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Kenneson on Joy II

26 July 2007

If joy requires a willingness to be open to something beyond one’s self, then it should come as no surprise that people deeply rooted in the dominant cultural ethos have a difficult time experiencing joy. We are encouraged from an early age to seek our own pleasure above all else. Such relentless pursuit of personal pleasure is what the dominant culture means by “the pursuit of happiness.” Each of us is urged, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, to pursue our own individually-defined happiness; in almost every case, we are called to pursue that which promises to give pleasure to each of us as individuals. The dominant culture also has enormous power to form our desires and affections. If one doubts this, simply consider the following questions: Where did we learn to desire what we desire? Where did we learn what we should want out of life? Or what we should wear or eat? Or what we should look like? Or what car to drive or house to buy? Or what we should do with our time? Although most of our desires have complex sources, we would be naive to doubt the significant impact that the dominant culture wields in shaping – and in many cases fabricating – those desires. (Kenneson, _Life on the Vine_, p. 65)

* * *
Kenneson has touched on something that has caused qb a great deal of discomfort – some might call it “cognitive dissonance:” a screaming disconnect and obvious incoherence between two competing strains of thought in his brain – especially in the last 3-4 years. (That that time frame coincides roughly with the war in Iraq is no coincidence.)

qb is in awe of those brave souls who, as we say, “put themselves in harm’s way to protect our freedoms as Americans.” A friend of mine – he is not a close friend, but he is a friend, and our Bible class walked closely with his wife during his two tours in the Green Zone, ferrying VIPs with big targets on their chests from point to point in the city of Baghdad – exemplifies the “freedom warrior,” loves his God deeply, wants men to love God with all of their hearts, souls, minds and strength. He is one in a long line of those whose love for America and Americans (and, more to the point of daily duties, his platoon buddies) puts them continually between bristling Kalashnikovs and the innocent women, children, infirm and aged, the oppression of whom is blood sport in that region of the world. These warriors’ love for their fellow mankind expresses itself in a willingness to lay down their lives for those they love, even from a distance, which is a form of the Jesus way (John 15:13). In many concrete ways, I am not worthy of them.

So my quarrel is not with the fighting man or woman, the warrior, the freedom fighter per se. No, my quandary goes backward in time and backward in reasoning, to the great American premise set forth in the Declaration of Independence:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Consider that for a minute. Ponder it deeply. Have you ever questioned that premise or any of the elements that comprise it?

We know that all men are created equal. Anyone with a moment’s reflection will be able to point to passage after passage, especially in the New Testament, that affirms the essential equality of men before God. There is no quarrel here, and America, for all of its faults and foibles, consistently leads the world in demonstrating its commitment to equality. Not perfectly, but at least demonstrably. And when we fail, we wring our hands about it because that kind of failure offends our collective sensibilities. We have no shortage of prophets who persistently remind us of our egalitarian aspirations.

But what about the assertion that the “pursuit of happiness” is…
…our fundamental “right?”
…an “inalienable” right?
…a right with which our “Creator” has “endowed” us?
…a right that is “self-evident?”

Where do we find support for the notion that the right even exists? And even if it does exist, what witnesses would we call to confirm that God, not man, conferred it upon us? And is it not a bit far-fetched for a Christian to suppose that any such “right,” assuming that it exists, needs no evidence to support our assertion? Finally, what causes us to think that no other claims that our fellow man might set forth could be thought to trump our right to pursue happiness?

I wonder if we can put much stock in such a bald, sweeping, breathtaking assertion. I wonder if perhaps the Greeks, with Jesus looking on approvingly, might have asked us to substitute “virtue” for “happiness” as we drafted our Declaration. I wonder if there is any possible way that a successful, virtuous, God-pleasing nation can survive as such when its founding documents venerate something as formless and fluid and subjective and individualistic as the pursuit of “happiness.”

Upon reflection, does it not sound more like a recipe for the moral anarchy of Romans 1:18-32 and Judges 21:25 – “each man did what was right in his own eyes?”

Kenneson has not asked us to abandon the American political experiment. He has not asked us to spit on the graves of men and women who have paid an unfathomable price so that Americans might be politically free. He has asked us, however, to consider the extent to which our souls and desires have been formed by potentially disastrous premises and the conclusions and corollaries that flow from them. He has asked us to consider the extent to which those premises and corollaries shape our community of faith. He has asked us to consider the extent to which the church of Christ has been co-opted by distinctively American assumptions about what it means to be fully human. And he has asked us the provocative question – admittedly, a frightening one – are our premises correct?

Kenneson might well have asked us to consider whether or not the kind of joy that Christ sets before us as a promise can even be realized apart from suffering.

It might be well for us to consider one last question while we’re at it. If our premises are not right, what are the odds that we will ever reach the correct conclusions?

Just musing aloud,


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