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A recent telephone interview study by the Barna Group presented a series of 20 “agree-or-disagree” statements to 1,008 self-identified Christians to determine “whether Christians have the actions and attitudes of Jesus as they interact with others or if they are more akin to the beliefs and behaviors of Pharisees, the self-righteous sect of religious leaders described in the New Testament.”
Here is a sample of statements Barna used to describe Christ-like actions and attitudes:
“I listen to others to learn their story before telling them about my faith.”
“I see God-given value in every person, regardless of their past or present condition.”
“It is more important to help people know God is for them than to make sure they know they are sinners.”
A few Pharisee-like actions and attitudes were:
“I like to point out those who do not have the right theology or doctrine.”
“I prefer to serve people who attend my church rather than those outside the church.”
“People who follow God’s rules are better than those who do not.”
The findings revealed that only 14 percent of Christians identified with Christ-like attitudes and actions, and just over half of the nation’s Christians agreed with the Pharisaical attitudes and behaviors in describing themselves. Whether we realize it or not, more than half of us see ourselves as self-righteous, judgmental and narrow. Just like the Pharisees. I think that is ironic.
Actually, it is more than ironic because we have been taught to think of the Pharisees in such a historically inaccurate way, and surveys like this only reinforce and perpetuate the misconception.
Churchill was right when he said, “History is written by the victors.” We put all of the Pharisees into the same broad category, and assume we can dismiss them completely as rule bound, rigid, violent and fearful of all change. Today we use the word “Pharisee” to describe behavior we don’t like in ourselves and others, but we should not be so quick to paint them all with the same brush.
In fact, the Pharisees might well have been the populist, social activist, loose constructionist, iconoclastic religious figures of their day. The Pharisees were, on the whole, extremely popular with the people because they were the party of laymen and “the common man” instead of the elitist Sadducees.
Unlike the Sadducees who held to a literal interpretation of the Torah, the Pharisees allowed for contemporary application and understanding of the spirit of the Law. They believed in the written law but also believed the oral traditions of the people – their stories. They believed people must use their reason as well as their written codes. They believed in local control and freedom of worship. When times and circumstances changed, they worked to harmonize the teachings of the Torah and to discern the application to new situations.
The Pharisees were the champions of distributed power and struggled with the priests and “clubbish” leadership to democratize faith and practice and remove it from the control of a centralized and inherited bureaucracy. They were in every sense of the word the “progressives” of their day.
I’m not jousting at the windmill of changing our perception of Pharisees. Unfortunately, I think the way we use the term is likely to remain – however misleading it is. Still, I think we can take a lesson from history.
How does a populist movement committed to progressive values become so vilified as the very embodiment of what it sought to correct? Is there a chance that current progressive evangelical movements focused on social justice, the environment, fair trade and other issues will share the same fate?
I hope not, but that history has yet to be written.
Our guest blogger this week is Ben Smilowitz. In his first year of law school, Ben saw the bungled response to Hurricane Katrina and realized a need existed for someone to demand public accountability and provide an open line for survivors, emergency workers and volunteers to report gaps during disasters...so he started the Disaster Accountability Project. DAP has become the leading nonprofit that provides long-term independent oversight of disaster management systems.
His perspective is valuable, and The Gathering wants to share his thoughts with you.
The recent natural and man-made disasters in Boston, Texas, the upper-Midwest, China, Iran/Pakistan, and Bangladesh underscore the importance of disaster planning. Although costly, effective and speedy responses and well-planned recoveries can make the difference in saving lives, alleviating suffering, and reviving communities.
Community foundations in and around disaster-impacted areas are uniquely positioned to convene regional stakeholders and serve as magnets for the typical post-disaster flood of donations. Within a day of the Boston bombing and Texas explosion, The Boston Foundation and Waco Foundation launched or joined fundraising efforts that quickly became the main fundraising hubs for each disaster. This fundraising model helps ensure relief and recovery is locally controlled and fosters community participation. Those administering and overseeing these local funds are more likely to have the first-hand information needed to determine which efforts deserve funding, reducing wasteful duplications and dangerous service gaps.
Contingency plans are useful in situations where a local foundation is temporarily knocked off-line by power outages or staff shortages. Sister/brother relationships between foundations in different geographic regions are one way to ensure continuity. After Hurricane Katrina, a group of foundation executives parachuted into Louisiana to create the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation (now Foundation for Louisiana) as a local receiver and disburser of funds. The inclusion of survivors and community members as directors or advisory members of these local funds can increase local buy-in and public trust.
Similarly, in the context of international disasters, locally controlled responses are much faster and more efficient and effective than those originating overseas. We know time is of essence, and we may only have 72 hours to find survivors under rubble after an earthquake. Hundreds of thousands, or even millions, can become homeless overnight and need shelter, food/water, and healthcare. Should we invest in shipping shelters across time zones or instead support local civil society organizations that have the capacity to provide services in a neighboring community?
Disasters can be horribly disempowering: Loss of life, homes, and jobs; debilitating injuries; and devastated communities. Empowering survivors to make post-disaster decisions is integral to a successful recovery. In fact, a local response/recovery is the best way to ensure help is demand-based and avoids many of the logistical headaches when so many well-intentioned relief supplies are unneeded or duplicative. Furthermore, investing in the civil society of disaster-stricken communities increases the likelihood that recovery will include aspects of mitigation and disaster risk reduction to prepare for future events.
Unfortunately, the Boston and Waco examples are not the norm and current post-disaster fundraising trends unintentionally empower the decision-making and priorities of organizations based thousands of miles from most disasters, over those of the directly impacted. Donors offer few incentives for relief groups to be more transparent and accountable, as most aid organizations know that their Charity Navigator and Guidestar ratings are based on their tax compliance instead of the effectiveness and efficiency of their real-time efforts in particular disaster zones. We all know disasters are more nuanced than looking good on paper.
Disasters have become feeding frenzies for thousands of relief organizations large and small, respected and newly formed. With heart-wrenching pictures on their websites, groups solicit funds regardless of their current position to deliver services in affected areas. Potential donors consistently lack sufficient data to make informed decisions about where to direct resources and differentiate between organizations that are re-granting, focused only on recovery, and those with long-standing relationships and many “boots on the ground” in the disaster zone.
I started Disaster Accountability Project to change this disaster fundraising paradigm. We can maximize the impact of disaster relief by incentivizing transparency and creating donor demand for better real-time information. Our SmartResponse.org is collecting pre and post-disaster data on the capacity and activities of civil society and other organizations in disaster vulnerable areas so the public can have immediate data about which organizations (both local and international) are on the ground and have ability to deliver services. While it is important to generously support direct aid, it is also critical to support dedicated oversight to ensure aid is working.
Feel free to email Ben at Ben@disasteraccountability.org.
"You never get over it. It's been 20 years since we lost her and we think about her every day."
A couple of years ago at The Gathering, we had a panel of four parents who had lost children. We didn't do it to be sensational or dramatic. We did it because a number of families in The Gathering have children who have died.
Some of these children have been young, and others were older, like the couple I quote above who lost a daughter early in her marriage. No one really wanted to do the panel and, honestly, I felt a twinge of guilt about asking them. But I knew it was the right time to open up the conversation. Yes, it was painful, and for some it was the first time they had talked openly about the loss.
It's not an annual event at The Gathering. In fact, we may never do it again, but it was right for that time.
The other night, Carol and I attended a "come and go" for supporters of a local Christian school. We have been involved in one way or another for a long time and have watched with pride and delight as it grew from the dream of one man into an established community.
Every year we meet new parents and grandparents who are excited about the school’s mission, and these receptions are encouraging. However, across the room that night was a couple we had known well 25 years ago when we were in church and raising our families together. We had moved to another congregation and lost contact with them.
In 2005, their son, Kyle, was a young pastor baptizing a member of his congregation. As he reached for the corded microphone, he was jolted by electricity and did not survive. He was 33. The woman going to be baptized was unharmed.
Kyle left a wife and three young children. I've often believed there is no pain like a parent's pain. It's true...and there is no getting over it. It's permanent and life-changing.
So, for the first time in many years we sat down with Kyle’s parents and talked - just the four of us. While there was the initial hesitation of our wondering if it would be uncomfortable for them - and us - I am convinced it is the reason we went that night.
Yes, their lives will never be the same, but they were not destroyed. As we talked about the foundation they created in Kyle's honor (www.kylelake.org) to support ministries to kids and pastors, I knew "getting over it" is impossible, but taking something life-destroying and creating a gift for so many others is not. A “come and go” ended up being a reunion of the best kind.Comments
Years ago, I taught Crime and Punishment to high school seniors and the main character, Raskolnikov, describes the moment before he murdered the pawnbroker: “I saw clear as daylight how strange it is that not a single person living in this mad world has had the daring to go straight for it all and send it flying to the devil! I...I wanted to have the daring...and I killed her.”
Scholars who study fundamentalism describe the process that moves a person wrestling with internal conflict to a sense of clarity that can sometimes be lethal. When everything that was confusing - even contradictory - is suddenly clear, there is a rush of energy and certainty that often literally flings a person into action.
The moment the conflict is resolved there is an explosive force of purest logic for the one who has struggled. It all makes sense, and the course is clear. No more holding back. I suspect that deadly clarity is what the older brother experienced last week in Boston. A flash of insight, daring and certainty without much thought about the consequences for others or himself. The inconsistencies of life had been settled for him.
We sometimes equate Old Testament figures with violent fundamentalism and figures that eliminate moral conflict in similar ways. There are instances of that, but there are examples of just the opposite. There are those few who are called to live not only with uncertainty but with agonizing questions about God and His purposes that are never reconciled. The answer is not in the back of the book.
I'm thinking of Samuel when the people asked for a king. God told him it was an evil choice, and Samuel knew it to be wrong as well. Yet, God did not say, "Talk them out of it." Instead, his response was more like, "You and I know this is wrong - it is worse than merely wrong - it is evil. However, in spite of our anger we are going to anoint what we know to be wrong. Not just choose the best of a bad lot but to anoint a chosen king. We are going to put ourselves at risk in their choice."
How could God contradict himself that way? If it was wrong then he should either punish them for it or tell them they were on their own now. He cannot anoint a king and ask Samuel to be complicit in it.
I read that Dietrich Bonhoeffer struggled in the same way: ""Who stands fast? Only the man whose final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all this when he is called to obedient and responsible action in faith and in exclusive allegiance to God – the responsible man, who tries to make his whole life an answer to the question and call of God.”
For some the only way to make sense of life is forcibly to remove the conflict and often take others with them. Others easily choose to ignore it. For a few, God has called them to risk everything they believe to be true and fling themselves out, like Samuel or Abraham, in absolute faith no matter how irrational or contradictory it seems.
There are conflicts and inconsistencies - even paradoxes - in life that we cannot resolve. In fact, there is some danger to ourselves and others when we force the world to "make sense" or to come to a purely logical conclusion. That is the distorting nature of fundamentalism. It offers us cheap relief from obedience to a God who is not always who he seems to be.
Brennan Manning, the author of "The Ragamuffin Gospel," died this week after many years of declining health. We never met, and, unlike thousands of others, I've not read the book. But in the last several months a number of his quotes have been sent to me by friends. He wrote a good deal about the dangers of thinking less of yourself than God does. But he also wrote about “thinking more highly of yourself than you ought” as Paul said in Romans.
Because I have been watching the effects of younger ministry leaders being constantly pressured to build larger and larger "platforms" for their brand and message, I remembered something Manning said while addressing a retreat of evangelical pastors of large churches: "The greatest idol I find in leaders is ambition."
While that was quite a few years ago and his audience was megachurches, he could have been talking about how start-up ministries and nonprofits today are saturated with advice and consulting on how to expand their influence and followers. By now it’s common knowledge that you need an established platform for sales before a publisher will consider working with you. So, this means a great deal of time is spent making the rounds of conferences, retweeting any mentions of something you have said and hoping for the big break.
The temptation of building a platform is, ironically, that it seems perfectly to fit the idol for which it is designed. By the time you’ve built it, the ambition required to do so has shaped your soul. Our platforms become the gallows upon which our humility is hanged.
Brennan said something else about the idol of ambition: "Do the truth quietly without display." How difficult that is when everything in the world is asking you to trumpet your successes and digitally display everything you are doing to change or fix the world.
The world does not reward obscurity, does it?
These are not temptations reserved for the young. Even now for the older ministry leaders, the attraction of great places, platforms and recognition is strongly tempting. In some ways even moreso. We feel we have less time remaining to make an impact or leave a legacy. I understand that completely.
Still, I return more often now to the passage in Peter where he says we are to humble ourselves under God’s mighty hand and in due time we will be lifted up.
Doing the truth quietly without display - and still trusting - will take you in a different direction from the idolatry of unhealthy ambition.Comments