Every one in a while I just have ferocious internet debates with people. It happened to me this morning, and in a way that was particularly thought provoking (hence this entry). Now, I have to admit that outside of my family, I’m not really one for too many face-to-face arguments. I get into far more internet arguments than I do face-to-face ones. Part of the reason why that is the case is because my fairly blunt internet communications can be read in many ways, not all of them flattering or pleasant or really all that accurate. I tend to have a wry and deadpan sense of humor, but understanding tone is difficult online, and because I tend to be so quick to mirror hostility directed at me, and a very fast typist, it tends to make small misunderstandings turn into fairly ferocious flame wars in very little time.
But I have noticed that the flame wars I get into usually have particularly sensitivities at stake, and tend to have a frequent context. For one, I am particularly sensitive to what I see as disrespect. If I view someone’s behavior or communications as insulting or disrespectful, I go from friendly to fierce very quickly, and that tends to ramp up hostilities. Given my cultural and personal background, sensitivities involving my being a young and outspoken intellectual in a culture that has tended not to appreciate the insight of young people nor intellectuals tend to be frequently targeted in certain contexts, particularly conversations within my religious subculture.
Before going on an extended discussion of these issues, it is worthwhile to note that so long as we are focused only on our own sensitivities and on justifying them to ourselves and others, we tend to be very insensitive to the sensitivities of others. Truth be told, most of us have pretty strong sensitivities based on our own personal experiences, with a fair amount of justification for those sensitivities. When one has lived a fairly tough life, facing ridicule and abuse and hostility for a long time, and one resolves on living a life of dignity and honor, then threats to respect are felt quickly and dealt with ferociously. This is true for me and true for many other people as well. We must understand that we are not alone in our fierce sensitivities, and that others have just as much cause as we do to react decisively to perceived attacks on them as we do ourselves.
I think it therefore appropriate, even if it may be tedious to some readers, to give a little bit of a cultural and personal introduction to the origin of some of these sensitivities in myself and others, so that they may be understood and respected, in the hope that with time and effort the underlying causes of these sensitivities may be resolved successfully so that they can be lessened in incidence and intensity in the larger population. Since I am aware that some readers may not have an intimate understanding of the particular culture in which I grew up, I feel it necessary to give some explanation.
I grew up in a particular religious culture where there were (and are) huge disparities in power between generations (greatly favoring the older, unless the younger are seen as sufficiently malleable to be made into the unholy image of current leaders, in which case the younger people are flattered and honored accordingly). There are similarly wide gulfs between views of women and children being seen but usually not heard, especially in public. There are also, in general, very stark differences in power across all relationships, and in such circumstances abuse is extremely easy to form. I am certainly not alone in my sensitivities, but I am fairly strong and unusually open in my dealing with them.
It should not be this way, particularly not from any church which considers itself Christian. Have they never read Ephesians? Ephesians 5:22-6:9 focuses on three relationships that in the Roman world (and even today) are marked by great disparities of power. Relationships grounded on power invariably invite abuse and exploitation. What Paul does is not simply reverse the power dynamic, but seeks to change the foundation of that relationship from one based on power to one based on service and mutual concern and love.
We have to remember that the biblical model of leadership, whether one looks at the example of Moses (see Exodus 18), Jesus Christ (Matthew 20), or Paul (Ephesians 5), or any other godly example, is one of servant leadership. Godly leaders see themselves as serving the needs of the people they serve, not as being served or as being lords over those they lead. The fact that this very basic and fundamental truth was not seen, despite it being plainly obvious, suggests that the leaders of my parents’ generation (and older) did not know the Bible at all despite their loud claims to be the only ones who knew and followed it correctly.
In Ephesians 5:22-6:9, there are three fundamental relationships that are transformed from exploitative power-based relationships to genuinely loving relationships based on mutual concern and genuine submission to God. Ephesians 522-33 deals with marriage. In the Roman world, a pater familias (man of the house) had life or death power over his wife and his unmarried children, to say nothing of his servants or slaves. This is not to say that some husbands were not loving, but rather to say that the institution of Roman marriage (and it must be commented that Rome did not recognize the marriage of slaves or non-citizens either) was itself highly corrupt.
There is the false idea in the mind of many people, both men and women, that the godly ideal of marriage is something approaching the Roman or Muslim view of marriage. Nothing could be further from the truth, and Paul makes this clear. Paul compares a husband to Christ and a wife to the Church not because Christ is a domineering husband, but because Christ is a sacrificial husband who gave his life that He might save and deliver His church. The proper response to such genuine love is respect. And instead of one-sided obedience, Paul points out that husbands have obligations to love and cherish their wives, and that wives have an obligation to respect and honor her husband. Having no personal experience with the marriage state, I can say no more.
In Ephesians 6:1-4, Paul then takes on a second relationship full of problems that my own personal life can demonstrate in spades. Paul quotes the fifth commandment to children, telling them to obey their parents in the Lord and to honor their father and mother (placing limitations on the extent of obedience that parents can ask, but also making it plain that respecting parents, and authority figures in general, is a Christian obligation, one often forgotten). Then Paul turns around and tells parents not to provoke their children to wrath, but to bring them up with a proper respect for God and proper instruction.
Here too the duties are mutual. This is not to say that there will never be misunderstandings, or even great ones, between generations, but that it should be obvious to all that there is mutual love and respect. Where the mutual recognition of mutual love and respect is missing, there can be no harmonious and loving and godly relationship of any kind. Far too often we complacently believe ourselves to be honoring and respecting and loving others when they do not feel love and respected by us, but rather taken advantage of. And the same is true in reverse. This indicates that there must be some way of communicating when there are gaps between the love and respect that are professed and the love and respect that are felt by all parties.
The third relationship that Paul states is transformed through Christian love is that of the master and slave. To be honest, few countries (except Mauritania) have open slavery these days, but we all still know this relationship and its power dynamic in terms of employers and employees. Indeed, some people consider employees to be “wage slaves,” and the applicability of master-servant to employer-employee has been understood for at least a couple hundred years or so. Here again Paul saw a corrupt and power-based relationship (one that still exists in many, if not most, businesses), and transformed it to one in which the servant acted as if he was serving God and not his human boss, and where the boss realized that he too had a master in heaven and acted accordingly.
All three of these relationships often exist in their corrupt and power-centered form in our world even today. Despite some 2000 years of Christianity (and the truths, truth be told, go even older than that, many of them all the way back into the Law of Moses, making them at least a good 3500 years old or so), we still act like Gentiles and heathen all consumed about our power and not often all that concerned about the needs and concerns of others, if our own power is threatened.
And therein lies the core of the problem. Those who do not know the love of Christ (or the love of God) cannot be fit teachers and leaders and exemplars for others. Christ came to serve and not to be served. All leaders, therefore, who seek the mantle of Christ or Christian legitimacy have to behave and model their behavior after Christ (see Matthew 20:25-28) and Paul and other godly leaders. This is often simply not done, and it is exceptionally rarely seen within my own personal experience. The fact that such a basic and fundamental biblical truth, undergirding all human relationships and transforming them from exploitation into mutual love and concern, is so rarely understood and practiced, suggests that our claims to obey God perfectly, or even remotely close to perfectly, are often self-deceived boasting. If we are motivated by power, and if our relationships are marked by exploitation and abuse, we do not have the love of God in us.
This is not merely a Christian matter either. This goes all the way back to the beginning of Creation. When God said that a man shall leave his father and mother and cling to his wife and the two shall be one flesh, this is more than just sex that we are talking about. The union of man and woman is to be like the union that exists with God, where the needs of our partner are our needs, and the body of our partner to be treated like our own body. Until we start seeing the bodies and minds and hearts of those we lead as if they were our own, to be cared for as we would care for ourselves and wish to be respected, we can have no genuine and loving relationships of any kind, because our heart will not be in the right place.
And this is the core of the problem. The goal of God in creating mankind is to mold us in His own image through the experiences of our lives and through instruction and guidance. All too often we become molded in the image of a caricature of God, a God who is domineering and controlling and brutal, or a god who is so loving that his severe justice is forgotten. God is not either of these pictures, but is both just and merciful, both loving and jealous, both honorable and a ferocious avenger of His people. If we cannot love and respect those people whom we see, how can we love and respect what we cannot see?
Furthermore, if we claim to be genuine believers, our lives must reflect the truths that we believe. We cannot be teachers of love and respect unless our lives are full of them. It is our example that teaches a lesson most fully, not the words out of our mouths. People, regardless of how old they are or how educated they are or where they come from are wise enough to recognize when someone truly cares for them. When we profess to love and honor with our lips and do not do it in our actions, we are only fooling ourselves. Most of us fool ourselves long before we ever fool anyone else. And it should not be so. But we are not innocent victims in these matters, rather we all have played a part in our own self-deception, by wishing to see ourselves as better than we are instead of seeing ourselves for what we are. Let us hope that we may, through much effort, become better in time, so that we avoid passing on our own follies and errors on to future generations, provoking them to wrath as we ourselves have been by our ungodly elders.