Drumpf, the Mob, Truth, and Belonging

16 03 2016


David Brooks wrote in yesterdays opinion pages an interesting piece on the shift of American culture from one of guilt to shame. Quoting much from Andy Crouch’s Christianity today article, he explains that rather than drawing lines between right or wrong, morality is pictured through the realms of inclusion and exclusion. Brooks interprets Crouch:

Crouch starts with the distinction the anthropologist Ruth Benedict popularized, between a guilt culture and a shame culture. In a guilt culture you know you are good or bad by what your conscience feels. In a shame culture you know you are good or bad by what your community says about you, by whether it honors or excludes you. In a guilt culture people sometimes feel they do bad things; in a shame culture social exclusion makes people feel they are bad.

And with the decline (or death) of modernity and the rise of post-modernity, subjective relativism is still lingering in our midst. The lines are not between what is true and untrue, it is between what you think and what I (or we) think. And the difference between the You-I, inclusion-exclusion line creates new markings for morality, but with a caveat. The line is always susceptible to change. Because rather than an unshifting standard of morality, the rules of in and out are determined (and perhaps shifted) by those in power. Again Brooks on Crouch:

….there are nonetheless enforcers within the group who build their personal power and reputation by policing the group and condemning those who break the group code. Social media can be vicious to those who don’t fit in. Twitter can erupt in instant ridicule for anyone who stumbles.

This is not to say that a guilt culture is better than a shame culture (and Brooks distinguishes the shame culture of the current discussion from historic Asian shame cultures), nor is it a push to return to the old. But what is worthy of taking note is that many of us do not know how to navigate these new territorial lines of shame. Perhaps semi-related is The Atlantic article by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt on trigger warnings and how over-sensitivity, tolerance, a lack of standards, and whatever else has stunted not only our education system but the American ability to discuss, civilly argue, and learn. The art of listening has long left us and all we know how to say in place of it is, “I’m offended.”

These suggestions about the shift in culture is perhaps very illustrative in the current presidential campaign with Donald Trump and his rhetoric. The inclusion and exclusion lines are being drawn, the presidential debates have devolved to shouting matches with no

"Somehow I thought it would be different up here."

“Somehow I thought it would be different up here.”

inkling of civil discussion, and the moral lines seems to be drawn and shifted to the likings of Trump’s daily emotional forecast (i.e. the police with power). But once again, shame culture, the concepts of inclusion and exclusion are not culpable here for the chaos or confusion (and violence), it is our unfamiliarity and misuse of such ideas that have perhaps placed the American political process where it is today.

Is there a solution then? If I could have it my way, I would bring modernity back, but as a realist (or pessimist), it is obvious that’s not going to happen. Perhaps, one possible way forward in the right direction, is to start understanding what exclusion really is, and to understand what real inclusion is without denying exclusion (like post-modernism used to say). A good place to start is, I suggest, Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace. Though he presents much to mull (and act) upon, one helpful suggestions he speaks of is the “drama of embrace” divided into four stages. One, ‘open arms’ equivalent to vulnerability. Two, ‘waiting’ speaking of providing time for the other to embrace. Three, ‘closing of the arms’ which is self-explanatory. Last, ‘opening of arms again’ where he means that you have been enriched by the presence of the other. Very practical, but sounds a bit cheesy, but cheese or not, most of us are so unwilling to even begin step one. We are fearful of what others will see in our vulnerability, we are arrogant in our impatience, and perhaps, sadly, it is frighteningly inconceivable to imagine ourselves changed or molded by someone so different from us.

What then shall we do with such fear?

I know of only one place where that answer lies, and it is not of humanity.


Politics of the Lunch Line

9 10 2015

It is often in the simplest things that reflect the profoundest of realities. Well, in this case maybe not profound, but reality… yes. Feeding a hundred and fifty people can oddly reflect the reality of the American political bipartisanship and the related economic issues. So, on a particular day with a particular group of 150 people, dinner was provided. The only thing that was determined for the 150 people was the order in which they were allowed to approach the food. The amount of food that could be taken was not regulated, at least in the beginning, and the distribution commenced. Eventually, several regulations were instituted, “Either the meatball or the chicken, not both!”, “One bread per person!” Then once, the food seemed to be disappearing faster than the line itself, ‘welfare’ allocation was instituted. Some food dishes were ‘saved’ for the end of the line so that the least could have at least some of the goods of society, or just.. dinner. Everyone was fed but not equally at equal amounts, some would say this is the beauty of the free market society and some would say it is the injustice of poor regulation. Hungry stomachs say some weird things. The one in charge realized after the fiasco that there was another way to proceed. Perhaps, unfavorable to the ones ahead in society (or line), this communistic method, if used from the beginning, would have guaranteed a better (Is equal always better??) distribution of food. To have regulators distribute a set amount of food for each person would have guaranteed that everyone got enough, or at the least equal amount of goods.

hipster-lunch-instagram-cartoonThis simple ‘slice’ of life, whether one falls on the republican or democratic side of economic and social issues, is at the least descriptively instructive for us. But two things must be mentioned if we are to learn the fuller picture of this anecdote, that is, scarcity and zero sum. Often in economic discussion, there seems to be a sense that there are limitless supply of goods, there is not, in a physical world contained in time and space, limitation is a reality that we must reckon with, and limitation means scarcity. Second, I have been told that the free market is a zero sum game. Even while acknowledging that I don’t understand that statement one hundred percent, I have to say that it seems incorrect. The free market cannot be a zero sum game because sin is not a zero sum game, and the free market involves sinful desires of people. That’s what supply and demand always incorporates implicitly. Sin is not the same as limitation, though related, to equate those would be a primal error in any discussion, but to the lunch line example, what it does show is that regulation is a helpful necessity but at the same time not a solution. This is so because the problem is not in the quality of distribution but in the desires of people and the blindness of people to the needs of others. “Incurvatus in se” the fourth century Bishop of Hippo used to teach. Our problems lie in our incurable proclivity of turning inward on ourselves, oblivious, if not consciously ignoring, the needs of others. But then, where art thou, solution?

The Art of Projection

10 08 2015

The early Greek philosopher Heraclitus (5th century BC) is known to have once said, “No man ever steps in to the same river twice, for it’s notprojector the same river and he’s not the same man.” Around it, he constructed a philosophy that claimed that everything was in flux, that everything was changing and change was the only constant. As erroneous as his framework was, Heraclitus is enlightening when we think of human natures propensity to project. Because even the same person cannot experience the same thing in the same manner twice (time does not say constant), it begs to ask, “How can one person understand the experiences of another person?” The best that one can do, perhaps, is to project our own experience on the details of the other person’s life as we try to understand them and their life.

And so, it seem that one of the hardest things in life, perhaps THE hardest thing, is to fully understand another person. On the flip-side, because it’s so unquenchable, perhaps our greatest longing in life is to be understand fully by another outside ourselves. Intimacy demands increasing understanding, and a best a human can do is to understand through our own experiences. The best a human can do is to project as little of our own experiences onto the other and try to understand afresh.

I want to hypothesize that the great reason for the boom of social media is loneliness. The world has grown more connected in search for the unquenchable, the search to be fully understood, to no avail. And so the world, we, continue to grow thirsty and thirsty. In our thirst, we are quick to want to be understood rather than to understand. We are quick to project rather than to listen. That is why my world was shaken by St Augustine’s three words (four in English), “Audi partem alteram (Hear the other side).” Can this be the cure for the loneliness in the world? For us to listen to each other first and strive to understand? Can we be fully understood by the powers of our ear? No, we can’t, at least not on our own. Not because Heraclitus was correct, but because humans can be fully understood just not by any other human. The cure for loneliness does not come at the ears of humanity but at the words of deity. And no, this is not a queue for pluralism here, postmodernism died long time ago. It is a hint that the solution to our world’s problems with intimacy lies with an incredibly majestic and ultimately personal God, and there is only one God such as this.

MERS, Fear, and Selfish Faith

17 06 2015


One Hundred Sixty-Two.

Six Thousand Five Hundred Eight.

Numbers and more numbers. It’s been around a month since the discovery of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) virus in Korea and the numbers keep climbing. The numbers keep coming. The numbers keep our fears in their place.

south-korea-mers-virusThis concerning situation with the spread of the deadly virus has reminded us of thoughts that were buried by the ordinary routine of our lives. First, that death is real, unpredictable, and most prominently uncontrollable. Couple years back, I wrote a post on Ernest Becker’s Pulizer Prize winning book The Denial of Death. We are reminded again how Becker was right in how humanity uses everything and anything to drown out the unchangeable truth of inevitable death. Death is the ultimate problem of humanity, and yet so many live on without a hint of desire to seek out the solution. Second, fear is ok. Fear of the virus, fear of infection, fear of isolation, fear of death. Often, we jest and laugh to minimize or guise our fears. We want to look strong. Fear is a sign of weakness and weakness is oh-so-unacceptable. But perhaps, fear is not that bad. Panic is bad. But fear? A healthy dose of fear helps survival. When a wild hungry tiger comes charging toward you to make you its next menu for dinner, fear will drive you to find an escape, drive you to seek survival when charging straight on against opposition is not wise for survival. Fear can be wise. Hmmm… I think the author of Proverbs said something to that effect. Third, faith can be selfish. A week ago in the church elevator, an elder (a leader of a Presbyterian church) pulls out a mask often suggested for MERS prevention from his pocket and proclaims his faith or perhaps his humor, “I want to put this on, but I’m scared that people will think I don’t have enough faith!” My mind dashed initially towards how wrong his theology of faith was, but the more my mind ran, it saw how selfish such faith was. If strong faith means not wearing a preventative mask at the expense of contaminating other people, it is no worthy faith at all. A selfless weak faith will suffice, one that may be timid but has in sight the well-being of the other. One that says, “I don’t know how I look in this thing, maybe I will look foolish, perhaps even risk looking faithless but if it will help stop the spreading.” Fourth, family is important and they are not with you always. Speak kind words. Spend time with them. Fifth, humans think they have more control than they actually have. It is evident in light of the first point and this MERS outbreak, we have none. Control is an illusion.

Last. My thoughts go to the twenty-one. The twenty-one who had families. The twenty-one who spent their last days in quarantined isolation. The twenty-one who were not just a number to produce in us fear, but lives who had stories. Prayers to them. Prayers to their families. And a word from the late Professor Al Groves who wrote this while struggling with terminal cancer: “I am in distress. But that is not the final word in my prayer. I live on the other side of the cross and the resurrection, that toward which Nehemiah looked from a distance. For me the final word is not distress, but hope in the One who has raised me from the dead and changed me into a new creature in Christ.”

Goodness in Illegality

13 11 2014

America and the West, often times in very confused manner, discusses and argues about what things should be legalize, what activities should be banned, etc. The rights and wrongs of a peaceful society colors itself gray, and the relationship of law to higher morality is channeled through much fog. But in a place where rights, any rights, are hard to come by, things start to become naturally clear. A CNBC article titled “How Millennials are shaking North Korea’s Regime” by Heesun Wee reminds us that not all laws are right and not all illegal activity is wrong. It rings true of what once was made clear in this western land by Dr King, Jr, in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”:

One may want to ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all”

The black market seems to have been growing and is becoming of potential agent of change from the outsiders perspective. This coupled with the growth of technology, smuggling of pop culture into the North seems to have created fertile soil for change. Even the passing of a generation have contributed to this ‘perfect storm’, where the younger generation no longer remembers any goodness of the NK regime and decreases their loyalty towards country and leadership. There is a hole growing in the hearts of the younger people in NK and individualism is filling it, perhaps even hope. One defector describes:

“The black market generation is someone like me, who experienced the black market when they were young. They never received any rations from the government. They have no memories of the good life,” Park said. “My generation, they’re not really worshiping the Kim regime sincerely, just pretending. That’s what we call the black market generation.”

Wee reminds us though that there still is another factor to keep in mind, which is the political and economic connectedness between the countries of East Asia. North Korea’s economic relationships that would seem legal if transplanted into another country is the very power that perpetuates the totalitarian regime, and it seems that in many ways China is quite an accomplice:

A U.N. panel found a “mature, complex and international corporate ecosystem” of foreign-based North Korean firms and individuals to evade scrutiny of assets, financial and trade dealings. North Korea is experienced in using foreign-based individuals and shell companies—engaged in legitimate business—to mask illicit activities associated with sourcing nuclear, ballistic missile and other weapons of mass destruction.

Even on a refugee issue, it is a well know that China’s repatriation of escaped NK refugees has come under scrutiny. It seems obvious that the human rights issue in NK is inescapably tied to China’s interests and actions. It is difficult to tell if a top-down approach will being about change in both China and NK, it seems rather more likely that, NK’s ‘Arab spring’ will come through a continued infiltration of illegal technology and culture.

Video from CNBC article: (http://video.cnbc.com/gallery/?video=3000329613)

For North Korean millennials still inside the country, black markets remain a part of their everyday lives. And while there’s no Twitter, YouTube or Facebook to spark mass unrest, pared down technology like laptops, radios and USB sticks are making their way inside, and being shared and discussed. It’s this powerful concoction of outside information and market activities that is fueling incremental transformation. And the younger generation is only getting older and wiser to the ways of the outside world.

“What it adds up to is this really significant social change whereby the North Korean millennials, or as we also call them the North Korean market generation, have this quite different relationship with the North Korean regime than their parents,” said Park of Liberty in North Korea. “In the long term, this looks like it’s going to be a really important factor for change.”

All this is hopeful and good news as one wishing for the country to open, but for the church, one cannot just sit around idle. The once strong Juche ideology of NK is growing weaker as the generation is changing and as great as economics and materialism can be a mechanism towards political restructuring, the church must prepare itself to fill this hole. Such will not only require sharing the gospel, it will take tangible and sacrificial filling of need, if and when there is an outflow of people growing in desire for a ‘better world.’

Money Can Buy Happiness

7 05 2014

To begin, happiness is overrated. Our culture thinks otherwise as Pharrell’s number one song “Happy” seems to indicate in these lyrics: “Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth.” Well… it’s not. It is true that Pascal said “All men seek happiness. This without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end.” But Pascal’s use of the word needs qualification, which we will not go into here. Happiness has always been a by-product of other things, which the well known quote from W. Beran Wolfe illustrates well,

If you observe a really happy man, you will find him building a boat, writing a symphony, educating his son, growing double dahlias, or looking for dinosaur eggs in the Gobi desert. He will not be searching for happiness as if it were a collar button that had rolled under the radiator, striving for it as the goal itself. He will have become aware that he is happy in the course of living life twenty-four crowded hours of each day.

Interestingly, this seems also true for one’s use of money. The old adage, ‘Money can’t buy happiness’ is contested as untrue by Michael Norton, not because money never leads to happiness but because we spend it wrongly. He finds in his studies that what we buy with our money contributes very little to our sense of happiness, rather, what he found as more important is who we spend it on. As interesting as the study findings are, Norton could have saved a lot of trouble if he just believed Acts 20:35 to be true at face value: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” But even so, his talk is worth watching:

Sacred or Secular?

28 10 2013

I’ve always balked at the idea of posing the question, “How’s your spiritual life?” I know there is a time and place to ask it, but in the larger scheme of life, it seems not a helpful inquisition for the cause of Christianity. Such strong hesitation, some may say is from my cynicism (or jadedness even), but in this particular case, they would be wrong. It is a result from a strong desire to oppose the detriment that have been seen when people, Christian or non-Christian, create a division between the sacred and secular in their lives. Brian J Walsh and J Richard Middleton seem to agree,

We are called to serve the Lord and acknowledge his kingship in the whole range of our cultural activities. There are no sacred/secular compartments here. Our service to God is not something we do alongside our ordinary human life. The Bible knows no such dichotomy. In the biblical world view all of life, in all of its dimensions, is constituted as religion. From our economic choices to our recreation, from our prayer life to the way in which we bathe our babies, in every cultural action and deed, we live only in response to the cosmic, creation law of God. This is God’s universe throughout. And we are called to be responsible respondents to his overarching Torah.

This false dichotomy is also perpetuated when pastors over-emphasize serving the church, particularly, over and against serving people in general. Regardless of intention, it instills in people a hierarchical worth in service, that being on the praise team or helping out at a church run event is more valuable than picking up the trash in your neighborhood or a service done outside the walls of the church building. Yes, there is the other side of the coin where only the few serve the many in church functions, and in the desire to motivate the lackadaisical, there is a pitting over against categories that should exist together. I suspect, such encouragement is largely due to fear. Fear that one cannot fill the necessary role within the church for minimal function. This is a realistic fear and a worthy need to chase. But if I have learned one thing, it is that fear (and pride) is never a good motivator, and of course, the sacred/secular dichotomy that results is never healthy, even if it seems innocuous at first.