Tuesday, March 13, 2018

John is Not my Farovite Gospel

Many Christians have been raised on John’s gospel as if it was the only one, and liturgical churches get a big dose of it during Lent.  I used to ask adult bible classes to name their favorite bible book; it was almost always John’s gospel.  And why not?  It’s chock full of pithy sayings easily remembered; who hasn’t seen John 3:16 hanging from stadium railings and known right away how it read?  But John also has some weaknesses.  Focused as it is on proclaiming Jesus as the Son of God, it places a high value on believing.  In fact, John uses the word, at least in the English of my NRSV, 52 times.  None of the others comes close (Mark uses it 13 times, Mathew 7 and Luke 8).  Mark, Matthew and Luke certainly desire their readers to believe Jesus is the Son of God, but they put a higher emphasis on following him as the way to belief.  “Follow me,” says Jesus, and belief will surely come.  John’s not against following, but he wants believing above all.  And that’s his weakness for contemporary Christians. 

Believing has become the  catchword, watchword, and lynchpin to what it means to be a Christian, while following Jesus has become a tad suspect, requiring, as it does, behaving toward others, and engaging in public discourse, with words that don’t adhere to the politically conservative ways of many Christian preachers and congregants.  Following Jesus will put one at odds with social and political forces of intolerance, injustice, oppression, repression, and barriers that deny the full dignity of others.  That’s a problem.  

Following Jesus can be difficult because it will often challenge the accepted social order of the day, and always challenge one’s prejudices, whatever they may be.  It can create enough cognitive dissonance to subordinate following to believing in order to protect one’s social equilibrium.  If believing is the key to the doorway to heaven, then serious following can be set aside for the good of social order, and the preservation of one’s own place in society.  Being an adequate disciple by following in moderate good taste, using common sense, not going too far, should be more than enough.  With believing firmly in hand, accusations of failing to be a true follower can be denied with self righteous indignation.  Better yet, anyone who claims to be a dedicated follower can be closely examined to discover hypocrisy announced with a triumphant “I knew it.” 

It’s not a strictly religious question.  It gets tangled up with secular politics.  Where I live, self identified Jesus followers tend to be politically liberal, and that rubs against the dominant conservative ethos tinged with deep suspicion of anything governmental.  For that reason alone, being too much of a Jesus follower is unpalatable.  It’s a slippery slope down the path to socialism, so better to play it safe and stick with believing.  Be uplifted by the music and message.  Be convicted of one’s sinfulness.  Accept Jesus as  one’s personal lord and savior.  Believe one is saved.  Believe in capital letters with exclamation points, because it’s one’s vaccination against liberals recruiting others to join them on the pernicious path toward immoral living, surrender of freedom and subjugation by government bureaucracies.  

Conservative are not entirely wrong.  Progressive Christianity displays a strong bent toward political liberalism that can be given near equality with what it means to follow Jesus.  Fueled by genuine emotional sympathy for those in need, there’s a tendency to assume that (only?) committed followers know best what’s good for the neediest.  After all, it’s what they’re sure Jesus would do.  Unintended as it may be, it’s a move undergirded by a sense of superiority bearing its own brand of prejudice.  The result can be, and has been, poorly thought out grandiose plans underwritten by investments in talent and money lacking adequate accountability.  In not so subtle ways, it preserves the hierarchy of power and position of benefactors over the less privileged whom they desire to serve.  There is a form of conservatism, rarely seen these days, that says, “Wait a minute, let’s think this out before we rush off solving problems we don’t fully understand.”  The oppressed and disadvantaged are as capable as others to take care of themselves, given access to opportunity and resources.   John’s ‘disciple whom Jesus loved,’ Thomas, and Jesus’ brother James appear to be examples of conservatives who were strong believers, dedicated followers, and served as restraining influences on the impetuousness of others like Peter and Paul.  We could us more of that kind of creative push-pull tension in the context of mutual trust and love.

As for me, I’m convinced that following where Jesus has led is essential to making any claim that I am a Christian.  Yes, I believe, but I don’t believe that Jesus is my personal lord and savior.  Jesus is all of God that can be communicated in human form, and I will follow him trusting that where he has led will lead me into life abundant, now and on the other side of death.  In following him, I have no choice but to make choices that work toward loosening the bonds of injustice, undoing the thongs of the yoke, letting the oppressed go free, breaking every yoke, sharing bread with the hungry,   housing the homeless as neighbors, clothing the naked, and the rest that God has commanded, not suggested but commanded.  How I do that continues to involve many blunders and takes many forms.  Sometimes it’s been through direct service, sometimes through donations, and for many years through consulting on community development, influencing public policy on national issues with heavy local impact, and teaching in fields related to applied management theory.  As a late vocation priest, my passion has been adult Christian education aimed at helping each person gain a deeper understanding of what it means for them to follow Jesus.  It’s made me, if there is such a thing, a conservative liberal.  When it comes time to give an accounting, the best I will be able to say is, “Well, I got started, but I didn’t get very far.”  Oh yeah, one more thing: John is not my favorite gospel.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Look Lightly at Saints

Do saints have any assigned duties?  The Roman Catholic Church seems to think they do.  Not quite with the status of demigods, they nevertheless are said to be patrons, protectors and intercessors for various causes,  places and people.  Even Protestants have been known to ask St. Anthony to help them find a lost article.  I have my wife to do that for me, although there is a severe price to pay for my not seeing it in an obvious place.

Orthodox and Anglican traditions have saints, all the well known traditional ones, but also persons whose lives exhibited something especially worthwhile as evidence of Christ’s presence in their own time and place.  They’re not required to perform miracles to be recognized, and they’re recognized not canonized in the Roman sense.  They are not the same in every country, and their place on the list is not permanent.  Moreover, their sainthood is not a rank in the hierarchy of the heavenly host.  They’re simply the known among the host of unknowns.

So is it worth the trouble to ask a saint for help?  Is that idolatry?  As a pastor, I get many requests for prayer from people in need.  But that was also true when I was a lay person.  The prayers we offer for one another are powerful conduits of God’s blessing that, I think, don’t flow so much from us to God, but from God through us into the lives of others.  How is that different from asking a saint to do the same?  As Christians, is there anything wrong or odd about asking a deceased friend or loved one to pray for us, just as we might have asked them when they were alive on earth?  

If it’s OK, does the Roman Catholic Church have the only phone numbers, and only for the saints it designates?  Probably not, although I’ve met some old time Catholics who truly believe it’s the one and only legitimate representative of God’s presence on earth.  On the other hand, I’ve met a few Baptists, Adventists, and the occasional dry Methodist who has thought the same about their denominations.  We Episcopalians are more inclined to sit back in smug self confidence, enigmatically smiling in condescending tolerance.  

But what about the practice of delegating patronal authority to saints?  St. Elmo, for instance, might he be a little ticklish about having responsibility for sailors thrust upon him?  He didn’t ask for it.  As far as we know, God didn’t assign it to him.  It was all our idea.  Did he have to take the job?  I was wondering about that while reading a Brother Cadfael mystery set in 12th century Shrewsbury where the local abbey is protected by the loving oversight of St. Winifred.  Her revered reliquary sits on its own altar, and the monks trust her to look after them and the local townspeople.  They worship God, but trust Winifred to do the work.  Winifred, however, preferred her native Welsh soil, and was not actually in the reliquary.  She had never agreed to be the patron of Shrewsbury.  She was saddled with it.  Everybody in Shrewsbury believed it, and apparently that was enough to encourage her to do what she could for them.

My patron saint is Matthias, about whom absolutely nothing is known except that a role of the dice made him a disciple in place of Judas.  His brief appearance left no trace.  What am I to do, he’s the Sean Spicer of saints?  He has no reputation for doing anything for anyone, although he is said to be the patron of carpenters and alcoholics.  Where did that come from?  My wife, finder of lost things, has St. Andrew for hers.  Now that’s a saint.  One of the original twelve, Peter’s brother, someone known for bringing others to Jesus.  Is she better protected, has a more direct line to God, is that why she can find things?  One wonders.

God certainly doesn’t need a staff of saints to oversee various aspects of life, but I can understand how it came to be that we created one for him/her.  In the Middle Ages, when so much of this came into being, the feudal system and nascent nation states were understood to be structured according to divine will.  If temporal authority was divinely portioned out to kings, dukes and earls, why not spiritual authority to saints?  And since temporal authorities couldn’t be relied on to faithfully execute their duties, why not give the saints the added job of intervening when needed to keep people safe?  As long as we were at it, since so much of nature was unknown and uncontrollable, why not ask the saints to lend a hand there as well?  And so it goes.

Those centuries lie far behind, but some of what they bequeathed to us has stuck, and saintly patronage is one of them.  Most Protestants, of course, deny all of it.  Jesus is the only mediator they need between them and God.  Look only to Jesus for help, and forget this patronage stuff.  But as we know, Protestant, Catholic, and even agnostics ask each other for prayer on their behalf. They ask each other for blessings.  They ask each other for help with questions of faith.  In other words, they ask the saints for help and intercession.  They just don’t call them saints. 

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

If There is a Center, Can it Hold?

In 1919, at the close of WWI with the unbelievable horror of European civilization torn to shreds, the Irish poet W.B. Yeats wrote a poem, “The Second Coming.”  Here’s the first stanza of the most widely read version :
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity
The text of the second stanza is in some dispute, but it’s clear that Yeats feared whatever was coming next, the second coming, would be worse than what they had just been through.  He was right, and maybe it’s not over yet.  Political events and human anxieties have generated unfavorable signs in the U.S. and elsewhere. 

In response, well meaning FB posts have declared that what the nation needs is (a return to?) Jesus, with the not so subtle demand that the coercive power of the state be used to restore a form of Christian prayer to public schools and other public gatherings.  I want to suggest another way.  Let all who claim the name Christian recommit themselves to following where Jesus has led, demonstrating their faith not only in words, but in their lives as agents of peace, healing and reconciliation, serving the needs of those most in need, condemning no one, welcoming all, and strengthening the bonds of our common humanity.  Don’t worry so much about what others do or don’t believe.  It can’t be forced, and it’s not that important.  Let your light so shine that they may see your good works and give thanks to God because of it. 

What surprises me is that many, perhaps most, of those who want the state to bring Jesus back into the public life of the nation are deeply suspicious of government, and want it to stay out of their business.  Favoring a forceful libertarian agenda for themselves, vigorously defending their right to freedom from government oversight, they show little concern for using state coercion to strip rights from others.  It sounds contradictory, but consider the contradictions between anti-abortion and stand your ground laws they tend to favor.  One would strip women of the right to make decisions about their own bodies on the grounds that embryonic human life is more sacred than theirs.  The other preserves the right to kill anyone who vaguely poses a perceived danger to one’s self.  Consider another contradiction: the demand, in the name of freedom, for enforced adherence to imaginary fifty year old social standards of morality is dependent on and defensive of authoritarian political leaders whose immorality and criminality appear to have no limits.  How can this be?

A part of it may be that the remembered social and economic stability of times decades past, anchored as they were in established institutions that could be relied on to function in predictable ways, is a loss too great to bear.  That those remembered times did not really exist is irrelevant: they are remembered as if they had.  Living, as they believe they do, in a time when nothing seems established, and no institution can be relied upon to function with predictability, they long for the security of a time that never was.  In the name of preserving liberty, they’re willing to lose their freedom to get it.  It may be what Yeats anticipated, and what, indeed, came to pass.

The fearful anxiety generated by a comforting remembrance of the past, a present one doesn’t understand and can’t control, and a future that lacks all predictability, can be overwhelming to body, mind and soul.  Years ago, I saw a variation of the intense desire for social stability when doing a demographic study of the neighborhood served by the church I worked for on the Upper East Side of New York City.  Looking at what were then young adults in their 20s and 30s, we found an overwhelming hunger to be able to stand on something that would not keep moving under their feet.   Technology, even then, was changing too fast to keep up with; job demands kept changing, and job security was non existent; social relationships for young singles were competitive, with temporary winners and permanent losers; young marrieds discovered the cost of starting a family drained resources from whatever dream of material success they harbored.  Even the church couldn’t be relied on.  Either it was the fortified redoubt of stodgy elders, or it was changing as fast as every other institution, with nothing of permanent value to impart.  

The point is, the desire for stability and predictability is deeply rooted in us all.  It may be one reason why some people are attracted to churches, or religions, that promise unassailable, incontrovertible truth housed in institutions that appear to change very slowly, or not at all.  In my own community there appears to be an ebb and flow between the local (conservative) Roman Catholic and evangelical churches.  People unhappy with one, go to the other.  Each asserts they are the fount of unchangeable truth, and that, rather than theology, is the essential attraction.  The occasional syphoning from more progressive congregations are of people I presume to be skittish about all the changes they see about them, and want a place that adheres to old time social values, however unrelated they may be to the gospel. 

On the other hand, for many it means giving up on religion altogether.  Whatever the Church is, whatever Christianity is, whatever religion is, it has no verifiable truth to offer, no solid place to stand, and by it conditions of life are unaffected one way or the other.  So why bother?

It is in the midst of this that the siren voice of a secular leader who cries out “I alone can fix it,” may be worth a try.  At least it’s different.  Maybe the firm hand of authority will calm things down, make things more predictable again.  Paraphrasing one of my strongly libertarian friends, he says he’s tired of two handed leaders who keep saying “on the one hand this, but on the other hand that.”  He wants a one handed leader who will say one thing and do it with authority.  Most of all, he wants his right to live free of government interference guaranteed by the coercive power of government to make it be so.  It can’t happen as he would like.  What will become of our country is not yet clear.  There is well publicized movement away from right wing libertarian populism that has been sliding dangerously toward authoritarian rule.  But it remains to be seen whether there is enough cohesion in interests favoring classical liberal values to restore a reasonably stable government of center right, center left competition.  

Can the center hold?  I’ll end where I began.  The U.S. and its politics is not at the center.  Neither are anxieties about unpredictability, changing social values, nostalgia for a time that never was.  Forget about whether the nation needs Jesus, it’s Christians who need Jesus.  Don’t worry about what others do or don’t believe.  For us, it’s God, as we know God in Christ Jesus, who is the center, not of our time or place, but of all times and places.  In the vortex of authoritarian rule, civil war, domestic injustices, and an unpredictable future, it is Christus Rex/Christus Victor who proclaims the center that holds.  It’s what Holy Week and Easter are all about.  By all means believe, but believing has value only if one follows where he has led, and that means becoming agents of God’s healing grace, even in the midst of political chaos.  It means boldly opposing forces of injustice and oppression, while vigorously strengthening the bonds of our common humanity, advocating civil law that recognizes and protects them.  It means being political.   

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Boom, Bust, Bubble, Burst & the Ten Commandments

Several years ago I wrote a couple of articles about why the economy’s long, slow, steady growth during the Obama era was good for the nation.  It established a strong foundation for economic prosperity less prone to the volatility of boom and bust, bubble and burst.  It turns out I was naive.   

People, it seems, like booms and bubbles.  Maybe it’s the same psychology that makes casinos popular and profitable.  The fantasy of making it big, the thrilling headlines about those who have, the heady optimism that one might ride it up and never come down, because busts and bursts are far off and may never happen.  What a high!  Unlike street drugs, it’s not only legal, it’s enthusiastically endorsed by politicians, stock brokers, and the guy next door.

When the boom busts, the bubble bursts, as they must, it seems that almost everyone is surprised, shocked.  Why didn’t anyone tell us this was going to happen?  Why didn’t we get advance warning, something like a severe weather alert, but for the market?  Most important, whose fault is it?  It must be somebody’s fault; the fed, the president, Wall Street, my financial advisor, the guy next door.  The previous administration is always a safe bet.   People who pride themselves on the self responsibility of rugged individualism leap every which way to discover where, other than in their own ignorance and greed, the fault lies.  

It remains to be seen if we are in such a boom and bubble cycle now, though my Magic 8 Ball says the signs are favorable.  The current president seems fixated on the stock market rather than the economy.  News media headlines celebrate the acceleration of economic growth as an improvement over the previous eight years of slow, steady growth.  Giant corporations and billionaires get celebrity coverage over the deals they make.  Advertisements entice us to not lose out, but get our piece of it.  News of extraordinary prosperity, never quite ours, but always nearby, dangle like bait before schools of hungry fish.  There are warning signs.  Financially savvy news organizations report on them every day, but nobody knows how to time the market, so nobody knows exactly when or what will happen.

It’s a curious thing that the greater part of the population, with little in savings, and not much stake in the market, get right into it along with investors.  Anticipating better paying jobs with more opportunity, they take on more debt, increase spending, and ride the good times express.  Why shouldn’t they?  Haven’t they been told the good times are here?  As one person has been known to say: It’s America first, and we’re making America great again.  If that’s not enough, several popular religious leaders have generated huge followings by promising that the right kind of faith coupled with the right kind of prayer results in God’s personal favor bringing prosperity into each believer’s life. 

Well, there you go, I’ve brought God into it.  As long as he’s here, those who attend a liturgical church this Sunday, March 4, are going to hear the Ten Commandments (Exodus version) as the first lesson.  Many of us know the first four, given the most intensive coverage by the writers, are all about there being only one God, and that one is to worship no other god.  It’s good in theory but, you know, when the god of booms and bubbles promises good times, it might be a good idea to hedge your bets.  OK, that might be a little touchy, so let’s go on to the other six that are laid out in short pithy sentences that I will mangle for your benefit.

Honor the generations that have bequeathed to us the best of all they had, including the hard lessons of what they did not do well.  Learn from them that you may bequeath a better world to those that follow.

Don’t murder others, in whole or in part.  The body and soul can be killed a bit at a time by cruelty, oppression, and injustice.  Don’t do it.

Don’t undermine the integrity of things or relationships.  Not just spouses, but all relationships, and all things you offer on which others depend.

Don’t acquire, by whatever means, what you have no moral right to acquire.  It means more than the usual understanding of what it means not to steal.

Knock off lying, false testimony, hurtful gossip, and those little shadings of truth used to manipulate others.

Greed and envy lead only to trouble.  Learn to be content, which means learn to not let what others have get under your skin.

Pay attention to these.  Do your best to live into them, always striving to improve.  When you fail, get up and start again.  Do that, and the gods of booms and bubbles will begin to fade away, not without a fight, but the real power lies in these Ten Commandments.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

American Social Decay and the Church

It was Thursday, February 15, and we were touring Old St. Paul’s Cathedral in Wellington, NZ.  It’s no longer used for regular worship, but remains a popular attraction partly for the magnificence of its wooden architecture.  The New St. Paul’s Cathedral some blocks away has replaced it.  A docent telling the story of its history was interrupted by an American who wanted to know about the decline in church attendance, especially among Anglicans, and whether New Zealand had become another secular society (of unbelievers).  They were fair questions, but asked in an accusatory tone that left the docent searching for an answer that was not overly defensive.  

Later that day we heard news of the Ash Wednesday-Valentine’s Day school shooting in Parkland, Florida.  It unleashed a torrent of in person and online comments, many centering blame on an increasingly godless society in which there is no longer respect for right behavior, as there once was.  One friend, a strong supporter of the right to own guns without restriction, believed the problem lay in the fifty year decay of American social and political values emphasized by lack of respect, laziness and greed combined with a decline in personal responsibility in favor of someone else (the government) to take care of everything.  In a sense, his argument, firmly believed by many, is that we were once not a fallen nation, but now are.   There is no doubt some truth in that, but probably not in the way he would agree with.

A theologian’s response must begin with the caution that, yes, we are a fallen people, but we have always been so.  If nothing else, holy scripture tells the story of our universal human fallenness, creatures determined to be our own gods, the measures of our own goodness, and the masters of our own destinies.  Blaming others and shirking responsibility are human traits scripture assigns to every time and every place.  To think that we have somehow become more fallen than we were fifty years ago defies everything we know about human nature, and ignores unpleasant historical fact.  More particularly, as a society we have not become lazier, greedier and less responsible than we have ever been, which may be faint praise, but it’s the best I can do. 

However, things have changed about which much has been written by many, including me in previous articles on this site.  There were a few decades following WWII in which a socially acceptable civil religion in the form of generic Protestantism was understood to set the standard for what it meant to be “One nation under God,” a phrase added to the national lexicon in 1954 to make the point that we were not godless Soviet or Chinese Communists.  They were years of sustained economic growth (with periodic recessions), rising blue collar wages, international hegemony challenged only by the USSR, and the unchallenged assumption that the white middle class was the proper vessel of all things truly American, with white men as America’s natural and proper leaders.  

It could not endure, and it didn’t.  The Vietnam war began the erosion of American global hegemony.  First blacks, and then women began to demand their rightful place in society, and it wasn’t under white or male domination.  The Nixon era, more than any other, threw into doubt the validity and reliability of established institutions of political and economic power.  All that began around fifty years ago.  The process of painfully redefining what it means to be America has continued, and there is no doubt that to many it looks like decay.  Moreover, it could be, but not in the way my interlocutors imagine.

Some conservative evangelicals demur.  David Brody, host of the “Faith Nation” broadcast on CBN wrote in a February 24 New York Times op. ed. piece that Trump is the answer to evangelical prayer.  Yes, he may be morally challenged, but the bible is filled with such leaders called by God to do God’s work.  Moreover, he has a private side, known only to them, that is filled with faithfulness (Brody has written a book about it so you can know it too).  What God has called Trump to do, and what he is doing, is restoring the moral equilibrium of fifty or sixty years ago that they equate with godliness.  I equate it with the accepted (white) social values of the time draped in pharisaic religious vestments Jesus would have a hard time with.

For them to recover what they believe to be the social stability and predictability of the post war era, they have no choice but to impose legal restrictions on anyone who opposes them.  Freedoms they cherish for themselves cannot be shared with others except through strict control over how, what, where and when.  Freedoms others cherish can have no standing.  Genuine libertarians must shudder at that if they give it much thought, but libertarians seem to have fallen into bed with conservative evangelicals who, in their libertarian defense of the freedom of the individual against the power of the state, are willing to subject all others to that power, not recognizing until it was too late, that they too would lose all.  It’s a scene played over innumerable times in small measure and large. 

The Puritans and Pilgrims wanted nothing more than the freedom to worship as they desired in a moral God fearing society.  With the best of intentions, and deep commitment to God’s word, they produced for themselves an inflexible, freedom denying dictatorship of enforced morality.  On a larger, more secular scale, fascist and communist idealism quickly turned to Stalinism, Naziism, and Maoism.  America even flirted with Naziism in the late 1930s for both secular and religious reasons.  It doesn’t take a deep look to recognize that the current tea party inspired movements have the heartbeat of modern day fascism.  

Maybe we haven’t experienced moral decay.  Maybe we are experiencing the eruption of an abscess that has been hiding just below the surface for decades.  Decay or abscess, it can happen in the best of democracies.  It can trigger reform, or it can stampede down a path to totalitarianism.  Which it will be for us is yet to be determined, and we’re not even sure what mechanisms will lead one way or the other. 

One of the weaknesses in our chaotic effort to redefine what America has been is the incessant complaint by each generation that the younger generations have become lazy, disrespectful, unmotivated, lacking a work ethic, etc.  It’s been ever thus.  Ever since Adam and Eve, the younger generation has never lived up to the expectations of the older.  It’s comical except when it isn’t, and it isn’t right now.  There seems to be a critical mass among both right and left wingers sewing enough disrespect for teens and young adults to make it difficult for them to become prepared to assume leadership roles as they mature.  They will, of course, as they always do, but in the meantime being held accountable for the decay of society is a heavy and unfair burden to bear.  I’m heartened by the outpouring of responsible adult behavior from Parkland teens, and their counterparts all over the country.  I’m heartened by what I see from teens and young adults in our own community.  I’m heartened by the example of my own grandchildren, who are among the most privileged of youth, yet are hard working, morally responsible, and understand that their privilege is an undeserved gift not to be taken for granted.   

With that said, let’s return to the question of religion, and the accusatory question of the guy in Wellington that merely echoed dozens more expressed online.  While I don’t believe the civil religion of generic Protestantism that once dominated the American scene was ever anything other than a religious smoke screen, I also believe that mainline Churches, including Catholics, have done a miserable job of making disciples out of those who still go to church.  The children, who overflowed Sunday schools during the ‘50s and ‘60s, left the church as soon as they could because what they were taught was cheap pablum lacking in any worthwhile nutrition.  They never bothered to send their own children except when social demands required.  Those children grew up and quit going altogether.  And why not?  On the other hand, conservative evangelical and fundamentalist denominations seemed to flourish, but what they offered was a mix of right wing politics and1950s social values  muddled with religious teachings that cannot stand up to close examination.  They too are beginning to lose membership, and for good reason.

So several of those on both sides in this long conversation are right.  The Christian Church has failed to contribute to the moral leadership this country needs.  In fact, it has failed in every Western country where it once dominated social and political life.  It’s not that the Church has failed to provide strong moral leaders.  It has.  Sometimes, like King, they have inspired great movements of moral progress.  More often they have inspired generations of theologians and pastors, which is good, but it didn’t reach a broader constituency.  As for the popularity and influence of a large herd of conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists, they may proclaim Christ as loud as they wish; as far as I can tell they seldom follow him.  For the most part, they have been agents of social repression and oppression in the name of morality, and of all things scientific or intellectual, in the name of literal biblicalism.

Two things keep me hopeful.  One is the resiliency of the American people.  We’ve been down paths like this before, and recovered.  We can do it again.  The other is my Christian faith.  This is God’s world, and God’s word will prevail, no matter how hard we try to get in God’s way.  My own denomination, the Episcopal Church, has called for a renewed commitment to spiritual and moral revival in the land.  It’s much needed, not only in the land, but even more in the Church.  Go for it. 

Friday, February 16, 2018

It’s About Guns

Like many my age, guns were an ordinary part of my youth and young adulthood.  Many had them, many didn’t.  They were used for hunting or target shooting.  A few enthusiasts coveted the right gun for the right purpose, but most gave them little thought.  Even fewer had concealed weapon permits due to their work.  I carried one for a few years because of my work.  Never used it.  There was no such thing as open carry.  Except for boys playing cops and robbers, no one thought they were needed for personal protection.  The NRA represented users not sellers, and was interested mostly in teaching gun safety. 

For many reasons long in building, a dramatic sea change occurred when the tea party movement sprang to life in 2007-08 with the election of a black president.  It’s not to imply that all of its adherents were overt racists.  They weren’t, but embedded in the movement’s many racially motivated fears was a strong libertarian theme of fearful opposition to the federal government combined with a threat that “they” were coming to take away your guns.  It was nourished by the claims that the only defense against a bad guy with a gun was a good guy with a gun, that if guns were banned only criminals would have them, and that the Second Amendment was a solid rock guaranteeing one’s right to own any type of gun for any reason without limit.  Liberals, it was said, were intent on abolishing that constitutional right.  Of course it was nonsense, but nevertheless widely believed.  The years passed, and “they” did not come to take away all the guns.  No one proposed abolishing the Second Amendment.  The ballooning gun culture, with its love for assault style weapons, coincided with the advent of sequential mass shootings on a scale unknown to previous American generations.  The weapons industry, underwriting the NRA, leaped at every killing as a marketing opportunity to sell more guns to people who were led to believe they could be used to protect themselves.  Curiously, they were often sold to those who already owned guns as the industry preyed on their fears and illusions that a well armed public would be a safer public.  It was not to be.  Nor can it ever be.  And the killings went on.

It’s tempting to think the election of a president who takes pride in pandering to tea party inspired beliefs would have relaxed fears of gun regulation, but it hasn’t.  When the recent school shooting in Florida hit the news, I posted a simple message on FB wondering when we would recognize that it’s about guns, and not anything else.  At once came responses from friends, real friends, who cannot separate themselves from the toxic fears of a decade ago.  It’s not about guns, they said, it’s about, and then followed the usual litany: mental health, disrespect for authority, inadequate school safety measures, lack of enough armed protection, personal safety, etc. They were followed by statistics showing guns are not the only cause of death and injury, so why pick on them?  That we alone among all OECD nations suffer an ongoing plague of mass shootings, murders, suicides, and accidents all anchored in guns, is something they easily brush aside as a fiction hypocritical liberals use to advocate gun control, while they are more committed to improving mental health care and public safety.  

They do not see the fiction in their argument is precisely about libertarian and presidential contempt for committing the federal government to do anything to improve the nation’s mental health care services, or its public safety, except for building a wall no expert wants and militarizing police no expert believes would be helpful.  They are unwilling to consider the obvious, simple option of regulating guns without confiscating all their beloved weapons.  That we regulate every other deadly implement without jeopardizing constitutional freedoms, is something they are also unwilling to consider.  What deadly implements?  Medicines, cars, trucks, industrial and agricultural equipment, ships, airplanes, trains, workplace conditions, dangerous chemicals, you name it.  We license and certify people to engage in a wide variety of dangerous pursuits: practicing medicine, driving, operating heavy equipment, etc.   

Common sense laws regulating human behavior make a difference.  Food and drug laws don’t guarantee safety, but they make food and drugs much safer.  Traffic laws don’t keep drunks from driving or speeders from speeding, but they make driving much safer and save many lives.  Common sense regulation of guns and gun ownership will not guarantee the end of gun caused death, but it will make everyone safer.  It just makes sense.  Just the same, my gun loving friends become extremely defensive every time the subject comes up.  Accusing gun regulation advocates of being hysterical, they display emotionally charged, often angry outrage at any mention of it.  How do we get out of this mess?  It’s going to take a critical mass of hunters and other gun owners to do two things: stand up against the NRA, and become the articulate voice of gun owners with enough authority to lead others to follow them.  Is that likely?  Maybe after a few hundred more children are killed?  Who knows?

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Political Agendas and Romans 12

When I write an article on politics or the economy, it generally gets fairly wide readership.  Those on Christian theology less so, meaning a lot less so.  I’m never sure why.  In any case, when the lectionary for Morning Prayer brought me to Romans 12.9-21, I felt compelled to offer theologically grounded political commentary.  Here is what Paul had so say to those in Rome who read his letter.

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.  Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.  Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.   Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.  Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.  Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.  Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.  Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.  If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.  Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord."  No, "if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12 9-21)

What would a political agenda look like if Paul’s advice was taken seriously?  Would it show hatred for evil by accusing political opponents, or anyone who disagrees, as evil?  That would be hard to do if in the same breath it had to be generous in love and mutual affection, outdoing others in honoring others.  To do that requires respecting the dignity of every human being.  I don’t believe an agenda anchored in mutual affection and showing honor can be articulated by leaders who take pleasure in ridiculing and humiliating others, who declare opponents to be treasonous, and who openly despise losers and their kin, especially those of a different skin color.  Yet many self proclaimed Christians seem to have no problem with it as long as they think their own social and economic well being is being taken care of.  How do they do it?  It’s a mystery to me, but it seems to indicate that selfishness easily trumps both Jesus and Paul’s teaching about the way of following Christ.

Imagine a political agenda that celebrated welcoming strangers, and living in harmony with one another.  A management buzzword that died a well deserved death needs to be resurrected to resume its proper meaning: synergy.  Synergy happens when differing ideas and individual efforts are given the opportunity to work together toward common goals.  It requires respect for diversity.  It’s what happens when the best basketball game plan is beautifully executed by a well trained team.  It’s not an easy thing to do.  Human organizations from nations to small work groups try, but too often let it deteriorate into conformity that stifles creative individuality.  It also deteriorates when teams try to be all stars with no benchwarmers.  All are needed.

Repressive regimes in every organization, both states and companies, enforce conformity and call it harmony.  It’s not.  Harmony always accommodates a wide range of abilities and behaviors, celebrates differences, and encourages individual responsibility.  Years ago I taught courses in organization and management that emphasized the value of harmony in diversity needed to optimize effectiveness in work groups.  Experiments and studies piled up the evidence that it could work.  W. Edwards Deming demonstrated its value to an entire nation in the rebuilding of the Japanese economy.  Nevertheless, managers and top executives nodded yes, yes, but their desire to exercise command and control by dictating what that should look like usually overrode the better way.  

The current administration, and our dysfunctional congress of many years, prefer to define harmony as the product of winners dictating terms to losers.  There is no place for working together in mutual affection for the good of the whole, little respect for diversity of abilities and ideas, and a tendency toward public ridicule of the dignity of others.  

Imagine a political agenda in which the least of those in the community were blessed, and not cursed for being the least.   What would it mean to bless and not curse?  In politics, some argue that blessing lies in taking away all forms of welfare, thus forcing the least to fend for themselves, gaining self worth in the process.  Others argue that blessing lies in providing the necessities of life to those who cannot provide for themselves, thus honoring their dignity as fellow human beings.  It isn’t either/or.  It’s both/and.  The measure of the proportions of both and and is a political decision that understands blessing as something other than welfare or its elimination, and it begins, not ends, with public recognition of the dignity of every human being.

In like manner, a foreign policy that blesses, not curses, one’s “enemies” would not repay evil with evil.  Living in peace with one another is not always possible, but it is always more possible than we think it is.  Even in the aftermath of bitter, violent conflict, blessing can and should displace cursing.  The imperative to give food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty is what drove the Marshall Plan in post war Europe, and the Deming inspired rebuilding of Japan’s industry.  Overcoming evil with good works, but like living in harmony, it’s hard to do.  In the face of overwhelming evidence that it works, it remains difficult to convince of lot of people.  In many years of vigorous conversation with my friend Don, he’s never been able to understand it as anything other than lying down like a doormat, letting everyone trample all over you.  For him, it’s either win or lose, live or die, there’s no alternative.  Don’s conviction is not uncommon.   Faithful Christian though he is, Don is certain that Jesus and Paul were wrong about this one.  

But he does like the wrath of God part.  So do many others.  For one thing, it allows room for us to claim to be the wrath of God in our fight to vanquish foes to the status of permanent losers.  Even if we can’t do that, it allows us to look forward to the day when God’s wrath is unleashed on others.  That the definitive demonstration of God’s wrath was worked out on the cross with words of forgiveness and reconciliation is conveniently ignored in favor of something more reasonable, such as the Archangel Michael defeating the devil’s forces, sending them all to eternal damnation.  

How likely is it that we could have a Romans 12 driven political agenda?  We could have glimpses of it, elements of it, but not under the current administration, not with the current congress, and not with the dominance of tea party type thinking among the electorate.  One final word of caution.  Tea party type thinking exists on the far left just as much as it exists on the far right, so a word of advice to my fellow liberals: do not be haughty, you’re not that good.