Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Border of Twilight, Part II: Kindness That Can Kill

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to  love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
                                                  -Micah 7:8

This command weighs down heavily on those who walk the border of twilight.
Plato defines justice as "minding your own business," that is, "having and doing what is your own, what naturally belongs to you." This is a reasonable definition, when you stop to think about it, since it involves going about one's vocation diligently, remaining loyal to one's friends and family, and not meddling with or aggressing against other people.  It seems a helpful concept, one which can be readily applied to the Christian life, that is, until the disconnect emerges between the "do" and the "don't" of justice.

This conflict is sure to arise in the minds of those who walk the border.  Justice demands that each of us "mind our own business" in that we must fulfill our responsibilities to friends, family, coworkers/employers, teachers/students and the like, showing respect towards all people and investing in the lives of others as our relationships with them require.  But justice also demands that we "mind our own business" in that we stay out of affairs in which we have no responsibility or right to interfere. 

So where is the line between what is "our business" and what is not?  How are we supposed to tell whether that personal problem our friend is having is something we can help with or not?  How do we know whether our interference will be helpful or harmful?  Who tells the parent when his child is old enough to make his own decisions - and thereby to make his own bad ones?  Who tells the concerned friend when his counterpart desires his presence and when he wants to be left alone?  Who tells the philanthropist if he will be greeted as a long-awaited hero or rebuffed as a condescending fool?  How are we supposed to "mind our own business" when we don't know what our business is?

Kindness also seems a straightforward concept, until the lines between cruelty and kindness become blurred in the perpetual twilight of the border.  Bring the light into the realm of darkness, and we might well sear the eyes of the dwellers therein with a blinding glare.  Those encouraging words we speak to our friend might seem helpful, but to them they may be shallow and empty, attempting to lay a happy veneer over their deep pain.  Well-meaning attempts to give advice backfire when the recipient lashes out at out failure to comprehend the depths of his suffering.  Trying to "just be there for someone" flies back in our face when we realize that he really just wants us out of his life completely.  Experience can be no guide, for words and actions that encourage and comfort one person might offend another.  Kindness doesn't mean much when every kind act we perform could very well feel like a punch in the gut to the recipient.

Finally, the high and commendable virtue of humility is sure to bring peace and unity to any community, but not to those who walk the border.  For if humility, as C.S. Lewis writes, is not thinking less of ourselves but merely thinking of ourselves less, then border-dwellers have little ground to stand on when considering this command to be "walk humbly."  To think of others instead of ourselves is surely an admirable goal, but on the border of twilight, to think of others necessarily means that we must also consider our own roles in their lives: whatever we can do to assist the sufferers for whom our soul pines.  But pride lies in waiting whatever we do.  For to aid the suffering, in a sense, is to put ourselves in a superior position to them, able to help them due to our superior understanding of their situation.  To withdraw from the situation, on the other hand, is to distance ourselves from the suffering, once again placing ourselves in a "superior" position, one free from the brokenness of others' lives.  Even to suffer with the suffering, to sit by their side and to listen to their complaints, is to assume that they want us there, that their affection for us transcends their pain, which in many cases is a dangerous assumption, founded in pride and not in reality.

Justice, kindness, and humility: three commendable virtues, good in themselves and beneficial in practice.  But confusing concepts for those who walk the border.  For although we may be able to identify and define justice, kindness, and humility, we cannot discern the feelings of others, the depths of the labyrinths of their minds, the backgrounds behind their situations, all of the factors that influence the application of these virtues.  How are we supposed "to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God" when we don't know what is just, what is kind, and what is humble?  Therefore this Scriptural instruction becomes a burden for us, a cause for confusion, a catalyst for conflict, a cognitive crisis for us when we don't know the difference between kindness that heals and kindness that can kill.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Song of the Week

Idina Menzel/"Let it Go"/Frozen

(Spoiler alert: this is a movie clip and reveals key plot points of Disney's Frozen)

 Well, I was wrong about Frozen.  Having seen the trailers and deduced that it was going to be a lame rip-off of Tangled featuring a talking snowman, I had effectively written it off in my mind.  Until I went to see it.  Just proves you shouldn't judge a movie by the trailer (and should keep your stupid mouth shut until you know what you're talking about).  Frozen is one of Disney's best movies I have ever seen, equaled in my opinion only by the best of the Pixar franchise (as far as animated films go).  The visuals, the music, the characters, and the storyline are absolutely beautiful and stunning; it refreshingly breaks the mold of traditional Disney "follow-your-heart" fare with a beautiful and redemptive story focusing on the strained relationship between two sisters.

Frozen is also a legitimate musical; well, at least the first half, anyway.  While most animated Disney movies are predominantly dialogue-driven with a song or two thrown in for good measure, much of the first half of the movie is driven by songs instead of dialogue.  As the plot and action thickens in the second half, the songs become less frequent.  But the first half of the movie is a wonderfully designed animated musical.  "Let it Go," performed by Idina Menzel (the voice actor for Elsa, one of the movie's main characters), is one of the best songs of the movie, a perfectly-written musical number inflected but not tarnished with influence from modern pop music.  A beautiful song in its own right, "Let it Go" is even more powerful in the context of the movie, where it plays a vital role in character and plot development.  Enjoy.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Suprise Attack!

This little babe, so few days old,
Is come to rifle Satan’s fold;
All hell doth at his presence quake.
Though he himself for cold do shake,
For in this weak unarmèd wise
The gates of hell he will surprise.

With tears he fights and wins the field;
His naked breast stands for a shield;
His battering shot are babish cries,
His arrows looks of weeping eyes,
His martial ensigns cold and need,
And feeble flesh his warrior’s steed.

His camp is pitchèd in a stall,
His bulwark but a broken wall,
The crib his trench, hay stalks his stakes,
Of shepherds he his muster makes;
And thus, as sure his foe to wound,
The angels’ trumps alarum sound.

My soul, with Christ join thou in fight;
Stick to the tents that he hath pight;
Within his crib is surest ward,
This little babe will be thy guard.
If thou wilt foil thy foes with joy,
Then flit not from this heavenly boy.
Music by Benjamin Britten, Lyrics by Robert Southwell
Satan railed against the might of God, but now he is foiled by a God who has become weak.  Satan sought to destroy man in his weakness, but now man has been made strong by the coming of the Mighty One.  He comes disguised, clothed in the frame of human flesh, but is no mere imposter, for he takes on human nature and becomes one of us.  He comes a soldier into the camp of the enemy, the world occupied by Satan, comes in the least expected way, as a helpless child, defenseless but disguised, strategically entering enemy territory in humble and helpless guise.  Satan tempts him in his human weakness, but he leans upon the strength of the word of God.  Satan laughs as the Christ is rejected and killed by His own, again weak and helpless as when He entered the world, but in His weakness he foils Satan's plan, by His death defeating death.  The foolishness of man is the wisdom of God, and the weakness of man is the strength of God.   The glory of God is manifested in weakness, and man is lifted up by God coming down.  His appearance among us, His becoming one of us makes us His own and blesses the whole human race.  He is our shield, our righteousness, the provider of our strength and the glory of our weakness.  Glory to the Mighty King who cries helplessly for his mother in a stall among the animals!  Glory to the Mighty King who hangs limply, bleeding and dying on a cross!  His humiliation is our glorification, his weakness our strength, his death our life.  To the newborn King, to the crucified King, be glory now forever and ever, Amen.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Why Gay Marriage Isn't Gay Marriage

I wish people would stop talking about gay marriage like it's gay marriage.  It seems that, in the midst of the controversy, we've lost sight of the fact (not that we ever had sight of it) that gay marriage isn't really marriage at all.  But neither is traditional marriage, at least the way people seem to talk about it nowadays.  It's pointless to rehash the seemingly endless debate about whether the government should recognize homosexual unions.  But there's one aspect of this debate that bears examination, because, in the end, it renders the debate itself rather pointless.

That aspect guessed it: the government.

To be blunt, what passes for "marriage" nowadays isn't actually marriage, because what is under dispute in the thick of the current debate is primarily whether or not the government should provide a little piece of paper to homosexual couples designating them as "married."  That's not marriage.  It's merely a piece of paper.  It might have some benefits and tax breaks attached to it, but that doesn't make it marriage any more than a government document designating the recipient as a turnip and entitling him to all of the rights and responsibilities thereof would make the befuddled citizen into an actual turnip.

Despite the centuries-long claim of government upon this most ancient of human institutions, there is simply no reason why marriage should be the responsibility of government.  Humans are naturally monogamous.  People were getting married long before there was any official form of government recognition for their unions.  In fact, from a Christian perspective (and I realize that not all readers will share this perspective but many will) it is absolutely ridiculous to think of government as the agent of marriage, because Scripture is perfectly clear that marriage was instituted by God before human government even existed.

Marriage is not a function of government.  Marriage is a promise made between a man and a woman before their families and community to love and hold fast to each other for their entire lives.  It's not a state decree, and it's not a government document.  Marriage is a function of individuals and their communities, and the government is not their community.  Government simply has no business intruding in this human phenomenon; it is not its realm.  Government is here to legislate and execute just laws that prevent aggression against the persons and property of its citizens, not to oversee its citizens personal and family lives.  If a couple wants to legally codify their marriage, nothing is preventing them from making a contract and having it signed legally in the presence of witnesses.  But it is not the piece of paper that makes them married, and much the less is it the stamp of approval from the government on a marriage license that makes a couple married.  It is their promise - their vows - that initiates the marriage.  Anything beyond this is merely a codification, a recognition, and this written recognition, if pursued, is the responsibility of the couple and not of the state.

Therefore, civil "marriage" is not marriage at all.  It is merely a civil union, and it is ridiculous to assert that two people (or more than two people) should be prevented from pursuing a civil union (apart from any connection to actual marriage) merely because they are of the same sex.  It doesn't matter what the government calls it.  It's not marriage.  You could also make the argument that civil unions themselves should be abolished entirely (which is my view) but the point remains, that the whole debate about whether government should recognize gay marriage is moot.  It doesn't matter, for the purposes of the law, whether you think marriage should be defined as a union between a man and a woman (as I do) or whether you think the definition should be expanded to include same-sex couples, because the legal framework that is being debated is not marriage, regardless of its semantic trappings.

But doesn't this, as the conservative may object, leave the definition of marriage open for anyone to determine?  Doesn't that open the door to relativism and cultural anarchy?    I would answer: does not everyone have the freedom to their own opinions and their own lifestyles?  If two people of the same sex want to exchange vows to each other and call it marriage, then they have every right to do so.  If someone else does not want to recognize those people as married, then he has every right to his own opinion as well.  We need not get caught up in the trappings of civil recognition and legitimization.  Let's call a spade a spade.  Whether or not the government decides to allow homosexual civil unions and call it marriage does not alter the true definition of marriage one bit.  The true definition of marriage does not change because one person believes it should include same-sex couples and another believes it should not.  The legal issue is a red herring, a false dichotomy, a statist imposition upon an important human issue.  The government wants us to depend upon them for our definition of marriage.  They want us to stake the future of society's view of marriage - one way or another - upon their decisions.  But there's no reason we should submit to this control grab, no reason we should let our view of marriage become the statist view.  The mere fact that government claims to define and perform marriages is an affront to the sanctity of marriage to which Christians so often appeal; if marriage is so sacred, why should we give it up into the hands of the evil, murderous, thieving, conniving, vile state, which manipulates marriage in order to facilitate its own control?  We can still have a debate about the nature of marriage, but instead of focusing on the legal red herring, let's focus on truth instead, not attempting to etch our views (on either side) into the nation's wicked and bloated legal code, but instead engaging each other's positions in love and respect, moving the debate from the hands of the courts to the hands of the individuals and communities where it belongs.