What are We Really Fighting For?

In the popular hype of MMA fighting, crowds cheering and roaring over the cage fights in an octagon echo the days of the gladiatorial fights in the sand arenas.  The craze of seeing two people battle it out has not waned over the centuries.  What are the combatants fighting for?  Beyond the brutality and violence, what is the ultimate triumph the fighters are aiming for?  The trophy?  The money?  Fame?  Personal accomplishment?  I think what men fight for in the octagon is a metaphor of what we fight for in society.  Why we fight says a lot about who we are.  What do we fight for?

One of the films I enjoyed most last year was “Warrior,” a film that didn’t get a whole lot of attention but had a deep, moving story with incredible acting.  It depicts a crucial dynamic of relationships in our society that stems from the condition of our souls.  Why do we fight?  If we can uncover the answer to this question, it illuminates much of why relationships are the way they are and what our souls are really searching for.  I think the film illustrated the important factor that what people are fighting for is not always apparent.  Sometimes the fighters don’t even realize what they’re really fighting for.  But they fight.  And we fight.

Here comes the slight bit of spoiler, just to warn you in case you want to stop reading here.  The story showed that what we are often fighting for is forgiveness.  In all our hard bouts with people, self and society, forgiveness is the unseen prize that we’re trying to get to and often times don’t realize that is what we’re actually fighting for.  In the surprising and revealing twist of the film, we find that the end of the fight is about achieving reconciliation that can only come by forgiveness and letting go of the anger.  But forgiveness rarely ever comes easy for anyone.  And that’s why we have to fight to forgive.  The deeper the hurt and anger, the tougher the fight.  The external fights we face in life represents the internal fights in our souls.  We’re fighting to be free from our anger, hate and grudges.  We’re fighting our way to forgiveness that manifests in reconciliation.  The true and genuine Warrior then is the one who gets to a place where he or she no longer needs to keep fighting.  When forgiveness is achieved, the fight is done.  The Warrior has won.


How Do You Get Out of the Matrix?

The Matrix, particularly the first film of the trilogy, is one of my all-time favorite movies. It admittedly has all the ingredients of a great “guy” movie: martial arts, fantasy, incredible special effects, and lots and lots of guns. But more than your typical action film, it has really great dimensions of unique cinematography, legit fight choreography and wirework (straight out of the Hong Kong tradition), and a depth of philosophy that a grad student can really appreciate. The Wachowski brothers, producers and directors of the film trilogy, were steeped in philosophy before writing the film. And let me just say that the notion of the Matrix is real – meaning that it wasn’t just a great storyline, being born into chambers where we are fed intravenously and connected to the matrix of a false reality, when in fact our life force is powering an empire of robots which continue to mine the world for new power sources.

Liberation is two-part: one is an actual unplugging from the Matrix, a physical freedom from the chamber that we were born into and departure from the source of the false reality that has been pacifying us with meaning and “experience”. The second liberation is not just a matter of unplugging from the system – it’s a mental re-orientation about “the real”, what is truly “real.”

Christians found the metaphor meaningful and relevant for obvious reasons. Jesus is the original Neo. Society is the Matrix. Agent Smith is the Devil. You get the picture.

But there are some problems that I don’t think we’ve really thought about in applying this metaphor in our Christian witness. One problem is that the church, as an institution, has often been complicit in the work of the Matrix. You can really see it with missional language that uncovers a rather stagnant congregation. We were never really subversive or prophetic to the culture at large; we are in some ways, more concerned with profits than prophets. I think there is a growing consciousness that is helpful in critiquing the church’s lack of initiative in the face of the Matrix now. Second, I don’t think we’ve understood the act of liberation as a physical and mental re-orientation. We assume that the verbal message of the gospel is enough for people to grasp, but the mental, cognitive understanding doesn’t necessarily free them from the physical connection to the Matrix. It is both a physical unplugging and a mental change of orientation to the Matrix. Then, whenever we plug ourselves back into the Matrix, we need to understand the difference the reality that we construct and bend, and what is still “the real.”

Virtual reconciliation is not reconciliation. Compassion and justice is also incomplete by themselves. But so too is it problematic when people claim to live free from the Matrix, but don’t know how to re-engage. It’s a much more complicated task then it appears. It’s much more complicated than a red or blue pill. This is what we all have a hard time describing as Christians. We know that Pentecostals are on to something, but they’re kind of crazy, aren’t they? We love the power of the truth in the new Reformed movements and the adherence to a pure Gospel, but they also seem limited in their ability to speak outside their context. And we know that the new contemplatives and mystics strike a chord with our hearts as well, but we just don’t know how to separate ourselves from our “real” lives, right?

My friends, the work of reconciliation is one of the ways we bring in “the real”. We know there’s something wrong, something missing and that’s where it begins. Your discontent proves that there’s something else out there.

Elements of Reconciliation – Memory

I have trouble sometimes trying to describe what I do – I educate others on the work of reconciliation.

Reconciliation? they ask, Like in marital situations?

Well, not really. Think bigger – like people groups and on issues like immigration, race, class, you know?

And then, I get a few nods and oh’s and Okays. And then the conversation peters out.

I try and return the vocation volley, so what do you do?

And the answers usually can be divided into two categories, those that deal with the present – selling homes, technology consulting, writing, etc.; And those who work towards the future – insurance, community development, teachers, researchers, etc.

Reconciliation falls into a different category because it is somewhat a work that deals with the past, it is historical work that is trying to tie up loose ends with the present; but because we who live in the present are preoccupied in the moment or in the transaction at hand, or we work towards the future, reconciliation seems like a step backward, a constant, nagging pull keeping you from taking the next step forward. Which is why I understand it when people grow weary of the discussions necessary, but we are dialoguing with the past, a past that we cannot change, but neither does it go away without being addressed. Our pasts have a way of coming back to haunt us if we are not careful. And Christians who have been associated with power and influence, particularly being historical bedmates with power, really need to be transparent about that past – whether it  was Constantine, the Crusades, the Holy Roman Empire (which by many historian’s accounts was neither holy, Roman, or an empire!), the Great Schism, the Inquisition, the wars, the conquest, the bloodshed, the imperialism, the slave trade, the nativism, the silence, the exclusion acts…all that. If you call yourself Christian, then you have to own this history to some extent. Why?

Because Christians have to remember what happened because history, personal and collective, is that which puts a  backbone in our posture of confession. Confession is an act of remembering the past. Reconciliation can only be had with confession. In other words, reconciliation requires a good memory.

That is why even now, when you tell someone the full story of the gospel, you have to go back to the beginning – at some point, you must explain the story of a garden with two trees. Then the story of Christ as messiah makes sense. Because reconciliation is what adds symmetry to the story back in the beginning – Christ hung on a tree. The death that was promised to Adam and Eve was fully owned and purchased in the person of Christ. And we are taught to remember that story for it is also at the genesis of our stories. For like crack babies, we were also born with an addiction we inherited, and addiction that came from the curse of one tree, and at the intersection of two other trees, we are now the recipients of grace. We remember because reconciliation requires that we remember who we were and what happened and why we can lay claim to the new.

Without memory, we cannot understand the reason for a Savior; without remembering our worst moments in church history, we dismiss the ghosts of the past as though they had no bearing, no place to land in our lives now; but you cannot confess what you do not remember, and you cannot be forgiven if you have no awareness of the gravity of the infraction; a key part of reconciliation is the purposeful act of bringing the past before our very eyes and ears so that we might fully have the opportunity of being the new creation we are promised to be.

Here’s Desmond Tutu recounting why bygones will never be bygones without our ability to face it. Listen closely and enjoy.

“You Isn’t Kind. You isn’t Smart. You Isn’t Important.”

The title is the inverse of a line from the movie, The Help. “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.” These are the words spoken to the child cared for by an African American nanny, the last words even. Perhaps the most memorable words of the film, it instilled the question in my mind that perhaps this child would turn out to be kinder, smarter, and more important than her parents. Self-esteem is so important after all in a young child’s life. If the roles were reversed, reconciliation would have to start with self-esteem, right?

Recently, I was reading the books, Brain Rules for Babies and Nurture Shock, to get a better handle on this parenting thing. And both books spend a chapter or more each debunking the notion that telling a child that he or she is “smart” actually helps them perform better. Research shows that while telling children they are smart so that they feel better about themselves may feel intuitively right, but it actually may not help them learn. Children who were told they were smart actually makes them hesitant to do anything to disprove their existing “smartness” and thus, they don’t put in the requisite effort to learn.

On the other hand, when children were told, “You must have put a lot of work into that” at something the child had done, the child not only associated the result with effort, they were willing to put effort in other projects as well. And thus, learning became related to effort and being smart was a result of that effort put forth, rather than being a pedestal from which to fall.

What on earth does this have to do with reconciliation?

I wonder if it is more helpful to be heavy handed with critique regarding race, gender, class or whatever when I should probably be more focused on the effort we put in; and I also wonder what it means for us to understand our identities as simply “beloved” or “saved” as those feel like titles from which we can fall and not aspire. I understand the theological caution of not bringing back a works-based righteousness, but also want to say that Christians, particularly of the Evangelical stripe, aren’t known for our effort and action towards the reconciling of the world. Rather, we can exhibit the complacency and the fear associated with the static posture of the “saved” or if you will, the “kind, smart, and important.” Ah, and of course, for the true answer, I will definitely need some true “Help.”

Fasting From Your Technolust

I’ll admit it – I’m a gadget geek. I read Engadget way more than is necessary and yes, I have an iPhone 4S and can tell you without even looking that it has an A5 processor, same as in the iPad 2, and a better camera than the iPhone 4 (8 MP v. 5 and HD video too!), both of which are better reasons to buy over the regular iPhone 4 than the gimmicky Siri voice assistant that Apple keeps running ads for. I read most of my books these days on the Kindle app. I have multiple styli for my iPad2. I have a DSLR. I fawn over slick and shiny. I have to slow down any time I pass a Best Buy, even those Best Buy vending machines at the airport. I always want to see what is new. I did 90% of my Christmas shopping online and I try out new apps regularly. But I also call myself a Christian and consider myself to be fairly up on matters of social justice.

So this article troubled me – 150 workers at Foxconn (the manufacturers of many Apple, HP and Kindle products) threatened to commit suicide due to unfair wages and intolerable working conditions. This is after a wave of suicides (18 attempted, 14 died) last year at Foxconn for similar complaints. I think the negotiations worked because the threat was real. And obviously the attention of the media is squarely on the company to ensure that conditions improve, but I wonder why the demand side of the equation isn’t considered — namely, me. I wonder why I feel so detached from this situation. I understand that I’m physically very detached, and that I exercised great obliviousness when purchasing my products. After all, I was just trusting  Apple had made these products well and ethically. Well, I don’t know that I was thinking ethically at the time. I just wanted the iPhone. Would it matter if my iPhone was made with ethical practices? Isn’t that the same question I’m asking of my coffee and chicken lately?

This is a strange thought process to have, but don’t you think it’s strange that we want capitalism to be ethical? Is that too much to ask? And then, ultimately, it seems that all I can do is ask…as the end user, how would I really know if Foxconn did treat their employees with fairness? I’m not going to go to their factories and check if they are truly fair. But this is the problem with global capitalism to begin with, we are so limited in our decision making process that ultimately we have very little influence on how something is created. Whether it’s human trafficking or child labor, the odds are that we contribute to some aspect of these things by consumption. The global economy, our banks, our retirement funds, and certainly our blind purchases support, even create the demand for these practices to be born. After all, if corners can be cut in a production process, there’s just too much incentive to do so when money is the name of the game.

But ignorance can’t be an excuse once you know there is something wrong. The question is what do you do with the knowledge once you know? What do you then?

So should I consider fasting from my technolust? Would you? What’s a Christian gadget geek to do?

What is the Relationship Between Sexuality and Spirituality?

Historically, Christians have an inherent tension with sexuality. Jesus wasn’t married, nor was Paul. And the Gospel writers are pretty silent on the topic. If you take that into the medieval monastic scholarship, the absence of the mention of sexuality leads to a prohibition of sorts. Just like certain orders prohibited laughter because while there is a mention of Jesus weeping in Scripture, there is none of him laughing. The thought process was that if it were mentioned at all, it was permissible. Anything unmentioned, we probably shouldn’t do. But the problem with applying that with sexuality is that if we don’t do that, we don’t really make it past one generation.

And so we behave strangely with regards that which is arguably most human, most carnal. Even when those of us ideologues know that gnosticism is a heresy, we don’t know how to fully engage a theology of incarnation when sexuality is such a bomb. And where we fear to tread, the world learns to dance and enjoys themselves. How then shall we live?

How would you answer this man’s question?

And if you don’t like Portuguese accents, here’s a transcription:

Sexuality and Spirituality. Why sexuality is a taboo for most religions? Why should we repress something that was given by God to us in the name of, we don’t know why? Our conversation this week is about how do you exercise your sexuality in a sacred way, and also to understand why society and religion tends to repress this important part of our lives.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

Is it just a matter of repression? Can the church speak about sexuality in a healthy way?

Here’s a video of someone who was raised Christian, but as she grows into her mid-20’s is starting to re-evaluate her faith in part because of the “allergic reaction” (my words, not hers) she observed and remembers from her Christian background. Now if you watch the video, you can really hear her honesty come through. You can criticize her for being young and naive and whatever. But let’s also listen carefully – what I admire about this young woman is the fact that she wants to “do her own math”, work out the problem herself. She doesn’t want to just look at the answer in the back of the book regarding sexuality, but my point is that she’s also not looking IN the book either. So how can Christians discuss sexuality in a way that is healthy and not phobic; authentic without being cliche; with gravitas and faithfulness?

We cannot simply be a people of the “no” when it comes to discussing matters of sexuality, we must be people who first wrestle with our idealism about sex, sexiness, intimacy, and purity. Our abstinence in the dialogue will not lead to sexual abstinence. Only our confession and our engagement will bring about what we want. And to point out the plank in our own eyes would be to look at the rate of divorce and sexual addiction among Christians, we have to get healthy enough and strong enough to have this discussion.


Looking In On Post-Blackness

Alvin reviewed Toure’s work on Post-Blackness recently. In short, the defining of Black America is no longer bound by traditional Black institutions and voices, the notion of FUBU is now expansive beyond a clothing line – meaning that Black identity is now in the rarified air of being malleable, ambiguous, and now free from the trappings of groupthink.

While I think that might spell some concern for Black churches, it’s probably a good thing as let’s be honest, White churches have been feeling some pressure recently as well — whether that be to be more diverse or more missional, sooner or later, Black churches are going to ask themselves interesting questions about what it means to worship as a church even as the emerging Post-Black generation begins to find they are somewhere between Black and White churches. Hopefully, we’ll get there.

As usual, the gap between here and there is first occupied by those individuals who can point out the absurdity of a static identity. By absurdity, I don’t mean hilarity, but the awkwardness and the lack of self-reflection in the process.

This next YouTube video is from The Oreo Experience where she answers the question, “Why I don’t date Black guys.” The video has garnered almost 300,000 views and over 7,000 comments. As a self-described “total whitey in a black chick’s body” Oreo Experience is a caricature that is more common than ever. The Asian equivalent is a Twinkie. I don’t know what the Latino analog would be. And I know that sometimes the identity is reciprocated from White people, because the endearing terms, “White Chocolate” and “Egg” exist as well. But these terms used to have an edge to them. Now, they’re mostly thought of as sweet, minus the egg.But what do you think? Post-blackness?

And this one is just as interesting, The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl [explicit language] by Issa Rae, a YouTube show that is really unique in its portrayal of well, the awkwardness. And that’s the opposite of being Black and proud, right? Or at least that broadens our palette that you could be Black and anything. Here’s a short peek:

How They Learned To Love The Bomb

This post was originally posted on the blog, Next Gener.Asian Church on October 11, 2006, but somehow my thoughts were drawn to it again in the shadow of the death of Kim Jong Il and with his son installed to keep up the curtain. 

Here’s the story in today’s news of North Korea Threatens War Over Sanctions.

There are few instances when mentions of North Korea do not make me shake my head. But news about North Korea feels somewhat different to me than other countries run by megalomaniacs. Perhaps it’s because two of my uncles were kidnapped into North Korea as the country was divided after World War II. Perhaps it’s because my mother’s family hailed from PyongYang long before Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il’s faces were plastered all over the city. Perhaps it’s because when I had the chance in1995 to serve missionaries in Yanbian, China, I saw many North Koreans who found their way in China, escaping the desperate fate of their brothers just to the south of them. Sometimes I wonder, where would I be, what would I believe and who would I be if I were the son of my kidnapped uncle and not my free mother. Perhaps I am half-horrified at the possibility that I could be in utter poverty and that I would love the power of the bomb.

As I learn more of the history of Christianity in Korea, I cannot help but wonder how PyongYang went from center of Christian revival to this strange, backwards, dictator-loving bastion of communism. I understand that communism had a lot to do with this. And I understand that capitalism had a lot to do with this. I know there are a lot of historical reasons that allowed this to happen.

They learned to love the bomb because they felt they needed to, and they justify it in their belief that capitalism corrupts absolutely, that power must be wielded by those that are powerful and just enough to wield it, and to give sacrificially to the defense of those causes for their demigod, the “father” of the nation. They want peace for their people.

They learned to love the bomb for the same reasons that I have learned to love them.

I do believe capitalism corrupts me to have my own will apart from the will of my Father. I do believe that power must be wielded by the one who is powerful and just enough to wield it. And I will give sacrificially to the defense of those causes for Jesus. I believe Jesus is the hope of peace for my people.

And while I’m sure that they would hope that I would know the love of their “father”, I want them to know the love of my Father, who will give them food that will not perish, drink that will quench eternally. I pray for revival in PyongYang again. There must be a remnant there…if there are this many obstacles to the Gospel there, I can’t imagine how much more God loves them and desires to see them freed.

I am one of the 99, they are one of the “one”s.

I don’t know what the Christian response to their bomb testing is, but I wonder if my long lost cousins would think differently about America if they knew I was here. I long to know who they are. I long to hear your story. I long to break bread with you. I want you to love me more than the bomb.

What Do We Do With Guilt?

I think some of the most difficult conversations about reconciliation have to do with the fact that once we realize the scale of wrongdoing, or become aware of the burden that someone else had been shouldering for us, etc., particularly when there is no easy way for recompense that we become quite paralyzed with what to do. And this happens along all the lines of injustice.

For instance, with race in America, you can either take the weight of 400 years of slavery, and as someone of Western European descent, be completely overwhelmed by the profundity of what it means to have every structure of society work against certain peoples but not you and feel guilty or you can be somewhat dismissive about it. After all, the legal and constitutional blind spots have been filled now, so it could seem a little silly to dwell upon the past when things were broken. And these postures, guilty vs. post- (race, gender, class), could be applied to other injustices as well. But either extreme doesn’t lend itself to a healthy response from where I sit.

But I think whenever it is that moment of deep realization sets in where you suddenly find empathy and you see yourself either participating, contributing, or complicit in some brokenness of the world — guilt is a good response to start with. I don’t think it’s good to stay there, but I think it allows for self-awareness and self-evaluation that needs to happen. Again, it doesn’t need to be something we personally have committed; it’s simply a recognition that someone(s) paid for my benefit. I know that many white people I come across today, even having spent my life in the South, have never owned a slave. My parents, being Korean immigrants who served in immigrant churches, never mistreated Black folks to my knowledge, but even my parents know at some deep level that they benefited from the Civil Rights Movement; they have the sense they would have been treated far differently if they had arrived in 1920 vs. 1970.

I will say that being dismissive or simply shrugging off grave injustices is not only not helpful, but about as un-Christian of a response as I can imagine. Although this is purely anecdotal, I’ve never met a self-aware, emotionally healthy bigot. Most bigots I’ve witnessed are unable to empathize or even locate their own emotions. I think Jesus was moved constantly for people who hated him. He wept for Jerusalem and he asks for forgiveness from the very crowd that begs for him to be crucified. By what shred of righteousness do we dare muster the audacity to be smug about the sufferings of others?

But that recognition of having benefited unfairly needs to lead to more than guilt, it needs to lead us to responsibility. It needs to lead us to engagement and the far more difficult work of not simply tolerance, but inclusion. This is where I find that churches are way behind. The homogenous unit principle and the directives to grow big and in number, along with the fiscal necessity of staying solvent (and gasp, profitable), have made the aesthetic work of the kingdom building via church planting very difficult. It does not surprise me then that groups like the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Ba’hai, who celebrate their diversity and offer it as evidence of their truth, turn up their noses at the history of evangelical Christianity in America. As one pastor once told me, these cults are being born out of the very sins of the church. Perhaps it began with pride, that is now turned to an impotent and indecisive place of guilt, but the fact of the matter is that we have to rise above the guilt and get to the relationship so that fellowship in Christ might be borne.

Guilt needs to become transformed to responsibility.

What do you think of Tim Wise’s response to the question of guilt? I don’t think he’s using a Christian rubric for answering the question, but I think it relates to the context of reconciliation and all the more so because of what Christ has done for us. So while my answer would be vastly different from Wise, the response may sound similar.

Racism – An International, New Generation Phenomenon

For my friends who understand even a little bit of Spanish, check out the following YouTube video and tell me what you think:

This is the Google Translated text from the description of the video:

This video was made by Social Change 11.11 as part of the “Racism in Mexico.”
He became a research with Mexican children / as, replicating the experiment with children / as and dolls designed by Kenneth Clark and Mammi in the thirties in the United States, which has been conducted in several countries.
Here is part of the results and the children shown in this video reflect the responses of most children / as who were interviewed / as.
Given the complexity of the issue, we performed a Racism Workshop with / as children / as who participated and their families, to create a space for reflection and restraint of the emotions generated in this exchange.

An LA Times article reported on this video and the feedback opened with these questions:

Is Mexico’s an inherently racist society? Does the culture overwhelmingly favor those with light skin over those with dark skin? And if so, is that a legacy of European colonialism or present-day images in television and advertising?

These are among the thorny questions emerging in online forums in Mexico since a government agency began circulating a “viral video” showing schoolchildren in a taped social experiment on race.

My first thoughts are that this is a natural extension of racism in the USA. Here’s why, many of us in this country feign shock and get defensive very quickly when we are accused of racism, but the fact of the matter is that we claim post-racial status because we’ve largely exported it. It’s a disease we’ve already transmitted to others. And now even in a single lifetime between now and the Civil Rights Movement, like to think that the opportunities have always been there. That things are now on an equal playing field. But this is simply not true. The Church needs to recognize that this is not true. In our mission trips, in our sanctuaries, we have to realize that racism is something we perpetuate by never taking responsibility of it. And the last time I checked, the Jesus we worship took responsibility for sins he did not commit; whether we find ourselves personally culpable or not of this or  other injustices, we find in Christ the power to own and own this disease, if for no other reason that it may die with us and live no more.