Love in Conflict: Seeing People, Not Problems

A troubling trend that I have been noticing as the days go by is the punishment of individuals for the sake of a collective or institutional evil. When we are confronted with a person who espouses or represents an ideology we don’t like, that person often ends up on the receiving end of our (often malicious) disapproval. This is not a justifiable practice, as it is attacking symptoms rather than causes. Furthermore, we are unable to actually affect change when we go into “attack mode.” When one person attacks, the other defends, and a beneficial exchange is rendered all but impossible.

During and after the Vietnam Conflict, military service members were treated like garbage due to strong anti-war sentiments that surged through the American public. Nowadays, due in part to our post-Vietnam guilt, service members are at the very least paid vast amounts of positive lip service regarding the selfless deeds they perform for the sake of our nation’s freedom. Both of these instances forge an unhealthy connection between what is acceptable and unacceptable.

Military service members join the armed services out of a patriotic desire to make a positive difference for their country, as well as to provide for themselves and their families. Such intentions, however, are manipulated when our fellow citizens are inevitably wielded as extensions of the United States government and its various economic and political interests. Both of these statements are true and merit consideration. The soldier cannot and should not be blamed for the misuse of their devotion, and the Powers that Be cannot and should not be sanctified by the sacrifices of others as they rest on capitol hill.

Another example is seen in the world of law enforcement. Let’s say an officer pulls over a person who becomes hostile. Perhaps it comes in the form of a taunt, putting hands out the window and telling the officer not to shoot before an interaction has even begun. Maybe it comes in the form of shouting obscenities, reminding the officer that his salary is paid by the offender’s taxes. In other more extreme instances, officers have been shot in their cars while on break or ambushed on domestic violence calls.

In each of these interactions, the individual officer is seen as a representative of all that is wrong in law enforcement, even though that officer may have never abused the badge. The civil servant becomes the recipient of all the rage and frustration caused by a problem of systemic proportions, and this is as grave an injustice as the inequitable treatment of people of color in the American justice system.

These are two broader examples of something that can happen anywhere at any time. A prisoner can become the means by which a corrections officer violently vents his frustrations. An undocumented Mexican immigrant becomes the face of all that is economically and socially wrong in the eyes of Americans who need someone to blame for a world that scares them. Certain friends, family members, and even strangers become incarnations of racism, sexism, and homophobia to be scolded, maligned, and used to show how virtuous “we the enlightened” are by comparison.

Why is this wrong?

It changes absolutely nothing.

While we are busy laying into one another, the power structures and ideologies that affect us remain strong. Whether it’s killing a terrorist, antagonizing a soldier or police officer, racially profiling an individual, or swearing at loved ones or strangers, the lesson remains the same: violence of any kind toward individuals cannot undo collective or institutional evils. If anything, those evils are strengthened and rooted deeper into our world.

So what is the answer?

I am merely one human being, and I cannot prescribe a foolproof, universal cure for so diverse and widespread a problem. What I can offer is some “everyday wisdom” that any person can apply should they choose to do so. I believe Saint Paul said it best in 1 Corinthians 16:14.

“Let all that you do be done in love.”

It is imperative that we take a stand for all that is decent, kind, inclusive, beautiful, generous, and equitable. We should stand against violence, bigotry, fear-mongering, greed, oppression, and hate. All of this, however, can and must be done with love.

Love can be firm and maintain boundaries. Love can call out that which is unacceptable or problematic. What’s more, love can do these things without contributing to the very negativity and violence we are trying to resist!

If we are driven by anger, fear, or hatred, no matter how justified we may feel it to be, our actions will only feed the world’s evils. Yes, we might “get some bad guys” here and there, and we might feel better, but none of that actually reduces the amount of violence and vitriol present in the world. We are just more comfortable with these negative forces because they exist in the name of our cause.

With love, however, we must take responsibility for our feelings. We must process them in a healthy way and recognize that the person in front of us matters. Just as we are shaped by our experiences, so are all other people, and this understanding should inform our actions. This allows us to be more compassionate, more loving, even in the midst of conflict. We can still stand in our truth, but instead of attacking the other, we can connect with them, putting a kind heart and face to their opposition (and our own).

Will this always be well-received? Or will it always end in some beatific vision of reconciliation? Of course not. Yet we cannot attempt to control how others respond to us. All we can do is make sure we respond in a way that best represents our own ideals, not allowing the darkness of the world to determine how we behave.

Imagine a world in which we voted, debated, donated, invested, legislated, and reformed with love in our heart. Imagine a world in which we were able to recognize the humanity in even our worst enemy, choosing to interact on that basis rather than on the basis of our animosity. Imagine a world in which the Powers that Be are starved of our fear and hatred, rendered powerless by our love for one another.

This is an idealistic vision, but pursuing it can lead to very real transformation in this world if we would only be willing to try.

Peace be with you!

Knowing Your End

As Jesus came out of the temple and was going away, his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. Then he asked them, “You see all these, do you not? Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”Matthew 24:1-2, NRSV

We as humans fight a lot. Love, hate, war, greed, fear, politics, and difference are all instances that tend to bring out our worst. The saddest part is that all the things we usually fight over are only temporary realities. In fact, the same could be said of you and I.

We are temporary.

The Psalmist writes in Psalm 39, “Lord, let me know my end, and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is.” He had an excellent point. The life you and I have at this very moment is fleeting. It is short. It will not last forever.

The nations, symbols, practices, and issues we bicker over incessantly are also just temporary. There will be a day when the United States no longer exists. There will be a day when you and I, as we are, will no longer be present on this planet. Our breath will depart, our bodies will stop, and as Jesus says, “All will be thrown down.”

So what do we do with that info? Should we keep selfishly fighting, hoarding our resources, and sacrificing ourselves and each other for what is, at best, temporary? I don’t think so.

Instead, what if we took a page from Jesus’ book and lived with an eternal mindset? We may be temporary, but the deeds of love and mercy we decide to enact (or not) will ripple out from our lives for much longer than we could ever hope to last. We will leave an impression on this earth for generations to come, and it is an impression for which God will hold us accountable.

My suggestion is that we take a step back from whatever war we are currently being told we need to wage. Let’s look at our lives in terms of how we have loved and shown compassion. Have we shown the grace of God to our enemies, or have we just bickered with them? Have we been generous to those in need, or have we just talked and fought about them?

I feel it would benefit us to remember that our days are but a breath, and the Christ-like impressions we leave matter more than being right in a conflict that won’t matter one hundred years from now. The measure of our days is short. We only have but a few in the grand landscape of eternity. How shall we now spend them?

Peace be with you!

Thus Saith the Lord: Quit Yer Bickerin’

How can I curse whom God has not cursed? How can I denounce those whom the Lord has not denounced? — Numbers 23:8, NRSV

It has been a WHILE since my last post, but I needed some space to adjust to an increase in personal training business. I also don’t write as well without “feeling it,” being inspired to share something that I think really needs to be said. So you know this article should be pretty good!

I have been reading through the oft-neglected book of Numbers, and I have to say, it is growing on me. Talking donkeys, fiery snakes, a bronze snake that undoes the fiery ones, all fascinating parts of a narrative that highlights God’s patient faithfulness with human lack thereof. For today, though, I want to emphasize Numbers 23, which captures part of the story of Balaam, a prophet who was summoned to curse Israel on behalf of a Moabite king named Balak.

As per usual, God has other plans for Balak and Balaam. Balaam warns Balak that he is only going to speak what God gives him to speak (22:38), and this is exactly what happens. Balaam gives four oracles, none of which prove favorable to Balak’s cause. As it turns out, God has no qualms about acting contrary to our desires and expectations.

With that in mind, I LOVE the little snippet that opens our article for today. We are currently living in a world of cursing. I am not talking about mother*bleep*ing cursing, but the kind of curses by which we define and attack one another. Here in the U.S., midterm election season has just passed. In that season, we have witnessed the state of animosity that exists between those of different political values and opinions.

Those who subscribe to the Democratic ticket curse their neighbors who are Republican for being racist, bigoted, and callous. Republicans hurl insults at their Democratic fellow citizens regarding their weakness, softness, and lack of practicality. Family members turn on one another, friendships are strained, and the only way to avoid it seems to be silence on the topic. This is stupid, because failure to talk about what is important actually contributes to the division in our country.

Beyond politics, racial conflict is still a problem. Stereotypes become the “facts” by which entire peoples are judged. Humor is used to mask real prejudice, and whether it’s racial, sexual, religious, or any other social category, victims are blamed, sides are taken, and lives are devalued.

In light of this, I think it is vitally important that we heed Balaam’s words from verse 8. What God has not cursed, we should also not curse. What God has not denounced, we should also refrain from denouncing.

God has not cursed us. Republican, Democrat, Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Wiccan, atheist, liberal, conservative, pro-gun, anti-gun, gay, hetero, somewhere in between, male, female, somewhere in between, soldier, pacifist, immigrant, native, documented, undocumented, rich, poor, middle class, happy, depressed, anxious, and any other conceivable category of person all stand in the “non-cursed” category. How do we know this? Jesus Christ.

While God certainly doesn’t approve of everything we think, say, and do, that doesn’t mean God curses us for our sin. In Jesus Christ, we see that God does the EXACT OPPOSITE. God blesses us and forgives us! As Christ says in Luke 23:34, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Again, in Romans 5:8, Paul affirms that “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.”

The witness of Scripture is that God does not curse us, but blesses us by taking on flesh and bearing our sinful burdens in the Person of Jesus Christ. This is not so that we may feel guilty or pained, but so that we may understand the love God has for us, which in turn should become the love we embody for each other. Self-sacrificial love is the nature of God, and it is also to be the nature of His people.

Instead of cursing one another over our differences, we ought to listen. We should set aside our opinions and values, no matter how strongly we may feel about them, so that we can live out the love of Christ in even the most difficult conversations and situations. This may be weakness in the eyes of the world, in this culture of ours that prizes the self above all others. But “what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15), and we would do well to remember that reflecting God’s love is a cause far more worthy than any other we may hold dear.

I hope this message comes as a blessing to you. I know it was a wonderful reminder for me, and I trust that the Holy Spirit will bear much fruit in us if we keep our hearts open. God has not cursed us, and so we should not curse one another. As Paul says, “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift” (2 Corinthians 9:15)!

Peace be with you!