Saturday, March 31, 2007

Mock Violence and Violence

My youngest son turned 9 yesterday. We had a party for him with 10 or so of his friends from school and church – 2 hours in a room full of 8-10 year olds! Aaarrrrgggghhhhh. It was torture -- sort of. Some of those kids are NOT well-behaved! Some of them clearly lack respect for adults and a sense of propriety, and you have to wonder about their up-bringing. But, we lived through it, and the kids all had fun.

One of the gifts my son received was a “dart gun” that shoots foam darts. It has the look of an Uzzi (or so it seems to my non-trained eyes), and can hold eight darts at a time. You can shoot them off rapid-fire – about one per second if you’re fast. It has a rotating loading mechanism sort of like a Gatling Gun. Oh, and the darts glow in the dark! My son is thrilled with this toy. I have to admit it -- it's fun. We'll have fun shooting at characters on the TV screen (the darts will stick to the glass).

I played with guns growing up – played with toy guns, had a BB gun and a pellet gun (CO2 powered) – and later hunted. I bought my own .20 gauge shotgun and received an heirloom .22 caliber rifle from my grandpa. It had the name of one of my uncles carved into the stock, and I carved my own name into it as well. That .22 is the only one I still have – the shotgun was stolen years ago (I still fear a knock on the door late at night by police officers there to arrest me for a shooting with a gun registered to me! I reported the theft, but still. . . .).

I loved hunting, but mostly for the outdoors – tramping in the woods. I stopped hunting when I got married – my wife couldn’t stand the thought that I might shoot Bambi. (But, ask her about her attempts to shoot Mickey!)

So, I’m not anti-weapon. Neither is my wife, who grew up in Texas playing “Cowboys and Indians,” etc., complete with mock gun battles. Neither of us has turned out to be a mass murderer or a child abuser. But we’re both a little concerned with our youngest son’s fascination with weapons.

I wonder what role mock violence plays in the violence of our society – and in the violence of individual lives. I’m sure there are no clear answers to that question. But clearly, lives of people surrounded by violence tend toward violence.

Here’s an example. Tony Lagouranis’ duties in Iraq included the interrogation of prisoners at various locations, including the infamous Abu Ghraib prison. The article found here describes his experiences and his fears about how what he did and witnessed being done to prisoners will affect him.

Human beings are creatures of habit. Even those of us who abhor “ruts” for our lives have habits of daily activity. We wake up each morning and know where to find our toothbrushes, combs, underwear, shampoo, and countless other things – most of which we could and perhaps to) find with our eyes shut. We go through these daily functions without thinking – to the point that we may not notice we’ve done them: have you ever forgotten while in the shower whether you’ve washed your hair? You think about it, and you just really can’t remember whether or not you’ve done it. Then you do it again, and perhaps the action itself reminds you that you’d just done it. We just do these things by sheer habit, without thinking.

What about how we respond to annoyances around us each day? Do we build up habits of action that we perform without even thinking? Habits of anger, retribution and revenge? What if my “small” habits shape how I would respond to a real crisis situation?

The good news is that I am not enslaved to my habits. Habits of action can be changed and even conquered, but not without doing some deliberate thinking about them and conscious planning of how we will respond to specific situations. The cycle of child abuse can be brought to a halt – we are not enslaved by the pattern of behavior we learned from our parents (though certainly it can be an incredibly strong influence). Mr. Lagouranis may have difficulty overcoming in his personal interactions the abuse he committed and witnessed in Iraq, but it is still possible.

What about my 9-year old’s fascination with weapons? We’ve explained to him that as Christians we believe killing is wrong, and so he is not to point his dart gun at any person for any reason. And he can’t shoot the dog, either. He is, however, allowed to shoot at Oprah when she’s on TV. Oh, and Precious Moments figurines are always "in season."

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Gettin' Gospelled

There have been a few times in my life when someone has tried to evangelize me. I dated a girl once who was raised in a church that thought they were the only true church and the only ones going to heaven. (No, she wasn't a Church of Christer.) After we dated a month or so, she told me we had to have a serious talk. I was nineteen, maybe twenty years old at the time, and the words "serious talk" scared the living crap out of me, just for starters. I was certain that, since things had been going rather well between us, this was going to be a "lets get serious" kind of talk, and in a way, it was. It was also a "come to Jesus" talk. Her pastor had heard that she was dating a heathen (me -- "heathen" because I wasn't a member of their church) and had demanded that she put an end to it if I wouldn't convert. So, she had a tract or two that she wanted to work through: the first explained, from her church's point of view, all the errors of MY church, and the second one explained "the truth" (i.e., her church's position on all important things to know in order to get into heaven).

Now, being a good "Church of Christer," I did know a thing or two about the Bible, and I really had it over her in terms of Bible knowledge. Her church's reconnaissance on the Church of Christ wasn't very good, and her tract out of which she read to me accused us of believing a number of things we generally don't believe. Suffice it to say that she was rather unsuccessful in converting me. When it became clear that I wasn't going to be converted, at least in one easy step, she played her trump card: she told me that her pastor had demanded she break up with me if I didn't convert because they were not allowed to date non-Christians. The last time I saw her she was shouting at me from her front porch as I got into my car, telling me it was my own fault I was going to hell. After reflection, I had to laugh at the veritable role-reversal: it was usually us C2ers who. . . . Well, you get the picture.

Last fall, at a conference for religion scholars, I took a break from the sessions, bought a Venti bold coffee from the Starbucks in the conference center, and sat down at a table to relax and read for a few minutes. The table, which I was sharing with other conference-goers, was approached by a man who was handing out leaflets of some sort. I was curious, so held my hand out for one. He informed me that it was for the American Communist Party; I told him I thought capitalism was from Satan. He was suddenly my best friend. It turns out he is an ex-pastor, now an atheist, but still trying to change the world. He pulled a chair up close to mine facing me, leaned forward and tried earnestly to convince me that there is no God and that the only hope of the world is communism. I tried to convince him that certain communist principles aligned pretty well with the gospel of Jesus. I think in the end we were both unconvinced, but I bought some CDs of lectures from him, and I think we both enjoyed the forty-five minute conversation about the ways capitalism corrupts the human soul. I sipped my Starbucks throughout, relishing the irony.

In both of these situations there were a variety of ideas flying around, shot by one party toward the other, almost always missing their target for one reason or another. Or, at least I can say that the ideas had little effect on their intended targets, compelling as they may have been to their adherents. They simply didn't penetrate the other party.

I do have to admit, though, that I'm a little jealous of the communist. In some ways he's living the gospel better than I am. He's committed to a cause for which he has given up everything, a cause which consumes him as well as animates his life and every conversation (I watched as he made the rounds in the sitting area, talking to as many people as he could).

I wonder if I'm committed to the gospel of Jesus as much as he's committed to the gospel of Marx. There are times when it does consume me -- usually when I'm teaching or preaching, or trying to find a way to help someone negotiate life-obstacles. But there are other times when . . . well, when I'm quite the opposite.

In other words, there are times or "places" in my life in which the gospel has no or little effect. But for Christians, all of our life is supposed to be conformed to the gospel -- to the pattern of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. This is what we re-enact in our baptism, and what we re-member each time we take the Lord's Supper. Jesus said that whoever wanted to be one of his followers had to "take up his cross daily and follow him" (Luke 9:23): a daily, hourly, even minute by minute death to self.

The word in the New Testament for "gospel" is the Greek word "euangellion." In the list of spiritual gifts in Ephesians 4, one of the gifts is to be an "evangelist," that is, one who evangelizes. What is it to "evangelize" but to "gospelize"? If I teach the gospel to someone who hasn't accepted Jesus, I am trying to bring that person's life more into conformity with the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus -- precisely what I need in my own life.

The reason the communist so impressed me was the way his life conformed to the gospel he had rejected. "When I am lifted up from the earth," Jesus said, "I will draw all people to myself" (John 12:32). The "lifting up," of course, is Jesus on the cross. In other words, according to Jesus there is something quite compelling about the cross -- about the life lived by "taking up the cross daily," always putting others before ourselves. That is a life conformed to the death and resurrection -- the gospel -- of Jesus.

Like it or not, the communist brought me a little closer to Jesus. Thanks, comrade.