Wednesday, November 11, 2009

HT to Wendy at Practical Theology for Women: Pugnacious Elders

Even as a teenager in Chuck Norris Want-a-be’s church, I noted that the
qualifications of an elder in I Timothy 3 in the NAS (which I used at the time even though I was in a KJV only church) said, “not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money.” The ESV says “not violent, but gentle”. I get the feeling that as long you don’t actually make fist contact with face, this new version of the fighting fundamentalist thinks they no longer violate this standard for eldership. I would like to go on the record as very strongly disagreeing with that assumption. First and foremost, the Greek word translated pugnacious/violent can mean both the one who actually hits and the one who is just ready to hit. It also can mean a person who is contentious or quarrelsome. In other words, this standard includes verbal violence as well as physical. It includes a STANCE of violence (and an ATTITUDE of violence) as well as the actual act.
In many places in our society there are two ways of defining assault. The first is actual phyiscal assault while the second is the threat of it immediately happening. Let's pretend that you are in Gotham city and you accidentally stumble across the Joker. Suppose he offers to show you a magic trick involving a pencil. Do you wait to find out what that magic trick entails or do you run for your life knowing that you are probably going to be the victim of, or witness to, quite a bit more than simple assault? Absurd hypothetical example but it helps me explain what I'm getting at. You fear for your life not just because of the actual actions taken to maim or kill you but you fear for your life because you find out quickly who you are dealing with.

Violence, as Wendy right observes, is not just about the actualization of violence but the AFFECTATION of it as well. As Roy Baumeister (sic) wrote, the "badass" is a reputation gained as much or more by affectation and image presentation than by actual violence and fighting. He also notes that contrary to what people have sometimes supposed, people prone to violence may not really be insecure and c9mpensating. The badass may have, in fact, a spectacularly inflated sense of self worth that is nevertheless unstable and easily challenged, turning to violence of a verbal or physical nature when their core competencies are questioned. To bring things back to my silly comics illustration, Batman knows whether or not he can beat you and so he has no reason to take you down unless you're going to hurt someone else. The Joker doesn't care and will likely attack you just to prove that he's better or smarter than you.

The kind of fighting fundamentalist Wendy writes about, whether the old kind or the new kind, persuades himself that he HAS to go into the fight to validate his robust Christian confession (or hers). The stakes are heaven and hell and he or she is on the right side of the stakes.

All Christians are friends in the Lord, right? And we know the scriptures say that blows from a friend are better than kisses from an enemy therefore because in Jesus we are "friends" I am obligated to kick your ass to show you how much I "love" you. One of the finest euphemisms for a summary beat-down on discussions in Christian forums must surely be, "I love you in the Lord but ... " One guy asked what this meant in a discussion forum and I told him, point blank, that it means something like, "You're pissing us off and saying stuff you can't back up and we'd like you to come up with a better argument before we destroy you. Does that help?"

"I love you in the Lord" should not be used as a pretext to rip into someone as a failure or a sinner "in Christian love". Mocking and teasing people in "good clean fun" so that it is okay isn't really a step up. It is here that I suppose I should remind myself what the apostle wrote, that God is not mocked and that what you reap you will eventually sow. This isn't sympathetic magic yet the scriptures tell us that the wages of sin is still death. If you conspire to destroy or displace people you don't agree with you establish a legacy in which when your day of crisis comes no one feels eager to take your side because you have sown to relational death.

As an aside about the proverb that says blows from a friend are faithful, the proverb can also be read as saying that the wounds of a friend are long-lasting while the kisses of an enemy are profuse. Earlier I blogged about how it is important to read proverbs not merely as rules but as riddles God gives us to examine our lives and the lives of people around us. The wounds of a friend are faithful, we are told, while the kisses of an enemy are profuse. But if faithful can also be read as "long-lasting" there may be another contrast at work in this Jewish riddle/proverb. The kisses of an enemy are profuse and do not last. We know our enemies are our enemies. Therefore, their kisses, though profuse, do not last. We are waiting for the axe to fall on us. The wounds of a friend (or even someone we consider a friend who isn't one) hurt, and hurt badly, because we don't expect our friends to wound us. The wounds of a friend are faithful because they can be long-lasting. When our friend hurts us it hurts in a way a wound from an enemy may not. But in the hands of a fighting fundamentalist there is only one way this proverb can be considered, I have the right to beat you down for your failures, real or imagined.

The new fighting fundamentalist would like to use "faithful are the blows of a friend" to justify wounds that he or she may not be right to inflict upon people. Stay at home dad? Sinner! Wife makes more money than you do and you're okay with it? Sinner! You don't home school your children! Public school apostate! You let your kids date? Anathema, for we all know that courtship is the way to go and our marriages are going to be different from those in the world. You prefer natural headship to federal headship? I have questions about your committment to Sparkle Motion.

I am in a place where I struggle to discern the difference between a readiness to fight and pugnacity. I know there is a distinction and yet it can be difficult to discern, many things in the past which I considered a readiness to fight now strike me as pugnacity and the people exemplifying this pugnacity most are persuaded they are willing to only fight about "important" things. There are those Christians who believe that you must be ready to fight about the things that "matter" but they focus on essentially earthly things (read politics and social issues). These Christians are more likely to be up in arms about something Obama said or didn't say or did or didn't do than about the supremacy of Christ.

The stance of violence can sometimes seem to me to be what more Christians feel is LACKING in our life of faith. We need to embrace a war-time lifestyle. If you're a Christian there is a war going on but it is not against flesh and blood ... or if it is against flfesh and blood it is against over-weening appetites in your fleshly nature. Our great battle is against the flesh, the world, and the devil, probably most often in that order. You are less likely to encounter Satan or a demon attacking you (if ever that even happens) than to contend with challenges living a Christian life in a setting where there is the temptation to give up, and you are more likely to do battle with the strength of your own appetites than to battle a culture in which your being a Christian somehow gets you set up for persecution. Notice that I am not saying none of those things happen, just that in the way things play out you are more likely to unsuccessfully resist the temptation to eat food you shouldn't eat because it will mess up your diabetes than get persecuted for telling people they should go read this or that Christian book.

But a stance of violence toward others, even within the Christian faith and certainly toward anyone you decide is better treated as an outsider, is easier than considering violence toward your own desires. I don't know the balance between recognizing a desire as good and legitimate and a desire that is out of control. I have also increasingly doubted that I have been around spiritual leaders who are really able to meaningfully engage that question in ways that make sense for me. I plead ignorance and I also realize that sometimes the messenger can send mixed messages without realizing it. Allow me to explain what I mean through a ... uh, "hypothetical" example.

I have come to points in my life where some of the people who are most heated in their rhetoric about sexual sin and sexual addictions are possibly addicts themselves. If a man says that pornography is bad and masturbation to pornography is bad I'm not going to disagree but if the man tells hundreds of other men that he can't make it more than two or three days without sex or he starts to go crazy; or that polaroids of his naked wife she surreptitiously puts in his Bible are great isn't that still ... pornography? I'm not married and have never even dated so I'll plead ignorance about how often men feel they need to have sex, I also admit that I struggle with the idea to even recognize sexuality as an actual need of any kind since it isn't a need at the level of air, water, and food. And yet for all that ... I can't help but wonder if a guy who "has" to have sex every couple of days or he goes crazy is the pot calling the kettle black when he tells other guys they need to be less selfish or more self-controlled. Maybe one day if I am ever married I will suddenly see the light about how a dude "has" to have sex every couple of days or go crazy, whatever that means.

I may be told by someone that eating certain kinds of food is bad and that person may have diabetes. Where is the line, if there is one, past which you start to be cautious about taking advice from people who by the example of their lives don't manage to come to close to the ideals they espouse? For instance, if I know a person who looks down on the weakness and lack of discipline other people have yet has eaten his way to diabetes in this mid-thirties, do I take his tirades about how the weakness of others sickens him seriously? I can't take them seriously except perhaps as a displacement of his own self-loathing for having gotten himself into a perilous health condition through his own lack of discipline.

It is so often easier to condemn in others what we are afraid to confront in ourselves. Perhaps we feel that by violently confronting the failure of others in areas where we secretly know we are weak we may gain some strength to overcome that weakness in ourselves. Or perhaps by so doing we persuade ourselves that our moral outrage at X done or said by someone else means we are actually not guilty of it in our own lives. But Romans 2 is for me and not just you. Clearly I don't subscribe to that unfortunate, simplistic view when I am thinking about it.

I may, however, often unconsciously subscribe to such a vicarious mode of exorcism, exorcising someone else's demons (real or often imagined) to confront my own overwhelming sense of inadequacy and failure. I was part of a community where kicking people's asses in the Lord was considered the acme of spiritual activity. I have had friends who pined for the days when people could do this with impunity and were being "honest" and "real" in the process. This missed the golden rule entirely in as much as people don't like taking what they dish out when what they dish out is confrontation, dismissal, mockery, reductio ad absurdums, and ad hominems.

The pastoral badass may believe he "has" to fight these fights he picks because the fights are forced upon him by gospel necessity. That doesn't mean they are. The pastoral badass may want to take people to the literal or proverbial woodshed but that may be proof that he's not situated to shepherd in that situation. The rod and the staff prevent the sheep from going astray and fend off predators but sheep are dumb and the solution to helping an errant sheep is not to beat the sheep until it decides to follow the right path and if the sheep turns out to be a goat then nothing was gained. The pastoral badass or pugnacious elder inevitably confuses the fights he picks or feels he "has" to get into with fighting the good fight.

At length God is not mocked and we reap what we sow, perhaps not at all in a sympathetically magical way but through the kinds of relationships we cultivate. When Jesus said the one who lives by the sword dies by the sword he obviously wasn't saying everyone would be hoist on his or her own petard. But if you keep looking for fights you don't have to be hoist on your own petard. Someone else's situation that you decide has to be your fight can become the petard you hoist yourself on. If there is an irony still to be plummed in Ted Haggard's scandal it's that the pastor who vents the most about the sins of others in the public sphere may really be, as gays and gay activists have noted, overcompensating for something in his own heart. It's a cliche to say that pugnacious pastors externalize their battles with their own sins on to those of others but sometimes the cliche has some truth to it. It is prudent to watch my own life and doctrine closely and not just consider the lives and doctrines of others.

No comments: