Saturday, January 16, 2010

How Randomness Can Free Us All

The Interwebs are all aflutter these days because Pat Robinson said that the recent earthquake in Haiti was due to the Haitians making a pact with the devil.  Now there is so much wrong with that statement it’s hard to know where to begin.  However there are far more capable commenters and bloggers out there who have dealt with this extensively so I don’t really feel like I have much to add.

This whole unpleasant business does however perfectly illustrate why randomness is good.  If you accept that the universe is a random and sometimes cruel place, you free yourself from the primitive superstition that bad things only happen because someone angered the gods.  Pat Robinson is a prime example of this mindset but the truth is that he is just a very visible symptom of a disease prevalent throughout Christianity.  Something bad always has to be someone’s fault.  This gets especially bad in Pentecostal/Charismatic circles.  Earthquakes, hurricanes and terrorist attacks can apparently be blamed on gays, abortions and people not believing the Bible like they should.  Miscarriages, diseases and cancer can similarly be blamed on everything from the premarital sex you had as a teenager to the demons living in ornaments you bought from the (evil) East.  No theory can ever be too convoluted, no idea too crazy. 

There is a twofold evil to this line of thinking.  Firstly there is the guilt it induces.  Someone is to blame and usually that someone is YOU.  If you prayed more, believed harder, lived more purely, tithed more often, pled the Blood, anointed your house, confessed more positively and wrote more letters to the editors about the swearing on TV – none of these bad things would have happened!!  Then there is the slimy, horrible conclusion this line of thinking inevitably leads to – that if you just do enough things right, bad things will never happen to you.  If you read your Bible, pray, name it, claim it and write a check to my ministry, you will be shielded from everything bad.  This is why I find this entire mindset to be stupid, evil, disgusting and wrong (not to mention utterly unbiblical).

Simply by accepting that lots of things in this world is out of your (or anyone’s) control can free you from this burden.  There is a lot of randomness in the universe and sometimes that randomness screws you over.  El NiƱo events can cause droughts and floods half a world a way, movement of the earth’s plates can cause earthquakes, a small genetic copy error can cause birth defects just like it sometimes causes cancer.  Sometimes you are just in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Sometimes, bad things are simply random chance events.  They didn’t happen because you (or anyone else) did anything wrong and nothing you could have done could have stopped it from happening.  Nothing.  It is the great common denominator in humanity – terrible things happen to us all and it is often for no reason at all.

Don’t misunderstand me, I’m certainly not suggesting everything happens randomly.  I certainly believe in causality.  Only a complete idiot would deny the existence of cause and effect in our universe.  But sometimes – oftentimes – that cause has nothing to do with you and is utterly out of your control.  I guess that is what it all comes down to in the end – control.  If everything bad in our lives is due to some divine hissyfit or demonic activity then we have control back again, don't we?  Cast out the demons, calm down the Lord and all will be well again, putting us back firmly in the driving seat.

Problem is we are not in control and no good will come from pretending we are.  Some things happen because of us and others just happen to us.  All we really have control over is how we react.  So why not stop reacting like cave people?  Bad things do not happen because the gods are mad at us.  Randomness happens.  Good news is that it is not always bad, good things happen randomly too*.

So if something happens, go ahead and look for a reason – after all if you are somehow causing your misfortune you really should stop – but if there is no apparent cause, don’t invent one.  Accepting the sometimes random nature of life and our own lack of control can free us to instead focus our energies on the things we actually can control.

It would seem I owe Pat Robertson an apology of sorts.  After reading this article on the history of Haiti it seems that their seemingly endless misfortune really was due to a deal with the devil.  Though not the devil Pastor Pat had in mind I think...

*This isn’t always good news to everyone though, much of the Psalms for instance consists of bitching about good things happening to people who don’t deserve it.  Oh well...

Friday, January 8, 2010

Persecution is all about you

My previous history blog reminded me of a bit of personal history.  Shortly before starting this blog I was watching the "That the World May Know" series by historian Ray Van der Laan.  I was watching this one section relating to the persecution of Christians under the Roman Empire and there was this very emotionally stirring part where the group is sitting in a cave fugitive Christians once hid in.  One girl in the group survived some pretty brutal religious violence in North Africa and she was telling her story.  It was a very poignant moment - not a dry eye in the house.  As touched as I was at the time, there was an annoying voice in the back of my mind with an uncomfortable question.  At that point in time, there were fresh reports in the news about the religious violence against Buddhists in Thailand.  The question that would not leave me alone was this - would the people now weeping about the persecution of Christians shed any tears at all about the persecution of Buddhists?

Now, I don't know the answer.  I honestly like to think that these good people would care about persecution not their own.  There are large groups of Christians though who I have serious doubts about though.  Often times when I hear Christians talk, I get the impression that they believe religious persecution is only a bad thing when it happens to Christians.  Any sane person should be able to see the problem with that but I think the most ironic part is the fact that these Christians are missing is that all religious persecution concerns Christians.  Whenever someone is persecuted, jailed, beaten or discriminated against  simply due to their beliefs then it concerns you directly.  If it can happen to anyone else then it can happen to you.  Persecution is always wrong, no matter who it happens to.  How is this not obvious?

You would think that due to everything Christians have had to suffer in their history they would have truckloads of empathy for everyone else suffering the same tragedy.  Instead you find them acting like it is not a tragedy at all!  Whenever Christians act as if they are the only people on the planet who ever suffered persecution, or worse when we try to pretend we are being persecuted when that is clearly not the case (recent case study here) it just makes me sick.  But it gets far, far worse when we act as if people of other faiths deserve to be treated badly.  There seems to be this pervasive notion that Christianity should be fully protected by the might of the law from anything that makes it even mildly unhappy while all other beliefs should only be grudgingly tolerated by the law - provided they never do or say anything that a Christian disagrees with.  That is stupid and evil and the fact that otherwise intelligent people can act that way frightens me.

Did Jesus not teach that we are to treat others the way we would wish to be treated?  Did the founder of the Christian faith not say "in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you"?  Does it not stand to reason then that if you are a Christian you should oppose all persecution on the basis of belief?  If you don't oppose it when it happens to others, what right have you to cry foul when it happens to you?  If you act like it doesn't matter when others are persecuted, others may act like it does not matter when you are persecuted.  If you think persecution of other faiths are deserved then perhaps you deserve it too.

Persecuting someone simply due to their beliefs is always wrong, no matter if the person being persecuted is Atheist, Baptist, Catholic, Hindu or Muslim.  It doesn't matter if you disagree with their beliefs.  It doesn't matter if they persecuted you in the past.  It doesn't matter if they never spoke up for you.  All that matters is that is always wrong to persecute someone for their faith.  Always.  If it is true for you then it is true for everyone.

Persecution of others always concerns you.  Martyrs matter.  If it can happen to anyone then it could happen to you.  If someone else is a victim then so are you.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

History lessons

Due to my procrastinating ways I have had to spend most of my December holiday wading through 2000 years of Church history so that I can finish an 8000 word essay on it by the end of this month.  Now I have always loved history but for some reason have never spent that much time getting to know Church history and I have no idea why.  I'm really glad I was finally forced to study it though because it has been fascinating.  Anyway, the assignment requires that I not only report on Church history but that I also indicate the lessons I have learned from it.  Call me cynical but I doubt that some of the lessons I took away from my study would earn me good marks, so instead I decided to jot them down here.

 I learned that the biggest changes were often made by those who had no intention of making big changes.  Those who tried to start new movements and sects more often than not end up as short lived footnotes in the history books.  The lasting changes sometimes happen more or less by accident.  Luther and the other Reformers never intended to start the Protestant faith.  All Luther set out to do with his 95 Theses was to try and fix something he saw as broken in the Catholic Church.  All the Reformers wanted was, well, reform.  They liked the Catholic Church just fine, they just thought it had started to go astray and they were trying to fix it.  Of course that well meant suggestion went down about as well as husband making a well meaning suggestion that his wife perhaps lose some weight would.  Similarly the Wesley brothers never intended to form the Methodist Church.  John was an Anglican priest and remained one to his death - he really only intended for his movement to be a society within the Anglican church.

I learned that many of the sainted leaders in the Christian faith were anything but sainted.  Martin Luther?  Kind of a douche!  Anyone who disagreed with him on anything was attacked from a dizzying height.  From Anabaptists to Jews, anyone who crossed him had to face his wrath.  I found some wry amusement reading one author defending Calvin burning at the stake a Spanish heretic who sought sanctuary from the Inquisition in Geneva.  His defence was basically that it wasn't so bad because that was common church practice at the time and Calvin was really just doing what everyone else was doing.  Wow...  

That leads me to arguably the saddest lesson from Church History, that when it comes to persecution, Christians are fast learners.  You would think that after nearly three centuries of almost constant persecution of the most brutal kind imaginable, the Christians would be the one group who would grasp just how precious religious tolerance in society is.  You would think that, but you would be wrong.  In almost no time they went from being persecuted by the Pagans to being the ones persecuting the Pagans.  Why would the very people who experienced the horror of the Empire razing their churches and burning their Scriptures find it so easy to legislate against the Pagan faith, burn down the sacred groves (as a form of evangelism no less!!) and order the closure of the schools of Greek philosophy?

I learned that Christianity was at its best when it had no power, when it exists as a counter-culture movement.  There was a time when the Christian faith was one of beautiful simplicity.  But boy did that go spectacularly south when the Christians gained the upper hand!  I read that a recent study showed that the top three perceptions of Christians in the U. S. among young non-Christians are that Christians are 1) antigay, 2) judgmental, and 3) hypocritical.  Now contrast that with the perception of the Pagan Governor Pliny around 111 AD who described Christians as follows:
"on an appointed day they had been accustomed to meet before daybreak, and to recite a hymn by turns to Christ, as to a god, and to bind themselves by an oath, not for the commission of any crime but to abstain from theft, robbery, adultery and breach of faith, and not to deny a deposit when it was claimed".
That's right, we somehow went from a point where the persecutors of Christianity basically described them as "a bunch of weirdo's really into being good and not committing crimes" to a point where Christian seems to be a synonym for "bigoted hypocrite".  It seems that power is like crack to the Church - once it gets a taste it just craves more and from there its a terrible spiral downward.  Before they had power Christians worshipped Jesus with simple adoration and focused on doing good and having character.  After gaining the upper hand the simplicity was replaced by endless bickering over theological minutia, various schisms and much ugliness.  I really liked the way Shane Claiborne put it, "Christianity spreads best not through force but through fascination".  One of the worst ideas of all time was spreading Christianity by legislation.

The monastic movement especially gave me a lot of "what if's" to ponder.  For the first time, I think I grasp the "why" of it better.  As decadence grew in the Roman Empire and with Pagans and Barbarians being forced into the Church - which partially paganized Christianity - monasteries became havens for men and women who were serious about their faith.  But what if they instead stayed and tried to make a difference?  What if they tried being the salt and light in a dark world like Jesus commanded instead of running from the scary darkness?  How different would our history have been if generation after generation of the brightest, most moral and sensitive people of the land didn't go live in isolation and die childless?  Would the Dark Ages even have happened?

So what did I learn from Church history?  That the Church should stay out of politics, say no to power and instead stay humble, trying to end poverty not purgatory.  That Christians should remember the atrocities committed against them and let that motivate them to oppose those atrocities when they are committed against others - whether they agree with those others or not.  Most of all I learned that the Church is not great when it arrays itself in gold and power.  The Church is great when it follows the lead of its Founder, when it does good, cares for the outcasts and the marginalised.  The Church will be great when it starts treating others the way it would like others to treat it.  When it brings change through kindness and self sacrifice, not through intimidation and legislation.   Especially when it leads by example, offering light and warmth to world in need.

But then, I could be wrong.  After all, I've only been studying Church history for a month now