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Monday, December 07, 2015

Advent week 2: Identity

Identity lies at the core of our humanity, so what was once a bedrock upon which to rest has become a broken, jagged minefield.  The incarnation, then, includes Jesus taking a human identity.  A name, a family, a nationality.  The gospel writers go to great lengths to trace this baby's genealogy.  Matthew connects to Jewish hopes for a King, emphasizing the line of David, the visit of the magi.  Luke connects to Jewish hopes for a Saviour, connecting to prophecy, angelic visits, naming, humility.  John connects to Jewish awareness of the creative Word, connecting Jesus to that energy of light and power.  A rich network of identities for a real, individual, concrete human being whom every family in the world can relate to.

Identity features prominently in the news this week as well.  Because a young couple walked into a holiday party heavily armed and proceeded to murder 14 people.  They have Muslim names, and presumably were influenced by their religious beliefs to commit this horror, though I'm not sure we've seen any of their writings or explanations.  The husband was an American citizen, with no previous criminal record.  The wife hailed from Pakistan via Saudi Arabia.  The guns were purchased legally.  As of Monday afternoon, President Obama has declared the attack "terrorist", the FBI is investigating links to ISIS, the country is reliving secondary trauma as we listen to incessant news coverage and the visceral panic of 9/11 resurfaces.  Some people see this as a reason to limit access to assault-style weapons, and others see this as a reason to note that "if more good people had concealed carry permits we could end these Muslims before they walked in and killed them" (Falwell at Liberty, speaking to college students and encouraging them to arm themselves).

So, some facts.  With this shooting, the number of deaths from Islamic extremists in the USA since 9/11 (45) approaches those from non-Islamic extremists (48). (And since Muslims are a small minority in the USA the fact that these numbers are similar is not good news, but it still counters the perception that only Muslims do this sort of thing).

We would prefer to have zero from either.  So what can we do?  While some are calling for mass arming of the civilian population, I can't see that really working in anyone's favor except gun manufacturers and funeral parlors.  

1.  The opposite of identity is alienation.  And much of our political process at this moment sounds very alienating. Whether we are talking about disturbed young men who shoot African-American church goers, or a young man who is born and raised in Chicago but buys guns and picks a fight at work, somewhere along the way these people lost their connection to human community.  I read an articulate plea this week from a Muslim writer enjoining Americans not to turn on all Muslims, which will only lead to more alienation and more disaster.  Please.

2.  The answer to alienation is love.   Only reaching out to the loners, loving the strangers in our midst, will close that gap.  The Bible is full of admonitions to treat the "resident alien" (Jer 22:3) with kindness, to ensure justice.  We're reminded that all of us who are not Jewish were once aliens to the covenant but have now been brought near by the One who broke down the "dividing wall of hostility" (Eph 2).  The 1rst century Jews wanted a military answer to their problems; Jesus turned their views of God's Kingdom upside down, healing the child of the oppressor, submitting to wrongful hateful fatal treatment in order to win us back.

3.  Arming civilians, in my opinion, will NOT lead to more security.  I do not see a state where everyone has a handgun in their back pocket ready to execute immediate justice as a utopia.  The times when someone has taken action in mass shooting situations that I can think of as effective were military-trained unarmed young men of courage. On the train in France.  In the hallway in Oregon.  That kind of reaction, to run TOWARDS danger and to throw yourself into the fray, takes time and effort to drill in.  I have the utmost respect for our young men and women who choose to serve, and would prefer that military and police who have training, accountability, command structures, etc. be the ones with weapons.  That is just my opinion, but I offer it in contrast to other statements being made.

4.  As we think through these issues of terrorism and identity, I think it is important to remember that not all Americans are Christians, not all Christians are Americans.  I happen to be both, which in the craziness of 2015 leads to some real identity issues.   I hope my interpretation of Scripture impacts my life as an American (who is rarely in America).  Fear God and honor the King, pray for our leaders, pay taxes (yes that's in the Bible check Romans 13), etc.  But America's values of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness are not completely the same as Jesus' values of Love your Neighbor as yourself.  So it would be heartening to see American Christians standing upon their values.  Weigh what our candidates and church leaders and so-called-Christian-college executives say.  Could Jesus be asking us to use this time of turmoil to turn to our roots, to be the good Samaritan who eschews racism and fear and acts in love?

5.  Because God's love is not a limited commodity.  God sent dreams to people from Sudan and Syria even in the times when the primary work of salvation was centered on the nation of Israel.  Israel failed many times in their role to bless the nations, until Jesus came along.  We need voices with a robust theology of mission, of God's desire for the healing of the nations.  It's not time to hunker down in fear thinking we can distinguish bad from good and save ourselves.

6.  Support the restraint of evil, but refuse to believe that force wins the day.  I'll end with this past week's reading in Matthew 13.  The Kingdom of Heaven is like a man who sows good seed in his field, but his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat.  The servants want to tear up the weeds, but the Master enjoins patience, lest the wheat be pulled up too. This world is an untold complicated mixture of good and bad.  The Master does not immediately blast all the bad out, because he knows that the collateral damage will be catastrophic.  All of us have wheat and tares in our hearts.  Yes, support the rightful rule of law, the validity of the state to protect, the necessity of the military to respond at times.  But do so soberly.  Don't be deluded that we know the good from the bad so clearly.  My own child may end up in a military response, and if he does, he will hope and we will all hope that it is closer to his great uncles' clarity on the beaches of Normandy than to some of the recent decisions we have made.  
7.  Lastly, be of good cheer.  It's Christmas.  Jesus said that in this world we would have trouble, but to be of good cheer.  Why?  Because He has overcome the world.  (John 16:33 was spoken to give us peace). The Incarnation is the beginning of a story that ends in a new Heavens and new Earth where no mass shootings can occur.  Jesus will win.  Nothing can ultimately harm us, even death itself.

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