Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Mars Hill and the temptation of presuming karmic imputation

As Mars Hill moves toward its dissolution one of the ideas that may be floating around could be summed up as "those evil/stupid/selfish people got just what they deserved."  Maybe so ...

but on the basis of what?

Wenatchee The Hatchet was at Mars Hill for about ten years and the transition away from Mars Hill was in some ways less about seeing a lot of bad and objecting to it in other people than about something else.  In a run of interactions between ten and eight years ago Wenatchee The Hatchet was told by a variety of people this basic idea, "You have this ability to be callous, cruel and dismissive in the way you deal with people online."  This didn't seem like all that big a deal twelve years ago but in the aforementioned period it started to seem like maybe ... maybe there was something to this idea.  Maybe some people were overly sensitive and unreceptive to being confronted but what if the overall concern was true?  What if Wenatchee The Hatchet was/is a jerk? 

Well, hadn't Wenatchee The Hatchet spent years within Mars Hill as a member in more or less good standing?  Hadn't Wenatchee been recruited into a number of ministries?  If Wenatchee was a callous jerk in disagreements with people was this anything remotely unusual within the culture of Mars Hill?

No, not really.

So "if" Wenatchee The Hatchet had a problem with being cruelly dismissive toward people in online arguments then this was a habit of relating that was basically "normal" within Mars Hill as an online community ... IF this was really a problem then shaking free of that problem probably wasn't going to happen within the social confines of Mars Hill.  To put it another way, if Wenatchee The Hatchet was a symptom of a relational problem in the culture of Mars Hill there was no way that staying within Mars Hill was going to remedy that problem.  Repenting of a sin that fit in so very well with the culture of that church was going to require no longer being at the church, and it was going to require an understanding that the church as a whole social system was not responsible for the individual who at times writes at Wenatchee The Hatchet. I.e. you have to repent of your sinful ways of dealing with people regardless of whether or not the cultural system you're part of is necessarily involved.  It took several years for that observation to take shape in spite of some pretty direct and confrontational suggestions!

Perhaps a small anecdote from 2007 may elucidate, a friend was remarking about how Mars Hill was nothing more than a good ol' boy network and what did WtH say in reply?  "Well, you sure weren't bitching about the good ol' boy network a couple years ago when you were in with them better." Or something very much like that.  That the person is still friends with Wenatchee The Hatchet may be one of those mercies of friendship ... .

So with that in mind, it seems that one of the currents that can run swiftly around the subject of Mars Hill is who the real jerks were or are and who may have had something coming or not.  The temptation to decide that this or that person deserves a more miserable fate because of this or that action is fundamentally graceless and should be avoided by those who would describe themselves as Christians.  Why?  It "should" be obvious but it probably won't be to those who are already comfortable in looking down on other people besides them who were part of Mars Hill.  After all, if someone's already made up their mind to look down on people they're already working from their specific moral intuition and judgment.

So let's play with another example from the last twelve years that doesn't have anything directly to do with Mars Hill. If people deserve all the suffering and misery of the unforeseen consequences they should have seen coming if they weren't evil or stupid people who voluntarily joined on to a team with problematic goals and methods then ... what about every person who voluntarily enlisted to serve in the armed forces in the United States in the wake of September 11, 2001? 

Did all those people "deserve" whatever they may have lost, lost time with children and spouses, lost physical health, lost limbs, and so on? If they did, why did they deserve it?  Because they believed what was said about the situation in the Middle East?  Wenatchee The Hatchet saw and heard people in the Seattle area say in various ways that anyone stupid enough or evil enough to voluntarily enlist in the military deserved whatever awful things might come their way.  It's not like there's ultimately a small list of people who both enlisted in the armed forces and spent time at Mars Hill but Wenatchee The Hatchet considers it exceptionally bad to presume that either of these paths somehow merit misery for those who chose them.  There are no doubt people who would say anyone dumb enough to voluntarily enlist in the armed forces after 2011 and/or participate in Mars Hill deserved at least whatever bad may have happened to them.

It is probably going to be no surprise to read that Wenatchee the Hatchet rejects this entire line of assertion in both domains, whether with respect to those who have enlisted in the military or those who have participated in Mars Hill.  It's one thing to disagree with the reasons and foundations for making a particular set of decisions (whether the grounds for Gulf War 2 or the grounds for being part of Mars Hill Church) and another to impute some kind of punitive karmic destiny that somebody must somehow deserve for having joined up with the movement.  IF someone were to have signed up for military service and participated in Mars Hill this kind of karmic imputation would necessitate double disaster for destiny and it's just not at all given why this should be. 

Now it is a fair point to observe that many men and women only left Mars Hill after it became awkwardly clear they weren't going to get what they wanted from having joined up.  Dan Savage may exemplify the same kind of Driscollian rhetoric of inflammatory put-downs and moral superiority but there IS something to be said about men who voted into the kind of governance they came to regret.  There have been people who only discovered injustice once they were on the receiving rather than the giving end of it. And there are people who did seek a role and a purpose or a status or activity within Mars Hill and, when they failed to attain that or keep that, decided to leave.  So it's not as though a person couldn't play the sour grapes card and say that the people who left Mars Hill were, in the end, just bitter people who didn't get what they wanted. 

But the trouble here is that there shall be so many pots calling so many kettles black it isn't productive to try to look at what could have been better from others as though that were the end of things.  Think of it this way, if you can't see yourself as a symptom of the spiritual disease it would be prudent to avoid diagnosing it in others.  If you can see in yourself how you harmed others without any remorse it becomes easier to be able to speak to that when it is done by others.  This blog, when it has been on the subject of Mars Hill, has been a venue in which Wenatchee tries to offer a kind of, I dunno, repentance of having been part of a culture that can be blunt and dismissive in a way that provides what is hopefully a contrasting ethos.  Only time could establish whether this has been a success.  Meanwhile, it will be kind of cool to have readership go down because as Mars Hill winds down there's going to be less to write about it and more time to write about other things.

Even if it may be popular for a handful of people to imagine that whatever ordeals people who committed to Mars Hill may have endured must have been ordeals they got because they deserved that, Wenatchee The Hatchet would rather avoid that presumption.  It would be pretty easy to figure that people who are in miserable marriages were foolhardy enough to marry over butterflies and fantasies but people don't know the future.  Something can feel like or look like the right decision today that in ten years will seem the most foolish possible decision. It would be easy to suppose that those who suffer because they enlisted into the military somehow "deserved" to lose limbs because they should have known what the risks were when they signed up.  But as with soldiering or marriage the tragedy of loss is that even when you think you know what the risks are you don't, not really.  Richard Baxter once wrote that a man may suffer any number of indignities himself with equanimity but his heart will collapse from sorrow if he sees one of his children going hungry.  You can't anticipate that, can you?

That gets to one of the core problems of the karmic condemnation gambit, it's that you don't have to go all that far along with it to discover that there are lives of people connected to those who found misery who didn't deserve that misery at all.  In a setting like Mars Hill it would be remarkably easy to find children whose teeth would be set on edge because fathers ate sour grapes.  Suppose a dad signed up, did his kids deserve the sadness of his being away on tours?  Well, no, why would they?  By extension, even if someone were to somehow "deserve" problems because of bad decisions why would their kids deserve that?  So by extension, the children of leaders at Mars Hill no more deserve trouble for ill-advised or even immoral acts than the children of soldiers would.  Whatever disagreements Wenatchee The Hatchet has come to have with the leaders of Mars Hill the children of those leaders haven't in any way "earned" some kind of karmic payback any more than the children of soldiers have earned a karmic punishment for their parents enlisting in a time of war. 

The simplest reason to refrain from running with an ethos of karmic imputation for those who have been at Mars Hill (particularly if you were ever there yourself) would be some axiom passed along by those who claimed to follow Jesus colloquially known as the golden rule--treat others the way you'd like to be treated.  If you want to find compassion from those who might otherwise decide that all the suffering you faced in your time at a place was deserved because you were evil and stupid then maybe extending that kind of consideration and compassion to others might be something to do.

And perhaps, to just link to some writing by Alastair Roberts here, we should bear in mind that one of the disciplines of being a Christian is growing in our understanding that in Christ we do not have the privilege of looking down on other people.  We don't have the luxury or privilege of being able to look down on other people if we even begin to understand what mercies have been extended to us through Christ, do we?  Nevertheless, Paul did write that we should consider others as better than ourselves, most likely because if we weren't told to cultivate that disposition in our hearts we'd very likely never get around to even trying to.

As the history of Mars Hill with an internet presence goes Wenatchee The Hatchet may well have been the jerk of jerks.  Learning to embody a different ethos takes time.  Embracing and embodying a different sort of ethos than what emerged within Mars Hill has been a small part of how this blog works and it's been embraced with an understanding of how steadily WtH contributed to the other ethos.  It's easy when you're a guy in your 20s or even early 30s to be sure you're know everything and to be willing to put down the people who don't convince you.  If someone like ReformUrAss were to look back on what he wrote he'd have a lot to regret but, then, so does Wenatchee The Hatchet.  Someone once told Wenatchee he was afraid to comment on the Mars Hill forums for fear of being fisked for inevitable spelling mistakes.  The admonition was, "If you're fighting over an issue that's a core belief of the Christian faith then I'm right there with you.  It's just it doesn't seem like that's what you're getting into fights about."  If there were just one moment instead of dozens or hundreds that set Wenatchee The Hatchet on a different path that is probably the moment. 

So it is remembering how much a person can contribute to the ethos of a culture whether in person or online that has helped inform the approach of Wenatchee The Hatchet.  The golden rule, to put it simply, is in mind.  Things seem to have gotten to a point where not a single person who for any length of time has called Mars Hill home should imagine having any moral superiority over just about anyone else who also called Mars Hill home.  After all, if you were so much better than the others why were you there, too?  If I was smarter than other people about theology why didn't I spot just how far off the rails everything began to go?  I can't look down on anyone after ten years of giving time and money to the place but I can attempt to model a potentially different ethos and method.  It's at least possible to preserve some of the story of the place and the people and to try to do so in a way that refrains as much as humanly possible from looking down on people who sincerely believed Mars Hill was going to be a force for positive change in the Puget Sound area.  After all, Wenatchee The Hatchet used to sincerely believe all of that, too.  It's even still possible to believe that Christians can contribute to the betterment of the region but tis doesn't necessitate participating at Mars Hill, does it? 

1 comment:

C. Stirling Bartholomew said...

"Something can feel like or look like the right decision today that in ten years will seem the most foolish possible decision. "

Absolutely right. I would have said in the mid 90s MHC was a place where 20ish people could find a church home. It looked good, sounded good. MD needed to grow up but who doesn't? There was no way that we could predict that MD, Leif Moi … and their colleagues would make this into the most abusive ministry culture Paul Tripp had ever been engage in. It didn’t start that way. It started as a bible study and MD taking “prayer walks” and so forth. The last time I talked one on one with MD he had just been on Dobson’s thing whatever it was, there was perceptible change of attitude. MD had become a phenomena. He told me he was the gen-x poster boy. That was stark contrast to his attitude in several previous discussions. I didn’t think much of it. Young man goes on Dobson’s venue and gets a bloated sense of his significance. So what? I remember him telling me he had given Bill Bright (Campus Crusade) some serious verbal flack. I thought that was funny. I had nothing to do with Bill Bright or his empire. Avoided them like the plague.

I guess that WH had a good reason to leave MHC. None of us should be gloating over the the demise of MHC.