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Archive for the ‘Compassion / Social Justice’ Category

While the secular age does not necessarily lead to philosophical relativism, it does lead to thin belief. By “thin belief” I mean a set of foundational ideas about the world that lack robust explanatory power. Their sources may be obscured from us, consciously or not. They may come in direct conflict with other beliefs we hold (more on that later). In a sense, all of our beliefs are part of a continuum from thick beliefs (which involve a deep understanding of the internal logic, origins, and context; embodied practice; and robust application of the belief) to thin beliefs (which can be as superficial as signaling your support for a political cause simply because you like its hashtag). We hold a thin belief when we fail to grasp its assorted justifications and reasonings, and therefore are unable to articulate it fully. We then struggle to consistently live according to it. Thin beliefs are easy to adopt and then toss away, so they are useful for crafting our self-image. Not that the beliefs themselves necessarily lack depth, tradition, passion, or truth. In fact, this is part of the great shame of thin belief: it may affect otherwise good beliefs, mistreating and misrepresenting them.

We can adopt thin beliefs about almost anything. Perhaps you become deeply convicted about the plight of Syrian refugees after the US president callously calls for them to be banned. His words strike you as offensive, inhumane, and cruel. And while you may still harbor some unspoken suspicions about Middle Easterners after 9/11, this issue feels like the perfect opportunity to show your goodwill. The next time you see a meme showing refugee children with a superimposed verse about caring for the “least of these,” you decide not only to like it but to share it with your friends. This signals what your stance is on the issue and maybe something about your personal character, your open-mindedness and concern for foreigners. An argument breaks out on your post, with some of your distant relatives and old high school friends arguing over whether Islam is a religion of peace and whether “moderate Muslims” exist. You jump in to defend your position, citing lines of argument that you’ve picked up from other viral images or a John Oliver clip you watched on YouTube. You care about this issue passionately. There is a tremendous moral urgency to your writing, and you are even willing to anger and lose friends over your stance—a stance you adopted fifteen minutes prior, after seeing a compelling viral image on Facebook. Meanwhile, the foundation of your belief goes unquestioned.

You could consider the procedural issue of risk analysis (how likely is it that one of these refugees turns out to be an ISIS member who commits a deadly terrorist attack?), but the moral source of your belief remains unspoken and unidentified. What ethical obligation do we have to our international neighbors? What does this mean for other global conflicts? What does this ethic mean for military interventions and global trade and climate agreements? What shape should a local community take, and how can and should it adapt to foreign newcomers? The web of complex ethical questions that shapes the debate over Syrian refugees matters a great deal, but it’s unlikely that you will explore these questions. Why? Aside from the technological pressure to move on to the “next thing,” there is also the feeling that there are just too many important issues for us to care about. The best we can do is stand for something. And once we commit to a cause, its momentum sweeps us along.

We’ve all felt this when arguing some controversial issue online. There is a moral urgency to defend our cause. And if we are honest, no small part of that urgency involves unarticulated fears about how losing this argument might reflect on our image. We need to defend refugees not only because they need defending but because we want to be the kind of people who are known for defending refugees. This becomes evident when we step back and realize that our online defense of refugees is highly unlikely to actually defend them in practice. But because this is a thin belief, this won’t bother us much. We’re already on to the next cause.

So, a political and moral cause is adopted uncritically. The adoption of the belief primarily takes the form of public expression (your concern for refugees is not likely to stay in the realm of quiet prayers). You are aware that this expression signals things about yourself to others. You defend this belief passionately, despite having little understanding of the deeper ethical motivations. And you know that ultimately your defense is for the benefit of you and your friends, a kind of image-crafting game we play. Meanwhile, refugees are still in crisis.

— Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness

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A natural consequence of being mentally engaged all the time is, first, that it is easy for us to live with internal conflicts and contradictions with little cognitive dissonance. When confronted with a deficiency in our ethical code, it takes no real effort to ignore it. Imagine, for example, someone who believes that people who rely on government assistance are freeloaders, but then this same person cheats on her taxes in little ways. Her hypocrisy should cause her a pang of guilt, but guilt requires attention in order to grow into reflection and repentance. And the structure of our day and our bodily habits are so oriented toward the next thing that she soon finds herself onto some other concern. We are certainly still capable of reflection and meditation, but our default response to cognitive dissonance is to simply do something else. The rhythms and practices of our modern world militate against reflection. There are so many immediate incentives for going with the flow; meanwhile, the recognition that we are not living up to the moral standards we identify with is costly. It certainly requires time, but it may also require changes to our lifestyle or to our moral standards. When we think of cognitive dissonance as the problem, rather than a symptom of an incoherent belief system, there are a number of effective and less costly ways of fixing things by moving on.

So, a belief in the essential goodness of humanity can live quite comfortably alongside a racist suspicion that certain people are inherently more prone to criminality. We are not interested in sorting through the validity of our convictions. We are about the next thing.

A superficial but constant engagement with media also invites us to unreflectively adopt ethical and political positions, creating a hodgepodge worldview. From a film on the treatment of animals in amusement parks we develop a fleeting concern for animal rights. A documentary on modern farming practices makes us see shopping local and organic as a moral issue. A hashtag campaign draws our attention to the evils of human trafficking, perhaps even while we look at porn on another browser tab. Causes are as easy to pick up as they are to put down. Or, more accurately, we don’t put causes down so much as we forget them. Putting them down would require some intentional meditation on the validity of the cause. Instead, we simply move on to something else. Humans are tremendously gifted at hypocrisy and inconsistency, but a ubiquitous, powerful stream of information and interaction driven by technology enables these gifts to flourish. And that is precisely the problem.

— Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness

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The strictly medical factors are rarely the most crucial to healing. While a patient’s lifestyle and environment are important elements to be considered in any medical evaluation, traditional medicine nevertheless finds its power by breaking problems down into their constituent parts, isolating individual issues and dealing with them as discrete clinical entities. But the complex, interrelated web of troubles that confront the poor make it impossible for me to treat the medical portion of their lives in isolation. I cannot address James Martin’s hypertension without worrying about his economic status (how is he going to fill his prescription?), his educational level (does he understand the need to take medicines—especially given their side effects—that will not, in the short run, seem to do anything for him?), or his family situation (how does the incarceration of his oldest son or the pregnancy of his daughter affect the hypertension?).

Within traditional medicine, the physician is the central player because he holds the keys to wellness. The doctor who chooses poverty medicine, however, not only finds his own power circumscribed by the same forces that dominate the lives of his patients but also quickly discovers that he is not the most important player on the team. At any given time, it may be the nurse, the social worker, the nurses’ aide, the counselor, or the receptionist who offers what is most needed.

— David Hilfiker, “Not All of Us Are Saints”

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This approval addiction must be why Jesus expressly warns us not to seek human praise by our obedience. He warns us not to flaunt our works online in order to be praised by others: “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 6:1).

Consider one example. Imagine setting aside a few weeks of your summer vacation to travel on dirt roads and bump around in loud jeeps, winding deep into remote jungle villages in Central America. You risk fevers, diseases, and heatstroke, all in order to help build an orphanage for twenty destitute kids. At the end of the month, you step back, take a selfie with your handiwork in the background, and post it with pride on Facebook. Poof!— the reward is gone. Think about it. In one humble-brag selfie, the trade is made— eternal reward from God is sold for the porridge of maybe eighty likes and twelve comments of praise. (Context is not the point; we do this same sort of thing with pictures of an open Bible in a coffee shop.)

The trade is horrible. “You lose something great, and you gain something pitiful,” Piper explains. “What do you gain? You gain the praise of man. You want it? You get it. It’s like a drug. It gives a buzz, and then it is gone. You have got to have another fix. And it leaves you always insecure. You are always needy of other people’s praise in order to be happy or to feel secure. You are never satisfied.” We wake up each day hungrier than ever for validation.

The buzz of social approval has conditioned us to feed on “regular micro-bursts of validation given by every like, favorite, retweet, or link.” This new physiological conditioning means that our lives become more dependent on the moment-by-moment approval of others. The problem is not just that we need to turn away from these micro-bursts of approval, but that we must deprogram ourselves from this online hunger.

If we don’t detox these habits, we will go on seeking intimacy by reproducing ourselves, bingeing on man’s approval, and starting each day with an approval hangover. Then we need the antidote of new affirmation from our friends to keep convincing ourselves that our lives are meaningful. This is tragic. This is wasted reward. The solid praise we expect from God is based on actions now largely unseen; the whimsical praise we seek online is based on what we project. We cannot neglect this contrast.

— Tony Reinke, 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You 

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Families become dysfunctional when they refuse or fail to make room. If the members of a family don’t make room for one another, but consider each other competitive obstacles to love and security and success, there is no family. Siblings who do not go beyond this minimum never live as genuine brothers and sisters. They never mutually share hopes, dreams, secrets, joys, games, blood, and spit. They are living against the grain of the universe, living contrary to the pattern of mutually inhabiting love evident in the world around them.

Each individual must make room; the family as a whole must make room for nonfamily if it is going to be healthy. A family that refuses contact with outsiders can appear “strong” and “close-knit,” but the dysfunctions of such isolated families are well known. Unless a home becomes home to more than the family, unless it opens itself out through hospitality and enters into the lives of others, it is not a family but a pathological fortress.

In larger groups—in churches, neighborhoods, cities—individuals equally have to make room for one another. Anyone who has been a conscious member of a larger group for more than a few years knows that this is not an altogether pleasant experience, and can be wrenchingly painful. Many lives are slums, as full of anger, violence, and bitter brokenness, as littered with trash and broken bottles, with discarded needles and failed hopes, as the darkest of America’s inner cities. We don’t want to live there, and we sure don’t want them to move in with us. However, closing them out is not an ethical option. We should occupy the lives that open up to us, even if those lives carry a stench of decay and death. We should open our lives to the human wrecks we encounter, lest we be like the priest and the Levite in Jesus’s parable about the good Samaritan.

— Peter Leithart, Traces of the Trinity

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My phone can connect me to many friends, but it can also decouple me from an expectation for real-life engagement. When I go into my social media streams, too often I use Facebook to insulate me from the real needs of my friends. Facebook becomes a safe and sanitized room where I can watch the ups and downs of others as an anonymous spectator, with no compulsive impulse to respond and care in any meaningful way. And as I do, I become more and more blind to the flesh and blood around me.

— Tony Reinke, 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You 

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[I]n his essay “Conditions of an Unforced Consensus on Human Rights” Charles Taylor explains the Western dilemma in the face of resistance from Asian and Middle Eastern nations. Taylor writes, “An obstacle in the path to . . . mutual understanding comes from the inability of many Westerners to see their culture as one among many.” Western secularists insist that their view of human rights is simply obvious to any rational person, but non-Western cultures respond that they are “far from self-evident.” This leaves human-rights activists quite vulnerable to charges of imperialism. If human rights and equality exist “just because we say so,” then activists are not able to persuade, only to coerce. They can force cultures to adopt Western, individualistic ideas of rights and equality by using money, political power, or even military force. But, the charge goes, all this is just the latest stage in the West’s inveterate bent to domination and colonialism. Western nations are now doing what they’ve always done, but disingenuously now, under the banner of “human rights.”

— Timothy Keller, Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical 

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Can our passion for justice be honored in a way that does not nurture our desire for blood vengeance? Volf says the best resource for this is belief in the concept of God’s divine justice. If I don’t believe that there is a God who will eventually put all things right, I will take up the sword and will be sucked into the endless vortex of retaliation. Only if I am sure that there’s a God who will right all wrongs and settle all accounts perfectly do I have the power to refrain.

— Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism 

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Many have pointed out the problems that result when people turn to benevolence and social activism as a way to find more fulfillment for themselves. This approach is ultimately, and ironically, extremely selfish. Your supposed generosity is really just building yourself up. The most famous of the critics is Nietzsche, who argued that modern people help the needy out of a sense of moral superiority. They feel superior to their former, unenlightened selves, as well as to earlier times and societies which were not committed to equality as they are. In short, they are not serving others as much as serving themselves. They are using the needy and poor to achieve the self-worth they need. This not only can lead to paternalism but can also turn to disdain and contempt if their altruistic efforts are not met with respect and gratitude. Helping others in response to your own discontent will not work in the long run, either for others or for you.

— Timothy Keller, Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical

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I am the problem.

I think every conscious person, every person who is awake to the functioning principles within his reality, has a moment where he stops blaming the problems in the world on group think, on humanity and authority, and starts to face himself. I hate this more than anything. This is the hardest principle within Christian spirituality for me to deal with. The problem is not out there; the problem is the needy beast of a thing that lives in my chest.

More than my questions about the efficacy of social action were my questions about my own motives. Do I want social justice for the oppressed, or do I just want to be known as a socially active person? I spend 95 percent of my time thinking about myself anyway. I don’t have to watch the evening news to see that the world is bad, I only have to look at myself. I am not browbeating myself here; I am only saying that true change, true life-giving, God-honoring change would have to start with the individual. I was the very problem I had been protesting. I wanted to make a sign that read “I AM THE PROBLEM!”

That night, after Tony and I talked, I rode my motorcycle up to Mount Tabor, this dormant volcano just east of the Hawthorne District. There is a place near the top where you can sit and look at the city at night, smoldering like coals and ashes beneath the evergreens, laid out like jewels under the moon. It is really something beautiful. I went there to try to get my head around this idea, this idea that the problem in the universe lives within me. I can’t think of anything more progressive than the embrace of this fundamental idea.

For a moment, sitting there above the city, I imagined life outside narcissism. I wondered how beautiful it might be to think of others as more important than myself. I wondered at how peaceful it might be not to be pestered by that childish voice that wants for pleasure and attention. I wondered what it would be like not to live in a house of mirrors, everywhere I go being reminded of myself.

— Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality

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