Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Hopes and Fears at Christmas

O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in Thee tonight

She pushes the button by the miniature piano and begins to jump up and down as Frosty sings his seasonal song. Her younger sister follows her lead. Then the music stops. But they press the button and the happy tune resumes. From tree to fireplace, one decoration to another, our granddaughters light up our home.

The Christmas story is of course about a child. Everyone can identify with the joy of a newborn child. Adults everywhere love to give gifts to children—just to see the sheer delight that comes when preschoolers unwrap a new surprise.

The Bethlehem Christmas carol mixes light and dark images. The forces of good and evil are present. And hopes and fears become focused on one small child born in Bethlehem ravaged by war for millennia. Will the forces of eternal light overcome the evil Roman Empire?

Now as then, death and life meet at Christmas in profound and unsympathetic ways. In many towns Christmas will evoke tears. Fears have overwhelmed hope for those who lost a family member. Many of us can connect to that first Christmas when a loved one went—especially if the passing was unexpected as it is for all those families whose loved ones have been gunned down by terrorists.

Former President Jimmy Carter- Grandson Died, 2015

That Unexpected Call

Like many, I’ll not forget the Christmas my father died. I was 32 and busy as a school administrator. Our usual round of December parties was at an end. Christmas was only a few days away. And Christmas was in view at our house as it always is thanks to my wife’s forward thinking. Our son was 5—a great age to record the joy of Christmas.

The unexpected call came in midday. My father died of a heart attack. My mother found him on the floor when she came home from work. It was the 20th of December—only five days until the biggest and happiest holiday of the year in the Christian world.

I went straight to the Columbia, MO airport and arrived in Philadelphia that night. A childhood friend took me home. I sat and listened as my mother recounted the sad story, which she would retell many times in the next few days. Friends came by with food and hugs. Cards poured in. Flowers and plants appeared.

Our only U.S. relatives drove down. Thanks to Uncle Tony who also died this year and my Cousin Pam. Aunts, Uncles, and cousins called from England. A friend cared for our son during the funeral and everyone tried to help our five-year old enjoy the holiday.

All around us people are trying to keep on going for the sake of young children—the hope of the future. But in their private moments, the deep darkness can be overwhelming. Grieving people need support. And immigrants like us often have only a few family members to gather round them. Local friends become family.

When Joy Isn't in the Christmas Photos

The grief of those who lost loved ones in mass shootings seems incomprehensible. How does any parent cope with the death of a child or spouse? How do loved ones embrace joy when a parent or sibling committed suicide? Each year military families struggle with loss. There are co-workers who lost spouses to disease; children whose parents died in an accident; large families whose gatherings will be marked by an empty chair—where a grandparent always sat.

Holidays like Christmas highlight our losses—especially when our loved ones die so close to the date.
They are supposed to be here—but they are absent;
Their presents are unopened;
Their usual words, smiles, unique contributions are gone.

For many, death meets life at Christmas. There’s a coffin alongside the crèche. A graveside scene replaces a nativity scene. Pictures of sadness replace smiling faces.

At My Father's Grave December, 1982

Most of us find ways to keep on going. The energetic hopes of our children help a lot. The comfort of close friends and family distract us from our grief and remind us that we are not alone in this world. I realize many will say God is there but people are the presence of God—they give the hugs and mirror our tears.

For most of us, the light shines again. Some look forward to a heavenly meeting. Others celebrate a life well lived—no matter how short. Some invest in meaningful projects to save the lives of others. Still others act to make life better for someone else in whatever way they can.

Many visit a cemetery and leave a flag or flowers. Some of us flip through old photo albums and recall the good times. It’s important that a person’s life has meaning.

Hopes and fears often comingle. Hope and fear are powerful forces.

A couple of weeks ago, a friend, Mike Jaffe, mentioned he finished a spiritual memoir. He added, “I mentioned your dad.” It was only a few years ago that I met this man and learned how my dad played a supportive role in his life as a young man.

Death takes lives away but it doesn’t cancel the goodness they left behind.

Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in Thee tonight

Helping a Grieving Friend or Relative

Grief and Loss information at the American Psychological Association

This post by Megan Devine offers suggestions on helping a friend.

This post by Katherine Britton suggests what NOT to say to a grieving person.

Bereavement counselling in the U.K.

Bereavement counseling for U.S. Veterans and their families.

And remember immigrants and refugees may feel especially lonely when families are thousands of miles away.

AP Photo

Saturday, December 19, 2015


The Men Who Restored Christmas

A great Christmas story combines warmth, kindness, generosity, traditions, and a memorable event—especially one that brings hope against the backdrop of an evil empire. A true story describing how a few soldiers from the 28th Infantry Division restored Christmas for the children of Wiltz, Luxembourg ranks with the best.

In late 1944, the allies had the German soldiers on the run. By December, some men were sent to Wiltz, Luxembourg for a much needed break. The townsfolk were grateful for the liberation from five years of Nazi rule including the ban on their Christmas tradition. This year they planned to restore the celebration of Saint Nicolas (Klees’chen) on 6 December but they were at a loss for gifts and treats.

Jewish Corporal Harry Stutz meets with the local priest, Father Wolffe, and other town leaders to see what could be done. He then plans a party with help from fellow soldiers who cook doughnuts and gather donations of sweets and items sent to soldiers from family and friends. Finally, he turns to friend Corporal Richard Brookins to play the role of Saint Nicholas. A bit reluctant at first, Brookins agrees then dons the priest’s garb, a worn rope beard, and a broken staff. After a sleigh ride via Army Jeep through town, the children and their families join the soldiers at Wiltz Castle.

Alas the war was not over. The Germans initiated a final resistance effort (Battle of the Bulge). Allied bombers responded and many in Wiltz lost their lives along with much of their town.

But after the war, the joy and hope of that special day was remembered. The celebration of 1944 was recounted far and wide. After some effort, connections were made with Corporal Brookins and some others. They returned to a warm welcome by the children who never forgot. 

Last year (2014) 94-year-old Richard Brookins joined in a re-enactment—riding again in a jeep as he had 70 years ago.

I saw the story on PBS presented as The American St. Nick. There is also a book by Peter Lion, which I haven’t read. Here’s a link to more on the story at the WW II Foundation.

PBS promo

Clip from the wartime film

The book cover

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Call to Arms: Christianity and Patriotism

Inciting Christian Violence

A Bible cut to look like a gun! So cool!: Holy Bible, Bible Screensaver, Loves Christians, Christian Wallpaper, Christian Quotes, Bible Cut, Jesus Loves, Bible Trolling, Bible S Violence

"I always thought that if more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walk in and kill…"

Jerry Falwell Jr. (4 December 2015, CNN).

To loud applause, Falwell encouraged his students to arm themselves. The remarks were related to the latest mass shooting in San Bernadino, California.

It didn’t take long before other Christians proclaimed their outrage. Well known progressive Christian leader Brian D. McLaren published an open letter (December 7, 2015, Huffingtonpost). He advanced the progressive view that “authentic Christianity is the loving, peaceful, just and generous way of life embodied in Jesus. It is characterized more by self-giving than self-defense, by pre-emptive peacemaking rather than pre-emptive violence.”

Also opposed to Falwell’s remarks was Shane Claiborne writing for RNS (05 December 2015). Claiborne cited the usual texts emphasizing Jesus ethic of love and his blessing on peacemakers. See the link for more details.

It wasn’t long before Liberty University professor, Daniel Howell, made news (RNS 7 December, 2015) with a commentary explaining why Christians view self-defense as a “God-given right to all creatures, including man.”


It’s easy to see that people who identify as Christian disagree about almost everything when it comes to moral issues, including killing people. This is nothing new. Church history is rife with arguments over interpretations of Scripture. Verbal and physical violence drip blood through Christian history. There are so many Christian groups that separate themselves from others based on a few distinctive teachings. Whether Christian or not, it's good to know how different groups come up with different beliefs.

Some key Bible texts in the debate

Buy a sword. Luke 22:36-38. Jesus tells his disciples to buy a sword. That’s like a green light to buy a gun for contemporary Christians. Christians use the text to support self-defense. Those opposed to using weapons say Jesus was speaking metaphorically.

Cheek turning. Matthew 5: 38-48. I asked a friend his view of "turn the other cheek to an enemy." He quickly responded that this is a one-time offer. Another friend was appalled at the one-time idea. Others suggest it only makes sense in a Christian community. The pacifist position is perhaps best argued by John Howard Yoder.

Jesus a warrior. Revelation 19: 11-21. Jesus is the heavenly warrior who attacks with the righteous wrath of Almighty God. After the battle, people are invited to eat the flesh of the vanquished. Many Christians have a literal view of Jesus returning as a mighty warrior to defeat the forces of evil. Despite the aversion some Christians experience when linked to the Medieval Crusades, "Crusaders" remains a popular name for Christian sports' teams. Progressive Christians interpret the Revelation texts in a variety of ways, including viewing the storied victory as a spiritual battle over evil, rather than a literal blood bath.

War stories. There are plenty of biblical stories of battles between the Israelites and their neighbors. God is the warrior who leads them into battles. Heroes like King David are esteemed for their killing of thousands of enemies. One Christian woman told me she gave up on the Old Testament (Christian name for the Hebrew Scriptures) because of the violence. Atheists print a lot of attacks on Christians because of the horrific carnage depicted in those old stories. Many point out that Christian preschoolers learn that violence and killing are justified, when they hear stories about God’s people killing other people.

The bottom line – fundamentalist Christians view the entire Bible as God’s Word. If God can order his ancient people into battle a few thousand years ago, and if God never changes, then God can lead people into battle today. For good measure you can add the theological truth that Jesus is God, and was with God since the beginning, so Jesus as God has always been a warrior.

I once asked a conservative theologian if it was possible that the ancient stories, which report God ordering people into battle, were just what the Israelite tribal leaders said to motivate their troops. Surprisingly, he didn’t brush off my question. I see no reason why ancient religious leaders would not use God to suit their purposes, even as leaders do today. Notice that this interpretation does not challenge the authenticity of the text--a worry to many fundamentalists.

Consider this. It is not easy to get ordinary people to kill other humans in close combat as with swords and knives. The people in close kill situations suffer more PTSD than do those in distant and noncombat roles. Killing takes a toll on most killers. I don't think human nature has changed much in a few thousand years so, you can expect tribal leaders had to work at motivating their men to fight. (VA PTSD information)


There are several reasons why the religious war of words will never end. I'll name a few. It's going to look bleak. Perhaps I am wrong. But I'd rather face reality, then see what I can do about it. So following these downside perspectives, I'll offer some ideas.

Emotions will win the day. Fear is more powerful than love. Most creatures have built-in quick and unthinking responses to threatening stimuli. It seems like people are wired to "Respond first and ask questions later." The basic psychology of fight or flight motivates us to save our lives. Leaders who offer defensive strategies will be the most popular. People don’t want to send their kids off to war—unless really necessary. Turning the other cheek to a killer sounds like madness. Buying a gun seems "emotionally reasonable" in this fear context, even though the lack of knowledge about gun use and carelessness can put inexperienced gun owners at risk. Gun control will eventually happen when more and more people get so sick of mass murder that they put pressure on lawmakers to change the law. The U.S. Constitution has been amended before. And this week, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed a gun control law to remain in effect (NY Times).

Love supports self-defense. It may seem odd to think of love supporting the angry rhetoric aimed by contemporary Christians against religious terrorists. Love binds us to our family members and kin. When expanded, we love our friends. Love motivates us to protect and nurture those we care about. Threats stimulate fear of others identified as threats by our societal leaders as well as a desire to hug those closest to us. Observe the common reports of family members hugging their surviving relatives after any mass shooting. And witness the rise in gun sales after mass shootings in the U.S.

Cognitive bias will persist. Our brains have a confirmation bias. When it comes to the lengthy biblical text, it’s easy to focus on those segments that support the reader’s perspective, and ignore those that support an alternative perspective. Our brains are not neutral when it comes to thinking.

Strong leaders win when people are under threat. Weapons represent strength. Falwell’s indication of the gun in his pocket aligns him with the power of death over life represented in his power to take another’s life. The current popularity of Donald Trump has persisted despite his harsh words towards foreigners and outsiders represented as threats to U.S. citizens. He incites fear. Then he projects personal strength-- a savior in uncertain times. He also projects himself to be a man of action and ready to solve problems now. It matters not to many people that Trump's ideas have not been battle-tested. (The research base supporting our desire for strength comes from studies of Terror Management Theory, recent post).

Human brains are mostly lazy. The loudest voice in touch with the sentiments of the people will prevail as the guiding force in any society. In general, we live life as we always have. Thinking is taxing—it literally drains biochemical resources. To weigh the pros and cons of any arguing leaders requires effort. It’s easier to follow a leader who appeals to what we like to hear. The best explanation of this thinking problem is in Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow. Although the president of the U.S. is but one person, that person carries the hopes and dreams of many wealthy and influential followers into the offices of the most powerful nation on earth. So, do what you can to support wise voices.

Peace comes in cycles. When people are fed up with war, a long peace can prevail. We’re 75 years out from the World War II devastation. That’s a long peace since some 70 plus million were killed in a few years. True, there have been many conflicts since then, but not on such a substantial scale, even though the power to kill is significantly more enhanced than it was 75 years ago. So, things look bad in many parts of the world, but we are not near the levels of destruction that touched most human beings 75 years ago. Reasonable people have not unleashed nuclear weapons to destroy entire cities.

The Violence of recent wars is among us. It is well known that many soldiers struggle to return to normal life after deployment. It’s especially hard for those in close combat positions. Not only do many soldiers struggle with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but they also struggle with violent impulses. Sometimes they kill themselves, and sometimes they kill others. This is not a new phenomenon, but it is present, and it will continue to affect the lives of many veterans and their families. Of course, the problem will grow, and more people will be affected as conflict increases. References: Morris, 2014; Pishko, 2015).

Hate will grow. When Christian and/or political leaders identify target groups as the problem, the people in those groups naturally turn to each other for support. The angry rhetoric like that of Jerry Falwell Jr. and Donald Trump can produce fear among Muslim citizens in the U.S. Mosques become targets. For example the disgusting pig's head at the door of a Philadelphia Mosque on 9 December 2015 (CNN). The conflict Islamic terrorists would like to see, becomes reality when Christian leaders cast suspicion on law-abiding Muslims. It's a classic "Us vs. Them" scenario. And hate can lead to increased violence.

Good News

The good news is that, despite understanding how many people will follow unthinking pathways that promote violence and hatred, no one has to follow those paths. We can choose to set aside our biases and leave the arguing to others. We can choose to emphasize the good in Christianity.

Although I understand the basis for the angry rhetoric by many Christians, I choose not to accept their interpretation of Scripture as valid for my life. I choose instead to emphasize peaceful ways of resolving conflict. I advocate for peace through strength. I choose to point out the difficulties with violence to those who will listen. I find the majority of the Gospel stories illustrate Jesus' compassion for those around him.

But I also understand human nature. People will always kill other people. Therefore, we will always need a strong police presence, a strong military, and vigilant intelligence personnel. We need to be guided by policies that limit force to that which is necessary to protect our citizens. We will sometimes need to go to war to end the lives of those bent on violence. The infrastructure of terrorists must be constantly monitored and destroyed.


My ideas toward a more safe and peaceful existence in the United States

1. Realize it's usually a waste of time, and can cause excessive personal distress, to argue with someone advocating suspicion of all members of groups of people like Muslims, promoting the use of high powered automatic or semi-automatic weapons that can kill dozens in a few minutes, or the other extremists who think only nonviolent solutions are best. We don't need to enhance anger, hatred, or fear. It is incredibly difficult to change emotionally driven arguments using reason. But we do need to act.

2. We can promote peace and well-being by supporting refugees wherever they are. See previous list of ideas.

3. We can teach people about conflict resolution strategies. Here's one program at Wheaton College.

4. We can choose to promote stories of peace and friendship rather than death and destruction to our children.

5. We can choose games that do not promote violence. The link between violent video games and behavior is summarized by the APA. See the 2015 APA report.

6. We can advocate for laws that at least insist on gun safety and keeping lethal weapons away from identified violent and impulsive people.

7. We can support our veterans struggling with PTSD symptoms and problems managing anger and aggression through effective programs, and the use of local resources when a VA facility is not nearby. Helping our veterans, helps prevent violence. Similarly, we can provide mental health services to civilians who struggle with a variety of symptoms or conditions, including PTSD and anger management.

8. We can promote sensible self-defense. For example, we should screen immigrants and refugees. But we should also screen other people who have access to lethal force. We ought to screen people who carry weapons at work. We need to ensure adequate cell phone communication services and more video cameras in public places so people can call for, and receive help and protection.

9. We can teach people what to do in an active shooter situation. There are guidelines and videos on this topic. Knowing best practices is a practical way to help yourself and others.

10. We can remember to honor Muslim Veterans along with Christian, Jewish, and Atheist veterans who gave their lives in support of our country.

11. We can support political and other societal leaders that offer reasonable ideas to keep our society safe and advance a morally and scientifically sound approach to reducing harm to all persons and promoting equality of all persons.

12. We can participate in interfaith events. We can all do more to connect with people from different faiths or no faith at all. Friendships build safety. And in my view, reaching out to others represents the preponderance of what we know Jesus actually taught in both word and deed.

13. We can tighten physical security at public places using metal detectors, searches, and other screening procedures.

14. We can help parents raise respectful and responsible children. Use Discpline with Respect or some other consistent, kind yet firm, approach to child discipline at home and school.




Twitter @GeoffWSutton


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Saturday, November 28, 2015

Sex and Death: Life's Anxieties & Christianity

How Sex and Death Anxiety Link to Christianity

How would you feel if you learned a friend or close relative decided to have sex to help with expenses? Earlier today, a headline news story reported on the low rates Greek women get for sex-- some just get enough to buy a meal. 

Christians often show an interest in rescuing people from sex trafficking. But not all sex workers are trafficked. And not all sex work is illegal. But sex work has a long history of condemnation and in many places sex workers are at high risk of harm. Sex work is just one example of the sex-linked issues confronting Christians who want to show compassion but may be put off by some aspects of the lives of the people they wish to help. For many Christians, sex evokes disgust.

The leaders of a group I attend on Sundays decided to study Richard Beck’s book, Unclean. Beck takes readers on a journey through the psychology of disgust and shows how we emotionally respond to disgusting experiences by avoidance and creating protective barriers. Unfortunately, disgust can lead the church away from people who act in ways that seem disgusting. Thus, the church needs to recognize the power of disgust and find ways to fellowship with those in need. In several ways, Jesus touched the lives of those considered unclean in his day. His behavior was a scandal—in fact, Beck sees the incarnation as a scandal.

Since I had written about the new research on moral psychology, I volunteered for a couple of chapters. Last week and this week has to do with sex. Thanks to Beck I have considered more about the disgust factor on church behavior than I might have done otherwise. But I also have my own thoughts dealing with anxiety and that influential Terror Management Theory, which I think expands an understanding of the trouble the church has in dealing with sex and another close source of anxiety, death.

Sex and Disgust

Christians have a long history of difficulty with human sexuality and matters linked to sex like abortion, birth control, divorce and remarriage. People in many cultures find bodily fluids disgusting. And many of these fluids link to sex. It’s no surprise that some people have problems with sexual functioning. How does anyone overcome such disgust to enjoy sex? It appears that sexual arousal is more powerful and overcomes the disgust factor (Borg & de Jong, 2012). But it also appears that some people vary in their disgust sensitivity ( Al-Shawaf, Lewis, & Buss, 2014). And women reveal more disgust than do men (Fleischman news story;   Fleischman et al., 2015). Disgust is a protective factor. Beck doesn’t want us to throw open the doors to sexual predators but he does want us to understand how disgust can be influential in the way Christians view various aspects of sex.

Given the church’s stance on things sexual, it can look like the church is obsessed with sex. The church is against premarital sex, abortion, cohabitation, same-sex marriage, and pornography. It appears to be against birth control and discriminates against women in terms of permissible roles. In fairness, Christians are a diverse lot and many don’t go along with official teachings. Most Christians do use birth control and those who object do so because some forms of birth control appear to end life. Some do not want to support premarital sex so they preach abstinence only, which leaves many unprotected when they do not abstain. And recently, some churches have welcomed women as clergy and into leadership. Regardless of the changes, those who do not live up to the church’s teaching end up looking impure and contaminated. In short they have sinned and need their sins washed away to be clean and holy. But you can’t take back virginity can you? A funny thing about sex is that one incident marks a person for life. It's as if a person is contaminated. The reaction is emotional and not rational.

Sex and Death

Beck writes about disgust and death in the chapter before sex. Indeed, some aspects of corpses are disgusting and scary too—as we find in many a movie. Beck doesn’t offer a lot about the sex-death link. But the link is common in literature, film, religion, and psychoanalysis.

I think the sex-death link is most powerful when we consider the rape-war connection. The rape of women by male warriors has a long history. Only recently have records from World War II revealed the horrors in France as described by historian Mary Louise Roberts.

And there is this sex-death connection made by the FBI in their analysis of serial murder: “The majority of serial killers who are sexually motivated erotized violence during development. For them, violence and sexual gratification are inexplicably intertwined  in their psyche (p.12; Serial Murder).”

And of course there’s abortion, which in the view of many is the killing of an unborn child. Christians who take a strict view of life do not support abortion even in cases where a girl has become pregnant due to incest or other forms of sexual assault. In abortion, sex and death anxiety are co-mingled. And the imagery of an aborted baby and the medical use of aborted fetuses is horrifying and stimulates disgust and righteous anger in many.

Sex, Death, and Christianity

We might wonder how sex and death could gain some spiritually uplifting dimension. The church of course has a long history of declaring sex off limits except within a marriage relationship. The purpose of sex was to have children. And somewhere in the last few decades, Evangelical Christians decided sex could be a good thing—a blessing to enjoy—not just in the proverbial missionary position but in all sorts of ways (e.g., CT article.

But realizing the power of sex still meant keeping some boundaries in place. Virginity is still a prize for many Christians. Despite the inclusion of boys in the purity movement, the big push was to keep girls pure. So Christians created purity rings and purity balls connecting fathers and daughters. I suspect that a lot of folks meant well. But many have commented on how strange the purity movement is. I suppose being a clinician and seeing so many victims of child sexual abuse I prefer to see firm boundaries between parents and children—good friendships, yes; but no dating, please.

Virginity has an integral place in Christianity. We know about the virgin birth and the special place of the Virgin Mary in the Catholic tradition. But you may not know that nearly one percent of U.S. women claim virgin births. And of that number, one study found 31% had signed chastity pledges (CBS news; Study details at bmj). Somewhere in here I ought to mention celibacy, which may be defined as an abstinence from both sex and marriage. 

Death is often seen as God’s punishment for various sins—including many of those banned in the Ten Commandments. What the church teaches of course is that there is forgiveness for sins and with that forgiveness comes a bonus—eternal life. So in one fell swoop, all the sexual sins are wiped away and the specter of death is defeated. Redemption brings relief from anxiety.

Christian and Existential Roots of Sex and Death Anxiety

Essentially, Christianity undoes the effects of the twin evils found in the first few pages of Genesis. In the famous garden story a scary animal (Brewer, 2001) challenges God’s Rule. The man is tempted to take a woman’s fruit then discovers his nakedness. (Read Genesis 3.)

Next, the humans find they are more like animals than heavenly creatures. They are sexual beings and mate like other animals. Unlike the animals though, they experience a sense of shame. We soon see many rules and rituals designed to hide their nakedness and control sexuality. It looks a lot like controlling sex anxiety to me.

But of course there’s another animal reminder—humans now must die. They become aware that they are finite and must always live with the reminder that death is in their future. God casts them out of the Garden so they do not eat of the tree of life and live forever. So not only must they deal with sexuality like other animals but they must also deal with their mortality, which also makes humans seem more like other animals rather than like gods. Sex and death are linked in Genesis. Both sex and death trigger anxiety but death is more powerful.

Regardless of religious belief, the elements of the Genesis narrative are with humans in sex-linked shame and death awareness. This kind of thinking provoked Søren Kierkegaard and the existential philosophers, Sigmund Freud and the psychoanalysts, Ernest Becker, and the founders of Terror Management Theory.

Here’s where I diverge from Richard Beck. Although I see the role of disgust as a factor separating the church from engaging people in need, I also see a powerful existential anxiety best accounted for by Terror Management Theory (TMT; see notes below). Reminders of mortality motivate action to manage the underlying anxiety. People dealing with death often seek comfort from their faith and hug their family members. And they engage in other anxiety management rituals like prayer designed to increase a sense of control and meaning amidst the chaotic events of life. Who can forget those helpless pleas of many victims: Why? Why? Why?

Things that remind us of death threaten our sense of worth and value in a profound way. Many of us are involved in life-long projects to demonstrate our worth to others now and beyond our lifespan. Low levels of anxiety motivate us to be cautious. Anxiety can be productive when we invest in families, relationships, and things that make lives better and safer for ourselves and others. Excessive anxiety results in avoidance and immobility. Refugees flee destruction. In "safe" societies people avoid people when high anxiety confines them to their homes. Others freeze--overwhelmed with fear when in certain settings. Still others become obsessed with germs and infections and develop compulsive rituals that interfere with life tasks. Excessive anxiety can be a crippling life-long impairment.

Christians Managing Anxiety

The Christian answer to sex is of course to place sex safely within a marriage relationship where sex is sanctified, holy, and controlled. This placement of sex within a life-long marriage appeared reasonable for centuries. After all, raising children—the natural products of sex, is hard work—especially when you could not control how many you had.

The advent of birth control (BC) obviously freed women from the common natural outcome of sex-- pregnancy and childbirth. Since BC, many in western cultures have worked to de-link sex from marriage. As a result, the church is losing its grip on both marriage and sex. Individuals rather than the church are making their own decisions about getting married. And having sex is often not a part of the marriage decision. 

The church has not yet come to grips with the fact that substantial percentages of the people in church are condemned as sinners by traditional church doctrine. If a church makes people aware of their sins then they risk increasing anxiety. People might leave to avoid such negativity. What would happen to church budgets if the church preached old sermons against divorce and remarriage and half the congregation left? It's safer for churches to preach purity to a captive audience of youth. So, some churches focuses on premarital sex and ignore the older audience of singles who have had sex when married or not.

Essentially, most church leaders remain silent about sexuality and in doing so, the church defers judgment about sexual morality to the congregants and their culture. Some rise to condemn easy targets like same-sex marriage, sex-trafficking, abortion, and sex among teens but the other issues are relics of the past. Perhaps church leaders also experience anxiety about sex.

I suspect a psychological factor is at work too. Familiarity reduces anxiety. Christians no longer fear the effects of divorce and remarriage or pregnant single women now that they or many of their friends and relatives have had the experience. Older people were warned about the sins of divorce and remarriage using the language of adultery. Divorcees hid their past. And adultery was often assumed to be the cause of a broken relationship. Pregnant teens were sent away, removed from school, or forced into marriage with the boyfriend. Now people are used to embracing family and friends.

The sexual freedom in relationships offered by many world cultures brings new anxieties. In some cases, there are insufficient services for those who become infected due to unprotected sex. And when sex results in a pregnancy, many suffer from the lack of support systems for single parents. Outside the church there are still safety concerns when it comes to sex. Safety in sex is not just about disease. Safety includes creating a culture of respect free from sexual harassment and counter to rape culture. A new culture of shame is developing around those who harass and those who rape and sexually exploit others. Secular society and not the church sets the new ethos.

Christians also lost control over marriage, which was the safe place for sex. Divorce and remarriage were prohibited by Jesus (Matthew 19) and his church. This was the norm for centuries. Although there was a divorce exception for adultery (sex again), many Christians questioned the validity of remarriage until a person was freed from the marriage vow at the death of a spouse. Somehow the church seems to have given up on preaching against divorce and remarriage. The teaching remains but Christians seem willing to accept divorce and remarriage as a natural part of life. In 2015 Pope Francis encouraged priests to welcome the divorced and remarried (RNS story).

The church has added premarital counseling and provided marriage enrichment seminars—good ideas to be sure yet the level of impact on national divorce rates appears minimal so far. That’s not surprising if you think about changing entire behavior patterns for a couple in 3-6 hours of a premarital counseling experience.

Recently the church has faced new challenges to marriage in the form of same-sex marriages permitted by laws in several countries and supported by some but not most churches. The explicit biblical issues of course deal with same-sex sex—not marriage per se. Although, most conservative churches also make the case that a Christian marriage is between a man and a woman. When it comes to same-sex sex, there is a disgust response (research example). But few speak openly about this factor. Regardless of the role of disgust, there is also a strong undercurrent of anxiety. The church has lost control over marriage. Some even wonder if they should give up on trying to control marriage in cultures that have redefined marriage in a way that is unchristian.

Even worse are those stories revealing sexual assault by clergy and other Christian leaders. Isn’t anywhere safe anymore? If you can’t go to church or a Christian school and be safe where can you go? What parent can ever trust a children’s pastor or youth worker? What woman can ever trust a male pastor in counseling? And what about all those victims living with PTSD symptoms for the rest of their lives? Moreover, what about those victims who can’t take it any more so they seek relief from the pain of life in suicide?

By many counts, managing sex and sex-linked issues (e.g., birth control, abortion, marriage) have not gone well for the church. But there is some evidence that the church provides a buffer against death. The blessed Christian hope is that after death comes the resurrection and a joining together with one’s ancestors and God—there is eternal life after all. And sexuality is gone- there’s no marriage as Jesus pointed out. Life and white-robed purity characterize life-after-life. The sting of death is gone. The terror is resolved and the existential anxiety that hangs over so many heads is removed. If you were close to a Christian who died you have heard the reminders that they are in a better place and they are at peace. They are with Jesus. They are looking down on us now. And for some, no doubt, these sayings bring a measure of comfort. But they don't help everyone.

There is a downside if eternal life becomes a superficial gloss that obviates responsibility in this life. For some, confronting death early in life is a wake-up call—a reminder that this life can be meaningful. Death enhances the importance of life and infuses relationships with joy and a zest for life. So Christians living solely for heaven may miss out on a rich and fulfilled life here and now--as an old saying went, they are "too heavenly minded and no earthly good."

The simple church solution to a meaningful life has long been to convert the lost (i.e., unchristian), clean them up (baptize), and get them on the road to heaven. This revivalist approach crops up from time to time amongst those focused on teachings about the end of the world. And it’s also common for some Pentecostals to think they may miss death altogether by a sudden rising up to meet Jesus in the air (called the rapture).


1. Sex and death are important life boundary experiences. All humans experience a degree of anxiety. It’s necessary for survival. Anxiety about sex and relationships as well as death are natural and probably more protective than disgust in the long run. Placing sex and death within a meaning system is vital to managing human anxiety. 

2. Christianity offers a meaningful place for sex and death. But not all forms of Christianity welcome people with certain sexual histories. And some forms of Christianity exacerbate anxiety related to sexual purity and what happens when someone dies.
3. Churches and other components of a society will always need boundaries when it comes to sexuality and relationships. Sex enhances loving relationships.  The intimacy of sex nourishes the attachment bonds foundational to happy and healthy marriages and families. Sex without boundaries has the power to destroy individuals like a river suddenly rising above its banks and destroying nearby individuals and their families.

4. Forgiveness cheapens grace when forgiveness is interpreted to mean Christians must forgive everyone qua letting other ruin their lives. Interpersonal behavior always has consequences. In a church community, behavior can evoke anxiety by disrupting relationships integral to overcoming life’s anxieties. True forgiveness releases victims from their past but does not remove boundaries critical to safety.

5. Churches ought to reach out to people who are different or who do not live according to the teaching of the church. Churches do well to affirm marriage and they do even better to provide programs supporting commitment within a marriage. Committed relationships are built on a bond of love (attachment theory for psychologists). People in committed relationships are in a better position to cope with the anxieties of life.

6. Churches need to get a grip on death and suicide. Thoughts of eternity don’t help so much when a loved one is dying or a mentally ill relative is in and out of a hospital due to suicide threats and attempts. If a church is a community then it must provide a network of support for all members.

7. It's easy to see why many social scientists see all religions as systems created by people to provide life with meaning. Others see religion as a way of coping with life's anxieties. It is natural for Christians to reject such views thinking only one perspective has to be true and all other views counted as false. But I suggest Christians may still hold to the tenets of faith and find that certain doctrines do indeed offer meaning and a way of coping with life's anxieties. And through the example of Jesus, Christian can find ways to connect with people considered unclean, marginalized, and unworthy.

8. I suspect the church has lost a great deal of credibility over the behavior of that minority of church leaders whose sexual behavior is either contrary to what they taught or destructive of young lives as in sexual abuse. The sins of sexual abuse went on for decades and were covered up by the church. In addition to apologies and restitution, churches must ensure they have protective policies in place to protect all persons from sexual harassment of any kind. 


Ernest Becker may be less familiar than the other names. Becker was a cultural anthropologist who drew on the works of the existentialists and psychoanalysts to explain the role of death anxiety in human existence. For Becker, culture is a life project that enables people to deal with anxiety. Many aspects of our lives are designed to help us extend our mortality beyond the grave- like writing this blog for example. More on Becker.

Divorce and remarriage. Pope Francis made news on the topic when he called for the church to embrace Catholics who divorced and remarried. (RNS story).

Existentialism. Several aspects of existentialism are relevant to this discussion. Regardless of religion, existentialists confront issues of anxiety, morality and death and the whole meaning of life. A helpful summary can be found at Stanford's Plato site.

Purity culture is a Christian movement focused on sexual purity meaning that young men and women will be virgins until they marry. The movement includes a strong push for abstinence and a silver ring representing a commitment. Peter Enns reviews a recent book on the topic. Earlier this year, The Independent published a story on Purity Balls.

Snakes. Geoffrey Brewer reported the results of a Gallup Poll showing snakes as the top fear. The garden animal in Genesis is usually represented as a snake.

TMT. In TMT, reminders of death motivate people to find meaning in life including a sense of order and a set of cohesive explanations of existence. TMT also motivates people to find a sense of worth and value and find a source of hope that overcomes death (Hirschberger & Pyszczynski, 2012).

Virgin Mary. Catholic teaching about the Virgin Mary does show a focus on sexuality and death. She is the "New Eve" in some thinking, which of course emphasizes the importance of Genesis to so many issues of sex and relationships. Did she escape death? I don't know. But Catholic teaching includes the assumption of Mary into heaven at the end of her life. Read more at ewtn 

The Virgin Mary Consoles Eve


Beck, R. (2011). Unclean: Meditations on purity, hospitality, and mortality. Eugene, OR: Cascade.

Becker, E. (1973). The denial of death. New York: Free Press.

Hirschberger, G., & Pyszczynski, T. (2012). Killing with a clean conscience: Existential angst and the paradox of morality. In M. Mikulincer, P. R. Shaver, M. Mikulincer, P. R. Shaver (Eds.) , The social psychology of morality: Exploring the causes of good and evil (pp. 331-347). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association. doi:10.1037/13091-018

Read more about sexuality, morality, and Christian cultures in A House Divided available from the publisher PICKWICK and other stores e.g., AMAZON

Related Links

Monday, November 23, 2015

Rejecting or Accepting Refugees

Recently Resettled Refugees

The Psychology of Rejection

And How to Help

It’s pretty obvious that people are afraid of killers and potential killers. Given the recent violence in Paris and the horrific killings in Syria and Iraq, it’s natural to be suspicious of anyone who looks like they come from that part of the world.

Appeals to reason are wasted. When threatened wise people seek safety and arm themselves against danger. Conservatives in the U.S. and elsewhere are vociferous in their stance against taking in Syrian Refugees. Muslims are under suspicion in Western countries.

Why is Refugee Rejection So Strong?

1. A Threat Became Reality
A video threatening the U.S. and other countries fighting in Syria has made the rounds. The people in the video are from the same part of the world as are the refugees. And one of the Paris murderers had a Syrian passport. There’s some evidence that a killer came to France as a Refugee. The killers are obviously out to get innocent civilians. You can’t tell the difference between a person in need and a murderer by looking at them. That’s important. We pay attention to obvious features. Who has time for rationale analysis when under threat? We are designed to survive by avoiding death and the risk of death.

2. Experience Supports Risk

Humans rely on available experience when making decisions (availability heuristic). A few human beings with automatic weapons killed more than a hundred people in Paris. Other bombings and shootings have happened and more are on the way. More than 2 million Syrians have fled their country! Hundreds of thousands of refugees are seeking a place to live and work. All it takes is 1-2 percent to destroy hundreds of innocent lives. How can you tell the hardworking honest folk from those intent on harm?

3. People Lie
It’s important to question people claiming they are seeking refuge from persecution or seeking safety from war to discover the truth. While some people are better at discerning an honest report from a lie, questioning is not foolproof (Mendenhall & Schmidhofer). And so called “lie detectors” are not highly reliable methods (APA). Nevertheless, identification and screening methods are important even though they slow the process of resettlement. Keep in mind that not every false statement is a lie. Human memory is notoriously faulty (Sutton, 2015)

4. They’re Not Like Us
All humans are more likely to help family and friends. People of faith support others of similar faith. Christian metaphors refer to other Christians as part of the same body. Helping people of other faith or no faith at all is a barrier to overcome. A large body of research has focused on understanding group loyalty (e.g., Druckman, 1994) and the problem of ingroup and outgroup identification (Whitbourne, 2010). Reason won’t help much. But appeals to duty, common values, respect for others, caring for vulnerable persons, and acting according to the virtues of faith (e.g., love of neighbor, hospitality) are more likely to overcome hostility toward people from some perceived other group than our own group.

How Can We Safely Help Trustworthy Refugees?

Seven Ways to Help

1. Work to Overcome Resistance
Overcoming emotional resistance caused by fear takes work. Getting to know real refugees in person or by reading and forwarding their stories provided by trustworthy news sources and charitable organizations can connect us with people in need. We can work to humanize and counteract those who dehumanize people in need. We can also share stories with others who are focused on fear rather than caring for others. Stories that emphasize common values we share with refugees will help seem them as like us. For example, many humans value being close to family, a place to work, a safe neighborhood, and quality education for their children.
Refugee Camp, Kenya
2. Donate
We can support governments and organizations attempting to provide basic care to existing refugees. We can provide funds, personnel, and other resources so all existing refugees receive basic care. Here’s a link to a list from CNN. There is no need to wait for specific government leaders to welcome refugees because some governments and organizations are doing something now.

3. Tax Ourselves
We citizens can let our representatives know we are committed to paying higher taxes to fund personnel needed to screen all refugees. It’s costly and the screening methods are not perfect. But we can reasonably insist on identification and screening processes for all if we are willing to pay the cost.

4. Communicate
We can encourage our representatives to communicate reasonable expectations to the refugees. When word gets out that a country will take thousands of refugees that can create false hope if they think all they have to do is find a way in. The heartwarming images of Germans greeting refugees at railway stations are beautiful. But that welcome doesn’t happen for everyone. Our government leaders need to be reminded to proclaim a clear message to refugees and provide status updates to citizens. If you ever waited for a government office to make a decision, you can empathize with the importance of accurate and timely communication.

5. Work
Those with skills can meet care needs. Doctors Without Borders is one example of people meeting the medical needs of refugees. Psychologists are also involved in trauma work (APA story). Most agencies need reliable volunteers with a variety of professional and general skills.

6. Learn More
Updates on the needs of refugees can be found at the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Staying current and sharing the knowledge can help others who may not be aware. Also check out the Humanitarian Disaster Institute for tips and suggestions.

7. Vote
Vote for wise and compassionate leaders. Look for those offering reasonable plans to welcome refugees that have passed sensible screening requirements. I say reasonable because some requirements are not clearly linked to safety.

How Can Christian Leaders Help?

1. Persuade

Christian leaders have the power of persuasion with their followers. Therefore, they can encourage people to follow the ethic of hospitality as revealed in the works and teachings of Jesus.

2. Link followers to agencies

Many Christian organizations are doing what they can. Those organizations that have strong accountability standards should be identified along with the type of help needed. The CNN list includes Christian organizations. Convoy of Hope is actively working to help refugees.

3. Educate

Many Christian groups have affiliated colleges, universities, and other schools. Coursework and experiences can focus attention on helping students learn how to help. Summers are obvious times for programs connecting students with refugees or organizations helping refugees.

4. Counteract Fear with Love

Stories of loving responses showing Christians helping refugees will do more than cogent arguments to counteract disproportionate fears. Love is a powerful emotion. We can learn more by seeing people helping people succeed than reading about why we ought to help. And we need to see images and videos of caring to counteract those showing heavily armed killers and dead bodies.

5. Create Opportunities for Cross-Cultural Contact
The best way to break down barriers between people from different cultures is to create opportunities for contact. Christians need to mix with people of other beliefs in their own religion as well as people from other faiths in their own country and around the world. Being a missionary won't necessarily help if one lives in a secluded enclave and maintains a superior stance. Many Christian colleges and organizations support service trips abroad. These trips can be helpful when humility is engendered.

Help Refugees: Get The Word Out

4 reasons people reject refugees

7 ways Christians can help refugees.

5 things Christian leaders can do to help with the refugee crisis.