Dehumanizing by Distance

A long time ago, I read an article (which I lament not bookmarking, because I can never find it now) that discussed a study regarding how drivers viewed other drivers as compared to how they viewed pedestrians. The findings of the study were basically that drivers viewed pedestrians as more human, and thus afforded them more forgiveness and lenience if the pedestrian made a decision that the driver viewed as stupid. Conversely, other drivers were viewed as less human, more likely to receive the driver’s anger and contempt. The thought process was that, when we’re locked away inside of metal vehicles, we have difficulty seeing each other as fellow human beings, and are more likely to become enraged and even violent with each other.

That study stayed with me, because I think that it’s onto something. It’s easy to feel hatred toward someone with whom we can’t relate or find common ground, and distance simply makes it psychologically more difficult to relate or find the common ground. When we have metal walls between each other, we become less than human in each others’ perspectives.

It turns out that it’s not just physical barriers that accomplish this dehumanization. The pandemic showed us this, I think, as we desperately turned to video screens to maintain some level of human contact, while realizing how poor a substitute it was for keeping in touch with our loved ones. The distance, the resolving of a person that we know into pixels, somehow alters our perspective of that person. If it’s someone that we don’t know, exponentially more so.

This is what I thought about when I read this article about the expansion of the use of drones in the war in Ukraine. This war, which, like most wars is completely senseless, has been the first wide-scale use of drone technology in full scale combat. Soldiers are taking other soldiers’ lives without ever being in shooting distance. They simply watch on a video screen as they pilot an airborne weapon from miles away, applying a video-game style of lethal force with real-world consequences.

Theologically and philosophically, I’m a pacifist. As all human beings are created in God’s image (even when they’re driving the other car), I don’t see God leaving open the option of taking another life. I see that principle as being as old as the Ten Commandments. This is why I see armed combat as wrong, because inherent in the action is the presupposition that the life of the person on the other side is somehow worth less than one’s own. The soldier from the other side is not another father, sister, or loved one. They are the other. They are the enemy.

We are currently seeing the largest war in Europe since World War II, and, like many wars, it’s simply about a dictator’s power grab. While I am forced to recognize the reality that armed conflict is necessary at times in order for a government to defend the citizens of its country, I think that a war fought by remote control is worse than the savagery of trench warfare. It is cold, and calculating, Human lives are eliminated with no opportunity to surrender or yield. Were a miracle like the Christmas Truce ever to be in the inclination of either side, it would be impossible to realize through a television monitor as one pressed the button that took more lives.

Lives that aren’t seen as lives. Just pieces being removed from the game board.

As I consider this through the lens of Advent, I ache for the time when our swords are beat into plowshares. Then, at least, we will be beyond the point of constantly trying to kill each other. In the meantime, let us pray that this war ends soon.

Toward Not Raging Against the Machine

I was introduced to the band Rage Against the Machine by a co-worker with whom I shared an office many, many years ago. They weren’t my kind of music, but I recognized why she would be into them. She was angry, and had reason to be. I remember thinking that there was much against which she felt rage.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about culture wars, although that’s become a bit of a cliche term. I imagine that you have, as well, because it’s sort of difficult not to. The one constant that I seem to find around me, from extended family conversations to (anti)-social media, to interactions with colleagues, is that everyone is angry. And, like my co-worker from so many years ago, they have reason to be. A lot of people have died over the last two years. A virus revealed just how much we all seem to only care about ourselves. Politics have thrown any sort of economic stability into question. An autocrat has launched a war of attrition.

Perhaps I’m guilty of rose-colored glasses, but when I was in seminary I spent a lot of time thinking that these are the sorts of events…and confluences of events…into the occasions of which the Church should rise. Regardless of denomination or disagreement in minutiae, we are presented with an opportunity to care for the sick, the bereaved, the wounded. Instead, we seem to be doing what everyone else is doing: screaming louder than the next person in order to be heard, defining ourselves by what we stand against instead of what we stand for, trying to force others into our mindset, and refusing to interact with them if they do not comply.

The Church is currently just as, and likely more, guilty than anyone else of not exercising basic common sense, not taking time to analyze statements to determine if they are truth or lies. Many in the Church have chosen allegiance to leaders over allegiance to God, channeling rage instead of attempting to walk in the light.

Instead of choosing to be confrontational, instead of fighting culture wars, the Church needs to choose a much more basic, yet profound, way of existing. A Biblical way of existing that’s explicitly laid out for us:

“He has shown you, O man, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justly,
To love mercy,
And to walk humbly with your God?”

Micah 6:8, NKJV

I’m thinking through this because I’m just as guilty as anyone else of anger. I too find myself raging: against the loss of what could have been, against a broken system, against all of things at which one can be angry. I’m just as guilty of letting that rage drive my decisions, and poison my interactions.

If I were to spend more time acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God, how would that impact those around me?

What if all of the Church were to do this?

Imagine how much better this could be.

The Theology of The Great Pumpkin

While slowly but steadily unpacking our new house, we began making plans for a family Halloween party. If you’ve read my brain dump here for very long, you’ll know that I’ve never been a fan of Halloween, at least not since coming to faith almost two decades ago. While I love an excuse to get into a fun costume, Karen and I generally avoided it early in our marriage, typically just going out for dinner during the trick-or-treat window. When we had kids, though, it’s difficult to tell them that they can’t participate in this event. And, one of the selling points of the new house as they were struggling with anxiety about leaving the old neighborhood was that we would be moved in just in time to go trick-or-treating in the new neighborhood.

This year was also, for a variety of reasons, my first time ever carving pumpkins. I’m proud to say that I did a fairly decent job, but…you be the judge.

A photo of my jack-o-lanterns on my doorstep

A couple of years ago, we purchased It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown in the days leading up to this holiday-that-isn’t-really-a-holiday. The kids have grown quite attached to it, and, I must admit, I’ve started to look forward to viewing it each year, as well. This year, though, because the kids are of an age where everything must be watched multiple times, and thus I heard a perpetual loop of the subject matter for three days, I began to notice the theology of the Great Pumpkin.

You have to feel badly for Linus in this story. He’s the lone believer in the Great Pumpkin, an odd distortion of Santa Clause, and he’s mocked mercilessly for it. Perhaps because of the striking and inescapable fact that the Great Pumpkin as a concept if such a cheap facsimile of “the real event” that is still two months away, his friends think that he has lost his mind, or at least has beliefs that are subject to, as Charlie Brown states, “denominational differences.” All except for Sally, whom he convinces to keep his vigil with him. 

We all know the end. Linus is left disappointed, earning Sally’s ire and his friends’ mockery, all while being horrified that he will be passed by because he used the word “if.” After all, the Great Pumpkin only rewards the utmost sincerity, and there can be no room for even the slightest slip of the tongue if one’s faith is to be rewarded. I feel sorry for Linus. As he looks toward an obvious imitation of the truest event of Christmas, he finds that the pressure is on him. It’s not about what the mythical figure that he looks to does, it’s all about what he is doing, and he will inevitably fall short. There’s always theology at work in the classic Peanuts specials, playfully packaged for us to digest, and this particular special shows us the fallibility of a theology of works. Linus’ ultimate faith experience is about his own efforts. He isn’t looking outside of himself.

The end of this pseudo-holiday special is touching…as we see the clock at 4a.m., Lucy goes outside to find Linus shivering in the pumpkin patch. She has mercy on her brother, and leads him into the warmth of his room where he falls sound asleep. Linus has been devout, but believes himself lost because of the smallest error. We have to believe that his sleep is fitful. I have to wonder, here, if Lucy is demonstrating a deeper faith than her brother, as she shows mercy on someone with whom she had the most intense of debates just hours earlier. She loves her brother, that is evident, and that goes deeper than any “denominational differences.”

There’s much that we could learn from this Charlie Brown special. I think that Lucy’s actions in the final scene are something that would be of a most urgent importance for us to grasp today.

Image attribution: PumpkinWayne under Creative Commons.

My Middle School Life: A Retrospective

Glasses lying on top of an open book

Over the Spring, when we, like most everyone else in the world, were under stay-at-home orders due to the pandemic, I was doing a lot more reading along with my “quarantine projects.” I was actively digging for new books, sometimes random books that would pop up from my memory and of which I no longer owned a copy for whatever reason. During one of these digging expeditions, I dug up the Books of Swords trilogy from Fred Saberhagan on Audible. Wow, did these take me back.

I remember discussing this series in depth with my best friend. I was in middle school, he in high school. The mythology of Saberhagen’s world was prominent in my imagination for more than a year during that time. I went through the series quickly this Spring, loving every moment of its fantasy adventures. There were times that I felt I was in my middle school bedroom again, devouring the fantastical tales.

This, of course, led to me remembering and searching for other authors that I had originally discovered during that period of my life: Isaac Asimov, Piers Anthony, Robert Henlein. I wanted to be talking to my best friend again (I have, to my discredit, no idea where he is these days), to be rattling on to my parents about these amazing books that I was reading, somehow oblivious to their facial expressions as they stood before the firehose of my mental landscape.


I make a trip to my local comic shop every weekend to collect my pull list for the week. Last weekend, I was on my way there, listening to an 80’s hair band station on Pandora that I’ve been carefully curating over the course of several years. I was always sort of conflicted about life goals, but these two things have always been true: I wanted to write books for a living, and I wanted to be a drummer in a rock band. And, honestly, I’ve done a bit of both, but life has taken strange and unexpected turns with me, as it does with everyone else.

In grad school, there was a point in which I found myself missing my college theatre days. A lot of the books that I read…and searched for at local bookshops then…were driven by that desire to regain something that had been, not lost, but misplaced. I phased out of this for a bit, no longer looking for Beth Henley plays…but now, lately, I have been drifting back to high school (in music) and middle school (in books). In an odd way, I’m sort of being selective about the time period of my nostalgia. Maybe this has been more pronounced because of the stress in the world…we all just want to escape. However, after going through a period of near-asceticism in seminary, I remember what hit me in the face when I was reading Donald Miller, an extremely popular author amongst students of religion at the time. In Blue Like Jazz, he writes:

“Something got crossed in the wires, and I became the person I should be and not the person I am. It feels like I should go back and get the person I am and bring him here to the person I should be.”

Donald Miller, “Blue Like Jazz,” p. 98

I don’t want to regress to childhood, or to my teenage years. However, it is important to recognize that all of these “phases” that I went through made me, laid the foundation for who I am today. Some of that is better, some of that is worse, because I, like everyone else, have made really good and really bad decisions at various points in my life. All of this, however, can be providentially woven together for the good, and walking away from it, as I initially did in my early seminary days, carries the risk of idolizing the present and rejecting the past. The past needs to be remembered, including our personal pasts. Where there was bad, we learn from it, and where there was good, we embrace it. There is a wisdom gained from a life lived. In additional to reading some really good books, this recent internal retrospective has taught me that.

A Review of “Bonhoeffer” by Eric Metaxas

A photo of my copy of Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas.Ever since seminary, I generally read something either by or about Dietrich Bonhoeffer at least once annually. Bonhoeffer remains one of the most influential theologians to my thought and spiritual life, and, as most know, the story of his life and martyrdom is compelling and powerful. After a few years, I’ve read almost all of his work, as well as a good deal of work about Bonhoeffer. I had always avoided Metaxas’ biography, though. I’ve always wanted to read it, as it’s recognized as the authoritative biography on Bonhoeffer’s life. To be honest, the sheer weight of the volume is off-putting. I’m not sure I’ve read something that long and that dense sense (ironically) reading Barth’s Church Dogmatics in seminary (the running joke was that not even Barth had read all of those volumes).

And that comparison is not altogether trivial, because Metaxas does his share of theology in this book. There was some controversy, as I recall, when this biography was initially published, because Metaxas was said to have asserted, against traditional perspective, that Bonhoeffer was not a pacifist. That alone is compelling reason to read the book, but, as I said, just hefting it from the shelf in the bookstore is enough to give one pause unless you have a magnitude of free time on your hands.

Of course, a lot of us have more free time than usual on our hands due to world events lately, so I decided that it was time. I am so, so very glad that I did.

Let me say up front, if you haven’t assumed this already: this is not an easy read. The difficulty lies not in the writing style…Metaxas avoids being overly academic and I found his style to be very approachable, although he is given to a strange change of voices at times. The difficulty lies in the subject matter. You can’t study Bonhoeffer’s life and thought separate from the historical context, and WWII Germany is not an easy historical period to study. This is also one of the gifts of this book, though. I have learned more about this period of history, as well as the events that lead to it, by studying Bonhoeffer’s life than I did in any history class, but Metaxas takes this a step further. The reader walks away with a historical education as an added bonus for their time.

This speaks to the strength of the biography, and what ultimately makes any biography great: the depth of the research. Metaxas’ research is meticulous. He has obviously spent time with primary sources and studying the available material to an extent that most academics would envy, and it shows in the nuances of his record. One of the reasons that this is a heavy read is because you don’t just move through it at a normal pace, but rather you frequently need to stop to really digest what you’ve just read, to begin putting together disparate pieces of the puzzle of a man’s life into a cohesive whole. You begin to see how all of the pieces fit together, to truly see a portrait of Bonhoeffer’s life. Metaxas walks us through minute details of Bonhoeffer’s childhood and family background, through his experiences in traveling the world, to the best sources we have of his last moments before he was martyred. The depth of the image we have of Dietrich Bonhoeffer after reading this book is why it is considered the primary biography on this influential theologian.

I truly appreciate that Metaxas pauses regularly to unpack Bonhoeffer’s theology. All examination of Bonhoeffer’s thought is given to some speculation, because he didn’t live long enough to fully formulate his theology. His thoughts as we have them, though, are nothing short of prophetic, especially within their historical reference, and the reader gets to spend time with them here. Metaxas specifically walks through Bonhoeffer’s popular concept of “Religionless Christianity,” what he is convinced that it meant in its context, and how it has been so drastically misinterpreted by modern theologians (I happen to agree fully with his assessment).

I think that the only place in which this amazing book didn’t do what it says on the tin is to convince us that Bonhoeffer’s label as a pacifist was inaccurate. Metaxas actually works against his own assertion here by quoting one of Bonhoeffer’s colleagues from his time at Union Theological Seminary, in which his colleague identified the moment in which he realized Bonhoeffer had become a pacifist. Metaxas moves forward seeming to provide the support for his claim to the contrary as he puts together Bonhoeffer’s life, but ultimately makes an assertion late in the book that feels to not be supported by evidence. In short, Metaxas says Bonhoeffer was not a pacifist, because he was a spy willing to commit assassination. I’m not convinced. What we do see is what is to be seen from thoughtfully scrutinizing Bonhoeffer’s life, and that is a man struggling with the weight of an incomprehensible evil and how to reconcile the abhorrent actions that he concluded must be taken with his faith, concluding that not acting for fear of doing wrong is the greater sin. The depth of the struggle is felt by the reader in all of its weight, and this is a great credit to Metaxas’ work.

Placing “Bonhoeffer” on my shelf was one my top accomplishments this year. I think that it goes without saying that I would recommend this book for anyone, not just those who have previously found Bonhoeffer’s life inspiring. Yes, it is intimidating, but it is also very much worth whatever time it takes to complete this book. Your spiritual life will be better for the effort, just as all of our lives are better for Bonhoeffer’s thought.