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The Idolatry of Values

Earlier this week, David Brooks effusively praised Charles Murray’s new book Coming  Apart, saying that he’d be “shocked if there’s another book that so compellingly describes the most important trends in American society.” Sorry David, I don’t have time these days to add another 400 page hardback to the pile, but Murray was kind enough to summarize  the book in a 3200 word Wall Street Journal essay. Using the rule of thumb of 250 words per page, I figure the paper pillar of Robert Murdoch’s media empire saved me from reading nearly 97,000 words. And they wonder why kids these days have such short attention spans…

Anyways, Murray starts with the premise is that America has bifurcated into two incredibly divergent classes, and that this division threatens the success of the American Experiment.  But before you yell “Occupier!” and flip on Fox News, wait for the twist. He doesn’t repeat the classic liberal charges. Instead, his thesis is that the real inequality in America is a cultural inequality, a gap between the have-middle-class-values and the have-not-middle-class-values.  Murray focuses solely on white America, ostensibly to demonstrate an effect independent of race and ethnicity. Analyzing trends from 1960-2010, he identifies the decline of marriage, increasing numbers of children born to unwed mothers, a hollowed out work ethic, increasing criminality, and falling religiosity as the primary drivers of poverty, obesity, and dreams deferred amongst the lower class. Those in upper class, having retained the civic and personal values of the 1950’s, have far brighter horizons.

I’ll leave it to those with more time and more brainpower to really pick apart the ways in which he ignores or misconstrues the structural issues at play. At first glance, his omission of similar analysis for African-Americans or Latinos seems telling; if these effects are independent of race (and all the systemic factors bound up in that), shouldn’t they hold true there as well?  Or did the specter of the kerfluffle over The Bell Curve loom too large?

That doesn’t mean I completely reject his diagnosis. Anyone who thinks the poor are all suffering saints who never made a poor choice that deepened or sustained their poverty needs to get out a bit more.  Scripture is clear that personal moral failures can cause poverty, though, as Keller points out in Generous Justice, the Biblical emphasis is usually on systemic issues of oppression and injustice.

Back to Murray. To close the values gap, he suggests that the virtuous move outside their enclaves and engage with the rest of America. Once again, before you yell out “incarnational missiology!” and clear a space for the book right beside Irresistible Revolution, wait for the twist:

“The best thing that the new upper class can do…is to drop its condescending ‘nonjudgmentalism.’ Married, educated people who work hard and conscientiously raise their kids shouldn’t hesitate to voice their disapproval of those who defy these norms. When it comes to marriage and the work ethic, the new upper class must start preaching what it practices.”

Perhaps he supposes that the upper classes missed the Sunday School lesson on Luke 18:9-14, 18-30 because they were away at Space Camp?  But not to pick on Murray, he’s certainly not alone in his prescription. Some months ago, R.R. Reno described a similar sentiment in First Things:

“Want to help the poor? By all means pay your taxes and give to agencies that provide social services. By all means volunteer in a soup kitchen or help build houses for those who can’t afford them. But you can do much more for the poor by getting married and remaining faithful to your spouse. Have the courage to use old-fashioned words such as chaste and honorable. Put on a tie. Turn off the trashy reality TV shows. Sit down to dinner every night with your family. Stop using expletives as exclamation marks. Go to church or synagogue.”

So we’ve been doing all this work, when it was really so much simpler ?  That’s a bummer.

But seriously, and more to the point, Stephen Corbett & Brian Fikkert point out some of the dangers of these remedies in their book When Helping  Hurts, a book that I actually read (If you don’t have a copy, and you call yourself an Evangelical, stop reading this and order it right now).  In chapter 2, they highlight the ways in which paternalism and the God complexes of upper-class saviors don’t square with a Biblical theology of sin and poverty. And in chapter 3, they hurl a bomb at the kind of “missional morality” advocated by Reno and Murray. After applying for federal funds for a Gospel-centered jobs-training program for an inner-city organization, they were told to delete any explicitly Christian references, and only teach the values of the “Protestant work ethic”.  They rejected federal funds, saying:

“…how sad it would have been if we had ended up communicating to the program participants: ‘You can pull yourselves up by your own bootstraps. Become more disciplined, hardworking, and responsible, and you too can achieve the American dream of material prosperity.’ Even if the participants had then managed to change their behaviors without the Biblical teaching, the result might have been people who put their faith in middle-class values and in their ability to adopt those values.  We would have replaced their own worldview with that of the modern worldview, which believes that humans can achieve progress through their own strength.”

It’s in that last sentence that Corbett & Fikkert put their finger on the lie that undergirds most failed poverty alleviation efforts, regardless of whether it’s laissez-faire moralism or statist redistribution.  If we believe, whether individually or collectively, that we can adopt and embody the values that lead a more prosperous, more just society, then we will always be disappointed.  We are not made of so stern a stuff as we would like to think. We need a cross-shaped humility, which will first recognize the knowledge and goodness that come to all people, rich or poor, through the imago dei.  But it also will acknowledge the pervasive brokenness and selfishness that grips our hearts and taints our political and economic structures, a brokenness that can only be redeemed by the Savior.

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Jesus Wants the Terrorist

Like just about every other American, I can tell you where I was, what I was doing, and how I heard the news on that September day.  But that’s not the memory that’s been replaying in my head throughout the last week.   Rather, my thoughts keep going back to an otherwise ordinary service in the deeply conservative Baptist church I was raised in.  A family friend, who had served with the USO during World War 2, stood up and prayed the most shocking prayer I’ve ever heard in my life.  He prayed for the salvation of Osama Bin Laden.

I remember hearing the emotions in his voice.  A tinge of grief, yes, for his terrible crimes.  But also a touch of joy, as if he was imagining Bin Laden meeting Jesus for the first time on a dusty road in Afghanistan.   Undergirding it all was a deep sense of longing, borne out of a love for his enemy that could only come from God.

Frankly, I’m still shocked by it.  I’m not quite at that level of love yet; to be perfectly honest, if people had been celebrating on my street Sunday night, there’s a fair chance I would have joined them.  The world is a safer place with that monster gone.

In many ways, the evangelical blogosphere has reflected the tension in my own thoughts last week.  Together, we’ve gone back and forth between valuing justice and rebuking celebration.   We’ve examined Scripture , meditated on the evil in our own hearts, and talked at length about making moral distinctions between ourselves and Bin Laden.  Many of us have landed upon “sober satisfaction”, others continue in tears.  I’ve found something to agree with in nearly every opinion I’ve read.

But again and again I return to the memory of that prayer, that strange mixture of grief, joy, and longing, made possible only by the Cross.  And to my surprise, except for Jonathan Merrit’s excellent article and a few passing allusions, the scandal that stands at the very center of our faith has been mostly absent from this dialogue.  Only by fixing our eyes on it and through it will we be able to see through the turmoil

The Cross reminds us that the moral distance between ourselves and Bin Laden is nothing compared to the gaping moral chasm between fallen humanity and Holy God, between the kingdoms of this world and the kingdom of heaven.  We know this because Jesus was not being morally clownish when he equated lust with adultery and hate with murder in the Sermon on the Mount.  And neither was he flattening our moral sensitivities in Luke 13 when he told us that “unless you repent, you will all likewise perish”.

The Cross reminds us of the death that God does delight in, because it was there that “the Lord was pleased to crush Him, putting him to grief” (Isaiah 53:10) for our sake.  He endured hell upon that cross, separation from the Father and the wrath that was reserved for us, that there might be no condemnation for those found in Him.

The Cross reminds us that at the climax of history, Christ did not defeat oppression and empire with legions of angels or force of arms.  Instead, through his death and resurrection he confounded the powers of darkness and unleashed a revolution whose mission was peace, and whose weapon was love.

The Cross reminds us that Jesus wants the Rose.

Jesus wants the Terrorist.  He wants the pedophile, the abortionist, the drug dealer, the homophobe, the robber baron, and the slave-trader.  He wants you.  He wants me.   He wants all of us.  


May the Lamb who was slain receive the reward of His sufferings.

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“Tonight, we drink rum. Thank you Jesus.”

Note:  This is amazingly unfocused, the result of little sleep and a crazy week.  Also, I talk too much.

I got a chance to briefly catch up with Miracle (you don’t really pronounce the “-le”) at a meeting on Tuesday.   A teacher and community leader in the area around Darbonne, Miracle’s enthusiasm and joy are evident, in both animated Creole and limited English.  I first met him when I traveled to Haiti in May.  I was still working for AidData at the time, and to make a long story short, was visiting Haiti with an eclectic group to explore the work of Haiti Partners (HP) and understand how we could use our unique callings and vocations to come alongside Haitians.  Dave and Travis, two members of our group, got the chance to stay with Miracle and his family for a few days, and his spirit came across in a yet more universal way.   One night, after a festive meal, he stood up to make a very important announcement.

“Tonight, we drink rum.  Thank you Jesus.”

Since then, a whole lot has happened.  I gave my boss two months’ notice, thankful for the great job he had given me when I was fresh out of undergrad, and started thinking long and hard about my next steps.  After a couple of consulting and contracting gigs, things became pretty clear.  The day after Thanksgiving, I packed nearly all my worldly possessions into a 1998 Toyota Corolla with 185,000 miles on it and drove another thousand miles down to Florida to join up with HP and work on fund-raising/partnerships.  While based out of Florida, I travel often in the States, and will be heading to Haiti 7 or 8 times a year to stay connected with our Haitian colleagues and work on different projects.

I know this is probably because I’m a still a naïve young aid worker, but I’m always shocked by the range of experiences and emotions that every day in Haiti brings.  January 12th, 2011, the 1st anniversary the earthquake that devastated this country, was no different.  John (a co-founders of HP) and I spent the early morning working on some video posts for the HP blog and talking about future partnership programs.   We then picked up two extremely accomplished Haitian-Americans interested in working with us early childhood education and drove out for some meetings at our schools in the Leogane/Darbonne area.  On the way, we passed countless services and assemblies commemorating the dead and celebrating life.  After a full slate of productive meetings  (it’s gotta be productive when it’s 3 hours long, all in Creole, and I’ve completely lost track of where we are after 15 minutes), we dropped them off back in Port-au-Prince.  Then we filmed an interview with a charity-rating organization, interrupted by the moment of silence at 4:53 PM.  We stood with heads bowed for 35 seconds, and then got right back to work.

Today while we were out, the electrician who wired John’s house stopped by.   His wife Merline was home and quickly welcomed him in.  As it turns out, he was looking for the carpenter, a man named Joel who had done an incredible job on all the woodwork, tables, and chairs in the house.  They had become great friends while working together.  You see, the electrician was getting married in 3 weeks, and Joel was his best man.  He hadn’t been able to reach him by phone, and since he knew  John and Merline were good friends of Joel, he thought he would stop by and see if they knew what was going on.

Merline didn’t know what to say to the groom-to-be.  Joel, just married in March himself, was killed by a gang 3 days after Christmas.  They dumped his body in the canal, and his friends couldn’t find it ‘til the next morning.  They had targeted him for organizing his community to combat violence and crime in the area.

The truth is it’s not just the dead from the earthquake that we have to commemorate, remember, and mourn.  Every day people are dying from cholera and countless other treatable diseases, from malnutrition, from violence, and from just plain heartache.

On the way back to the house, we stopped at a roadside shop owned by an old friend of John and Kent’s.  A bunch of guys were just chilling inside the tiny two-room building, just large enough for a desk and some shelves sparsely stocked with essentials like powdered milk and whiskey.   We walked in to backslaps and fist-bumps, a bro-out if I ever saw one (and believe me, I’ve been a part of many).  Most of the guys had just returned from memorial services.  John bought some powdered milk to take back home, and a round of shots for everyone in the room.  The lights dimmed and the radio cut off as we experienced one of the brownouts common in the area.  Everybody raised a glass, and when the radio cut back on, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.  The radio had reset to a different station, and a song often heard on Christian radio in the States was playing.  Half the time you hear it it’s oversung and overproduced, but tonight, as I sit here trying to process everything that’s happened since 6 AM, only the words matter.

Wonderful, merciful Savior
Precious Redeemer and Friend
Who would have thought that a Lamb
Could rescue the souls of men
Oh you rescue the souls of men

Counselor, Comforter, Keeper
Spirit we long to embrace
You offer hope when our hearts have
Hopelessly lost the way
Oh, we’ve hopelessly lost the way

You are the One that we praise
You are the One we adore
You give the healing and grace
Our hearts always hunger for
Oh, our hearts always hunger for

Almighty, infinite Father
Faithfully loving Your own
Here in our weakness You find us
Falling before Your throne
Oh, we’re falling before Your throne

Tonight, we drank rum.  For those who died, who are dying, who will die.  For the 315,000 who were crushed in their own homes.  For the nearly 4,000 who have died because they had to chose between dying of hunger and thirst or dying of cholera.  For Joel.

Tonight, we drink the cup of celebration, of suffering, of bitterness, of redemption, of your blood (so many drink so much more than me!).  The way you taught us to.  For this country, for the poor, for the suffering, for the oppressed.  For the US, for the greedy, for the comfortable, for the powerful.   For the men who killed Joel.  For ourselves, that we could even imagine forgiving the way you forgive us.

Thank you Jesus.