Skip navigation

But why should original sin alone, among core Christian doctrines, have the power to do that? What about the other powerful idea in Genesis, that we are all made in the image of God? Doesn’t that serve equally well, or even better, to bind us as members of a single family?

The answer is that it should do so, but usually does not. Working against the force of that doctrine is the force of familiarity, of prevalent cultural norms of behavior and even appearance. A genuine commitment to the belief that we are all created equally in the image of God requires a certain imagination, an imagination that Agassiz, try as he might, could not summon: “it is impossible for me to repress the feeling that they are not of the same blood as us.” Instinctive revulsion against the alien will trump doctrinal commitments almost every time. Black people did not feel human to him, and this feeling he had no power to resist; eventually (as we shall see) his scientific writings fell into line with his feelings.

By contrast, the doctrine of original sin works with the feeling that most of us have, at least some of the time, of being divided against ourselves, falling short of the mark, inexplicably screwing up when we ought to know better. It takes relatively little imagination to look at another person and that, though that person is not all he or she might be, neither am I. It is true that not everyone can do this; the Duchess of Buckingham couldn’t. (“It is monstrous to be told you have a heart as sinful as the common wretches that crawl on the earth.”) But in general it is easier for most of us to condescend, in the etymological sense of the word – to see ourselves as sharing shortcomings or sufferings with others – than to lift up people ourselves. If misery does not always love company, it surely tolerates it quite well, whereas pride demands distinction and hierarchy, and is ultimately willing to pay for those in the coin of isolation. That the doctrine of a common creation in the image of God doesn’t do more to help build human community and fellow feeling could be read as yet more evidence for the reality of original sin.

  • Alan Jacobs in Original Sin – A Cultural History

This last month has been a whirlwind. Taking care of mom 24/7 entailed learning about medicines, bed positioning, terminal symptoms, and emotions management. There was so much to do, but at the same time I felt I wasn’t doing much of anything. There was a lot of down time, to be sure. I sat around reading, surfing the web, watching boring and uninspiring television. But while doing those things I was still “on call”, and there’s just an unsettling feeling lingering in the back of your mind while doing the most mundane things. An edginess that prompts you to spring into action whenever she calls.

And truth be told, I still wish she did.

The initial feeling is that you feel relieved.

But then the next feeling is, well

I don’t know. loss? disorientation? confusion? It’s like floating in space with no sun or stars or planets or reference point. Just black.

 

…had me search up Brock Turner’s father’s letter to the judge. In case for the unacquainted, Brock Turner is a 20 something freshman who attends (or attended) Stanford on a swimming scholarship, and was recently convicted of rape. Social media is brimming with vitriol as a result of a light sentencing given by another white-male judge, Persky. Friends are digitally circulating a petition to remove him.

I wanted to see what the other side looked like since I have been encouraged in my MA studies to learn to read “charitably” or openly. I had read A Theology of Reading by Alan Jacobs – another white male – who advocates for an openness to reading all sorts of texts from all sorts of people, friend or foe, and I thought I’d try to practice that by reading Turner’s father’s letter. Facebook friends are posting and reposting a short phrase from his father’s letter, which states that his son’s imprisonment is far too harsh for “20 minutes of action”. The angry bloggers and facebook friends post articles that characterize the father as a father who reinforces rape culture and general white male privilege douchebaggery. I was hoping that by reading the father’s letter I could correct my own social mediated perception and try to relate to the father because demonization is another path toward another type of hell. What I mean by this is that forgiveness and redemption forge a better character than one of perpetual righteous wrath and moral outrage. Well, that’s my opinion anyways. I’m not a rape victim, so admittedly my perspective is limited.

Reading Turner’s father’s letter, however, failed to elicit any sort of sympathy from me. My friends’ FB posts claiming that his father’s letter oozed of white privilege did not seem, after reading the letter, seem so far off the mark. His father did not even seem to apologize for his son’s actions, instead opting to reflect on his son’s character attributes and accolades. In one part of the letter, the father reminisces about how he and his son visited Stanford and exclaimed that it would be swell for his son to attend a college with a history of Olympic swimmers. Look, jury, he has worked hard his whole life to achieve the academic and athletic achievements that have brought him thus far – we should not dole out too harsh a sentence for his “20 minutes of action”! He still has a bright future!

I am devastated by his father’s moral myopia. Where is his remorse? Where is the deep sadness of seeing your own child go astray from goodness and responsibility? He pleads for mercy by appealing to his son’s laurels and immaturity, whereas he should plead for forgiveness for his son. The father was so proud that his son could spell, swim, and maintain congeniality with others, but why did he not teach his son to avoid debauchery and to respect women?

Anyways, I could go on. I looked to the letter as an opportunity to soften my heart, but instead I find it steeling itself more than ever.

 

Coming back to LA was hard this week. I live by myself in a small apartment, and, while it’s convenient to leave clothes out and not have to worry about things looking spiffy all the time, the place can feel like a prison cell when you settle into a self-pitying rut where all you do is cook, clean, work, and watch old Office episodes on Netflix at home. It is a shitty life.

This weekend I decided to visit my friend J’s place in SGV. We went out and ate Asian comfort food, got some desserts at an Asian plaza, and hung around his house until it was time for me to leave.

But I didn’t.

I told J that I didn’t want to go home. Because home wasn’t good for me. Staying home and letting my mind drift into the cognitive penumbra is not good for me. Returning to my own space was not good for me, at least at this moment in my life.

So J lent me a square pillow and two small blankets, and I slept on the living room carpet. I had a nightmare – but I woke up to J microwaving last night’s leftovers in the morning.

The rest of the day was filled with errands and small conversations here and there. It felt so good to let these conversations and little errands buoy my thoughts above the waters’ surface. I felt like I was breathing again.

And I feel like, for me, this is what I need and want in life. I idolize the hermit, the philosopher, and the wise sage, but the truth is that I need to have moments where I can just hear a person press the buttons of a microwave. The need for human activity scurrying around me, and for the occasional and innocent “how are you” to keep my attention and focus on the outside rather than within.

J does not know how important it was for me to crash at his place. To joke around. To eat asian food. To do random, mundane errands at Walmart. To watch an inconsequential baseball game on ESPN. To sit in silence surfing the web on our iphones.

I keep returning to Bonhoeffer in these times.

“Dear Eberhard,

It’s your birthday in a week’s time. Once again I’ve taken up the readings and meditated on them. The key to everything is the ‘in him’. All that we may rightly expect from God, and ask him for, is to be found in Jesus Christ. The God of Jesus Christ has nothing to do with what God, as we imagine him, could do and ought to do. If we are to learn what God promises, and what he fulfills, we must persevere in quiet meditation on the life, sayings, deeds, sufferings, and death of Jesus. It is certain that we may always live close to God and in the light of his presence, and that such living is an entirely new life for us; that nothing is then impossible for us, because all things are possible with God; that no earthly power can touch us without his will, and that that danger and distress can only drive us closer to him. It is certain that we can claim nothing for ourselves, and may yet pray for everything; it is certain that our joy is hidden in suffering, and our life in death; it is certain that in all this we are in a fellowship that sustains us. In Jesus God has said Yes and Amen to it all, and that Yes and Amen is the firm ground on which we stand.

In these turbulent times we repeatedly lose sight of what really makes life worth living. We think that, because this or that person is living, it make sense for us to live too. But the truth is that if this earth was good enough for the man Jesus Christ, if such a man as Jesus lived, then our life would be meaningless, in spite of all the other people whom we know and honour and love. Perhaps we now sometimes forget the meaning and purpose of our profession. But isn’t this the simplest way of putting it? The unbliblical idea of ‘meaning’ is indeed only a translation of what the Bible calls ‘promise’.

I feel how inadequate these words are to express my wish, namely to give you steadfastness and joy and certainty in your loneliness. This lonely birthday need not be a lost day, if it helps to determine more clearly the convictions on which you will base your life in time to come. I’ve often found it a great help to think in the evening of all those who I know are praying for me, children as well as grown-ups. I think I owe it to the prayers of others, both known and unknown, that i have often been kept in safety.

Another point: we are often told in the New Testament to ‘be strong’ (I Cor. 16:13; Eph. 6:10; II Tim. 2:1; I John 2:14). Isn’t people’s weakness (stupidity, lack of independence, forgetfulness, cowardice, vanity, corruptibility, temptability, etc.) a greater danger than evil? Christ not only makes people ‘good’; he makes them strong, too. The sins of weakness are the really human sins, whereas the willful sins are diabolical (and no doubt ‘strong’, too!). I must think about this again. Good-bye; keep well, and don’t lose confidence. I hope we shall celebrate Renate’s birthday together again. Thank you for everything. I keep thinking faithfully of you. ”

Letters from Prison, page 391-92.

Quick Reflections:

What does Bonhoeffer mean when he says that the “truth is that if this earth was good enough for the man Jesus Christ, if such a man as Jesus lived, then our life would be meaningless”? I don’t understand that bit. There are billions of people who live on without knowledge of J.C., and they seem to get on well enough. At least from the outside. How and why is life meaningless? Perhaps the finality of death renders all things vain?

Bonhoeffer encourages us to meditate on Jesus – his life, teachings, and especially his death. I notice that he somehow forgets to mention his resurrection. Why did you fail to mention the most important part of that story? Is Jesus a man – even the best – to follow as an example? Or is he the son of God? The fulfiller of God’s promise?

What is that promise, by the way? I love Bonhoeffer’s way of putting it – what we really mean by our unbiblical search for meaning really translates into search and fulfillment of God’s promise. Promise of life. Of Spirit. Of love. Of salvation from enemies, sickness, physical and spiritual death. Jesus is the ultimate for-the-other. But isn’t this all abstract?

And the truth is, at the end of the day, we are weak and long for someone to hold your hand. I don’t want a for-other god. I want joy complete.

Have you ever gone backward into time and sifted through old emails? They are a journal unto themselves. One day an anthropologist will sift through the world’s emails in the future, and will discover something great.

I emailed this to Core before we started our senior year in college. It was my attempt at rallying the team to be transparent and loving toward one another. Well, 2 years later I heard the fellowship underwent major changes and there had been some sort of “falling out”. But that’s college, and hopefully we’ve all grown up a little since then.

Below is a quote from Henri Nouwen. I’ve never read any of his works but heard my pastor end his sermon with this quote once, and since then its message has forever been seared into my mind. Transparency. Community. Loving correction. Forgiveness. All these will help temper the pangs of guilt that comes with the inevitable hypocrisy involved in leading people.

—-

This morning at the Eucharist we spoke about hypocrisy, an
attitude that Jesus criticizes. I realize that institutional
life leads to hypocrisy, because we who offer spiritual
leadership often find ourselves not living what we are
preaching and teaching. It is not easy to avoid hypocrisy
completely because, wanting to speak in the name of God, the
church, or the larger community, We find ourselves saying
things larger than ourselves. I often call people to a life
that I am not fully able to live myself.

I am learning that the best cure for hypocrisy is community.
When as a spiritual leader I live close to those I care for,
and when I can be criticized in a loving way by my own
people and be forgiven for my own shortcomings, then I won’t
be considered a hypocrite.

Hypocrisy is not so much the result of not living what I
preach but much more of not confessing my inability to fully
live up to my own words. I need to become a priest who asks
forgiveness of my people for my mistakes.”

– Henri J.M. Nouwen, Sabbatical Journal – the Diary of His
Final Year, Crossroad, 1998, pp. 219-220

Each year a crocus stretches

out of the rusty mulch.

It shakes off the old iterations and reincarnates into a familiar new face.

Hello old friend, I say.

It’s good to see you today.

Long I’ve wanted to see your face,

Long I’ve waited to see this day,

But tomorrow you go to wherever you go,

And I’ll go wherever I go,

and perhaps come back when the chill warms and the light is right,

And if God or wind brings me to see you again,

I’ll see today in your face,

and remember the old and see the new.

I watched Hello World.

It’s a message of hope in a dark world.

That world is my mind.

So i created this post. With nothing else to say except this. The love of The Lord is steadfast.

I was about to open a door to nowhere, but then I typed “Lord help me” at last the minute. And this Psalm popped up. Thank you God for your provision. Thank you Biblegateway. Thank you Lord for instilling your spirit in me. Even if it feels like it’s only this moment. I’m glad for it, and I’ll take it. Lord help me indeed.

Great Is Your Steadfast Love

A Prayer of David.

86 Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me,
    for I am poor and needy.
Preserve my life, for I am godly;
    save your servant, who trusts in you—you are my God.
Be gracious to me, O Lord,
    for to you do I cry all the day.
Gladden the soul of your servant,
    for to you, O Lord, do I lift up my soul.
For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving,
    abounding in steadfast love to all who call upon you.
Give ear, O Lord, to my prayer;
    listen to my plea for grace.
In the day of my trouble I call upon you,
    for you answer me.

There is none like you among the gods, O Lord,
    nor are there any works like yours.
All the nations you have made shall come
    and worship before you, O Lord,
    and shall glorify your name.
10 For you are great and do wondrous things;
    you alone are God.
11 Teach me your way, O Lord,
    that I may walk in your truth;
    unite my heart to fear your name.
12 I give thanks to you, O Lord my God, with my whole heart,
    and I will glorify your name forever.
13 For great is your steadfast love toward me;
    you have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol.

14 O God, insolent men have risen up against me;
    a band of ruthless men seeks my life,
    and they do not set you before them.
15 But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious,
    slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.
16 Turn to me and be gracious to me;
    give your strength to your servant,
    and save the son of your maidservant.
17 Show me a sign of your favor,
    that those who hate me may see and be put to shame
    because you, Lord, have helped me and comforted me.

And yet I will write them here.

Aylan’s death galvanized the world to pay more attention to the humanitarian crisis going on in the Middle East and Europe. As a result, Germany and Austria are generously (or finally) opening their gates to the throngs of refugees who have walked through hell to get there. The world has criticized European nations, especially Hungary, Bulgaria, and other Eastern block nation-states for squabbling for months and years to set a cohesive immigration policy.

On a macro-level, I can understand why the EU is hesitant to take any real action to address the migration crisis – should they take Germany and Austria’s lead, but potentially encourage more immigration? Or do they continue to build higher walls and ignore one of the most tragic humanitarian crises so far in the 21st century?

Here’s a thought experiment – if Europe completely closed its borders, would these would-be immigrants place greater pressure on the groups to resolve their differences either by blood or compromise? Would they themselves take up arms and try to end it? Would, then, the war end as more people – women and children included – enter into the bloody fray to survive?

I began thinking of these questions after reading Ross Douthat’s really interesting piece in the NY Times on how difficult it is to answer the question, “Who failed Aylan Kurdi?” When a baby dies, our instinct is to express our outrage at the world, spitting invective at the easiest targets – we can cast stones at the United States, with its inexhaustible resources and irresponsible meddling in the Middle East; we can also target bumbling Europe for their inability to create a comprehensive and cohesive immigration policy; we can blame the Gulf states for not doing anything.

But, in reality, how do we assign any responsibility? Ultimately, “the world failed Aylan” somehow points an accusatory figure at those in charge, or at least those with more power, and, as a result, we expect them to shoulder a greater responsibility in caring for the refugees. And, in fact, Germany, Sweden, and Austria have done just that. In Douthat’s article, he observes that Germany’s “utilitarian universalism” agrees with this mindset – the richest and the most powerful ought to take the most responsibility, and they have accepted it in the form of raising refugee quotas. While I agree that those with more power ought to help more, this theory of moral obligation does not help these countries set any limit or quota on their obligation. Should Germany accept 60,000? 100,00? How long can they sustain their humanitarian services? How will the refugees acculturate, if at all? If the refugees become more of a nuisance, will Germans tire of playing Good Samaritan? It is well documented that there is such a thing as “aid fatigue“, where, the world’s atrocities cause “burned out” people to tune out from the world. When that happens, will they vote in their own version of Donald van Trump?

Our school focused on integrity last month. In one sense, integrity means something like honesty. Many of my students immediately thought of a scenario where one ought to return something valuable that did not belong to him. A secondary meaning of integrity has more to do with integration and consistency.

If you look on facebook, every person loves to laud the values of diversity, honesty, and generosity. In contrast, we love to point out the hypocrisy of our leaders, our political foes, and sometimes ourselves. It seems that, of all the things we hate most, hypocrisy tops our list. I’m reminded of a PSA-type meme that contrasts the tepid public response to the deaths of black people to the uproar caused by a single death of a lion. People love to point out hypocrisy because integrity – the consistency and coherency of values – is a rare jewel.

I think, however, if we examine our own lives a little deeper, I wonder if we would withstand similar moral scrutiny as well. A simple run down of our purchases this last month would probably reveal the incoherency of our values. Should I purchase $50/month internet or save for retirement? I like to eat healthy, but eating a burger every now and then couldn’t hurt (“now and then” could translate to at least once a week?). I really am interested and care about the world, so I subscribe to the New York Times or to Wall Street Journal – but what do I do with this information? Has it caused me to donate any of my time or money to causes outside of myself?

I think, in these awkward times of self reflection, we find it an appropriate to make excuses by expressing our needs. Oh, I really needed to eat that burger because it was such a crappy week. There are so many problems in the world, I don’t know which one to choose to focus in on. I’m running low on my budget this week so I can’t afford to buy that $5 carton of cage-free, organic eggs (yikes).

All this is to say that attaining integrity is much more challenging than returning a $1 back to a complete stranger as my students conceive of it. I suppose this is how political extremists arise – they possess so much integrity to their ideologies and values that they are unwilling to budge one inch from their platforms because compromise in one area would dismantle their personal integrity. They would be, proverbially speaking, giving the devil a foothold.

Even now, I find myself compromising my integrity: even though I treasure and value hard work, right now I’m spending time writing this blog instead of planning tomorrow’s lessons.