a stolen miracle

Four years ago, my dad called me on a sleepy winter evening with some pretty unsettling news. Apparently, my parents had had a meeting at my then-eight-year-old adoptive younger brother’s school that day, and it was in that meeting that he was officially diagnosed as intellectually disabled. The news itself didn’t come as a particular shock; my brother had been way behind in most academic things for awhile. However, with something like that, it doesn’t really matter how prepared you are. Once it becomes real, so much changes. Once it becomes real, there’s no going back.

The revelation hit me hard because of this: that should’ve been me.

See, back when I was a fetus, I had a condition known as hydrocephalus, or water on the brain. I don’t want to go too in-depth, but basically I had too much fluid and not enough brain in my head. Assuming I survived the pregnancy, I would have been born with severe mental handicap. With the fragility of my skull and brain, sports would have been completely out of the question. My parents were crushed.

And then one day they went for an ultrasound, and—inexplicably—I had a typically-developed brain. Eventually I was born a healthy baby with a perfectly functioning brain, and a gigantic head the only residual effect of my prenatal tumult. It was a medical miracle.

But then, flash forward two decades to the aforementioned telephone conversation. I was immediately wracked with intense guilt, because in my mind I had stolen my brother’s miracle. Somehow my brain had gotten healed, and yet his hadn’t. How was that even fair? What had I done to deserve that?

For a couple weeks afterward, I struggled to come to grips with this new reality for my family. What would it mean for us, now that it had been officially declared that my sweet little brother had deficits in his ability to function? And still: why him and not me? I haven’t deal with a lot of tragedy in my life, and those weeks were some of the most difficult I’ve faced.

I don’t remember how I came to understand the situation in a new light. It could’ve come via a word from a friend, or from my own personal musings. Either way, I came to realize that things would’ve been completely different if I had been born with hydrocephalus.

I was already my parents’ third child, and had I been born with the complications that were expected, my parents probably wouldn’t have had my biological younger brother, and certainly would not have adopted my youngest brother. My adoptive younger brother’s biological family consisted of five older biological siblings, a niece or nephew, and no stable father figure. In that context, a boy with my brother’s intellectual disability would probably not have gotten the attention he needs.

I’m not trying to say that my family was the heroes in this story. I’m not even trying to say that everything happens for a reason, because I’m not sure that’s even true. But sometimes I think things do happen for a reason, and when they do it usually turns out better than you could’ve planned for yourself. In this case, I’m very glad they did.

why i might be a nonviolent nonresistant pacifist

Awhile back I read a book that was not very good. If I remember the premise correctly, it’s the story of a dude who wakes up as a hostage of some terrorists and has completely forgotten the last year of his life, and somehow comes to the conclusion that serving America is just as important as serving God. There is one passage I recall in particular in which he talks about turning the other cheek. He says you should always avoid a fight, that is, unless you have no other choice, like if someone’s trying to hurt you or infringe upon your freedom.

At first I thought that made a whole lot of sense. Of course I should be allowed to fight back, especially if someone is doing something wrong! But the more I thought about that and tried to synthesize that with what Jesus said in Matthew 5:39, the less sense it actually started to make. Is it really okay to hurt someone if they’re trying to hurt you or someone else, or have provoked you in some other justifiable way? I mean, Jesus never actually gave any exception clauses to the turning the other cheek rule. All he said on the matter was “blessed are the peacemakers” and “if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” and “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” That’s it.

This bugged me for awhile because I’m the product of a culture that loves violence, and I gleaned much of my masculinity from violence of some sort. I mean, my favorite movie is Braveheart, I have a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, I could play Skyrim for days on end, and I absolutely love stories about warriors fighting for what’s right. I even approached my faith with a warfare-inspired vocabulary and attitude. But the more I came to believe that Jesus really meant what he said and said what he meant (a Messiah is faithful, one hundred percent), the more I realized how untenable my love of violence really was.

It got difficult for me to look at the things Jesus said in regard to people who mistreat you and who you consider to be your enemies because I was forced to deal with some pretty difficult truths. The root of violent retaliation—even in cases which seem justifiable to most people—is almost always selfishness or, if you prefer something a little nicer, self-defense or self-preservation. However, it becomes very difficult to love your enemies when you are your own primary concern, doesn’t it? So either Jesus had no idea what it was like to have people dislike and mistreat you (and let’s try to remember who was tortured and crucified by his enemies) or he was calling us to some pretty radical stuff. As you have probably guessed, I contend the latter.

I am now at the point where I truly believe Jesus was advocating for nonviolence with no (or at least shockingly few) exceptions or equivocations. I know this is probably an unpopular opinion, but frankly nonviolence just makes sense to me. Our world is already so crippled by violence, and more often than not we seek to heal the wounds caused by violence with even more violence. But if Jesus came to establish an upside-down kingdom, then you would expect him to tell us to just knock it off with the violence already, because it has yet to fix anything and probably never will. See, the intent of violent retaliation is to overcome the initial perpetrator, whereas the intent of nonviolent nonresistance is to overcome the evil deed of violence while still valuing the humanity of the perpetrator. Therefore, violence (generally) burns bridges while nonviolence (ideally) maintains them.

So where did this totally unbiblical (from my point of view) exception clause which allows violence in certain cases come from? How did we get to the point where, as the band Showbread would say, “turn the other cheek succumbs to preemptive strike?” I don’t know for sure, but I have an idea.

As Americans, we hold very dearly to what we perceive to be our God-given rights. We have the right to vote, the right to free speech, the right to bear arms, the right to pursue happiness, the right to religious assembly, the right to personal opinion, the right to get mine and keep mine, and we’ll be damned if anyone tries to take those rights away from us. But when we turn the other cheek—no matter what the circumstances—we have to give up our rights freely, even if it seems wrong or unfair. And I just don’t think we’re comfortable with that. To us, that feels like we’re giving up part of our identity as Americans.

But I think if we’re truly citizens of that upside-down kingdom Jesus came talking about, we’ll gladly give up our rights as Americans so that “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on Earth as it is in heaven.” At this point in my life, I’m ready to do that. The world has already had its fill of violence; I can’t see how my enacting any more will do anyone anywhere any good. I’m desperate for that nonviolent kingdom to get here, and if I want any hope of seeing it, the change has to start with me.

I’m not naïve though. I am well aware that there are some very difficult issues with nonviolence, and I’m sure some of you will have qualms with what I have posited here. Below I will try to preempt some of those qualms with a self-imposed question-and-answer period. I may not be able to answer everything perfectly, but hopefully I will provide some sort of thoughtful rebuttal to sustain a dialogue.

Q: Doesn’t being nonviolent nonresistant make you a sissy?

A: Yeah, maybe. If you think Jesus was a sissy.

Q: So if I’m not supposed to “resist an evil person,” does that mean I should just let someone hit me over and over and over and over? Or should I just stand and watch by while they beat the living daylights out of someone else?

A: I’m going to do what many writers do when asked a difficult question: quote somebody else. I’m going to quote from a blog post by Greg Boyd (the full post can be found here) in which he states:

“We are not to ‘resist an evil person.’ The Greek word here (anthisteimi) does not imply doing nothing. It rather forbids responding in kind to an offense. When an “evil person” uses violence against us or our loved ones, we may certainly do all we can to stop him, except use violence. Refusing to use violence when it’s deemed necessary is of course contrary to common sense. And everything about this passage is contrary to common sense. Yet, this is what makes following Jesus radical, distinctive, beautiful — and profoundly difficult!”

I would also like to provide a personal example here. In my job as a youth mental health case manager, I frequently work with youth who become violent toward myself or others. During those times, I’ve been punched, kicked, bitten, head-butted, scratched, spit on, etc. My job requires that I intervene in these situations, and we are carefully trained in nonviolent crisis intervention to defuse such situations. This allows us to provide safety and teach the child that the violent behavior is unacceptable. For me to respond violently to these situations would be simply unconscionable, but that does not require me to remain passive. Intervention does not require retaliation.

So in answer to this question, no, you don’t have to keep taking abuse after abuse. You don’t have to just do nothing. However, resorting to violence is not the appropriate way to solve the problem either. Yeah, that’s right. You might have to put on your thinking cap and get a little creative.

Q: Does this mean you don’t support our troops?

A. By no means! In fact, I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for our troops! Both my grandfathers served in the military, my dad served in the military for twenty years, my sister served in the military for like four and a half seconds, and my brother-in-law currently serves in our military. I appreciate everything our servicemen and women have done to protect our nation. While I may not be in favor of everything that has been done during war times—and I am certainly not a fan of war—I do understand that our nation’s leaders and military have acted based upon what they believe to be of the greatest good to our people. I am just grateful that I will never have to be put in a situation where I must make such difficult decisions.

Q: What about if someone broke into your house and was going to shoot your wife and kids?

A. First off, how often does that actually happen? And secondly, for the sake of the cases where this actually has occurred, I would again like to defer to Greg Boyd. He puts it so well in this video that even trying to paraphrase it would do it no proper justice.

Click here to see the video!

Q: Does this mean you want to just let violent people off the hook?

A. Nah, I definitely believe in restorative (not retributive) justice. I just don’t think it’s my job to dish it out, and certainly not to respond violently to violence. That’s like a parent hitting their child to teach the child that it’s not okay to hit people.

Q: How do we stop ISIS then?

A: No idea, dude. Again, I’m glad I’m not the one to make those decisions.

Q: Did you stop watching violent movies and reading books about medieval warfare?

A: Nope. Even though I put little stock in violence as a viable source of healthy conflict resolution, I do think stories of war can be used to teach values such as camaraderie, courage, integrity, and so forth. Plus, movies like 300: Rise of an Empire are just plain awesome.

So that’s that. My intent with this article was not necessarily to sway you over to my line of thinking, but to at least get you thinking about the issue and perhaps start a dialogue about it. After all, I’m still trying to figure everything out for myself as well. That’s why you’ll notice the title of this article is Why I Might Be a Nonviolent Nonresistant Pacifist and not Why I Am a Nonviolent Nonresistant Pacifist. And, like I always say, if you like what I said or absolutely hate it, let me know so we can talk about it.

my recommendation to you: BadChristian

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I’ve been trying to keep a regular blog posting schedule, because I’m told that’s what gets you popular. (Unfortunately, this has not been my experience so far. I’m still keeping my fingers and toes crossed.) However, I am at a loss for what issue I should tackle next, so instead of that I’m going to tell you about something I really like. Think of it kind of like show and tell at school. If you’re the kid that sat in the back of the class and fell asleep, then you can just skip down to the pro-con list I’ve created at the bottom of the page for quick reading. If you’re the dweeb who sat in the front of the class and was inordinately fascinated by anything school-related, then by all means read on and savor each word.

Today I want to tell you about BadChristian, and more specifically the BadChristian Podcast. Now, the name “BadChristian” might sound a bit off to you, and that’s okay. The basic idea of the name is that we are all bad Christians (in that we can’t do anything good on our own) but that, thankfully, we have a great savior (for those of you who haven’t been following along, that’s Jesus).

According to its website, “BadChristian is a thriving community that focuses on interacting with culture from an alternative Christian point of view. They do this by being transparent, entertaining, honest, and artistic. The BadChristian community has grown rapidly because of partnerships with independent artists, podcasters, and writers, who by fueling the BadChristian movement, are able to build and sustain their careers.”

I’ve been listening to the BadChristian Podcast for several months now, and, frankly, I can’t get enough of it. Why? Because Toby, Matt, and Joey speak my language. They see that there’s a lot going wrong with American Christianity, and they’re not content to just let it be. They realize there’s a lot more to following Jesus than the tidy list of rules we’ve created, and they want to be a force for change.

Probably the best thing about BadChristian is its ingenuity. The BadChristian guys do not produce the boring, predictable drivel that seeps from the pores of most Christian content, but instead strive for authenticity that stretches beyond the limits of “Christian” propriety. For the cynic and the skeptic alike, it’s downright refreshing.

BadChristian is not just three idiots with microphones either (although the podcast is certainly my favorite product). It’s also a publishing company, a record company, a clothing line, and a blog. In effect, BadChristian is trying to use multiple means to propel a movement of Christians who love Jesus and his kingdom, but who are not willing to accept things the way they are.

Now, I should provide an important caveat: BadChristian is not for everyone, and it’s definitely not for the whole family. Because of their alternative approach to Christianity, they’re willing discuss topics, interview guests, ask tough questions, and use unsavory language that would probably not be welcome in your Sunday School class. Sometimes, I’ll admit, they do go a bit over the top, and if it’s not for you then that’s totally fine.

However, if your curiosity has been piqued, then I encourage you to check them out. Their podcast is posted two or three times a week, and is available on iTunes or on the BadChristian app. If you like what you hear, why not support them by joining the BC Club?

BadChristian Pros:

  • It’s great for people who have been disillusioned by the church or by Christians in general.
  • It’s perfect for people who are bored by most content created by Christians.
  • The podcast is free and new episodes are posted multiple times a week!
  • Matt, Toby, and Joey (the hosts of the podcast) are hilarious and deceptively intelligent.
  • They have awesome guests on the podcast like Lecrae, Donald Miller, Underoath, David Crowder, John Mark McMillan, and Shane Claiborne.
  • No matter how unseemly or theologically nebulous things get, Jesus is at the center of everything BadChristian does.

BadChristian Cons:

  • Southern accents.
  • The content of the podcast can become offensive to some listeners, especially to those who don’t prefer the use of salty language, occasional lewd/irreverent humor, or frank discussion of issues such as sex, pornography, drinking, etc.
  • The podcast is not exactly family friendly, so if you’re going to listen to it on a long drive or while cleaning the house, use some headphones or wait until your kids are asleep.

I do hope you’ll check out BadChristian and the BadChristian Podcast. If you do and you like it (or you’ve liked BadChristian for much longer than I have), please let me know so we can make inside jokes about Neal the pizza delivery guy or just how fat Joey Svendson really is.

Anyway, if you missed it above, here’s the link to the BadChristian website:

http://www.badchristian.com/

i’m the father of a demon-possessed kid

Perhaps the single verse with which I most resonate in all of Scripture is found in Mark 9:24: “Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, ‘I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!’” Seriously, the dude who said these words two millennia ago stole the words from right out of my mouth. It seems like a nonsensical paradox, I know, but at the same time it makes so much sense to me.

For a long time, I’ve been a skeptical kind of guy, particularly when it comes to faith and epistemology. While this has sometimes led me to times of severe doubt and agnosticism, it has also guided me to a stronger foundation for what I believe.

Unfortunately, the fistfights with doubt seem to occur more frequently and violently than the times of existential peace. In fact, it seems like the more I have studied philosophy and theology, the more I have really had to grapple with the things I had so resolutely determined to be gospel truth.

However, I have come to find comfort in the words of Mark 9:24. I have held Christian beliefs (legitimately and independently) for several years now, so I already have the framework for belief in place. But there are still a great many nagging doubts in my brain that I find difficult to overcome. Thankfully, Mark 9:24 reminds me that I don’t have to be anywhere near full-fledged certitude in order to accede to the basic tenets of the Christian faith. I can offer whatever amount of faith I have and ask that God would, in turn, reveal truths to help me combat my unbelief.

I know that probably sounds like confirmation bias to some of you, and that might be accurate. But confirmation bias isn’t necessarily a bad thing, particularly if one’s presuppositions are correct to begin with (although I wouldn’t go so far as to make that claim for myself yet). Even if that were the case, though, I would hope that I approach the pursuit of understanding as objectively as possible (though I’m not sure how objective one could plausibly be in any case) and not as one seeking only to back up what I already believe.

The most frustrating thing, though, is that there will never be definitive proof one way or another regarding the truth of Christianity; I suppose that’s what makes it faith. But having faith does not result in the nonexistence of doubt, but rather faith requires doubt. The two are not mutually exclusive. Without doubt, faith would just be certainty, and I don’t think humans are smart enough to know anything with certainty.

Now, I don’t want you to be reading this and thinking, “Whoa, this dude is an apostate. He’s totally lost his faith.” That’s not true at all. In fact, I think my faith has gotten stronger and more genuine through this whole process. I don’t believe things simply because they were taught to me as a child anymore, but because I have wrestled with them, lost sleep over them, and, yes, even written poems about them. This has led me to modify or, at times, even reject some things I was taught as a child, while still grasping on to a fuller and more authentic version of my faith.

So why do I believe what I believe, you may be wondering (if, by chance, you aren’t actually wondering, feel free to head to http://www.netflix.com and watch Parks and Recreation or Criminal Minds, because either show would be far more exciting than this)? It’s actually quite simple. So simple, in fact, that it would make Christopher Hitchens roll his eyes and Richard Dawkins LOL. You may disagree with me too, and that’s okay. Anyway, enough apologizing:

It doesn’t take much research for me to see just how messed up our world is. As a result of my job in the mental health field, I’ve witnessed child abuse (physical, verbal, emotional, sexual), neglect, disabling addictions, suicide attempts, self-harm, relentless bullying and hazing, and malicious attacks toward others and myself. I’ve read deeply about mass murders committed on US soil—oftentimes perpetrated by teenagers. I watched as my neighborhood was destroyed by a devastating tornado, for no other reason than senseless random chance. I’ve read countless other stories of weather-related disasters that have led to tragic loss of life and property damage. And those are just my areas of personal study! There are innumerable injustices going on every second in our world today, from trafficking children as sex slaves to the slaughter of innocent people in the name of God. And I know that no amount of policy-making, military force, or even human decency is going to change the decadence of the world in general and humanity specifically.

I look at all of these things and think that there must be something more to it than this. Surely there is some sort of justice out there, some sort of healing, some sort of reconciliation, some sort of hope. I’m just not satisfied with the idea that this tired violence is all there is, that there’s no “putting the world to rights” as N.T. Wright would say.

To me, the only solution that makes any sense is Jesus and the gospel. And when I say gospel, I don’t mean the discriminatory, legalistic, nationalistic, war-mongering pseudo-gospel with which you may be familiar. I mean the real gospel, the one that sets the captive free, brings life to the dead, provides healing for the sick, promotes peace for the war-torn, seeks justice for the oppressed, and promises absolution for the convict. I mean the gospel that turns everything we think we know on its head by turning the other cheek and going the extra mile. I mean the gospel that will one day restore everything to the way it was originally intended to be. I mean the gospel that reminds us that, though the night may be blacker than the blackest black we could ever imagine, there’s a new day coming and the sun will shine out so bright that our retinas would melt away were it not for the grace of God providing some sort of heavenly eye protection. To me, that is a gospel worth believing, and without it, I couldn’t even imagine life being all that worth it.

That’s why I believe. That’s why, even though I know there are gaps and logical flaws in my reasoning, I have no problem crying out, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”