What can we do with the violence in the Old Testament?

We have been visiting some old passages in the Bible at our Public Meetings, pondering old poems and how we can relate to them. When we start reading and thinking about those passages, the violence that God seems to be really into is hard for us to reconcile, especially with our image of a nonviolent Jesus. What do we do with God destroying the prophets of Baal or the Egyptian army? Nicholas Kristof wrote in the New York Times the other week that the Bible “recounts God ordering genocides, such as the one against the Amalekites.”

So what do we do with that cognitive dissonance between the character of Jesus and the violence of his Father? (Especially after Luther and Calvin reinforced such violence in their theory of the atonement.) How do we reconcile seemingly different personalities of God in the New and Old Testament? For some people, this is a real sticking point to following Him. Here a few of my reasons why it is not a sticking point for me. I’m not trying to present a perfect argument, just some food for thought.

  1. I don’t start by looking for problems in the Bible. Even though deconstruction might be the starting point for many postmodernists, it isn’t mine. If you look for trouble, you will find it. I’m looking for inspiration, understanding, mutuality, and depth of faith in the scripture. I find it, too! It’s an ancient text, not a contemporary volume.
  2. The Bible is not the fourth member of the Trinity. The Bible is authoritative, true; but I hesitate to label is with defining labels like “inerrant” and “infallible”—defining the scripture by what it is not is not helpful for me. If the first and second half don’t match up, that doesn’t cause me too much trouble because I don’t think that detracts from its authority. I’m not looking for the scripture to work itself out in some reconciliatory way for it to be revelatory.
  3. The Bible isn’t a handbook or a style guide. In other words, it is a book written by many different people that serves the purpose of conveying a variety of messages in a variety of voices in a variety of genres. There are parts of the scripture that are meant for instruction, but even then, they are instructive to an audience (specific or otherwise) and need more than just comprehension to apply.
  4. Generally, the so-called violent passages are meant to encourage oppressed people, not enflame them to violence. In the modernistic era, we might read Exodus 15, for example, and be perturbed that we are celebrating the violent destruction of Pharaoh’s army. But for the people for whom it was written, it is an exciting narrative that sustains them when they are oppressed. If we put on the “lens of the oppressed” we might see this more clearly.
  5. There is a meta-narrative happening in the scripture. The books of the Bible are telling a greater story. One shouldn’t read a single verse out of context (like Kristof does above), nor can an entire book or chapter be removed from its context in the greater narrative. Furthermore, believers are a part of the greater narrative and so we cannot be removed from the context of a relationship with Jesus or being filled with the Holy Spirit. When there is seeming endorsement of ethnic cleansing or genocide, I think it is OK to call them wrong. Not even just wrong today, but wrong then. I think God can change his mind, actually; and I think Jesus changes everything again.
  6. If you can’t get the whole thing, start with what you can. The Bible was meant to be a whole story. But if it’s too much for you to consume (which I think is the wrong mentality), start with what you can and see if God can’t change your mind about the parts that were too hard to stomach.
  7. Jesus is the fulfillment of the law and prophets. John calls Jesus the Word of God. That’s a term that is sometimes used to describe the Bible itself. But Jesus is the fulfillment of all that is in the Bible. He did not come to abolish what came before, mainly in the Old Testament, but to literally birth it again. For me, I start reading the Bible with Jesus-lens on, and begin reading it from the Sermon on the Mount out.

There is much more that we could say about this subject, but we can at least start here. Terry Brensinger has many good things to say in this great article: War in the Old Testament: A Journey Toward Nonparticipation. You can add more thoughts in the comments.

Beyond our careers, discerning our flame of faith

Picture1I think it can be a challenge to “fan the flame of faith.” We are called to discern what we are going to do about our new birth. How we are going to lead and serve. How we are going to be the light for the world. How we are going to fan the flame to influence even more people.

It’s like that moment Moses had when he was addressed by the Burning Bush in Exodus 3.

Moses has myriad reasons not to do this. One, he didn’t think he was much of a public speaker. Two, he was a wanted felon in Egypt. Three, he had settled down in the countryside with his business and his life and his wife. Why would he go back to Egypt? He thought he already made it.

Of course, as you know, Moses becomes an instrumental person in the redemption of Israel. More than that, his story and the freedom the Israelites experience when they are liberated from their Egyptian oppressors is a story that sustains them throughout their captivity over thousands of years.

The Passover story is what sustained black people during slavery and the civil rights movement and even today. Moses responded to a seemingly illogical call.

Our call might not come in a miracle like the burning bush, but it might seem as impractical as that. It was for the disciples, too, when Moses appears on a mountain again.

I remember my own fiery mountain experience. I was confronted with what God wanted me to do, perhaps what would end up being my vocation.

Sam Fischer, an old servant of God who volunteered at my youth group, once heard me speak in public. He sat me down afterward and told me he thought I’d be a good pastor. But being a pastor was really far from my mind.

At that point in my life, I still thought I’d be a journalist. I wanted to write to impact the world. I quickly become disillusioned with working for the media when I realized that just a handful of conglomerates owned the majority of it in the U.S. I thought public education was next for me. What better way to change the world than by educating the least of these? In fact, I had admired the teachers around me so much that I wanted to be as impacting as them. I graduated Temple University with a degree in education and I taught in the School District of Philadelphia for two years.

It took me a while, but eventually I started getting acclimated to the intense work environment of urban public education and it really felt like I could make a living being a teacher. Admittedly, the first year was almost impossible, but things got better.

Then all of that changed. Circle of Hope had saved my faith just a few years prior, and I was an active leader of the church. Joshua Grace, one of our pastors and a crucial mentor of mine, asked me to be part of a process that would select the next church planting pastor for Circle of Hope. I spoke to my girlfriend, now wife, and we agreed to give it a shot. A few months later we discerned I was the right fit for the job, and I packed my boxes at school, and started.

I feel fulfilled. This feels right to me, and it is what I want to be doing—but I might be able to say that about teaching too (or being a ride foreman for Hersheypark too). I am deeply honored to be pastoring in Circle of Hope and I want to grow and expand as much as I can as a leader. I have so much to learn and I’m even looking forward to the challenges ahead.

I am indebted to the pastors’ team that I am on—Joshua, Rod, and Nate are my heroes. Really! They lead me and nurture me and mentor me.

But leading can be isolating. It is not always rewarding.

That is the dilemma of fanning into flame our life in Christ, though—suffering will follow. It is not a perfect match that we are looking for, but a way to express our true calling: making disciples of all nations, spreading God’s love to the margins just like Jesus demonstrates in the next 10 chapters of Luke.

It’s probably easy to hear this story about vocation and think that being a pastor is easy to call “vocational.” But it seems to me that the question of vocation is much more complicated than just career. Our Burning Bush moment is meant to equip us to be a part of the “family business,” the “world redemption project.”

The idea of a family business is hard for us to wrap our minds around, perhaps, because we’ve been given the world to explore. In the Early church the vocational question was, “Should I be a Christian?” It was dangerous to be one, so the question of how public one would be mattered. In the Middle Ages it was a question of ministry or family: should I marry or should I join the monastery? In the Modern-era, the idea was you could pick whatever job you wanted because your vocation was to work hard. For the postmodernism, the question is more of identity: what does God want me to do with my life? Nietzsche would say, “What does your conscience say?  You should become the person you are.” Henri Nouwen says that the question of vocation and identity centers on knowing we are the beloved of God.

Ultimately, I think we need to see what God has for us individually in the burning bush. Discern individually what your ‘calling’ is. Don’t be afraid to do what you want, but ask God how it fulfills his greater purpose and come up with a plan for how you will do that. Talk to someone about it, your pastor, or cell leader, or someone else and see what they give you back. You may want to call someone else out too.

And also, let’s discern what the second act is for Circle of Hope. What does God want us to do next? How will our flame be fanned? What is God telling all of us through the burning bush?

All these things should be discerned together and make some sense cogently. It’s a challenge to be so communitarian in a Western environment, but I pray that we can mutually submit to “God’s will” for us so to speak, and not just make it about settling down or finding the right house or spouse or something. I think God calls us to be even deeper than that.

When it comes to sex, strings are always attached; let’s bind ourselves to Jesus

Sex is a perennial topic on my blog because of how obsessed we are with the subject and how bad Christians are at taking about it. It’s all black-and-white, perfect-or-not. I’m not sure I’m much better, but I at least want to start a dialogue.

The way Jesus defines healthy sex when he speaks about marriage is that it is best in an exclusive relationship, between two people, who are committed to each other. You can probably proof-text your way out of these basics, but I think, for me, the proof is in the pudding. It’s not about learning how to justify what I desire, but trying to get what God desires to transform my desires. Practically, I think sex works best when we are doing it the way Jesus advised.

But Jesus’ ideal standard is so often broken that it’s hard to not feel shame or exclusion from other Christians, even when they may not be shaming or excluding you. People will often stop following Jesus when it comes to sex because they are hurt, lonely, isolated, confused, or looking for some real affection and connection. Sex is often the easiest cure to those things, but ultimately it may exacerbate them.

From what I’ve known and observed, here are three things I’ve learned about sex or sexual affection when it’s experienced outside of Jesus’ definition.

Unhealthy sex can lead to indifference. Sometimes this guilt is so crippling, that the response is to become desensitized to the emotionality of sexual experiences. Our society is so sex-filled and porn is so accessible, it is hard to realize that a foot massage is not just a foot massage. Sex means something. But if we have enough unhealthy sex, I think we lose that it matters. We might start to think it is just about exchanging fluids.

Add to that the church’s unending guilt induction (to the point where it can no longer speak prophetically about how we have sex) and we might have people that refuse to think about sexual immorality and feel justified in their promiscuity. Moreover, sometimes people have been hurt by a marriage or a relationship that might be considered “holy” in the eyes of the church, that they don’t allow their pain to be transformed by God, they merely transmit it to the people around them in the form of “casual sex” (which I have come to learn is a reason to log onto OK Cupid).

The problem is that the people involved in a sexual encounter are not always indifferent. Sometimes they are looking for something more that stimulation, like a genuine relationship. Because that’s so often the case when commitment is not made clear, unhealthy sex can lead to confusion. Sex seems to happen before intentions are stated, or sometimes it seems to happen when those intentions are falsely stated.

This sounds obvious, but even a covenant in front of God and community, if held in isolation, may have similarly poorly communicated intentions. One person has expectations, and the other has none; the result is two people that are estranged, and confused—meanwhile they have shared among the most intimate things two people can share.

This might happen a lot in the midst of our hook-up culture; sex is expected if someone “puts out.” On the other hand, sometimes the expectation isn’t sex, but a relationship after the sex. When that doesn’t happen, even more confusion occurs. This happens in anonymity a lot of the time, where it is concealed and forgotten about, but it can happen among friends and in community too.

Unhealthy sex leads to loneliness. When indifference meets confusion, loneliness creeps in. Already, we live in a world that’s so connected, it’s hard to be alone; so isolated, it’s hard to be in community; so instant, we can never be patient. Unhealthy sex adds to all of those problems, and it does damage to our souls. It can even leave us feeling distant from God, not just because we think we are too “polluted” to talk to him, but because we don’t know ourselves and we can’t seem to know him either.

That loneliness and isolation is an incubator for our pain and suffering; for our anxiety and depression. Sometimes we lose so much affection and intimacy that the only way to receive is through more bad sex. The problem is that we then conflate sex and connection—so that every single encounter with a potential mate is sexual. We forget how to even have relationships. We think everyone has an ulterior motive.

I think there is hope to all of this though and it is found in real community, even though the community is not perfect. It’s intentionality and goal of transformation combats the indifference of unhealthy sex. When everything matters, it’s hard to say that sex does not.

Because we have agreements that are basic to leadership, and honesty and transparency is the only way that a community maintains integrity, a healthy community also combats confusion. Our leaders and therapists (at Circle Counseling) are there to make the confusion of unhealthy sex clearer too. Light gets gently shined on the areas we want to conceal, and the truth frees us.

And finally, even when we are isolated and lonely, the community keeps including you. No matter how you feel, the community is there to remind you that you are loved, not just by others, but by Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

None of these things are easy, but I do think participating in a real community like Circle of Hope is a way to make things easier.

How King David goes beyond Taylor Swift’s shaking it off

The most powerful thing art can do is create a relationship with us. That’s why character development in TV shows and movies is compelling—we’ve been there before. That’s why observational humor is so popular and so successful—we can relate to the humor of regular life. That’s even why blog post like this works, when it uses anecdotes and images that you can relate to.

The most popular music today seems to be music that we can relate to. My friend Sean showed me the number one song in America at cell the other day, Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off.” She’s made her fortune off of songs that are this relatable. The song is troubling in some ways, and maybe you can agree.

It’s not that complicated of a story. Taylor is heart-broken, and finds a fella with hella good hair to make her ex-boyfriend jealous. It’s redundant. It’s low-context, meant for consumption. And the reason that it is so consumable and popular is because it’s relatable. She has a great voice and she’s talking about something that people understand. People get hurt in relationships and they don’t know what to do. Taylor Swift’s advice to them is simple: “shake it off.”

David has another way. His Psalms show us that degree of vulnerability too, but offer a solution other than shaking off.

Read Psalm 40 and see if we can relate to David.

David says he is waiting patiently for his savior, but it seems like he has no choice. The world around him isn’t working. He is stuck in a slimy pit. He is grimy. He can’t get out. God puts him on a solid foundation and he praises him. He sings him a new song—his old dirge is done. Now it’s a song of praise!

We can get into the context of David’s suffering. But isn’t it enough to hear the imagery? How often do we feel stuck and jammed up? How often do we need a new song to sing in the monotony of our lives? How often are we sick of our isolation, our depression, our stress and anxiety? David is using general lyrics here and we can relate to them profoundly.

David is so thrilled with the transformation that God does in his life, he promises not to withhold it. So far, we are getting a very basic Christian message, but I hope it is written in a way that compels you. We want something new, we want to get out of the slimy pit, Jesus gets us out, and we praise him for it. All he wants is for us to want him.

Now that we’ve been liberated, we want to share that good news with other people.

But the story does not end there. We always wish it did, I think. I think that’s kind of where we have programmed it to end. But there is more.

Much like David saying that the works of the Lord are unending, so is his sin and his trouble, like ours. He has been redeemed. He has been put on a solid rock. But his sins overwhelm him. He is blinded by it. Overtaken. He cannot bear it anymore, again.

You can feel his agony, and maybe you can relate to it, in part. Perhaps your despair isn’t as intense—but maybe it is. Maybe you really count your sins or troubles. I certainly can. Sometimes my ego is so big, I cannot take it anymore! I’ve created these systems around me to make my dwelling in the slime easier. Sometimes I can’t see anything but them. You might have something similar to David’s urgency for God to save him. “Come quickly,” may be your prayer.

David leaves his Psalm kind of where he started. As a poor and needy person who needs to be saved in a hurry. Isn’t that how we often feel? I know I do. Desperate for God, not patient for him to change me.

I was just having this fantasy this week. Frustrated at my lack of progress and inability to grow past my limitations, and constantly being reminded of them, and needing God to bridge the gap.

I think the key here is not just to relate to David’s Psalm as an individual might, but rather to discern that the world is in need of such transformation and similarly longs, or yearns, for something better. I hope that people are not just left on their own to figure it out. We actually have a solution.

You can demand that someone believes the right thing, but the answer is in relating to them. It might take time, but the intellectual assent alone might not save them. We might just end in verse eight of the Psalm “Your law is within my heart.”

That’s just the middle of it. There’s more that comes. Not only do we share what is in our heart, we share the fact that the struggle doesn’t end so easily. I think when we demonstrate that vulnerability, we actually help people follow God.

But it seems to me like most of the time we are trying to be perfect, or make the Bible writers seem perfect too. The trouble with that perfection is that our faith is ultimately weakened. We have high expectations for what following Jesus brings us, and when the inevitable suffering comes, we are disappointed and might leave him.

I think that’s why I couldn’t be a Christian by myself. I need to be in a body of people with whom I can relate and find encouragement. One really simple way to spread the encouragement is to write a new song yourself. Let the Lord put a song on your tongue and write it and sing it. Tell your story and help others to relate to it and ultimately find that Jesus fulfills them, not just shaking it off.

It’s about love, not about living in the right place, or having the right friends

Someone asked me how it all works the other day.

From what I know, here are the basics about Circle of Hope: we’re a circle of hope in Jesus. We are church that is made up of cells. You could say that the four congregations are expressions of the cells. The cells are positioned outward for transformation. They are incubators of revolution. They change us when we include others in them. And those people that are included are changed. Those seemingly “little” changes, change the whole world. As we do this incremental, we are doing our part in the new creation—bringing God’s kingdom right here, on earth as it is in heaven.

The cells are beautiful expressions of us, and out of them and out our church, we form compassion and mission teams that pull us into new directions. Underneath all of that is something of an infrastructure with which our capacity teams form and support us—they lead our common fund, site management, human resources, and technology areas.

People from all over town connect to our congregations, which have their main headquarters on corridors that intentionally invite people form everywhere. Two are on Broad St. in Philadelphia. Another is that a central intersection in South Jersey: where 70 and 130 meet. And another is on Frankford Ave., the main artery that runs from the Northeast all the way to Girard Ave.—spanning a populous and increasingly gentrifying area. We planted in these places so that we could be regional. One doesn’t have to be “in the neighborhood” to be a part of us. Some people choose to do that, but they are no more holy than those who live elsewhere. Moving closer is not a prerequisite.

The other day someone asked me if she could be a covenant member if she lived in a distant neighborhood—I exclaimed, “of course!” She had gotten the impression she needed to move to one of the hip neighborhoods many of our friends are moving into. She thought she wasn’t a “good” Christian because she had to travel 30 minutes to get to a PM. To live in a local neighborhood by the meeting site of the congregation, that’s a fine thing to do, but it doesn’t make you more committed or righteous, if you ask me.

Neither is being in the “in-group.” Sometimes I wish there was not an in-group (but humans will be humans). In my high school, I never seemed to be in the in-group (but I did tend to know someone in each of the cliques). In fact, as a Christian Arab, who is quite different in terms of thinking to many other Christians (many of whom seem to be lackeys for the G.O.P.) and other Arabs (most of whom are nominal Muslims), I have never really found an in-group. For me, the Body of Christ is my family, when the world made me other (literally, on the census form). So I am among the people that longed to be cool and never were. I think Jesus specialized in being friends with us.

The cells and the church aren’t about getting in—they are about getting out there! You haven’t made it once you are invited to all the parties. I think we’re really talking when you go to the parties to meet your next friend. Or, better, you invite everyone to your house and you help people meet Jesus that way! We are forming community and including the next person in it, not making sure we can relate to the most arbitrarily popular people. The concern is if the church is all about community and not mission, once you get your friends, you’ll be done. There are people who keep the friends and forget to extend the invitation and hospitality that they received when they got connected.

That invitation, and that hospitality is life-altering. That transformation happened in cells. They are like little communities led by pastors. Each of our cell leaders has the level of dignity and responsibility that we would assign any of our pastors. The cells form communities so that natural cliques in the church aren’t encouraged to form. They are porous so that people can get in and out easily. They are not like the store you keep getting Emails from ever since you bought that cardigan. They are not like the elite nightclub with a huge line and a big cover. They are inclusive, and filled with enough love to go around.

That’s the basic principle for Circle of Hope: there is enough love to go around. The love of Jesus is not better because it is scarce, giving to the popular people, or in the right neighborhood. It’s everywhere. It overflows out of us and straight to the margins and the ends of the earth.

What would you add? Comment below.

A song that changes the world, and doesn’t just get reviewed

These days musicians don’t revolutionize music—Spotify does. That’s the revolution we’re used to when it comes to music. But not a real revolution. Even the song “Imagine” by John Lennon, a song about a revolution, in the end taught us deconstruction, not how to build a better world.

theonionThat deconstruction is embodied in Pitchfork, a music blog, that impales musicians. Music becomes another item to evaluate and consume—it gets objectified with a number, as if a narcissistic 500-word essay wasn’t enough! It strips the humanity from the artist and positions the critic as more important. The Onion wrote a funny article about Pitchfork. The Onion declared that Pitchfork reviewed music as a whole and gave it a 6.8. Here’s the lead:

Music, a mode of creative expression consisting of sound and silence expressed through time, was given a 6.8 out of 10 rating in a review published Monday on Pitchfork Media, a well-known music-criticism website.

According to the review, authored by Pitchfork editor-in-chief Ryan Schreiber, the popular medium that predates the written word shows promise but nonetheless “leaves the listener wanting more.”

If music is really inspiring and uniting it is almost unratable. But then, again, how often does that happen? Contemporary musicians have created a product to be rated—whether it’s in a hipster’s critique of it, whether or not they can sell out a venue in a certain amount of time, earn a Grammy award, or get enough radio time to be recognized.

This season we are trying to see the poetry in the Bible as something we can relate to. It seems to me that when music is commoditized like this, analyzed and deconstructed, it only becomes relatable because the same thing happens to us on OK Cupid. For me the music of the Bible is meant to do many things, which we will explore this season at the PMs: celebrate, revolt, express longing, romance, power, transcendence, and hope.

This isn’t just a contemporary problem. In Europe, particularly, where aristocrats dominated the music landscape and only special, highly educated people were producing music, Hadyn / Mozart / Beethoven had something of a clique, even. And for the most part, these pieces were co-opted by the state (when I say “state” I mean government) and used for nationalistic purposes.

Even songs that changed the world are still used by the state. Here’s the perfect example of how this has happened. In 1792, this French song was written. It was the first European march song written and it literally lead the peasants, three years later, to overthrow the aristocracy in France and cause the French revolution. That song actually changed the world. The heads of state were so bent on that not happening again that after they created their republic, they made that song their National Anthem—completely stripping it of its power.

The state actually got something that the church didn’t get (I think the state has used music that could inspire us to bring the Kingdom of God here, for its own purposes), which is the unity that comes from a stadium singing the “National Anthem” or “God Bless America,” a unity unparalleled in the church. For the most part, we like to rate our worship music, like Pitchfork rates music. And why shouldn’t we, when it is produced, marketed, and sold in precisely the same way as pop music? People bring that same evaluative deconstruction to their relationships and as they “church shop” too.

That’s one of the reasons why writing songs is exciting for us—because it gets us to relate and connect to God personally and lead others to do the same, while still embracing it as a community. Singing songs in other languages, too, helps us to realize that our community isn’t just local. It actually is global and the Kingdom of God and the Body of Christ is alive and we’re bringing it.

I think that’s the reason that music has been so central to our faith—the songs of the Prophets, the psalms of David—they are important and guide us to worship God, among the ever-present Spirit, into what Jesus is doing next.

Music has been the hope of the captives. The Jews always found themselves in captivity in the Old Testament—most famously was when Pharaoh and the Ancient Egyptians held them captive. Under captivity, with God speaking through Moses, it’s easy to lose hope and to lose courage.

They probably felt like a lot of us do now. Under one of the worst empires of the day, with no way out, nothing practical to sustain us except for our faith in God. The Israelites were under Egyptian captivity, and after a long and arduous journey the Lord delivered them from Pharaoh’s Army when Moses parted the Red Sea.

They don’t know it at the time, but in Exodus 15, when they are singing the Song of Moses and Miriam, celebrating their freedom from the Egyptians, it would be that very song and story that would continue to keep their hope alive, as they fell into captivity again and again. The real freedom that Jesus offers us is what they were waiting for.

When our enemies do us wrong in the U.S., we are told to “never forget.” That song, unfortunately, isn’t one that keeps our hope alive, but keeps our anger boiling. How many wars can we fight based on that idea? How many people can die because of it?

I hope we sing for the liberation that Jesus has given us, the freedom that we have in Christ, the promise of total newness—I hope we don’t sulk in our anger, our rage, whether it is justified or not. I hope we don’t pervert the song of the revolution into a song about a love affair with a nation or a song that leads us into war.

The Israelites not only praised God for the great Exodus from Egypt, but longed for a Messiah that would deliver them, not just from political oppression, but from their own internal captivity.

We sing it every time we break bread and eat together—when we observe communion, drinking and eating the symbols of the body and blood of Jesus—we’re imagining and celebrating and remembering the radical, dangerous act of God not just parting the Red Sea and delivering his people from Pharaoh’s army. But God becoming human, entering humanity, and redeeming humanity by his life, death, and resurrection among us.

The difference between Circle of Hope and the School District of Philadelphia

One of the reasons my stomach churned when I read about the School Reform Commission and its recent decision was because, for my adult life in Circle of Hope, I’ve been trained to do something totally different and in a totally different way. The SRC is the group that runs the School District of Philadelphia. It is a five-member board, three of whom are appointed Pennsylvania’s governor, and two of which Philadelphia’s mayor. Alone, in its structure, we see the difference between leadership through a team effort and leadership through fear. In Circle of Hope, we don’t have much of a “structure,” we don’t work through imposition based on titles–we work through a dialogue of mutual love.

Recently, the SRC decided to cancel the hard-fought teachers’ contracts. The contract itself was seriously negotiated for months and took a lot of hard work to create. In a poorly-announced public meeting the SRC agreed to cancel the contract, without any real input from the PFT. Though teachers won’t get any pay cuts (but the pay has been frozen for two years), they need to pay a large percentage (up to 13 percent). The SRC’s argument is that this change will cause no layoffs to occur so schools can use the money to “hire a full-time counselor and nurse, perhaps, or to pay for more supplies or after-school programs.” The politics might be right here, but I think another key difference is that in Circle of Hope our agreements are based on a covenant of love, not a legally-binding contract. Relationships cannot be replaced by pieces of paper.

Naturally, the teachers who are being abused here are enraged. Some other education advocates also share their rage. Will Bunch is particularly upset—I loved his columnAl Dia wrote brilliantly too. Many of friends also cried foul. But when the rubber hits the road—do we actually care enough to do something? I actually think the people in Circle of Hope care. Here’s why:

  1. It is in our backyard. We realize that every Philadelphian, and every person, is God’s beloved created. Their education matters because their pressing trouble sometimes makes something like participating in a cell seem esoteric. It is not, and God heals the troubled through our love. I think the people in Circle of Hope know that and want to help meet the needs of the least among us.
  2. We have goals, but those goals are not met if we violate our trust relationships. Our agenda is Jesus. Our goal is to help people follow Him. In this world, we find trouble, but Jesus overcomes that trouble. The relationships we have and the way we have them is just an important to the end result. For the SRC, this decision was all about Tom Corbett and his dismal effort at getting re-elected. It was done in a secret meeting that wasn’t advertised very well, in contrast, we’d be hard-pressed to have a meeting that everyone wasn’t invited to and everyone didn’t know about! And if we did, we might consider that a problem. We want to communicate well, not shroud our communication in secrecy because we can’t get along. Unlike the SRC and how it thinks about teachers, I want to offer the people that are gifted to lead around me the dignity, not mistrust.
  3. The body of Christ is protected by the Risen Lord, not a coalition. We don’t have unions in Circe of Hope because we are developing trust. We have a dialogue that connects us, and we don’t need representatives to speak for us. I understand why unions exist—teachers are accused on having cushy jobs, and only working ten months a year, and they’ll retire with great benefits. I think that mentality is totally not Christian, because it is based on a stereotype, which, when living in community, is harder to develop.
  4. We have not lost a sense of public good. In a world filled with are individualized people, right down to how we are educated, Circle of Hope is the alternative. We have public meetings. We want to be known and we want to include everyone. The idea of educating our community or improving our neighborhood schools is not just a nice thought, it is important to us. Jesus transcends the debate between public and private. Everyone among us is his child, and his will is discerned in community.
  5. Jesus’ love is more bigger than the evil in the world is overwhelming. The SRC’s decision adds to a laundry list of evil in the world: income inequality, mass incarceration, systemic racism, perpetual war, and so on. That can be overwhelming. But Jesus’ love is bigger than it. And our expression of His love in community is an expression that helps us overcome all of the evil in the world.

It is easy to get discouraged. It is easy to lose faith. It is easy to become indifferent. But Jesus gives us another way.

Here are some things we can do: Be a part of an alternative to how the SRC works. Engage a dialogue. Volunteer at a local school can be helpful. Consider meeting with your local principal and asking how the school needs help (Megan did, and she formed NICE and For the Love of Childs); ask the principal how you can be like Jesus to her! Love your neighborhood as yourself–some of us even want to get our kids to struggling schools to invest in them and our neighborhoods are stakeholders. Don’t discount the power of praying for the school. Action is important, but I think we need to pray as much.