Disneyworld is such a theological place! My head was spinning again last week. Simba, Aladdin, Pooh, Peter Pan, etc. all trying to teach me lessons — and everywhere, “Have a magical day!” With Disney, the basic message is relentlessly, “Find the dream in you and follow it” — tunefully presented in the song from Cinderella (below), and in the ads before the video, too!
Disney popularizes a universal message that is more in line with Buddhism than Christianity, of course. And it has advanced the cause of the new “gnosticism” that N.T. Wright warns us about:
Gnostic-like thinking says, “Whatever you need is in you, you just need to find it and unleash it.” Some people go for that with gusto. Many more wither under the responsibility of self-creation in an unjust world.
There is a lot to say about what is happening to the world and how people are making sense of it, and I hope we will say a lot. It is an opportune time to see what is going on right now, since it is an election year and the beliefs of the masses get up to the surface and we get a chance to see them again — and talk about them if the pundits don’t steer us completely. How do we keep thinking when there is so much shouting from either pole?
I think we can keep our heads on and our love intact if we stay somewhere in the middle and keep moving toward Jesus. Jesus is not a stance or a platform, but he is the way and a destination. I often find myself trying to steer a middle course among the people of the world, and, unsurprisingly, between the poles I often see in the church. It is something like what Paul teaches when he says I must not be, “tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming” (Ephesians 4:14). On the one extreme we have people who preach that “your dreams are a wish your heart makes,” just keep believing — and for many traumatized people in Philadelphia, to do that would be a brave step out of the disaster they have experienced their whole life. And then on the opposite extreme, we have people who can’t say the word “Disney” without an ironic inflection, who think a material “reality” is all there is so make the most of this mess and don’t waste too much time trying to make much better — for many people moving in to Philadelphia, to say such a thing might be an honest step away from the delusions that they can no longer believe in.
So here we are in the middle of all that: Spirit-indwelled people, living in a tangible community, persistently telling our story of our resurrection with Jesus and our future as world-redeemers by his side. We have our work cut out for us if we want to have any conversation at all.
Let me try to demonstrate how to think in a way that isn’t at one of the poles or merely disagreeing with it. Take one subject that makes Christians at odds with most structures: war. The one side might just let people decide whether being a pacifist is “right for them.” The other side might use all the power at hand to keep what is theirs, as long as they were safe and didn’t have to do anything too dangerous. I don’t think Christian peacemaking is the same thing as political pacifism, but since they always get lumped together, let’s just use the word. What is the middle way in thinking about war? – and I mean what is thinking as a Spirit-indwelled person, not just a spirit trying to escape a body or a spiritless body trying to prolong life as long as possible?
To begin with: pacifist is not passive. Not being pacifist is being pacified.
That sums it up. Proactive peacemaking is a lifestyle, not a leisure-time activity. Loving others, including enemies, is a character trait, not an application of theory. I say (and I think Jesus does too) that if you are not “pacifist” you are pacified. Whether you have love in your heart only or you don’t require love of yourself at all, those choices are just more ways to be under the sway of the powers Jesus came to upend.
I think there are at least three important reasons to think about forging a third way that is moving toward Jesus rather than getting stuck bouncing between the prevailing poles of arguments looking to make you an adherent.
There is only so much time.
We should make the most of our time. So many of us like the election cycle because it is a big overdose of arguing that lets us off the hook from deciding. As long as we can find a reason not to choose, we feel a strange lack of responsibility that we like. I was just with five-year-olds for a few days. They were adept at pretending they never did anything they feared might be construed as wrong. Ever. No lie was too big to get me to swallow. We’re all like that a little, I think. But our minutes matter. The clock is ticking and the life Jesus offers is being wasted if we are not telling the truth we know.
Trump said: “In the Middle East, we have people chopping the heads off Christians, we have people chopping the heads off many other people. We have things that we have never seen before — as a group, we have never seen before, what’s happening right now. The medieval times — I mean, we studied medieval times — not since medieval times have people seen what’s going on. I would bring back waterboarding and I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” There is no time to wish that away and no time to lose by merely avoiding. We need to choose Jesus.
Faith is public.
The idea of a public faith is heresy to most Eurocentric people. They think faith is private. We are taught in any number of ways to be autonomous beings responsible for our own actions. And the law protects our private beliefs we are told (until they go against the powers that write the laws, of course). So we are furious at poor people for not getting richer and furious at rich people for taking all the poor people’s money — people should fulfill their potential and no one should take that possibility away. Even when it doesn’t happen, the prevailing authorities can’t think of anything else to do, since they are sure the world is an economy run by an invisible hand and whatever a person believes in their heart is inviolable.
Nothing in the life of Jesus or anyone else in the Bible, for sure, would imply that faith is anything but a life one lives in public, in view, unashamed, assuming one’s life matters. “Privacy” is the luxury of being complicit with some power that protects one’s capacity to go unnoticed. Meanwhile, Jesus is enduring a public execution. He says to Pilate that from God all power is derived and he will not use his power to participate in a war that might save him from the acts of evil he came to share and overcome. That is about as public example of pacifism as possible. There is another way.
Orthodox Christians tried to root out gnosticism in the 200’s and 300’s, but the spirit of it was well-preserved in the meditation teaching of my cherished monks, I have to admit. They soon realized that Buddhism, Sufism and all sorts of religions long to leave the body for complete union with God. These days, mindfulness and irreligious yoga instructors teach the out-of-the-body mindfulness without any spirit at all.
I appreciate the feelings of contemplative prayer. But I am mindful to meet Jesus in the practice. Just because I am doing spiritual things doesn’t mean I am connecting to the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ. I was built for spiritual experiences in a body; I can find that ability without Jesus, too. What saves me from the self-absorption so popular these days is remembering Jesus in history and meeting the risen Lord in my own history: spirit to Spirit, heart to heart, mind to mind, strength to strength.
That connection allows me to be a pacifist, to choose to love, to even risk danger because I am escaping the clutches of the powers in their own backyard. They don’t have me because I have left reality for my dream and they don’t have me because I have given up my need to make a difference. Jesus has me, right in the middle, making a way through.