Tag Archives: Threat

When Systemic Power is Threatened

When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.
Acts 4:13 (NIV)

There’s a lot of talk these days about “the swamp.” For Americans, this typically references what is perceived as the professional political class who corruptly rule from Washington D.C. oblivious to the day-to-day thoughts and concerned of the millions who carry on life outside the beltway. In the days of Jesus, Jews could easily have called the Temple in Jerusalem “the swamp.”

For Jewish people living in and around Jerusalem life revolved around the Temple. Not only was it the center of their religion, the only place where sacrifices and offerings were made, but it was also the center of political power. Life was dictated from the religious ruling class of priests and leaders in the temple who interpreted the law of Moses and told people what they could and couldn’t do. These priests, rabbis, lawyers, and scholars ruled over the people and claimed God’s authority for doing so. In reality, these guys had a great racket going. It was a system of power and corruption. They used their power to make themselves rich, lord over the common people, and consolidate their power and positions.

So it was that in today’s chapter, Peter and John’s healing of the crippled man and their bold proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection created a threat, a political threat, to the ruling religious class.

First, it threatened the priests own power and authority to have “unschooled, ordinary men” preaching so boldly. The religious leaders wanted common people thinking that only the educated and extraordinary teachers within the powerful ruling class in the Temple could speak for God.

Second, the miracle of the healing of the crippled man by such “unschooled, ordinary men” went against the narrative that God only works through the religious Temple system and its priests. They, however, had no similar miracles to point to showing that God was doing such things through them. If the common people began to think that the priests and teachers of the law were impotent it threatened their systemic stranglehold on power.

Third, the fact that Peter and John were speaking about this pesky teacher, Jesus, and proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus from the dead stirred dissension within the religious ruling class itself. Resurrection was a theological topic of hot debate. Those who believed in resurrection and those who didn’t were bitter rivals. You’ll note that it was the Sadducees (an anti-resurrection faction among the temple scholars) who had Peter and John arrested. The high priest is not going to want this miracle business to create an internal rift within the swamp.

Finally, the high priest and his cronies had to have been frustrated that this Galilean rabbi, Jesus, kept coming up. “Didn’t we execute him weeks ago? Can’t somebody figure out what they did with his body so we can be done with this?”

When you threaten a powerful system, that system will act to stamp out the threat to its power. The story of Peter and John healing the crippled man is like the pebble that starts an avalanche. This conflict is just getting started.

This morning I’m thinking about the many times in my life when I’ve watched systemic and institutional authority feel threatened and the ways that authority reacted to consolidate power and diminish or eliminate the threat. I’ve seen some doozies in families, schools, businesses, churches, and civic organizations.

In the quiet I’m mulling over my own circles of influence. In some I am the systemic authority. How do I respond to threats in a positive way, recognizing that my discomfort just might be reluctance to change in ways that would be positive for the system? In other cases, I’m an anonymous cog in a larger system with a penchant for initiating change. How can I do so in ways that are honoring to God and authority?

Free Speech (or Not)

 Therefore this is what the Lord says about the people of Anathoth who are threatening to kill you, saying, “Do not prophesy in the name of the Lord or you will die by our hands”
Jeremiah 11:21 (NIV)

I have been intrigued to observe what has transpired in our culture over recent years with regard to our freedom of speech. I’ve watched the proliferation of social media in which every individual has a megaphone with which to broadcast their thoughts, opinions, and little kitty pictures to anyone who will listen. I think most of us have had an experience in which what could and should be a forum for discovery, appreciation, connection, conversation, and discussion quickly erodes into a quagmire of anger, disrespect, slander and anonymous trolls hiding behind usernames spewing hatred. And of course we are all now well aware that there are those with ill motives seeking to stir up dissension and chaos for political reasons.

At the same time, I’ve observed that our educational institutions are increasingly willing to suppress the free expression of thoughts and opinions from faculty and guest lecturers when those thoughts and opinions are unpopular or offend the listener. There are students who seek to be sheltered from any words, thoughts, or ideas that contradict or challenge their own world view. In recent years, those who hold unpopular opinions receive death threats, are physically attacked, or are simply dis-invited from speaking.

One one hand anyone can say anything they want (and do). On the other hand anyone who holds an unpopular opinion is unwelcome and silenced. Fascinating.

Free expression and conflict over words, thoughts, opinions, and ideas have always been part of the human experience. Examples abound, such as the prophet Jeremiah.

In today’s chapter the ancient prophet Jeremiah is made aware of a plot to kill him. The source of the threat comes from the town of Anathoth which was located a few miles north of Jerusalem. What’s fascinating to discover is that Anathoth is Jeremiah’s hometown. It is also a town that was given to the descendants of Aaron who were the priests in the ancient religious system of the Hebrews. Only a descendant of Aaron could be a priest. In other words, those who were seeking to silence Jeremiah and plotting to kill him were his own people from a town dedicated to leaders of the Temple.

I’m reminded this morning of Jesus’ observation that “a prophet is without honor in his own home town.” Jesus said this right after his own neighbors in Nazareth sought to throw Him off a cliff. He could very well have been thinking about Jeremiah when He said it. It was descendants of the crew who sought to kill Jeremiah who would plot Jesus’ death, as well.

I’m also reminded that history gives us many examples in various disciplines of individuals branded heretics in their day who were revealed over time to be right. Only now in retrospect do we regard them as heroes of history. These “heretics” often suffered terribly in their day for saying things that were unpopular, politically incorrect, or by challenging the prevailing world-view. Jeremiah is just one of them.

As I do each morning, I will publish this blog post and share it on Facebook. A few people will read it. Of those who do I hope there are one or two who appreciate the post. There may be some who get pissed off simply by seeing that idiot Tom and his stupid religious posts in their feed. I’m well aware that the vast majority of people will simply ignore it. C’est la vie.

I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity to express what I’m thinking about on my daily spiritual journey and to put it out there where, instantly, anyone on the planet with an internet connection can read it. Through all of human history it is only in the past 20 years or so that this was possible.

I pray that I will always be free to do so.

The Illusion of Security

Alas for those who are at ease in Zion,
    and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria….
Amos 6:1a (NRSV)

I have done a fair amount of business travel over the years. It’s interesting to fly in an out of different airports. I’ve been through virtually every major hub in the United States at one time or another, and I’ve also been to a host of tiny, remote airports with only a gate or two. Making your way through the lines of the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) can be a very different experience from airport to airport.

Over the years I’ve had zealous TSA agents confiscate any number of small objects from my bags which had been ignored by TSA agents at an earlier airport. I just shake my head and let it go. Trying to pick a fight with a surly TSA agent is a losing proposition. At the same time, I have any number of sharp,  roller ball pens which would do real damage to a person’s jugular. As I’m making my way through the TSA line I often think of a scene in the movie Gross Pointe Blank in which John Cusack kills a guy with a cheap ballpoint pen. (I’m a bit hesitant to actually write that. I don’t want the TSA taking away a good pen!)

We talk a lot about the need for safety and security in society, and by all means we should do what we can to eliminate common dangers and threats. The truth is, however, that the idea of complete safety and security are illusions by-and-large. Those who are hell-bent on death and destruction find a way. They always have, and they always will. In recent months we’ve watched as killers who, seemingly unable to acquire guns and bombs, used trucks and vehicles to kill people in crowded streets.

In today’s chapter the ancient prophet Amos addresses those who are sitting in relative safety, security and ease around him. In their ease, luxury, and comfort they remain unaware of the problems surrounding them or the looming threats on the horizon. Amos prophetically warns them of death and destruction to come. It came about 15 years later when the Assyrians rolled over the northern kingdom of Israel. It came about 65 years later for the southern kingdom of Judah when the Babylonians came to town.

What Amos faults his people for in his prophetic poem is their casual disregard for what’s going on around them. They isolated and insulated themselves from the social, spiritual, and political problems of their day. They felt safe and secure, but it was an illusion that left them unprepared for what was coming.

Please don’t read what I’m not writing this morning. I’m all for doing what we can to ensure safety and security. I’m simply reminded this morning that no amount of security or safety measures can eliminate tragedy from striking. This morning I have an image playing in my head of Mad-Eye Moody in Harry Potter and Goblet of Fire demanding of his students “Constant vigilance!” Indeed. I cannot stop tragedy from striking in this fallen world, but I can remain open-eyed and vigilant.

Siege and Parley

But the [Assyrian] commander replied, “Was it only to your master and you that my master sent me to say these things, and not to the people sitting on the wall—who, like you, will have to eat their own excrement and drink their own urine?
Isaiah 36:12 (NIV)

It was a day of doom. The walled city of Jerusalem was under siege just as everyone had feared; The city was surrounded by the Assyrian army. The Assyrian army of which so many rumors had been whispered. The large army, well-trained and well-equipped that had swept through the region swallowing up every city in its wake. The army that tortured their enemies mercilessly. The army thirsty for blood. The army bent on violent destruction.

In today’s chapter we have front row seats in witness of what historians call siege warfare. For many centuries of history cities were surrounded by walls to protect the residents from invading armies. In order to conquer a city, armies would lay siege to it. Besieging armies would completely surround a city to cut off the inhabitants from food, fresh water, and supplies. They would then wait (sometimes years) until the people of the town were starving, weak, despondent and desperate.

In siege warfare it was common for envoys of the besieged city and a commander of the besieging army to have a series of an ancient version of a diplomatic meeting, called a parley. The city’s envoy(s) would do their best to display confidence that the city would not fall. The besieging army’s commander would do his best try to play psychological games with threats, intimidation, and insults.

Shakespeare, in Henry V, dramatically stages one of the best examples of a parley as, between attacks, King Henry of the invading English army parleys with the mayor of  the besieged French town of Harfleur …

The field commander of the Assyrians in Isaiah’s recounting uses the same classic parley tactics in taunting the envoys of Jerusalem’s King Hezekiah. He insults them and threatens them. He threatens their God, and tries to instill fear in the common soldiers on the wall. It’s a fascinating exercise to deconstruct the envoys speech and discover all of the psychological tactics he employed in his two speeches.

This morning I’m thinking about the ways these very base tactics are still employed. From trash talking on the athletic field to advanced siege and interrogation techniques of the modern battlefield  in which subjects are bombarded with negative audio stimulation while not being allowed to sleep or rest.

This isn’t very different than the way our spiritual enemy continues to attack on an on-going basis. Spiritual attack is an attempt to lay siege to heart and soul. The enemy attempts to isolate me from any network of support, surround me so as to feel there is no escape, then bombard me with an steady attack of messages designed to heighten my shame, shake my faith, cast doubt, and instill fear.

I am reminded this morning that, along life’s journey, I’m going to be spiritually besieged. Recognizing the enemies tactics is the first step in thwarting them. Once recognized for what it is, sometimes the best response (just like Hezekiah’s envoys employed in today’s chapter) is silent assurance.

chapter a day banner 2015

Featured image by MKorchia via Flickr

The Appeal of a Cloistered Life

I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one….As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.
John 17:15, 18 (NRSV)

There has always been something about monastic life that has secretly appealed to me. I like the idea of leaving everything behind to live simply and humbly in quiet devotion. Whenever I hear or read about a monastery or convent, there’s a piece of my heart that envies the brothers and sisters who lead a cloistered life.

Along my journey I have recognized that there are different types of cloistered lives. In the Roman Catholic tradition it is a very specific separation from the world as the monks or nuns live in community with one another in a sequestered space. In the Evangelical tradition I have grown up in, we also have a version of the cloistered life. Our version of it is more subtle. We separate ourselves from the world while still appearing to live in it.

Our social lives revolve around our church or Christian school. We attend Christian concerts, frequent Christian bookstores, and hang out with others in Christian coffee shops. We read Christian fiction and listen to Christian music on Christian radio stations. We decorate our homes with Christian decor and watch Christian movies and Christian television programs.  We put Christian bumper stickers on our cars. We may appear to live in the world, but the reality is that our lives are carefully, surgically separated and cloistered from it.

I cannot, however, escape the simple and direct statements Jesus made in today’s chapter. He is sending His followers into the world. He is not sending them to live in insulated, cloistered community where they will be safe, secure, and insulated. He is sending them into the world where there is darkness, danger and the threat of harm. That is why the Father’s protection is necessary.

Today, I am thinking about the cloistered life. It will likely never cease to appeal to me. It is not, however, the path to which I am called. Jesus calls me, not out of the world, but into the world where I am often thought strange, where I am regularly misunderstood, and where I routinely feel awkward and out of place. That’s the mission, however. It was the mission for Jesus, and it’s the mission that He gave to those of us who follow.

chapter a day banner 2015

 

Chapter-a-Day 2 Kings 25

The carrot and the stick. But then, afraid of what the Babylonians would do, they all took off for Egypt, leaders and people, small and great. 2 Kings 25:26 (MSG)

In my daily vocation I spend a lot of time and energy helping companies and their individual employees measure and improve the quality of the customer service they deliver in daily interactions with customers. It's been an interesting lesson in human nature. I always approach my role as coach and encourager. If a person is open and willing to change, then the process is generally a lot of fun. It's a win-win-win for client, customer, and coach. There are, however, always those who stalwartly fight the process. A few people will always refuse to change, build up anger, and spread a contagious bad attitude.

One of the things that I've learned in years on the job is that encouragement and positive reinforcement only work to change behavior with a certain segment of the population. There are some who will only change if and when they feel the fear or consequences of negative reinforcement. Sad, but true.

Isn't it interesting that a considerable amount of God's message is dedicated to warning that there are negative consequences to our unchecked poor choices and bad behavior? I would love it if God could get away with simply spouting encouraging platitudes and inspirational epithets. No matter how much we want positive change to be motivated simply by dangling a carrot in front of us, the truth is that some will only respond to a swift stick on the backside.

God's message to us, and His work in our lives, is a mixture of both.

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Flickr and bthomso