September 25, 2007

A Thought Experiment

I wrote this to answer a question brought up in my Cross-Cultural Leadership class (currently my favorite): why would anybody bother to interact cross-culturally? Why would we bother to go beyond a "tourist" or "tolerance" perspective of interacting with others not like us? If we removed God from the equation, are there any reasons to do that?

Keep in mind this is more of a thought experiment than my personal views, but I'd really like to hear your opinion on it.

* * *

Donald McGavran notes on multiple occasions in his classic text: people tend to stick to their own peer groups, flock to their own cultures. In most psychology texts, we find that “birds of a feather flock together” because it adds a sense of comfort, of ease when a person feels he can understand the world around him.

The classic study in psychology is a fine example, called “
the good Samaritan.” The experiment was created back in the glory days of psychology, when psychologists had a lot more freedom to design experiments (so keep that in mind). The psychologist gathered seminarians (think M.Div students) and asked them to write and present a sermon on the biblical text where Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan. On their way to present their sermon, the seminarians encounter a man wounded in a doorway. In one group, the man is out of their way. In another group, the man is right next to them, and in the third, the seminarians would actually have to step over him to get to their sermon. Further variables were introduced, such as the timing (the seminarian is on time, running late, or is early).

The results are simply staggering. A very, VERY small percentage of the seminarians stopped to offer the man aid. The majority of these were men and women who were early to their sermon, and had to step over the wounded party.

What does this tell us?

We are not comfortable, even when primed with a message such as the parable of the Good Samaritan, with going outside of ourselves to people that are not like us. Removing scripture from the picture (and with it the promise of eternity), we are forced to focus on our own survival, and survival can never include those that are different. Different people are a threat; if we are all moving in our own self-interests, it is to our relative advantage to aid others who are seeking the same goals as ourselves. Eventually, everyone in a person’s peer group will become a threat as well, but if the peer group is constantly faced with other competing peer groups, it will always be forced to look outside itself, thus bringing a relative sense of security (strength in numbers) and forcing the group to survive together. If there is a larger threat outside the group, the group members must ignore the lesser internal threats to confront it.

At the absolute very least, we seek others not like us in order to survive.

It is a necessity: the only way we can survive is to find groups of people like us and fight groups of people not like us; we compete for resources. There is no such thing as altruism in a world without God. We bond with others not like us (and everybody is not like us in some manner) because we have to; there simply isn’t enough space or resources to survive alone (and yet it drives us apart; we become alone).

Without God – and an external, absolute morality He asks and modeled – we are no more than animals, fighting for the survival of the fittest. We might build large corporations or teams or cultures to survive (the enemy of my enemy is my friend), and we might even get to know members of other competing peer groups (keep your friends close and your enemies even closer), but ultimately, we are ever alone in our myopic monocultural bubbles.

And yet the men and women who profess a faith that says “love your neighbor” and “love even your enemies” do not, and men and women who profess that survival of the fittest is all there is to life are seen feeding the hungry, healing the sick. Where could compassion, apart from God, possibly come from? I submit that these are following in Jesus’ footsteps. Those that are compassionate outside of their own cultures – and outside of the church – must be getting their compassion from somewhere. I submit that it must come from He who IS compassion.

As Christians, we have a responsibility to become subversives to the myopia of cultural indifference that is so prevalent in the church, in word and in action. We are to live interculturally, as servants of the multitude of races and religions and ethnicities and socioeconomies; loving the poor (physically poor AND spiritually poor), feeding the hungry, housing the aliens and orphans and widows.
Who is our neighbor? Everyone who is not us; and ultimately, that is everybody. Far from being alone, the life of a follower of Jesus is the opposite: we are to be the antithesis of alone; we are to be the embodiment of community.

September 22, 2007


I'm sorry that my blog has gotten boring since seminary started. I didn't exactly intend for that to happen. Actually, I intended it to get more interesting, assuming I'd be writing papers, reading a lot, learning a lot ... and I certainly am. I'm enjoying my classes a lot, they're really interesting, for the most part. But I don't seem to have the extra time (on top of three days of work) to write anything down in this format. So ... I may start posting modified papers ... or I might just put up the random stuff that I see on the web that interests me until something inspiring comes and I write it down. VOM might be good for that; there's lots of time when I'm not really listening. Anyway, I'll leave you with a video that I've enjoyed since my freshman year when my roommate (and long-time friend) Jeff introduced me to the band's music.

September 17, 2007


I don't usually put this sort of thing up on my blog; I don't do the Christendom thing anymore. But ... this messed with me. I don't cry at most art, and I didn't ... but I almost did. If I hadn't been sitting in the break room (but had been home alone) I probably would have. Enjoy.

"As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because servants do not know their master's business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: Love each other." [John 15:9-17]

September 9, 2007

September 5, 2007

The Bigger Picture (Part VI)

Last time we left off with environment and how it influences the survival of its symbiotes. The starfish, for example, lives in the ocean. The ocean has many factors that make it liveable for the starfish, such as temperature, alkalinity, salinity, availability of nutrients, and lack of significant pollutants. There are lots of ways to kill off a starfish - our symbol of a decentralized system - by altering its external environment. One need never even touch the starfish directly.

One suggestion is, to combat a decentralized organization, one must decentralize one's own group. The typical reaction of a centralized organization, when confronted by decentralization, is to become more centralized. The United States is a good example, since after 9/11, the country became increasingly centralized. The Dept. of Homeland Security centralized quite a bit of our resources, as well as manpower in the war on terror. Compare this to the founding of our nation, when states were more or less equal with the centralized government. Still not starfish, but as the authors of
The Starfish and the Spider point out, there is a "sweet spot" between centralized and decentralized organizations that can be reached.

But it's unlikely that we'll see any decentralization soon; the republicans, for whom decentralization tends to be a more political position, have been the ones to centralize the government, and the democrats, with their socialist-tendencies, will only centralize it further. Ok, so back to the external environment: how does this apply to Al Quaeda? What are its optimal temperature and salinity and nutrients?

For one, Al Quaeda thrives in an environment where it sees its beliefs justified. Its beliefs are self-confirmed; when it attacks America, America fought back, and with the right spin, suddenly we become the big bad wolf out to get the poor AQ freedom fighters.

It thrives on its ability to persuade people to die for their families. Al Quaeda grows when America or its allies bomb a place, hoping to lop off an arm or even a few cells, and instead mistakenly bomb a hospital or town. This is fresh sustinance for Al Quaeda because suddenly the locals - ill informed in the middle eastern political climate as it is - rightly wish to defend their homes and, vulnerable to suggestion, believe the lies of the terrorists, strap bombs to their chests, and wander off to take out the American troops.

This is to say that Al Quaeda thrives on its ideology. If one were to find a way to change the ideology - or, more realistically, to make that ideology no longer relevant - the organization would find itself in an identity crisis. It would then either adapt, or die, and given its tendency towards religious extremism, my guess is that it would wither and die fairly quickly. To change the ideological environment, we must look at what Al Quaeda is fighting for (or against, as the case may be).

While I'm not going to try and unravel the complicated political climate of the Middle East, it is highly conducive to Al Quaeda operations. What this comes down to (and what the authors of
The Starfish and the Spider point out) is that there is an ideological climate of fear in the middle east. Terror cells are a natural outpouring of this fear: if the locals fear the US, it's easy to recruit them. That middle-easterners are so used to violence as the sole method to ending (continuing?) conflict works in Al Quaeda's favor.

Poverty is a wide contributer. When you're hungry, it's hard to stand up to anybody, much less those that promise to rid the region of someone who hasn't helped you ever, and about whom you hear so many negative things: "The US hates muslims!" "The US bombs our children!" "The US killed my uncle and my brothers!" And so on and so forth.

Advertisers have a name for this: word of mouth advertising. You're more willing to be a repeat customer at, say, Coldstone because somebody told you about their amazing experience there. Likewise, you're even more likely to AVOID said Coldstone if a trusted friend tells you that their products are horrible.

But what could Coldstone do to change that? They could bring their product to you, give you a taste, as it were, to change your mind. And just what would this look like in the middle east? Easy:

Relief efforts.

The shock, the amazement, at such a rediculously simple solution (well, ok, part of the solution, but a big part) to Al Quaeda's growth in the middle east is probably going to get some ridicule, but I've said it
before. Oddly enough, this would seem to fit with scripture as well, in several veins. First off, scripture tells us to love our enemies. Fair enough, but it also tells us to defend the weak and oppressed. But Paul says that warfare is more in the mind; the physical warfare is usually secondary to the mental warfare. Idea (the mind) leads to action, and when those that are vulnerable lack hope, those with a need for power are quick to take advantage.

This is where propeganda comes in. I'm not talking about leaflets from the air, but to be honest, we've sucked at this in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, etc. We don't promote the ideals of democracy to those it matters most: the majority, and in those countries, the majority are the equivalent of peasants. They're also Al Quaeda's main recruiting ground (and as my friend
Rob points out, the ranking AQ are mostly rich or middle class). If we were to spend the time promoting the ideals of freedom, of justice, and of hope to the poor (practicing them with further relief and reconstruction efforts - and by further I mean better, and by better I mean not with our own interests in mind), the war would take a quick turn.

* * *

My thanks to Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom for the inspiration on my last two posts. Their book The Starfish and the Spider was a huge aid to my thinking. I've got to add that I wrote the last post after I'd read only the first chapter, and then this post as I read and after I'd finished. So what you see is both anticipation and repetition of some things they said and some of it's extrapolating on their ideas. At this point it's all sort of jumbled together. But go buy their book and read it; it's worth every penny.

September 4, 2007

First(ish) Day of School

I started classes today for my second semester at Asbury, and boy, this semester is worlds different from the last.

For starters, I'm taking four classes instead of three. Three seemed like a lot at the time, but I'm figuring part of that had to do with moving the week before finals, culture shock at having moved to tiny little wilmore (am I now a "Wilmoron" as a lady asked today?) from big 'ol foreign Melbourne, and of course, having a slightly-depressed-at-our-living-conditions-but-also-pregnant wife. There was lots going on. But this semester is hard too; four classes isn't easy, especially when two of them - as I discovered last night at 7pm - overlap by an hour and fifteen minutes, a change that the registrar didn't bother to inform me or another student had happened. So now I have to decide what to do there, and it's honestly all a bit frustrating. But it'll get worked out, eventually. Or at least, I hope by friday, since that's when the drop/add deadline is. But of course, there's also the three-days-of-work thing (really seven because I'm managing Coldstone, but I only get paid for one), and of course, a newborn in the house.

What fun.

But I'm really looking forward to classes this semester. Dr. Martyn, of Teaching-My-India-Class fame, is also my professor for Vocation of Ministry (so it'll be nice to get to know him a bit before travelling overseas together). Dr. Pachuau (or "Kima" since nobody can pronounce his first name) is teaching a history of Christian Missions class, which ought to be long, but exciting; I'm a minority in his class, being but an ordinary white northerner. We'll see whether I take Dr. Hunter's class on Church Growth, or Dr. Ybarrola's (yes, that's his name) Anthropology class. But by far, I'm most interested in Dr. West's class on Cross-Cultural Leadership ... simply put, it is going to be fantastic. Dr. West is the sort of guy who prefers learning by conversation, working together rather than the traditional method of "I lecture and you absorb my worldly wisdom". He's extremely passionate about teaching and growing leaders, both in and out of the classroom, and today something in his introduction made me realize I'm going to need his insights before India. Dr. West and India are going to mess with me a lot, I'm beginning to realize, but ... in a good way (I hope).

And, just for Shawna, here's a cute picture of Rori. All others are on Flickr.

September 1, 2007

The Bigger Picture (Part V)

There's something about being in a hostile environment that brings out the best in people. In a physically hostile environment, either you do what is necessary to survive or you die. There's no middle ground. The same goes for an intellectually or spiritually hostile environment: when a person is forced to defend his or her beliefs (and usually this means acting upon them), the person either clings to them and is made stronger, or they "die" and aquiesce to their challengers.

We have in us a remarkable ability to adapt.

Last week I, half-seriously, wrote about how to kill Al Quaeda by paying them. While there is some psychological merit to the theory (but while I was mostly just goofing off),
Greg was correct to point out that what has already happened makes it impossible.

See, Al Quaeda already exists in a hostile environment. They are under threat constantly, by US and Coalition forces, by the other rival muslim terror groups, and by the natural environment of the middle east. Everybody is out to get them! And since they have, for six years (actually, longer), been forced to defend their beliefs, they have grown strong; it's the way people are.

If we had understood this about our enemy when the war began, I wonder if we would have used another strategy for the campaign, or if we would have even gone to war at all. Given the charged nature of the US after 9/11, I imagine war was still a certainty; obviously the majority of congress and of the senate felt that way, or else it couldn't have happened. It still might have been stupid.

But Al Quaeda has something else going for them that most of us couldn't have seen six years ago. I've been reading this remarkable little book called
The Starfish and the Spider, recommended to me by several friends (Greg, Alan). Our postmodern lenses have begun to allow us to see things that previous historians missed: some groups lack a centralized leadership. This doesn't mean that they lack leaders, or leadership in general, but it does mean that the way the groups are organized is quite different from what we're used to seeing. Al Quaeda is one of these sorts of organizations. Loose, cell-based, with leadership found spread across individual cells, the whole organization looks more like a starfish-type organism rather than a spider-type organism. It's as if the organization has a collective intelligence rather than a central intelligence.

The starfish is a remarkable little critter. It has no central nervous system, no brain, no heart, no discernable organs as we tend to think of them. Instead it is a neural net; the whole starfish is the brain, the circulatory system, etc. This means that if you cut off an arm, it just grows back.

And the other arm grows another starfish.

This is precisely what we see happening with Al Quaeda. Unlike the spider-like United States, with its centralized government (cut off the head - the government - and we become leaderless and fall apart), the Islamic terrorist organization is thriving in an environment of persecution. We spend a lot of time chasing Bin Laden, but what hasn't been understood is that, while we've made him a figurehead, he's just a cell leader who puts out the videos. Killing him doesn't make Al Quaeda go away.

However, starfish can still be killed. You just have to know how to do it.

First off, there's the decentralized nature of the organism. If you could somehow rearrange this and centralize it, you could then cut off the head. My friend
Alan points out this possibility, that if you could figure out how to get Al Quaeda to centralize, you could bury them in complacency and beurocracy.

For example, this has happened before to another decentralized organism: the church. Between the first and third centuries, the church was a loose-knit decentralized organic system. No one person had any more decision-making power than another, though there were apostles and deacons who represented that authority. But kill an apostle or kill a deacon and the church grew! Killing the heads didn't kill the organism like killing Caesar would have ended Rome. But around 300 CE, Constantine made the Christian religion a legitimate one, even making it the official religion of the Roman empire. And what happened? Centralization. No longer were Christians persecuted; it became easy to be a Christian, and suddenly committment became something lacking. Suddenly you had bishops, even a pope, and rules for how things had to be done. Christians became soft, quietly acquiescing to the host empire's rules and regulations, becoming tied up in only theology rather than both theology and praxis. Constantine effectively neutered Christianity by simply making it official and central.

But then the church decentralized again, many times. The Puritans, the Quakers, the Celts, and the early Methodists are all examples of the church returning to its roots and decentralizing again. And it all happened when the church fell under persecution.

Would this work for Al Quaeda? Perhaps, perhaps not. These things are hard to tell. For starters, the early Christians and Al Quaeda have a common link in decentralization, but that is where most similarities end. Ancient Christianity had its roots in a Jewish Rabbi who died for others, to make their lives that much better. He healed and taught about taking care of those around you. The early church was known for taking care of the poor, both Christian AND Roman. Love your enemies, the bible says, and they believed it to the point of taking care of their supposed enemies. Al Quaeda does none of these things; to make them official kills us before it can kill them. No, making them official is not the answer; perhaps centralizing them could work, if a method could be found, but making them official and legitimate simply kills others.

But there are also environmental factors to be considered. For one, starfish need water to live in. No water, no starfish. Basically this means that if you can get the entire organism out of its environment, it dies. Obviously with Al Quaeda, this isn't an option. We can't find them all, that's the problem. The other option is that you change the environment. Make the water too salty, or not salty enough; the starfish can't handle the pH or alkalinity and dies. So the trick is, what is alkalinity for Al Quaeda? What environmental factors do they thrive off? What are their ideals?

(to be continued)

Rob Bell on Justice