed to one-another; the flesh lusting against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh” (Concerning Christian Liberty). And what is the prescription for our internal dissention? Luther suggests that we should conquer the outer man with the inner; thus a person “must give heed to exercise his body by fastings, watchings, labor, and other regular discipline, so that it may be subdued to the spirit, and obey and conform itself to the inner man and faith” (ibid). If we fail in this, we might confuse our Christian liberty for license, and adopt the Corinthian heresy exemplified by their misguided motto, “everything is permissible for me” (1 Cor. 6:12).

The Corinthian situation, along with every newsworthy instance of pastoral corruption that we hear about, serves as a stark warning regarding the ease with which “the abstract standard of love can justify the worst actions” (Osborn, Ethical Patterns in Early Christian Thought, 211). Therefore, in order to stave off the sinful misbehaviors of the outer man, “[t]he ultimate norm of love should be expressed in rules which will prevent personal interest and self-deception from deciding how to express love in particular cases” (ibid, emphasis added).

But wait! Didn’t we just establish that the Christian is subject to no rules? How is it that we have already come full circle to the creation of new regulations to govern the previously-free Christian? The answer to this objection centers around our own imperfection. Although God has granted us the authority to craft our own moral regulations, he has not granted us the foresight, patience and maturity that are required for the perfect handling of that power. Our conscience is by no means the decisive indicator of our righteousness; even Paul wrote that “[m]y conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me” (1 Cor. 4:4). Thus, our faulty self-perception motivates us to adopt rules as heuristics. Alexander Boyce Gibson explains: “We are constantly pricked by desire or enraged by opposition; and the best thing we can do is sit on ourselves till we come around. To that end rules are a great stand-by, and they are most serviceable when most inflexible: otherwise we shall make exceptions in our own favor (quoted in Osborn, 210-1).

So what can we conclude? Last week I tried enumerating my findings, and I found it to be a rather productive enterprise. Thus:
1. A Christian is in theory subject to no rules, and can break any commandment if doing so enhances the cause of genuine love, which is the Christian’s ultimate goal.
2. However, human beings are terrible at thinking objectively, and therefore the loving freedom of the inner man will often be hijacked by the sinful impulses of the outer man, who uses crafty rationalizations and selfish deceptions to goad the body into misbehavior that does not advance the cause of love.
3. In order to keep the outer man in check we should subject ourselves to fasts, charitable labors and other good works that help to clean our minds and focus our consciences.
4. Ethical rules, although nonbinding, should nevertheless be clung to firmly, lest we too easily make exceptions for ourselves.
5. We must at all times be willing to accept the moral consequences of our actions. There is no formula, no definitive set of rules and no all-encompassing precedent that we can hide behind in order to claim ignorance and eschew moral culpability.

Thus, and in my interpretation, the pastor’s objection to the AVP anecdotes was unjustified. To lie is not against the Christian faith; but verily, one had better have a good reason for doing so (like, for instance, nonviolently stopping domestic violence or rescuing an entire village’s cattle). And to that end, I hope that the crafty deceptions of the Alternatives to Violence Program find frequent deployment over the next year, because, the world worries, Kenya will need them.


Not Knowing

During the most recent Turning the Tide workshop, one of the mediators was lecturing about selfless love expressed through nonviolent action, and she gave the example of the crucifixion as history’s greatest instance of the same. But when she said this, her prefacing statement seized my attention, and caused the episode to become immediately memorable:

“I don’t know if it really happened.”

Although no one interrupted her and the lesson carried on unabated, I was able to detect a palpable amount of shock and surprise as I looked around the room and gauged the reaction of the workshop participants. Why would a Christian speaking to Christians, their faces asked, even suggest that the Biblical narrative could be a fabrication? I myself was wondering the same thing.

Before continuing, I should put some cards on the table, so to speak. A number of years ago I was a vocal atheist, and indeed my main motivation for being such was an unwillingness to believe in the miraculous – that which could be neither seen nor confirmed. I returned to faith, however, when I divested myself of that intellectual hubris, and came to agree with the words of Psalm 14:1, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” Ater all, God’s existence is non-falsifiable, meaning that people can neither confirm nor deny him with any absolute certainty or credibility. Realizing this allowed me to separate faith from knowledge, and having made that distinction I chose to have faith in God, for reasons which are too lengthy and off-topic to be explained here.

But my decision to believe and yet give up hope of intellectual confirmation did not – and has not – put all of my epistemological graspings to rest. Frequently I still find myself trying to come up with some ‘proof’ indicating that God is more likely to exist than not, and my continued reliance on reason becomes particularly apparent when I am goaded into arguments by my atheist and agnostic friends. My favorite ‘proof’ is found in the sufferings of Paul as described in 2 Corinthians 11:23-8; why would Paul live in poverty and bear such hardships if his revelations weren’t real and if his ministry wasn’t genuine? I rationalize these and other arguments by considering it an application of the injunction to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37, emphasis added). And when contemplating the case for God, I take solace knowing that the early Christians as voiced by Justin Martyr did the same, believing that God, “by means of the rational faculties He has Himself endowed us with… both persuades us and leads us to faith” (First Apology, Chapter X).

Justin was not alone in penning Christian apologetics; a short list of Origen’s arguments includes an appeal to the accuracy of Jewish prophets in predicting the coming of Christ (Contra Celsus, Book III, Chapter 2), the apparent protection that God affords to Jews insofar as numerous attempts have failed to annihilate them (Chapter 8), the impressive intellectual qualifications of some of the earliest Christian believers (Chapter 12), the superhuman wisdom of Paul’s writings (Chapter 21), the inclusion of facts about Jesus’ life in the Gospels that are not conducive to His veneration, suggesting that the Gospels are not fabrications (Chapter 28), the failure of secular philosophy to find a better explanation for things (Chapter 37), the rapid spread of Christianity demonstrating its providential guidance (Chapter 39), and the simple language of the Gospels, which shows that they were not born out of “the cunning sophistry of the Greeks (which is characterized by great plausibility and acuteness)” (Chapter 39).

These justifications are valuable, and indeed it is reassuring and conducive to our faith to know that the claims of our religion are likely to be true, or at least plausible. One would never want to rush into a religion without anyrational basis for doing so. And, especially in a generation where Christianity is being attacked like never before by the likes of Hitchens, Dawkins, Hawking and others, these and similar arguments become necessary to soften the hearts and open the minds of those who assault even the possibility of the Christian worldview.


Attempts at rationalization draw dangerously near to a great heresy, whereby one places reason entirely before faith, and seeks to prove the latter via the former. One can see Justin himself slipping into this error when he writes, “[W]e will now offer proof, not trusting mere assertions, but being of necessity persuaded by those who prophesied [of Him] before these things came to pass […] And that these things did happen, you can ascertain from the Acts of Pontius Pilate [a writing which modern scholarship now believes to have been fabricated]” (Chapters XXX, XXXV; emphasis added). Here, by resting the case for Christianity on the integrity of a temporal document, Justin sets up an argument which can be (and has been!) disproven, and which, when the weakness of the argument is exposed, only frustrates efforts to spread the Gospel, and causes those who might be curious to learn more about Christianity to adopt the erroneous presupposition that its tenets must be proven to be believed – which they cannot be.

A similar pattern, though of the opposite variety (faith always superseding reason), is visible in the attempts by Young Earth Creationists to invent pseudoscientific understandings of the world that reject carbon dating, attribute the fossil record to stages of extinction during the Great Flood, and claim that biological diversity evidences Intelligent Design; such fundamentalists are merely the modern-day incarnation of the same theologians who refused to yield to the heliocentric model of the universe, citing Scriptural infallibility as their reason. Although such fundamentalists are no longer engaged in persecution, such Christians unfortunately remain as vocal as they are radical, and many in my generation have been turned away from faith on the supposition that Christianity is irreconcilably opposed to reason.

It is clear, then, that faith cannot be placed absolutely before nor absolutely behind reason. The two must be held in dialectic: “We prepare for faith by reason. We believe in order that we may understand, and understand in order that we might believe” (Osborn, Ethical Patterns in Early Christian Thought, 166). And when the two are together, Christianity “does not separate illumination of mind from purification of heart” (166), allowing both to cultivate our capacity to love and thereby fulfill the Great Commandments.

But why does God make his presence so mysterious, uncertain and completely unconfirmable? Wouldn’t the world be a better place if God had produced videographic evidence of Jesus’ miracles and crucifixion, and made it available to all? No. God granted humankind free will from its very beginning, and He seems to place an objective value on the piety which independently arises from this free will among those who choose to believe. “Blessed [indeed] are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).

One, final issue deserves treatment. Is it not hard for faith to make room for reason when reason seemingly poses a stumbling block to faith? A good example of this possibility occurred when a born-again missionary I knew in Rwanda cut me off while I was trying to explain historical criticism to him, because, he said, it would be too great a burden to his faith to know which books of the Bible were or weren’t written by the authors to whom they are attributed. Personally, I disagree with this sentiment, and believe that “faith, while it cannot depend on history, may not be insensitive to history… Nor should faith wish to be immune from historical or other threats” (193). God gave us our minds for a reason, and our use of the same, even for the dissection of the Bible, could quite possibly write the next chapter in God’s revelation to the world. For instance, some historical-critical scholars have come to believe that 1 Corinthians 14:34, which prohibits women from speaking in church, was actually inserted by a later scribe against the message of radical gender equality that Paul had been teaching. Thus by recognizing this passage for what it is, the use of reason, even though it is targeted directly against the integrity of the Bible, helps to make God’s message more applicable to our world of increasing gender equality, and prevents us from adhering to a fundamentalist legalism that encourages discrimination and injustice. Such tools must, however, be handled with extreme caution.

To conclude, I will enumerate the propositions which this discourse has brought me to accept.

1. It is impossible to know that God exists, or, as the Kenyan facilitator suggested, that the crucifixion occurred. It was completely reasonable, after all, for her so say so.
2. Every attempt to ‘prove’ God definitively has fallen short, and in fact harms Christianity by ‘exposing’ weaknesses that the religion should not possess in the first place.
3. One can, however, unite reason and faith in a dialectic in order to author apologetics that make Christainity more believable, in order to enhance the faith of practitioners or even soften the hearts of non-believers. Carefully-applied reason can also bring forth new meaning from the Bible, or eliminate antiquated interpretations.
4. Extra caution must be taken, however, not to place reason categorically in front of faith, which will inevitably lead to a disconnected agnosticism, nor to place faith categorically in front of reason, which causes Christianity to retreat into fundamentalism.
5. God seems to place an objective value on piety, and for this reason, it would appear, He chooses to make his existence non-falsifiable.

But what, then, induces the non-Christian to convert, if not knowledge or proof? Although I have dealt partly with this question in my second entry, entitled “Happiness,” a full treatment of the issue will have to wait for an opportunity where I haven’t already written so much.