Man of Flesh: Compare and Contrast

The yellow sun setting over Chiang Mai made us feel super.
The yellow sun setting over Chiang Mai made us feel super. (No rights to Superman pics.)

By now, you’ve all heard:  Jesus Christ and Superman have a lot in common.  In fact it came out in the news this weekend that the movie studio sent a lot of prepared sermons to preachers and pastors across the U.S. (additional links here and here).  It makes me wonder if the guy who showed a preview of “Man of Steel” as part of his sermon at my church a few weeks ago is hip to Hollywood and actually received an advance sermon copy.

As a child, Superman was my number 1 comicbook hero, I loved the stories.  I still remember how amazed I was when my mom showed me a page from a coloring book that showed Superman and Jesus together, shaking hands.  How awesome was that!  I know Jesus’ street cred went way up that day in my mind.

After seeing “Man of Steel” this weekend, I was taken aback at how human Superman seemed.  In a more real, less angsty way than the WB tv show, Superman, the Kryptonian, became fully human.

This struggle between humanity and superior being was also on display in Spock during “Star Trek: Into the Darkness,” and will likely be seen in the next Wolverine movie.  (These are the only two movies I’ve seen in the theaters for a long time, I promise.)

But something about this “Man of Steel” didn’t quite seem right.  Then it hit me:  Jesus was not a man of steel at all, but a fully human, weak man, made of flesh.

There’s that, which is pretty obvious.  But playing into the mythos of Superman is the idea of how he saves us.  It’s the same way many WANTED Jesus to save them way back when: We want Jesus to punch evil through building after building (spoiler alert: Superman punches people through buildings).  In other words, we want Jesus to take up our idea of a sword and start chopping away for our forgiveness and freedom from sin.

Scholars call this the myth of redemptive violence.  The idea that the only way to seek peace from violent perpetrators is to overthrow them violently.

But we know a different Jesus than that, don’t we?  The sword is not a sword of our making that we then put in Jesus’ hand with permission to slashing evil.  Rather, the sword comes from him — from his mouth (symbolism anyone?).  While on earth, Jesus could have been king.  But that is not how God chooses to work.  He chose to humble himself and become a baby, the weakest, most defenseless being.  And then he lived a life that showed us a way to fight that threw violence out the window while displaying a form of rebellion against the powers that be.  This is the life we are to model — and it doesn’t fit into any box we have created.

In fact, in the movie, the film creators show us exactly what we try to do to Jesus.  At one point, the U.S. Army brass is expressing concern about Superman’s allegiance.  He responds by saying, “General, I grew up in Kansas for 32 years, you can’t get more American than that.”  As missionaries, this should scare us the most when we consider the story of Christ.  Are we making Jesus American (or some other nationality) when we share about the Gospel?

I mean, after all, even the guy who played Superman wasn’t American.


Much of this issue focuses on the role the church plays in reaction to society.  How do you handle the balance?  Have you heard the comparison between Jesus and Superman?  How do you respond to the comparison?

How are you avoiding making Jesus belong to a certain country or people?


Our last Sunday at church before moving to Thailand. The church was decorated in "The Lord's Army" VBS theme.
Our last Sunday at church before moving to Thailand. The church was decorated in “The Lord’s Army” VBS theme.
I think we’re sending the wrong message here.

Monday, May 26, 2013 marks Memorial Day in the United States.  For those of you who may not be familiar with the U.S. holiday, it is day intended to honor members of the U.S. armed forces who have died in service.  The Sunday before, many churches all over the U.S. honor those who have died in service and who are currently serving.  It is often a tremendous show of people who are “Proud to be an American” and who call upon God to bless America.

It’s also a day that makes me feel very uncomfortable internally as I try to balance my own pride in country and the military history of my own family with the nagging suspicion that our glorification of the military may not always be appropriate.

I commented on a friend’s Facebook post (also a questionable choice on my part) after she posted this story about a teacher who made a statement with one of her lessons:

Back in September of 2005, on the first day of school, Martha Cothren, a social studies school teacher at Robinson High School in Little Rock, did something not to be forgotten. On the first day of school, with permission of the school superintendent, the principal and the building supervisor, she took all of the desks out of the classroom. The kids came into first period, they walked in, there were no desks. They obviously looked around and said, “Ms. Cothren, where are our desks?” And she said, “You can’t have a desk until you tell me how you earn them.” They thought, “Well, maybe it’s our grades.””No,” she said. “Maybe it’s our behavior.”And she told them, “No, it’s not even your behavior.”And so they came and went in the first period, still no desks in the classroom. Second period, same thing. Third period. By early afternoon television news crews had gathered in Ms. Cothren’s class to find out about this crazy teacher who had taken all the desks out of the classroom. The last period of the day, Martha Cothren gathered her class. They were at this time sitting on the floor around the sides of the room. And she says, “Throughout the day no one has really understood how you earn the desks that sit in this classroom ordinarily.” She said, “Now I’m going to tell you.” Martha Cothren went over to the door of her classroom and opened it, and as she did 27 U.S. veterans , wearing their uniforms, walked into that classroom, each one carrying a school desk. And they placed those school desks in rows, and then they stood along the wall. And by the time they had finished placing those desks, those kids for the first time I think perhaps in their lives understood how they earned those desks. Martha said, “You don’t have to earn those desks. These guys did it for you. They put them out there for you, but it’s up to you to sit here responsibly to learn, to be good students and good citizens, because they paid a price for you to have that desk, and don’t ever forget it.” (Taken from

Like me, Ms. Cothren also came from a family with Vietnam and WWII veterans.  My comment following the post on Facebook however referred different heroes.  I asked, “Why do we honor soldiers above those who have fought for freedom through nonviolent means?”
Then I started thinking about those who live overseas.  What does the military mean to people of Europe?  Thailand?  Bolivia?  El Salvador?  Why are we able to celebrate the military of the U.S. in church, but churches across the world don’t?  Has God indeed blessed America more through the gift of a military that defends our freedoms?

Or did Jesus show us a different way that is more powerful no matter the role of the military?

This is where I tend to lose tracking with my American friends and family.  When I start to reveal my pacifist leanings and theories of civil disobedience, the head-shaking and thought bubble (“oh, boy”) pops up.

What should a church or Christian aid organization’s relationship be to the military?  Many of us coming from countries where the military is governed by the rule of law want to praise God for our freedoms and protection by (or from) the military.  But what about when we work in a country where the military rules by its own law?

If you find yourself taking for granted that the military exists to protect you, you may find it difficult to relate to people who take it for granted that the military exists to bully and exploit them.

A life led overseas often reveals the enmeshment between our faith and our nationalism.  And we begin to ask questions that we may not have considered, questions that we might not like the answer to.

This U.S. Memorial Day, let’s remember soldiers around the world who have died in service along with the many more civilians who have died from war, unofficial or not.  God bless the World.


What is your relationship to Memorial Day?  And how has it changed the longer you’ve lived overseas?  How do you see nationalism creeping into your church?

Justin Schneider — USA (until something better comes up), formerly serving in Thailand.

blog. twitter.

Developers and Planters UNITE!

Many Christians living and working overseas can be put into two categories: church planters and community developers.  During my time overseas, I have primarily worked in the community development side but was introduced to serving abroad by church planters.

Perhaps some of you have noticed that at times it almost feels like there is a competition between the two sides.

“So many at my church have become followers of Christ.”

“Oh yeah.  Well, we’ve worked with a ton of communities who are now released from the grasp of circular poverty.”

As a believer in a gospel that is both physical and spiritual, I recognise how important both of these goals are.  But sometimes frustrations emerge.

I was sitting down with a couple who has spent their professional lives studying best practices and focusing on asset-based community development in Cambodia.  They explained how inept they felt when it came to church and doctrinal issues in their communities, so they often contacted friends in the church-expanding business.  However, they never understood why these same friends would start questionable development projects without engaging them or others in the community-service field.

Have you experienced the tension between church planting and community development?

Sometimes churches are planted and then service projects develop from a perceived need in the community.  One example can be found in Jinja, Uganda, where a church was planted.  In time, some of the members began discussing a micro-business concept, which turned into The Source Cafe, a western-style coffeehouse and internet cafe that specialized in providing job training and funding for the church and community needs.

Other times community projects begin with the main goal of alleviating the cycle of poverty.  During the process and through the testimony of the workers, a desire to plant a church grows and is born.  Some of my friends in Chiang Rai, Thailand are in that process right now.

What church planting/community development collaborations have you seen done well?  What have you seen done poorly?  Can we sacrifice best practice in the name of kingdom expansion?  Is there a right or wrong here?

And now for the unexpected turn of events:

After discussing this topic with a TCK friend of mine, she brought up a very interesting point: Why can’t we all just listen?

In her experience, the worst thing a missionary or aid worker can do is arrive in a place with the sole goal of announcing their arrival and espousing their ideas. The best thing they can do is arrive, willing to sit and listen and learn. Historically, and for obvious reasons, missionaries often take the former path, blazing trails in the short term but burning bridges in the long. It takes more time, and surrender of control, to take the latter path, but I think this path can lead to relationships that are authentic and that transform both communities and lives.

On which side of this fence do you sit?  Or is it perhaps better to straddle this issue?

Justin Schneider —  blog. twitter.

Emergency Departure

What is your plan of action when the political situation around you deteriorates to the point where your safety is at risk?

A big part of my training as an attorney is managing risk. In risk management, the potential risk of an action or situation is weighed against the potential benefit. When the risk outweighs the benefit, a good risk manager recommends against taking the risk.

In 2010, as I was preparing to lead a missionary-care team to Thailand, pandemonium broke out in Bangkok. In no time, the Thai army was in the streets and the U.S. State Department issued a Travel Warning against travel to Thailand. In a flash, the seesaw of risk vs. benefit slammed down on the side of risk. We all wanted to go, but our safety was central, and our sending church could not knowingly send us to a place that our government declared an unsafe place.

During this time, the missionaries we knew were also faced with a very important question: What should our family do?

When you live in a country that becomes unstable, questions like this are tremendously difficult. I was amazed to discover that the missionaries and their church did not have a policy and procedures for handling emergency situations. What about you and your sending organization?  What is in place for when emergency situations come to you?

So that’s my lawyer side.

Often my lawyer side butts heads with my faithful-follower side.

Eventually we made it to Thailand after the unrest was quelled. During our visit, the missionaries ask the question,“Are we supposed to be (or called to be) safe?”

My missionary friend asked this question after reading an article (that neither one of us can now find) that discussed the impact on congregations where the missionary/church leader left when political instability and individual safety became too great an issue. One paraphrase that was burned into my mind went like this:

The people in the churches we plant are learning a very different Christianity than what was lived 1800 years ago. Now, new Christians are learning that Christ is great when things are good. But as soon as safety becomes an issue, we’re outta here.

This stands in stark contrast to what Rodney Stark shows in his The Rise of Christianity: Through many of the biggest plagues and crises, it was the Christians who stuck around while the others bailed, and that made Christ a person worth believing in.

It also brings to mind Francis Chan’s discussion of praying for safety in Crazy Love:

We are consumed by safety. Obsessed with it, actually. Now, I’m not saying it is wrong to pray for God’s protection, but I am questioning how we’ve made safety our highest priority. We’ve elevated safety to the neglect of whatever God’s best is, whatever would bring God the most glory, or whatever would accomplish his purposes in our lives and in the world.

What do we do with THAT?


I want to leave you with these questions today: How do you strike that balance between the risk manager in you (or organization) and the potential that is always greater than can be calculated when working with God?

If you operate under an emergency evac policy, what are some of the guidelines you follow? What are some guidelines you wish you didn’t have to?

If you work in a place that is constantly unstable or dangerous, how do you reconcile the competing safety and savior factors? How does the “changing face of missions” change our reactions or plans to emergency situations?

Concrete churches in a bamboo world

After going to an Ash Wednesday service on Ash Wednesday, my wife and I were talking about the history of some of the practices most associate with Christianity yet possibly, or likely, have their roots in pagan rituals or practices. As it turns out, rabbits and eggs are ancient symbols of fertility, and several people groups use ashes to symbolize the frailty of life.

This discussion reminded me of conversations we had in Thailand. Visiting hill tribe villages in Northern Thailand, most of the buildings were on stilts, often made primarily of wood and bamboo. Each village we visited had one concrete building emerging from the panorama similar to how I imagine cathedrals once looked in medieval Europe. Just like then, it was the church building.

At first, we had the response many western Christians have when they see a church building in a country claiming only 1% Christianity: a touch of pride and hope. But when we spent more time with the communities, we saw people who lived their lives in raised homes and who sat on bamboo floors; life was lived in familiar buildings outside of the church building — and outside of the church.

Then I ran into a team of missionaries working in Phayao, Thailand who also wondered why the Western church building should be the house of worship for Eastern people. The team not only wondered why they needed the typical, Western church building but also whether the practices and rituals at Buddhist temples were inherently Buddhist or were just methods of worship familiar to Eastern people and could be redirected towards the worship of Jesus Christ. After all, before the God of Abraham and Isaac, other religions sacrificed animals as offerings, and our God re-appropriated the practice twice.

After years of studying the language, culture, religion, the missionaries created a raised space (second floor) where attendees light incense and bow to the cross and wai when scripture is read. Instead of a buddha in front, a cross is hung. The people sit on the floor with their heads lower than the cross and feet pointed away from it. The sermon message was brief and the service centered around communion and scripture with a little bit of chanting. It was definitely focused on Christ. But at what point does it become too syncretic? Here’s a little bit of insight from the team in Phayao working on contextualized evangelism.

As Derran Reese emphasizes, “The crux of the matter is how the community uses and negotiates the meaning of the relevant symbols and forms in light of its faith in the triune God.” For example, does shifting “Got milk?” to “Got Christ?” allow the community to worship God instead of consumerism? That’s the question we should ask — or something like that.

Exploring the rituals of our faith can be scary. I mean, what is ch
urch without a building that looks like a church?
As giant church building construction continues, small coffeehouse fellowships and liturgies in old Mason lodges and communities under bridges begin to do something different in the United States. Are we perhaps yearning for something beyond the building?

So, what symbols do we keep and what do we leave? And what do we redirect towards the worship of the divine that is currently being used to worship another divine?

How do we encourage a foreign faith to become familiar?

I’d love to read your thoughts and experiences.


Do not gaze upon Jesus turning water to wine (or To Drink or Not To Drink)

Not long after arriving in Thailand as a Christian aid worker, I felt like it was time to try some local cuisine: Thai beer. I enjoy a good beer and love trying local drinks that are well-made. On this particular occasion, my wife and I were with a Thai Christian who was showing us around and helping us pick up groceries at a small store. I wasn’t suffering; I just thought that might be a good time to pick up a Thai beer. The problem was I wasn’t sure what my friend’s stance on alcohol was. So, in one of my sillier moments, I thought I’d avoid any awkwardness in asking by hurrying up and buying the beer while my friend was down another aisle. As I approached the cashier, I noticed my friend was heading towards the cashier. The man behind the counter must have noticed the nervous look on my face, because he points to the sign next to him that says in four languages “You must be 18 to purchase alcohol products.” My 30-year-old bearded face was probably pretty shocked and then embarrassed as I searched my pockets for an ID that I did not have. Right at that moment, our friend comes up behind me and says, “Any problems?” I quickly motion to the cashier that I don’t want the beer and turn red-faced to my friend to say, “No problems.”

As embarrassing as this moment was for me, it raises an interesting dilemma with more questions than answers, especially for young missionaries and Christian aid workers.  Here are a few questions to reflect upon.

1. What is your stance and why?

I grew up in a fellowship and denomination that frowned upon alcohol use with few exceptions for cooking and desserts. I was always amazed that my friends who came from “old world” Christian faiths not only had alcohol with dinner and at parties but even had wine at communion. I could hardly imagine how they could do that with a clean conscience. After all, didn’t I learn that the bible condemns drinking?

Since then, I have actually come to read and learn more about alcohol in the bible on my own. I now enjoy a good beer and nice glass of wine with a clean conscience like my friends’ parents did when I was growing up; however, I try not to encourage overconsumption or consumption at all for those in recovery.  Think about your own position and be prepared to discuss it when the times comes — because it will likely come soon.

2. How do you deal with a disconnect between your preference and the culture of where you are?

I have a friend who was a missionary in East Africa. Like me, he enjoyed a nice, cold beer. However, many in his community could not drink in moderation. Christians in their church made a conscious effort to show the love of God through sobriety and abstinence from alcohol. His solution: No alcohol within 50 kilometers of his town.

At the same time, on the other side of the continent, friends in West Africa who came from churches where “one drop is a sin” ministered to communities where the people have survived on a local millet beer for centuries. The water wasn’t safe for anyone to drink.  The missionaries had to choose between the lightly fermented, horrible-tasting local beverage or the fully fermented, higher alcohol content, decent-tasting one. These friends looked past their upbringing and chose health, palatability, and joining the community.

In both of the above instances, the missionaries were intentional and ready to share their decisions with others.  The ways we deal with these dilemmas affect our witness and opportunity to be a part of a home that is not our own. Alcohol use, though not usually considered a salvation issue, can have a profound effect on your group.

3. How do we discuss it?

A church worker in Australia who grew up in South America recently faced a job decision: Having looked for a job working for a church for many months, he finally found a church that wanted to hire him. In the employment agreement, however, the church leadership required him to promise not to partake in any alcohol since it would be sinful. In response to this difficult position, he presented a paper discussing the ways in which Proverbs 23:31-32 has been misconstrued. When they were unmoved by his argument, he signed the agreement even though he felt his home church was being condemned every Sunday when they took communion with wine.  But rather than just sign it and let it be or break it in secret, he continues to dialogue with leadership in a spirit of love and learning.

“Nothing to see here; it’s just pizza.”

For some of us, our organization or supporters ask us to agree that we won’t

partake of any alcoholic drink. However, that doesn’t necessarily make the issue go away. In fact, as younger missionaries and workers are thrust into cultures where alcohol is a part of the accepted culture, our arguments domestically about alcohol make agreements like this more frustrating.  When discussions don’t take place with the why, our reaction may not be one of strict compliance.

So, how do we have these discussions in a spirit of love and learning?

That’s where I want to hear from you.  Also, feel free to drop some theology on us.

Justin Schneider — USA (until something better comes up). blog. twitter.


Enjoy posts like these? Don’t miss a thing. Subscribe to get articles straight to your inbox. Simply fill in your email address in the box below.

Subscribe to our mailing list

Politics: Always great dinner conversation

“So you wanna talk politics, do ya?”

Only a month ago, the United States completed the most expensive, (seemingly) longest election season ever.  If you thought you could avoid this through international living, I hate to burst your bubble, but it just gets more complicated.

In this blog post I want to make a few practical recommendations on how to handle politics overseas as missionaries and Christian aid workers, and then open it up to your questions, comments, and stories.  You can often learn these things later, but I also suggest these as a part of your preparations for going overseas.

Now let’s jump right into it.

1.  Know your politics, or at least how the system works.

I spent part of the election schedule overseas, and then finished up here in Texas.  In the States, it was a terribly divisive time where my family and friends had to remind each other, “I still love you.”  Just like I’ve asked my Aussie friends what it means to be a commonwealth nation and what happens if you don’t vote in a country that requires it by law, they want to know what the heck an electoral college is and what the tuition is.

This is number one, because the people we build relationships with will not only want to know about us as individuals but also about us as ambassadors of our home countries.  I’ve found it to be rare that people care about my particular political stance – 5 years ago, all of us were referred to as “hijos de Boosh” in Mexico – however, it is anything but rare to be asked questions about politics.

I won’t go into the theology of politics here; please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section.  Instead, I’ll jump to the next obvious recommendation:

2.  Seek to understand the system where you are.

Over the last 9 years in Thailand, the “Yellow Shirts” and “Red Shirts” have dominated politics.  In 2010, I was set to go to Thailand for the first time with my church.  Next thing I knew, martial law had been declared, police and protesters were clashing in the streets, and one of Bangkok’s giant malls was on fire.  As a result, embassies from around the world issued travel warnings and bans on going to Thailand.  And then, just a few days later, the warnings were rescinded and I had to go before my church leadership to explain what in the world was happening in Thailand.

I learned a lot about the constitutional monarchy and the political divisions in Thailand that affected not only town halls but also churches and Christian organizations.  In addition to my research, I added a Thailand section to my newsfeed.  As a result, I was able to (a) understand local issues in case questions arose from supporters and families, and (b) avoid cultural faux pas that could cause more frustration.

3.  Be aware of the cloud the USA casts, and the remaining storm damage from colonialism.

Many of the countries in which we work share an unfortunate history of being a former colony. And more countries than we realize suffered or continue to suffer from poor military decisions made by the West.  Even more unfortunate, the process of domination was occasionally characterized as our duty to “uplift and civilize and Christianize them,” as U.S. President William McKinley said about his decision to colonize the Philippines.  You may not remember these directives, but the people who were affected by them do.

My apologies to those readers who are not from the United States, but my home country casts a large shadow.  With only 5% of the world’s population, U.S. headlines often occupy about 95% of the international headlines abroad.  Often these headlines elicit negative responses to America and to those who appear to be American (this is why I stay up with my Canadian headlines, too).

When I was living in Uganda for a short time, I had been told it was a great place to be American because of the increased AIDS and malaria aid given by the Bush administration.  That’s why I was shocked when a Muslim man I met asked the precursor to Kanye West’s infamous claim: “Why does George Bush hate black people?”  Even when in “friendly” territory, it helps to know the history and cultural diversity that surrounds you.  Just as the War on Terrorism crosses borders, sometimes our politics do, too.

Post-colonialism runs deep and can appear in strange ways.  In Thailand, some organizations attribute their struggle in obtaining legal status to the country’s intense pride as a never-colonized nation.  While some surrounding neighbors are open to missionaries and aid, the Thais take pride in their autonomy and are quick to say (indirectly), “Back off.  We got this.”  Understanding your countries’ relationships currently and historically helps avoid awkward pitfalls and works to support the mission of reconciliation Jesus calls us to join.

In her book The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God & World Affairs, Madeleine Albright emphasizes that we cannot understand a country’s politics without understanding their faith.  As a group seeking to share our faith, I say that you cannot understand people from a religious standpoint without understanding their politics.  In Christian missions and international living, we honor our host countries and the people we meet through this process.


Please join us in the conversation:  How have you dealt with political discussions while living overseas?  How have political convictions helped…or gotten in the way?  What suggestions can you make from your own experiences?

Justin Schneider — USA (until something better comes up). blog. twitter.