Monthly Archives: December 2010

Interview with a Conscientious Objector

Slate interviews Josh Stieber, who decided during his tour in Iraq that he “would rather go to prison than remain in the military.”  He got conscientious objector status instead, but the whole interview here is compelling.  Money quote:

I thought back to all the stuff I’d heard sitting next to this guy in church, and I asked him, “Well, even if he is guilty, what about the idea of loving our enemies and returning evil with good and turning the other cheek? How do you reconcile all those teachings?” My friend said, “I think that Jesus would have turned his cheek once or twice but he never would have let anyone punk him around.” Hearing him say it that way just made it sound so ridiculous. Here we supposedly had faith in this guy who very clearly was punked around, and ended up living and dying with sacrificial love. From then on, I really had to face the fact that I couldn’t have it both ways. Either I was going to try to find this inward reality where sacrificial love was possible for a higher goal, or I was going to let self-defense be my ultimate value.

Read the whole thing.

Two of my best friends in high school went straight into the military after graduation—one into the medical corps, the other into the infantry.  I never could have done it.  Back then, I wouldn’t have done it because I was 127 pounds (not that that’s changed much) and more interested in religion (surprise, surprise) than national security.  But now, I resonate with everything this guy is saying.

I am also continually amazed at Christian folks’ ability to circumnavigate the Sermon on the Mount.  Man.

(Hat tip: The Daily Dish)


Friday Link Roundup

Um, yes, I really am geeky enough to do this.  Here’s your weekend reading, if you find yourself bored.  All you college kids are done with school now, so what else are you gonna do?

Dr. Beck wants to free American Christians from stockholm syndrome.

NYT Mag: What Was the Hipster?

Do real men cuddle?

What’s going on with the Church in China?  A glimpse:

China-watchers in the church should now be looking for another book, one that cannot quite yet be written, namely a study of the rapid growth of Christianity in the intellectual and governing communities over the past twenty years. By a great irony of history, “true-believer Marxism” has been a precursor, a John the Baptist, to Christianity among cultural élites. In these circles one finds an increasingly vibrant, intelligent faith that has more in common with the Christianity of Roman antiquity just before Constantine than it does with anything currently Western. This major development, uncharted in the present work, is a source of great hope for our Chinese brothers and sisters. For ourselves it may prove an interesting challenge.

Finally: a chart of contradictions in the Bible.

My Friend Noah is Smart

My friend Noah, one of the few people I know not on Facebook, started blogging during a trip to Rwanda this summer, and never stopped.  In his most recent post, he brings our attention to the communal, even national side of evil:

The point of this post is this: evil is not content to be resigned to the individual sphere of human affairs. It slithers its way into our communal consciousness, into our nations, our businesses, our churches, polluting every aspect of human life. Our culture values individual responsibility very highly, but in doing so runs the risk of missing the ways that these communal systems have been infiltrated by the evil rampant among us. Not one is righteous, writes St. Paul, and it is so: no individual, nation, or denomination is without blemish. May we be given the grace to remove the blinders of unquestioning patriotism and condemn evil in its every form, at home and abroad. May we be given the grace confess our guilt and set out down the long path of healing.


Can Fair Trade fix the problem?

Coffee consumers

In my last post, I took a long look at my three brief weeks working a temp job in Seattle.  The whole experience troubled my conscience, as I realized, increasingly, that many of the things I consume—things I cherish, like books and coffee—are produced by laborers under less-than-ideal conditions, and that I will never actually meet the people who produce and manufacture what I consume.  It’s a symptom of the growing gap between the producing and the consuming classes.

We feel guilty about this, I think, deep down.  We are increasingly aware that somewhere, some nameless people are working very hard to pick our coffee beans, or bind our books.  We hear of unjust labor practices in faraway places.  We hear of sweatshops and slavery.  So we buy Fair Trade coffee and look into where our clothes were made and try to shop intelligently.

Here’s the thing: we don’t do these things because we believe it will solve the problem.  No.  Me buying Fair Trade coffee will not address the root of the problem.  It is band-aid slapped on a gaping wound in our society.  We know this, I think.

Coffee producer


Rather, I submit that the main reason we “shop smart”, or whatever you want to call it, is to assuage our own guilt.  We want to consume, but we also want to disassociate ourselves from the injustices that make that consumption possible, because they make us feel bad inside.  This is a futile exercise.

What is the shape of Christian fidelity in the midst of this quandary?  How then should we live?

I want to argue that although paying attention to how we shop is important, it doesn’t address the much deeper issue at stake here—the gap in community between consumers and producers.  This problem is deeper, more basic—more radical.  And radical problems require radical solutions.

Way back in the beginning of things, we Christians had a powerful and effective solution to this problem: community.  Members of the first Christian community in Jerusalem were required—required!—to share all of their possessions with each other.  Those who held out, God killed.  I’m not kidding about this.  Look it up.

Paul and James alike, in fact, are outraged by any kind of rich-poor divisions within the communities they address (and, by extension, our own!).  In 1 Corinthians, Paul writes:

“When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you!”

James, similarly:

“My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please’, while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there’, or, ‘Sit at my feet’, have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonoured the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?”

Now, here’s the fascinating thing about both of these passages: even though Paul and James are both upset over unfair discrimination within their communities, both of these passages assume that rich and poor were eating in the same room.  They were, in short, in communion with one another.

That’s certainly more than we can say about our church communities today.  How many churches have you been to where the gap between the incomes of its richest and poorest members was at all significant?  There are wealthy churches, there are middle-class churches, and there are poor churches.  Though we confess the same Lord, we choose to associate by class.  There’s something wrong about that.

OK.  So . . . that’s my diagnosis.  What’s the prescription?  C’mon, people, let’s hear some ideas: how do we go about addressing this issue in our churches, in our neighborhoods, and in our homes?

On my three weeks as a temp laborer

For three weeks this winter, I worked a temp job as a warehouse worker at small publishing company here in Seattle.  It was 40 hours a week—ten hours a day, Monday through Thursday.  I did it this with my two dear friends, Alec and Brent.  Every morning at 6:30, we left the house.  It was still dark.  We arrived by seven and stood in a line, all three of us, doing the same set of motions.  We bound books.

We were, admittedly, cogs in a very big machine, and if they could figure out how to make cheap robots to do our work instead, we would have been out of a job.  Binding a book involves two machines—one to apply the glue to the cover, and one to press the book together (hey, I found a picture!)—and about thirty seconds of labor by hand.  Imagine doing the same minute-long process for 10 hours every day, with a fifteen minute break every two hours or so.  Mind-numbing, you would think.

The weird thing was, I actually enjoyed it.  There is a deeper sort of dignity in manual labor.  It is good to come home tired.  When you work a ten-hour shift, it’s easier not to feel guilty about watching TV or reading a book, or doing any other activity that involves a couch.

One of the reasons I enjoyed my job was that its repetitive nature freed me to just think, which is something I have a hard time doing these days.  Life is full of distractions, especially when you’re on a computer, and being away from all that stuff is incredibly refreshing.  It is liberating.

The other bonus is that I was binding books, and I love books.  This particular publishing company  does mainly individual orders.  People will put together family photo albums, or chronicle their vacations, or document their weddings, make books out of them online, and have this company print them off and ship them over.  Consequently, my job often made me feel like something of a voyeur.  Not in a gross way.  Usually.  Sometimes we print some pretty dirty stuff.  Ladies, if you’re going to make a book online of nude pictures of yourself and mail it to your boyfriend or husband or whatever, do keep in mind that about 18-20 factory workers will also be viewing these photos, you know?

Regardless, the books I print prompt my imagination and make me think.  On Tuesday, for example, about 90% of the books I bound were of white, middle-class families’ vacations, reunions, and weddings.  For some reason, the middle class finds this kind of thing irresistible.  What really makes me gag is when I put together an 80-page book about somebody’s dog.  Or somebody’s dog’s love affair with somebody else’s dog.  That’s just weird, people.  Your dog is not that special.  If you absolutely must coddle and spoil something, adopt a child or something.  A dog is a dog.  You can put a tutu or a leather jacket on it or whatever you want, but it will still shit on your lawn.

Boy am I tangential today.

Anyway, on this one day in particular I found binding all of these books very off-putting.  I come from a white, middle-class family, and in many ways I am very thankful for that.  I am lucky to have parents that stayed together, lucky that my mom and dad both have steady jobs, and lucky that I grew up in a safe neighborhood.  Those things were very important to my childhood.  What’s more, as a member of the middle class, I’m lucky that I know how to do a job interview, how to fill out a tax return form, and how to budget and manage money (even if I don’t always follow through).  These are important skills.

But it was a bizarre and unsettling experience, binding books full of pictures of middle-class people doing middle-class things.  We take vacations in tropical locations.  We play expensive sports.  We spoil our pets.  It was bizarre and unsettling, mainly, because the people I worked with are emphatically not white, or middle-class.  They are the working poor.  They don’t go to Cabo when they get a week off, they don’t live in safe neighborhoods, they can’t afford a college education.  And they are, largely, invisible to the people taking those vacations and spoiling those dogs.

To put it another way: I’ve read a lot of books in my life, but never once, until this job, had I thought about where they might come from.  I don’t mean the authors, of course.  I mean the materials themselves.  It struck me last week that somebody put together this book for me.  Many people, in fact.  And their names weren’t featured prominently on the cover.  None of the books I bound this week will say anywhere, “bound lovingly by Michael A. Zosel”.  And I have no idea who put together my copy of “The Qur’an: A Biography” or “The New Testament and the People of God”.  I have no idea who cut the trees down, who made the paper, who printed the ink, who cut the pages, who sewed them together, who attached the covers, or any of that.

We in the middle-class don’t really think about that kind of thing very often.  We consume, yes—but someone must produce.  And our consumption is dependent upon their production.  Yet we never meet these people—not usually, anyway.


This is what bugs me, this invisible wall between consumers and producers.  It doesn’t seem right to me, doesn’t seem just, that these families I make books for can live their whole lives without really interacting and meeting the folks whom they depend on.  They will never meet my co-workers, Ros and Kevin and Rosa and Ali.  Yet they use these people to make their things for them.

This is happening everywhere, all the time.  Those with are becoming increasingly isolated and separated from those without.

Naturally, you can expect me to have some ideas on what one possible solution to these problems might be.  But for a variety of reasons, I want to stop here for now and solicit your own thoughts on the matter.

Just from the way I have framed this post, you can probably tell how I feel about this problem.  But do you disagree?  Is this really a problem, or am I being hypersensitive?

If you agree with me that something needs to be changed, well, what do you think the solution is?  How do we in the Church, as Christians, address and engage the problem?

The comment button, as always, is below.

Welcome to Casa Nova!

When I was abroad in Jerusalem this summer, a friend I met there asked me, “So, Mike, what’s your background?”  Religiously speaking, that is.  I guess most people have a short answer to that.  ”Baptist.”  ”Catholic.”  ”I wasn’t raised in the church.”  Or whatever.  What came out of my mouth kind of surprised me:

Well, my mom’s side is Catholic, so some of my earliest memories are of mass, with the chanting and bells and all of that, but when I was five we had Baptist neighbors move in, and they took me to five-day camp, where I asked Jesus into my heart, so to speak, but then my mom took me to a Lutheran church for a while, and then one of my aunt’s friends invited us to this Quaker-evangelical start-up place that wanted to be a megachurch someday, so I did that through most of middle school and high school, and I went to Quaker camp every summer, and then after that church died I went to a Lutheran university for a year, then transferred to a Methodist school where I got a B.A. in theology, and for the past year I’ve been going to an Episcopalian church, but when I get back I’m thinking about going to this Presbyterian church near my house . . .

So, theologically speaking, I’m kind of a vagrant.  I am homeless.  The only place that’s really familiar to me is evangelicalism, but I’m not even sure what that means anymore, and honestly that place is such a mess that I’m not sure I ever want to go back.  Like the home I grew up in, it feels too small now.  So for a while there, I was yet another twenty-something refugee from a shallow evangelicalism, wandering aimlessly among the mainliners in search of a place to call home.

I quickly got tired of doing this.

Clarity came when I realized, during a trip to Jerusalem I took this summer, that being a Christian is not about being at home, but about being on the way.  We are not vagrants, but pilgrims.

This blog springs out of that conviction.  Casa Nova (it means “the new house”) is a hospice in Jerusalem where I stayed this summer: it’s a place where pilgrims and strangers can stop travelling for a moment, hear about others’ journeys, and share their own.  This is the virtual equivalent: a halfway house for pilgrim theologians—a place along the way to stop, think, and talk with your fellow travelers.  Where have we been?  Where are we now?  And where should we go next?

As the host, my hope is not to drive the discussion, but to spark it and draw as many thoughtful voices into the conversation as possible.  If you have a word about God to share, I hope you will feel welcome to do so here (for more details, see the House Rules on the menu above).

Welcome to Casa Nova.  You’re welcome to stay as long as you like.