When “Good Guys” Break Bad

It’s easy to root for Robin Hood.  Afterall, who doesn’t love the story of someone taking wealth from those who have more than they need and redistributing it to those who have a desperate need?  Sure, we may not directly condone his methods but we like his mission.

It’s easy to root for young Vito Corleone from The Godfather Part II.  He sticks up for the neighborhood by taking it to the current regime of bullies who run the place.  He protects those who can’t protect themselves.  Nevermind that he becomes the self-same monster he first wrestles against in the process; it’s easy to overlook for all his noble rebellion.

It’s…less easy – or perhaps uncomfortable – to root for Bryan Cranston’s Walter White in AMC’s cult classic television series Breaking Bad.  If you haven’t seen the show (which debuted 10 years ago and finished in 2013) beware spoilers ahead.  White is a poor public educator at a high school who, when given a terminal cancer diagnosis, turns to the manufacture of illegal drugs (methamphetamine) in order to provide an inheritance for his family upon his death.  A noble cause.

There’s a saying about noble intentions and a certain road to hell that applies here.

From Walter to Heisenberg

In his journey of illegal activity aimed at a noble cause, White transforms into an alter-ego, a crime boss named Heisenberg.  White attempts to keep these personalities secret and separate.  For much of the show, he straddles the line between the two – the meek, family-first Walter White and the violent, cutthroat criminal bent on dominating the meth market.  As the story often goes, however, the two worlds of competing intentions within a person eventually collide and fallout ensues.

In White’s case, he embraces his “Heisenberg” persona.  There’s a pivotal scene in the series where White demands of another dangerous criminal: “Now…say my name.”  The criminal responds “Heisenberg,” to which White is pleased.  The line is no longer straddled: it’s been crossed.  The “good guy” Walter White has become the despicable “Heisenberg” in dramatic fashion.  The pretense is dropped.  The means are not simply justified by the ends – they are abandoned, cast aside, made irrelevant.

As I watched Breaking Bad over those years I found myself starting to root for Walter White.  He was a Robin Hood type – an unlikely hero to an unknowing family.  He was a noble Vito Corleone – challenging the system of terrible teacher pay, the underdog in a street fight where leaving a legacy and setting his family up for success were the stakes.

As he became Heisenberg, however, my perspective shifted.  I realized that I had been duped, cleverly, by good writers crafting a complicated story that was playing on several of my emotions at once.  How could I continue to root for the Walter White I had embraced, loved, cheered on, as he steadily became a monster of his own making?  The question shifted even further: which persona was the real one, Walter White or Heisenberg?  Had Heisenberg been lurking beneath the surface, wearing a Walter White mask all along, and I’d missed it?  Was I implicitly rooting for the bad guy in the first place?

Fessing Up

We are in a disturbed place in our nation right now.  For my generation, this is a time and place in our culture where ideological differences in politics and policy-making are ripping people apart.  People are confessing – along with Kevin Costner – that they no longer ‘recognize’ America.  There is severe mistrust on all sides of the partisan aisles of authorities that comes hot on the heels of multiple movements, an example of which are the revelations that the #MeToo movement has brought into the light.

As a nation, it feels as though the people we trusted to bring about the right kind of change – noble causes, causes that support more responsible freedom, plans that solve tough issues and provide solutions with a high moral bar – are desperately failing.  We handed over the keys to more than just policy and law-making: we handed over the keys to our hearts, to our consciences, to our dreams and collective vision of America.

We got duped.

In the latest crisis, we find out that in the name of safe borders and responsible immigration policies – which no one in their right mind would argue against – children are being separated from their familiesthe process of unifying families is muddy, and the conditions of which appear to be deplorable.  It’s hard as a normal citizen to sort out all of the facts in one supreme, objective column that denies partisan biases, so discernment is necessary here.  By posting these links I am neither condoning or promoting any particular news outlet or commentator.

Our Robin Hoods, or Vito Coreleones, our Walter Whites have gone to accomplish something we can support.  But in the process, they have become Heisenberg.  They have embraced means that can no longer reasonably justify any end.  They have crossed lines that we aren’t willing to walk across.  They’ve misused sacred texts and sought to justify the unjustifiable.

By “we” I am referring to the collective tribe that I belong to: conservative evangelicalism.  This is a dirty word, a tarnished label, a battered brand in our country today.  Some in our tribe cling to that as a frayed badge of honor and cry out “persecution!”  Others (with which I admit that I find my alignment) seek to use that term as little as possible given the baggage assigned it.

Some will say, “I told you so.”  Some will say, “You should’ve seen it coming.”  They’re right.  It’s hard to admit it, but they are.

3 Thoughts on Getting “Un-Duped”

In this already long blog post, I want to offer my opinion on 3 potential ways going forward that can lead us – healthily – out of the “head-stuck-in-sand” ostrich posture that has been taken and into fruitful conversation.  If you aren’t there yet – and you don’t believe that your Walter White politicians have turned into Heisenberg – then you might disagree.  That’s ok.  We’re in this together.  Oh…and check out the first thought, at least.

Quit equating disagreement with hatred.

This is the core problem with social media in a nutshell: if you don’t agree with me, you hate me.  If you didn’t “like” my post, you don’t like me as a person.  If you don’t embrace my opinion, you don’t embrace me.  If you don’t cheerfully support every thought I have, you ruefully reject me as a person.  This is flawed thinking.

Stop it.

It’s quite possible to love someone without agreeing with them.  It’s quite possible to like someone without “liking” their social media posts.  It’s quite possible to disagree with someone while embracing them and wishing for them to thrive.  It’s quite possible not to support a person’s personal line of thinking and still cheer them on.  One author calls this “covenant-keeping” between one another and argues that when this is outsourced to an institution (government or church, even) it becomes a systematic problem in the process of embracing each other as human beings (see Volf note below).  We’re called to love our neighbors, not to condone everything they think or do.

Critically examine your allegiances.

In an interesting book by Matthew Bates, the Greek word for faith, pistis, is reframed as “allegiance.”  I’m not sure I wholesale agree with Bates on everything, but his thesis is sound: simple intellectual assent is not sufficient as “saving faith” in Jesus; it takes pledging allegiance to God and his kingdom, and this is what is meant when we confess and believe in Jesus (see Bates note below).

Where do your ultimate allegiances lie?  When the people you align with twist biblical interpretation to maintain authority over the land they “possess” or make fun of references to children with disabilities in order to discredit another political agenda, you should be bothered.  If you’re not, you should be asking, “who have I truly pledged my allegiance to?”

“Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” they say.  I’m fine with that to a point.  The question here is not about whether or not our leaders have flaws and blind spots.  They do – I have faults and blind spots, you have faults and blind spots, we all do.  The question is, who is the “baby” in this example?  If you will, who are you “bathing” or, pledging your allegiance to? I’d much rather have the one baby in history – born of a virgin, to immigrant parents, in a manger because nobody with a room bothered to help a scandalous family in a deep time of need – in my “tub” than anyone or anything else.

Do something with your convictions.

There has been a ton of fire levied at people who say “thoughts and prayers are with” such-and-such.  In many ways, it’s a cynical criticism of people who don’t know or care about what praying means to a person who is faithful.  However, in another sense, it is a warning to the church and to believers of the world’s weariness with words not accompanied by action.  True prayer changes us, says Richard Foster, and it leads us into action (see note on Foster).

The world is tired of Christians telling them how things should be and then doing nothing.

Is your prayer life leading you to act on your convictions?  Great!  Here’s a list of 10 things you can actually do to help immigrant children who’ve been separated.  I haven’t vetted each of these personally, but they sound like a great start.  If you live in these areas, consider being present physically and praying and speaking with families.  Reach out and do something.  Prayer is the place to start, but it can’t be the only thing the church has to offer people who are suffering.

The Greatest of These is Love

I won’t suggest that the intersection of faith and politics in public life is easy.  It’s not.  However, I think there is a way forward, a via media or “middle way,” where the religious and nonreligious can walk hand-in-hand to make reasonable, moral progress in policy-making.  If the church can embrace some steps to being “un-duped,” and if she can place her loyalties where they belong, then maybe – just maybe – she can reject the Heisenberg syndrome of her worldly idols and pledge allegiance to her true Prince of Peace and Lord of Love, Jesus.

 

 

Notes

Miroslav Volf in Exclusion & Embrace, 1996, pp. 140 – 156.

Matthew Bates in Salvation by Allegiance Alone, 2017, pp. 24 – 25.

Richard Foster in Celebration of Discipline, 1998, p. 33.

What Does the Blood Say?

The Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.” – Genesis 4:10

The scripture above comes from the passage describing the murder of Abel at the hands of his brother Cain.  This might be one of the most famous stories of Scripture in the whole bible – I’d lump it alongside “In the beginning” and “For God so loved the world.”  I don’t know why, really.  Maybe we’re intrigued by murder (there’s a lot of that in the Bible).  Maybe it’s betrayal (again: bunches more of that).  Maybe it’s simply the story placement – this is about the time when well-meaning Bible readers start and then give up on finishing the text in its entirety.  In any case, I’ve heard countless people rip off the quote, “am I my brother’s keeper?”

I’ve often wondered: what exactly did Cain’s blood say?

Admittedly, I’m an imaginative guy, but there’s something fantastic in the verse above that keeps me wondering.  What did the Lord hear?  What did Cain’s blood say?  How did it speak?  What’s the significance?

The “Oldest Defense in the Book”

Call me crazy, but I like true crime stories.  I love putting my detective hat on and listening to podcasts that detail the ins and outs of true crime, all the while I’m trying the evidence in my own head and sussing out the case.  I enjoy watching Dateline or similar true crime shows and putting myself in the mindset of the investigators and advocates for justice.

What’s fascinating to me about true crime is the universal plea of the victims and their families for the truth.  In missing person cases, the refrain sounds out: “We just want him/her home, dead or alive.”  In murders, it’s the same: “We just want justice for him/her.”  In all cases it boils down to one common theme: “We just want to know the truth.”  It’s viscerally powerful, utterly gut-wrenching.  And – more often than not – victims don’t get answers.  Criminals get tried and found guilty but never confess to the fullness of their crimes or never let the truth win out.

Maybe it’s my morbid curiosity in true crime that draws me to this passage. Cain is the first murderer ever tried and yet he employs the same defense that is pretty much always used by every other modern murderer when confronted with the truth: he pleads the fifth.  If read like court notes, the exchange might sound something like this:

God: “Cain, where is your brother Abel?”

Cain: “I have no idea.  What – you think it’s my job to keep track of him?”

God: [Full bad cop mode] “What did you do!  The blood at the crime scene gives you away, buddy!  You’re going away for a long, long time.”

Cain: “This isn’t fair!  Everyone on Facebook is going to hate me now!”

I may have taken some creative liberties there.  But the truth is still the truth: The blood of the innocent indicts the murderer.

The Blood We Shed

And isn’t it true that we, like Cain, are blood letters?

Back to my original question: what did Abel’s blood say?  If you’ll permit me to guess, I’d say that Abel’s blood shouted: “Murderer.”  “Liar.”  “Sinner.”  I’d like to think that God could hear the accusations loud and clear from the very earth that drank it up hungrily, just as greedily as Cain was willing to spill it.  Except these pleas weren’t accusations; they were eye witness testimony.

We’re blood letters, quick to strike and shed blood in our own name.  I see it day to day on social media where arguments rage and end in name calling and personal attacks that cause great harm to those who suffer them.  I hear it in teenagers who are aping the behavior of the loudest talking heads of media – oh, yeah, and what they hear from the oval office – as they dig at each other in a constant battle to one-up each other.  I see it grumbled about in broken relationships in pastoral counseling – friendships, families, and marriages.

I do it myself.  That’s the hardest part to admit, especially when I reflect on the days or weeks or months and come to grips with patterns of petty blood-shedding in the way I love my wife or parent my daughter or relate to my family.

The Blood That Saves

If we’re honest, we can admit that we end up acting like Cain too often.  It’s our nature to do so, I think, the sin nature we inherited since Pappy Adam and Gramma Eve set the tone so long enough.  Cain was a bad older brother, one of history’s worst older brothers (there are some other bad ones in the bible like Amnon for example).

The good news is – we have a much better older brother than Cain.  We’ve got adopted into the family of God by the work of our spiritual older bother, Jesus.  Paul lays it out in Romans 8:1-17, a chunky but important passage of Scripture that punctuates this concept of our inheritance through the Holy Spirit.  Romans 8:16-17 goes like this:

The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

I think this is what the author of Hebrews had in mind in 12:24 when Jesus is credited as “the mediator of a new covenant” whose blood “speaks a better word than that of Abel.”  By the blood of Jesus, the accusations of our guilt cease.  “Murderer” is replaced by “New Life.”  “Liar” is superseded by “Truth.”  “Sinner” is traded for “Redeemed” and “Beloved” and “God’s Children.”

Don’t let the blood you’ve let speak louder than the blood you’ve been washed in.

Ridding and Craving

John’s my favorite apostle, hands down.  I’ll get into this more another time but for now I want to put that on record.

Having said that, I find Peter absolutely fascinating.  His up-and-down behavior, his wild and heartfelt faith, and his ultimate redemption throughout the Gospel narrative draw me in.  Every single time.  There is some doubt through modern scholarship on whether or not he’s the true author of 1 Peter (he almost certainly didn’t write 2 Peter) but if you are willing to indulge me I would like to treat him as the author for the sake of this blog post.

Continue reading “Ridding and Craving”

In Defense of Hospitals, Not Museums

What is Christian confession and why should we even care about it?

“Dear friend you don’t have to lie to me
When I ask you what’s going on
Are you doin’ right or are ya doing wrong
If you do right will there not be a lifting up
You misbehave
Sin is crouching by your grave
We can begin to make amends
Fill your sails full with wind
I know you’re tossed and tempest turned, but make no mistake
I’ll never sleep on your faith
But don’t you pull the wool over my eyes
Don’t you pull the wool over my eyes.”
– G. Love & Special Sauce, ‘Pull the Wool’

An ancient and influential theologian in church history put it this way: “God is always trying to give good things to us, but our hands are too full to receive them.”  In another place he restates the theme like this: “God gives where he finds empty hands.”  It’s like the kid who reached down into his mother’s priceless vase and then couldn’t get his hand out.  The family tried and tried and tried but it wouldn’t come unstuck.  Finally they surrendered to their situation and broke the vase only to find that the child’s hand was balled into a fist and so couldn’t fit through the mouth of the vase.  They asked the young man what he was holding onto that caused the loss of this family heirloom and he opened his hand to reveal a single penny.

I find the metaphor of holding tightly to something of lesser worth and missing out on a greater gift useful when thinking of confession of sin.  The Scripture is clear that Christians must confess sin – this theme is carried from the Psalmist to Apostolic teaching.  There is a physical transfer of energy when sin is confessed.

Do we need to confess?

One popular statement I bump up against is, “my sin is between God and me.”  Although I agree with this in a principled sense, and I think there are very wise boundaries concerning who and how and what we confess, confessing sin to another human being is an important part of the spiritual journey of our faith.  Don’t take this at my word – take it from Jesus.

In John 20, after Jesus has risen from the dead, he appears to his disciples (one of several occasions that occurs between the time he rose and the time he would ascend into heaven).  Take a look at the text for yourself before I offer comment:

19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” – John 20:19-23

Notice the order of events.  Jesus first breathes the Holy Spirit onto them (whatever that means, but that is an entirely different blog post!) and then gives them this directive to forgive sins, going so far as to say that if they don’t forgive the sins of others, those others are not forgiven.  Here’s what I don’t think Jesus is doing.  I don’t think he is conferring the power to forgive sin from God to man – that power is God’s power alone imputed, by grace, and through the completed work of the Son.  I also don’t think that he’s claiming that any person is sitting in the seat of judgment over another.

Rather, what I think Jesus is saying is that we are to serve as the physical conveyors of God’s forgiveness here on earth, the vessels by which God gives reassurance of forgiveness.  We’ve been given each other for a reason as the physical body of Christ on earth.  One of those reasons is to be witnesses to each other of God’s forgiveness and to offer both verbal and physical reminders of God’s forgiveness.

To hear another’s confession and to place our hand on that believer’s shoulder and utter the words, “in the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven” is immensely powerful.  God designed it that way – it’s a means of grace and I consider it tantamount to a sacrament in itself.

What are we scared of?

Confession has been widely held over the years as a spiritual discipline – a behavior or ritual or act that Christians do or take part in that has a proven track record of producing spiritual fruit.  For a modern collection of spiritual disciplines as a whole see Richard Foster’s classic text Celebration of Discipline.  However, in most Protestant circles today, confession is viewed as a “Catholic thing.”  In my experience serving in Evangelical Protestant ministries this is essentially a curse word.  “Isn’t that where priests eavesdrop on your sins and then make you say ‘Hail Mary’ a bunch?  Empty ritual.”

I think the discipline of confession is much more robust and infinitely more valuable to the church that simply dismissing it as some optional (and unnecessary) tradition of some branches of the faith is unwise.  Bonhoeffer said it like this: “all sham ended in the cross.”  He goes on to describe how, in view of Jesus’ suffering and death, we all stand on equal ground as sinners.  When we recognize this we shine a light into the dark corner of our hearts where we judge the missteps of other believers and think things like, “well, I’m not that bad, at least.”

Confession is Freedom

Here’s the bottom line: confessing releases the overbearing burden of carried sin.  There is a redemptive power in opening our spiritual hands and letting go of the things we are holding onto – and unconfessed sin is a doozie.  It is then that God is able and willing and waiting to put good gifts inside our hands to use both for our benefit and in his service.  Don’t hear this as a “name-it claim-it” theology; hear it for what it is and for the spiritual law that Augustine was driving at.

What confession doesn’t address is reconciliation – giving and receiving forgiveness, admitting wrongs and righting them, and repairing relationships.  These are equally sacred in our faith walk but I see them as the things that come after (or at least congruent with) we are able to confess, to humble ourselves before God and before a brother or sister and receive divine forgiveness. We can confess in confidence, knowing that we are loved first by a God who relentlessly forgives.

Sympathy for the Heretic

Sympathy for the Heretic

I heard old St. Nick once punched you.
But I’d like to think
that he’d admit it was
an overreaction.

Did he even know you?

See
I don’t think you wanted the world
or power
or money
or sex
[and those are the things that get bishops’ ears].

I think you just wanted to
neatly fold things like
a napkin, on your lap
but not only your lap, not for you
but for your people to eat at the Table.

You
with your pastor’s heart.

But then again.
I wasn’t there.
I really don’t know your heart.

When The King Comes to Visit

“Your throne, O God, will last forever and ever;
a scepter of justice will be the scepter of your kingdom.” – Psalm 45:6

“When Jacob was told, ‘Your son Joseph has come to you,’ Israel rallied his strength and sat up on his bed.” – Genesis 48:2

When the King comes to visit

I’ll do my best to sit
I’ll rally all my strength and
I’ll make a show of it

Because the the throne of the King

lasts forever
lasts forever.

When the King blesses my sons

You know – I won’t say a thing
I’l bend the knee, I’ll bow my head
I’ll kiss him on his ring

Because the scepter of the King

Is justice and peace
It’s justice and peace.

When death finally knocks on my door

I’ll take the keys to my tomb
I know I won’t be sleeping there long –
It’s just another borrowed room

Because the King, he went on and beat death

And I’m gonna stand up, too
Someday I’ll stand up too.

What Are We Waiting For?

This is the second in a series of blogs for the 2017 Advent season.  Find the first reflection here.

It’s hard to ignore the glaring conflict between the American dream and the Kingdom of God.  Unlike love and marriage or a horse and carriage you can, in fact, have one of these and not the other.  Some would even warn that these two things are mutually exclusive, that they cannot be held side-by-side or co-valued in harmony.

The problem with the American dream is that it is subject to its own little-g god.  This god does have a name and that name is mammon.  Jesus is clear that it is impossible to be a slave “owned” by two competing masters and I think this is the case with the American Dream and the Kingdom of God.

Before we get any further and you think me anti-American, let me clarify something.  I’m infinitely grateful to have been born to the people I was born to in the country I was born in.  I had no control in the matter, which amplifies my gratitude in that I can’t somehow praise myself.  I’m thankful for the freedoms we enjoy in our nation.  I’m thankful that we have a history rooted in Christendom.  I’m thankful that our values and morals have ancestral roots in the Bible.

I am not thankful for the American dream.

The American dream is an ideal that was likely founded with good intentions, something of a morality play on this idea that anyone in a free nation can rise up by their own bootstraps and make a better life for themselves.  It has evolved, grown sharpened teeth and serrated claws.  It’s spit is venomous and disease-ridden and it’s eyes are hungry and dangerous and shifty.  It has enthroned mammon“the way of commodity that is the way of endless desire, endless productivity, and endless restfulness without any Sabbath” – and dethroned God, the God of rest.

Traditionally, the second week of advent sees the lighting of the “Love” candle.  As we embrace this season as one of longing, of waiting, of expecting, we are confronted with the question: what is it that we love?  Do we cling to an earthly ideal that mirrors the coveted American dream that plagues our churches?  Do we await the payout of mammon which costs us everything and fails to eternally deliver on any of its promises?

Or do we await the coming King who will usher in the true Kingdom of the God of rest, the Lord of the Sabbath?  We are reminded with a easily-worded but deeply difficult exhortation that requires wrestling from 2 Peter 3:11-13:

“Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be?  You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming.  That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat.  But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.”

The way of this world has already been judged by God, who – thanks to the nature of his grace – sent us his son, Jesus who proclaimed both freedom and salvation to all who surrender their lives to him.  The fulfillment of this narrative of salvation is something theologians refer to the consummation and it’s the topic Peter is honing in on in our passage above.

Everything we know now – in its fallen way, in its broken state – won’t be mended or fixed and put back the way that it is. That’s not the message of consummation. The message is rebirth.  Remaking.  Recreation.  This is a brand new thing.  Yeah, DC Talk was right.

We reflect on Christ’s coming during Advent as the newborn king; but we also await the next time he comes to set finish what he started.  Until then we strive to live holy and godly lives – as those sealed by and empowered in the Holy Spirit.  We don’t do this so that we can transactionally earn God’s grace – we can’t.  We do this because this is the stuff of God: holiness, justice, righteousness.  We’re living, practicing for a kingdom that’s coming.  We’re accepting God’s formation as a way of aligning our own lives with the life of Jesus.  We want our loves and habits to reflect the things of God.

What is it that we are waiting for?

Are we waiting for the kinds of things that the world tries to tune our hearts to – money, possessions, power, the idols of self?  Or are we expectant for Jesus to make things right.  Are we hoping for more of the same?