The Source of Violence

There’s been a lot of violence in the world lately, but most of it hasn’t been in Paris or Colorado Springs or San Bernadino. No group is better at inflicting violence than militaries, since that’s what they’re there for. The best possible outcome of a standing army is the threat of violence, but what good is that threat without exercising it on occasion?

The Dalai Lama has pretty insightful thoughts on the reality of war:

Of course, war and the large military establishments are the greatest sources of violence in the world. Whether their purpose is defensive or offensive, these vast powerful organizations exist solely to kill human beings. We should think carefully about the reality of war. Most of us have been conditioned to regard military combat as exciting and glamorous – an opportunity for men to prove their competence and courage. Since armies are legal, we feel that war is acceptable; in general, nobody feels that war is criminal or that accepting it is criminal attitude. In fact, we have been brainwashed. War is neither glamorous nor attractive. It is monstrous. Its very nature is one of tragedy and suffering.

Strong words that I completely agree with. This bit on the military threat to democracy is also cutting:

There are people with destructive intentions in every society, and the temptation to gain command over an organisation capable of fulfilling their desires can become overwhelming. But no matter how malevolent or evil are the many murderous dictators who can currently oppress their nations and cause international problems, it is obvious that they cannot harm others or destroy countless human lives if they don’t have a military organisation accepted and condoned by society. As long as there are powerful armies there will always be danger of dictatorship. If we really believe dictatorship to be a despicable and destructive form of government, then we must recognize that the existence of a powerful military establishment is one of its main causes.

What is Calling?

My last post kicked up some excellent discussion, but I’d say that much of it arose due to confusion over two things: the hasty manner in which I wrote, and the nature of calling itself. I hope to rectify the former and clarify the latter.

I must say at the outset that there is a lot of conceptual fuzziness between the terms calling, vocation, gifting and career that must be addressed in any discussion of calling. What someone means when they talk about calling is often an unstated mix of some combination of all of the above, leading to much confusion and misunderstanding. So, I will offer my thoughts on the points of similarity and divergence in the hopes that, once everyone thinks the way I do, the world will be a safe place for us all.

Firstly, calling and vocation should largely be seen as one and the same. Vocation comes from the Latin vocare (to call), from which we also have the word vocal. They convey that something from beyond ourselves (or possibly within ourselves) is speaking to us about the kind of person we are.

Note that I did not say the kind of person we are meant to be, as that is the language of advertising, romanticism and self-deception. Indeed, one of the problems in discerning our calling is that we believe that the problem is in figuring out who we should be, rather than recognizing that a large obstacle in discerning our calling is the many voices of “should be” drowning out who we actually are.

Before I’m misunderstood, I’m not advocating some type of fatalism here, where we can never change. I fully affirm the need to grow, develop and change over the course of our lifetime. What I’m saying is that the masks we wear on a daily basis generally aren’t who we are, but rather some collection of personas we’ve been told we should be. This means that we’re constantly avoiding who we really are in the name of who we are meant to be, while calling/vocation speaks to who we actually are beyond the lies, hype and overly romantic notions of self that are bought and sold every day.

So, vocation (or calling) is simply the voice that is calling us to be who we have actually been created to be, but what about the links between calling and gifting? Simplifying in the extreme, I’d say that they should be seen as closely related, but ultimately different things.

At the most basic level, the difference between calling and gifting can be seen as the difference between being and doing: calling has to do with being the people we actually are, while gifting has to do with the particular talents, aptitudes and skills that we use in living our lives and serving others.

I want to stress that viewing calling and gifting as separate is only truly possible at an abstract level. In concrete lived life, who we are and what we do are tightly bound up with one another and could never be truly isolated. But I find the distinction useful insofar as it helps us to think of who we are as being somehow deeper and more fundamental than merely what we do. In a world where we’re too easily defined by what we do—what’s the first question you’re asked when meeting someone new?—it’s liberating to see that there’s some entity called “myself” that is more than merely what I do.

To illustrate, let’s imagine a pianist whose playing profoundly moves whoever hears him play. Now let’s imagine that a terrible accident befalls this pianist where he loses the use of one of his hands. This would, of course, be a tragedy, both for the pianist himself, and for the world that is now deprived of the beauty of his music. And, as an embodied creature, this unavoidably changes the makeup of who he is.

Can we imagine him finding ways to live his life that are consistent with the person he was before losing the use of his hand? Is he not still the same person, however changed his life is by his loss? Perhaps in time he will see that there are aspects of who he has always been that he now lives via means other than music. Maybe playing music was his way of giving hope to people in pain, and he now enacts that part of who he is by sitting with terminally ill people in a hospice, reflecting the love of Christ as best he can to them.

Perhaps this example might also help rid us of the misguided notion that calling has something to do with what is popularly known as destiny. This fatalistic (not to mention nauseatingly romantic) idea needs to die a few thousand deaths and be forever detached from the notion of calling. Calling is about becoming the person you actually are rather than some unavoidable set of preordained steps that you have no say in. Indeed, calling presupposes that we are somehow free to respond in creative love to the voice that is calling us to be who we really are.

I have left career until the end, and for good reason. If there’s one thing I’m thankful for in our post-Industrial world—and there aren’t many—it’s that the idea of “having a career” has basically become meaningless in a world where we’re all expected to change our line of work continually. This is not to say that I favour job instability (which favours corporations much more than workers), but rather that career has often served as a distraction (or replacement) for discerning our calling.

The confusion around calling culminates in its worst possible form when we believe that it is our calling to find a career in which we can make money from utilizing our gifting. I cannot imagine a better recipe for misery. Most will never find work that they feel fully engages their gifting, so they will forever resent the work they do and romantically long to work within their gifting. And then you have the poor souls who actually do make a career of their gifting, and have to navigate the murky path between the integrity of their gifting and the need to make a living. Damned if you do; damned if you don’t.

Finally, while I’ve tried to speak of calling in a distinctly personal manner, I fear that it is likely much too individualistic. Indeed, I believe that we can only ever truly be the people that we truly are if we are doing so amidst a community of souls who help each other to truly be themselves. A community that allows its members to truly be themselves—despite the suffering this diversity will inevitably produce—is a community that has heard the call to love with love of Christ; to live in the way of self-giving love that considers all that we are and have as a gift to be lavishly spent in the service of others. If this is the broad call that our personal callings interact with and support, I believe that we truly have heard the voice of the living God.

The Crushing Calling

“I’ve discovered my calling” is one of those Christian phrases that is simultaneously indispensable and nauseating. Discovering one’s calling in the journey of faith is a truly difficult task, fraught with doubt, anxiety and the ever-present possibility of self-deception. But it is made doubly difficult due to the influence of our culture’s pervasive individualism and the slogans of pop psychology.

I’ll come right out and say it: discovering my calling is generally reduced to some vague notion of self-fulfillment and well-being. This is more easily seen in the process of how we come to decide what is not our calling, namely those things that make us feel unhappy, unwanted, unfulfilled and possibly even marked with garden-variety suffering.

How on earth (or, more appropriately, in hell) has a religion that follows a tortured and executed savior come to so thoroughly identify following said savior with such a trite therapeuticism? We blather on about “the abundant life” promised to disciples of Jesus, but gloss over the whole “the world will hate you like it hates me” thing that Christ made pretty clear to those who would follow him (c.f. John 15:18-21).

This is the place where happy hunters will tell me that I’m being gloomy. Pardon me while I go don some sackcloth and bathe in ashes. I’d like to make it quite clear that shifting the major discernment factor for calling from happiness to misery would be simply to repeat the same mistake we’re currently making in a different direction. I’m not interested in resurrecting self-flagellation or “this world’s not my home”-style escapism either.

No, when we’re discerning our calling, we walk by faith. This means that we don’t have obvious answers or easy measuring sticks. Or, in short, it’s really, really hard, filled with moments of clarity, stretches of discouragement, and occasional snatches of wonder. It’s subject to the full range of what it means to be a human being created in the image of God. God help us to not reduce calling to the myth of unfailing fulfillment.

Yoder on Powerlessness

I’m currently reading John Howard Yoder’s seminal The Politics of Jesus, and there are many times when I could have posted excerpts. Yoder discusses how modern ethical theory is obsessed with first defining the meaning of history and then grabbing the right handle to move it in (what we have identified as) the right direction. Most conflicts assume that a handle exists, and argue about which one to grab and strategies for grabbing it. Yoder thinks that the gospel provides no such handle, only obedience in the way of Jesus:

[The] gospel concept of the cross of the Christian does not mean that suffering is thought of as in itself redemptive or that martyrdom is a value to be sought after. Nor does it refer uniquely to being persecuted for “religious” reasons by an outspokenly pagan government. What Jesus refers to in his call to cross-bearing is rather the seeming defeat of that strategy of obedience which is no strategy, the inevitable suffering of those whose only goal is to be faithful to that love which puts one at the mercy of one’s neighbor, which abandons claims to justice for oneself and for one’s own in an overriding concern for the reconciling of the adversary and the estranged…

This is significantly different from that kind of “pacifism” which would say that it is wrong to kill but that with proper nonviolent techniques you can obtain without killing everything you really want or have a right to ask for. In this context it seems that sometimes the rejection of violence is offered only because it is a cheaper or less dangerous or more shrewd way to impose one’s will upon someone else, a kind of coercion which is harder to resist. Certainly any renunciation of violence is preferable to its acceptance; but what Jesus renounced is not first of all violence, but rather the compulsiveness of purpose that leads mean to violate the dignity of others. The point is not that one can attain all of one’s legitimate ends without using violent means. It is rather that our readiness to renounce our legitimate ends whenever they cannot be attained by legitimate means itself constitutes our participation in the triumphant suffering of the Lamb. (243-4)

This is a serious indictment of those advocates of nonviolent resistance in the wake of the successes of Ghandi and MLK Jr. Further on, Yoder makes his point more theological:

Once a desirable course of history has been labeled, once we know what the right cause is, then it is further assumed that we should be willing to sacrifice for it; sacrifice not only our own values but also those of the neighbor and especially the enemy. In other words, the achievement of the good cause, the implementation in history of the changes we have determined to be desirable, creates a new autonomous ethical value, “relevance,” itself a good in the name of which evil may be done…

It what we have said about the honor due the Lamb makes any sense, then what is usually called “Christian pacifism” is most adequately understood not on the level of means alone, as if the pacifist were making the claim that he can achieve what war promises to acheive, but do it just as well or even better without violence. This is one kind of pacifism, which in some contexts may be clearly able to prove its point, but not necessarily always. That Christian pacifism which has a theological basis in the character of God and the work of Jesus Christ is one in which the calculating link between our obedience and ultimate efficacy has been broken, since the triumph of God comes through resurrection and not through effective sovereignty or assured survival. (245-6)

Shunning Suffering

Jaclyn and I had a great chat yesterday about how our culture avoids suffering. One of the reasons that we have so much difficulty understanding the Gospel in our culture is that our comfort-driven society teaches us that suffering is something to be cured, not endured.

Examples abound: have a headache? Take a Tylenol (or Advil, or Aspirin). Have marital issues? Get a divorce (or have an affair). Don’t like the way you look? Plastic surgery, or a whole host of cosmetic and clothing products will make a “new you.” Hungry? Countless options for instant gratification await you. Are you lonely? Well, there’s an internet full of pseudo-community to take the edge off. Advertising and marketing bombards us daily with shallow problems and quick fixes.

These might not even be the best examples, but the basic assumption in all of this is that in our world, we can solve our own problems through a combination of ingenuity, hard work and technology. We find salvation in numbness and deliverance in a bottle.

If we accept that Jesus is Lord, then it is He who saves us. If we are to follow Jesus, we must see that he truly—more truly than any other who has ever lived—had the ability to sidestep the suffering that he encountered. Rather, the Creator came and dwelt amongst his Creation and suffered on a cross to liberate it from evil. Suffering is therefore central to He who is all in all.

This is why I have trouble with theology that teaches that God is our path to a happy-joy life. This is why I don’t understand hyper-spiritual teachings about worship and/or prayer; as if these activities somehow exempt us from a world built on suffering.

And this is why I have trouble with my own heart, because the allure of shunning suffering is all too attractive. Why should I embrace suffering when the world around me presents a whole host of attractive options for avoiding it? There’s probably many things that could be said at this point, but this is surely one:

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. (Rom 8:18-21, TNIV)