Thursday, March 29, 2018

Good Friday not explained in a few short words

Good Friday, it’s complicated.  I’ll keep this short.  No matter what you’ve heard from whoever you heard it, Jesus’s crucifixion is not the work of an angry God punishing him for the sins of humanity.  Called the substitutionary doctrine of atonement, and popular in several denominations, it’s not true.  Never was.

Jesus’s crucifixion was the natural and quite predictable outcome of his three years of public ministry that undermined the authority of religious leaders, and subordinated Caesar to the greater authority of God alone.  Moreover, he had the effrontery to claim he was the Son of God, not like the emperors who claimed divinity, but the actual manifestation of God in human flesh.  To show him, and everybody else, that he was really a nobody, they crucified him as a criminal among criminals.


If what he said was true, that he was the source of life, had the power to forgive sins and give life, even to the dead, how could he be dead like this?  What could it mean?  Good Friday never answers that question.  It leaves it hanging.  That’s one reason liturgical traditions begin a three day service on Thursday night that does not end until Sunday morning.  Called the Triduum, these three holy days recall one event that begins with death and ends with life.  In it, the ultimate authority of God as we know God in Christ Jesus is sealed forever. 

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

A Scene from a Godfather Movie - Thursday in Holy Week

Thursday in Holy Week has taken an odd turn, but then Holy Week is a little odd all they way through.  The reading from Mark recalls what we have come to know as “The Last Supper.”

It’s a scene begging for a place in the Godfather movies.  In it, Jesus invited his twelve closest associates to dinner in a private room.  He knew ahead of time that one of them was a rat who would turn him over to the authorities that very night.  And he knew the other eleven would turn tail and run for their own lives.  His most trusted lieutenant would even deny he ever heard of Jesus when he gets interrogated, not by the cops, but by a girl, a maid minding the rear entrance to the palace.  If Francis Ford Coppola filmed it, there would be tommy guns blazing away.

He didn’t.  There weren’t.  Surrounded by untrustworthy friends, Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them saying it was his body given for them.  He might have added something like, “You’re going to need some of me in you to get through this, so eat.”  Whether he said that or not, his friends had to wonder.  It’s not something that could have made much sense to them.  At the advent of their betrayal, he gave bread as his body for them.  That’s worth some thoughtful reflection.

Then he took the cup of wine (I like to think it was Elijah’s cup, but that’s a story for another time).  Anyway, he took the cup of wine, blessed it, gave it to them for each to take a sip, and said, “This is my blood of the (new) covenant which is poured out for many.”  If the broken bread was a mystery, the cup wasn’t.  Every one of them knew the prophecy in Jeremiah that promised a new covenant between God and creation, and every one of them knew the old covenant had been initiated by the deliverance of the Hebrews from death by the sign of lambs’ blood painted on their doors.  Midway through their journey to the promised land, it was sealed with the blood of sacrificial animals splattered over the altar and the people (Exodus 24).  Nothing was more holy than life giving blood coursing through all creatures, and nothing could seal a covenant with greater authority.  

The cup of wine, now declared to be Jesus’ own blood, the holy blood of Christ himself, announced the new covenant, and they knew it, as much as anyone could at the moment of its happening.  Curiously, it was a covenant for the forgiveness of sin and the promise of new life delivered from death.  In this case, not only sins of the past, but also sins about to be committed.  Whether they knew it or not, it was the holy food and drink of new life yet to be encountered.  

Most of us know what happened next, but sometimes we have to be reminded that the disciples didn’t know, couldn’t know.  Most of us go through our days with intentions about the near future, comfortable that probability is on our side.  The disciples didn’t have even that.  What might lay ahead was a total blank, every moment an unexpected one, dangerous, scary.  They may not have fully understood the meaning of the bread and wine, but through it God was in them and for them, and they needed it.

What about that rat Judas?  My friend Fr. Ernie says he thinks when Judas faces Jesus for judgement, Jesus will say, “Judas, I’m sorry you were the one who had to play that part.  Come, take your rightful place with the others.”  I doubt there is much rock solid theology behind that, but Fr. Ernie is not often wrong in matters of confession, compassion and forgiveness.  

Thursday in Holy Week remembers, in the words of Winston Churchill,  not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning.  So eat up.  Drink up.  You’ll need it for the journey ahead.



Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Evil Tenants, Cornerstones & the Sin of the Church

The liturgical police gave me a summons for incorrect use of the lectionary.  Yesterday’s post was based on a passage from Mark that was used last week, not this week.  Sorry about that.  To get back on track, Wednesday’s gospel reading from Mark records an odd parable Jesus told about a farmer who leased out his land to tenants who refused to pay their rent.  He sent several agents to collect, each of whom they beat up or killed.  Finally he sent his son.  The tenants seized and killed him, figuring, according to the parable, that they would now be the undisputed owners.  

That was the end of the parable.  Then Jesus asked his listeners what they thought the owner would do next.  Send troops, kill the tenants, and lease it out to more honorable people, they said.  Jesus ended the encounter by citing Psalm 118 about the rejected cornerstone, a stone that was God’s own marvelous work, a living stone who would live, not die, no matter what humans tried to do.   The meaning of the parable was not lost on religious and political leaders.  It gave them one more reason to get rid of this trouble maker before he could do real damage.  Who did he think he was, Son of God?

To the shame of the Christian Church, it was this parable, together with other scripture passages used in Holy Week, that appeared to authorize Christians to round up a bunch of local Jews to beat and kill on the grounds that they were the evil tenants, while Christians were the new tenants, the righteous avengers of God, the aggrieved owner, whose son they killed.  It all happened a long time ago in the Dark Ages, the work of ignorant people, and we’re not like that anymore.  Except we are.  The holocaust of WWII didn’t pop out of nowhere.  It was the culmination of centuries of anti-Jewish laws and pogroms that permeated the whole of European Christian culture.  We have not yet learned our lesson.  The resurgence of anti-Jewish fervor is obvious in every place where ultra-nationalism, white supremacy, and neo-Nazi movements gain traction.  And they gain traction where common, ordinary, everyday anti-Jewish prejudice is tolerated without objection, perhaps even with a chuckle.  

It may be that the secularized West is no longer dominated by church going Christians, but the Holy Week sentiment lingers, aided by radical voices with access to radio, t.v. and social media; abetted by disinterested church going Christians who turn the other way.  


If Holy Week is a time for deep examination of self and Church, this lesson, and the history that emanates from it requires truth be told, confession be made, and repentance of life begun again. 

Monday, March 26, 2018

Swim like a salty rock on Tuesday in Holy Week

Tuesday's gospel from Mark's 9th chapter records Jesus's instructions to his dimwitted disciples who had been arguing about which of them was the greatest.

Holy Week continues to make trouble by warning whoever is listening that putting stumbling blocks in the path to believing is not a good idea.  You might as well try swimming with a heavy rock tied around your neck, an amputated foot and hand, and one eye poked out.  On top of that, you’re expected to have salt.  What the heck does that mean?  

Let’s take salt first.  Louis L’Amour, in his many Western novels, explained salt as the intestinal fortitude needed to get through whatever lay ahead regardless of obstacles, danger or personal fear.  The morally righteous must have salt, but so can the immorally unrighteous.  So by itself, salt is neither good nor bad, it is simply necessary.  To not have salt is to fail.  

How much salt do you need?  I have no idea.  We each seem to have different measures of salty courage.  Moreover, the quantity seems to change from event to event.  Some we can handle.  Some we can’t.  Some we once could, but no longer can.  What scripture teaches us is that those with more salt are to help carry the burden of those with less.  When conditions change, the roles may reverse.  It isn’t up to a hero, it’s up to the community working together.

So much for salt.  What about putting obstacles in the way of those who would believe?  We all do it.  Our varying theologies and liturgical practices are fences that, however permeable we think they are, can be seen as impenetrable obstacles by those outside.  It’s one reason why I like the Ionian invitation to Holy Communion, now used in many congregations.  The version I have goes like this:
This is the table, not of the Church, but of God.
It is to be made ready for those who love God
and who want to love God more.

So, come, you who have much faith and you who have little,
you who have been here often and you who have not been for a long time,
you who have tried to follow Jesus and you who have failed.
Come, not because I invite you: it is Jesus, and it is Jesus’s will that you who want him should meet him here.

It neatly sidesteps controversies over baptism and the real presence of Christ by extending the invitation from Christ himself, just as he did for the five thousand, for tax collectors and prostitutes, and for his own disciples at the Last Supper when even Judas was fed.  Yet it sets standards: a desire to have faith (I believe, help my unbelief), a little effort effort (stand up, take your mat and walk), and a desire to be fed by God’s presence in the bread and wine. 

Nevertheless, obstacles abound.  The damage done to children and women through physical and sexual abuse to which the church turned a blind eye has been given wide publicity.  It has destroyed the nascent faith of many.  But there’s more.  I can’t count the number of would be believers who’ve told me their stories of being chased or run out of the church by damning theology, watery theology, preachers who use guilt like a bludgeon, and preachers who have nothing useful to say.  It comes in all shapes and sizes.   

As for me, when I come across Psalm 69 in Morning Prayer (Do not let those who hope in you be put to shame because of me, O Lord God of hosts...), it causes me to pause and consider how my words and actions don’t always present the way of discipleship as they should.  I have caused offense.  I have not loved people I don’t like.  I have demeaned religious practices with which I disagree.  In other words, I’ve been adept at strewing little obstacles in the pathway of faith, almost always without thinking about what I was doing.  That’s me.  I’m sure you’re much better.  God’s not going to shove me off a dock in a bucket of concrete, but the warning gets my attention, reminding me to pay attention to what I say and do.

Maybe Wednesday will be easier.


Sunday, March 25, 2018

Houses of Prayer & Figs out of Season

Houses of prayer and fig trees out of season.  

Holy Week is upon us.  I’m not sure when Holy Week became important to me.  It certainly wasn’t during my youth, nor in the first few decades of my adult life.  Maybe it was in my early forties.  Maybe it started with a changed attitude about Lent.  There was a year when I was in a business meeting on Ash Wednesday and it seemed more important to go to church than lunch.  Maybe a year our two later I quit scheduling travel and avoided unnecessary events during Holy Week.  I even left work early to get home in time for church. Maybe I’m remembering wrong.  Anyway one thing led to another, and here I am, a late vocation priest, retired at that.  Who knew such a thing could happen?

Holy Week has come to be a mixed blessing and curse of ordinary time doing ordinary things combined with daily worship, time for contemplative prayer, and reflections on troubling scripture readings leading toward the cross.  In other words, it’s a week of clashing gears, cognitive dissonance, routines out of place, the normal in hiding.

Consider Monday’s gospel reading.  On his way to the temple, Jesus demanded of a fig tree what it could not produce: figs out of season.  In the temple he proclaimed that this house of prayer for all peoples had been turned into a market place for shops catering to the needs of worshipers through business practices of theft and deception.  You know what happened.  He drove them out.  What a mess.  That’s no way to make friends or converts.  Leaving, he and the disciples passed the now dead fig tree, which led Jesus to say something about the power of prayer.  

Monday in Holy Week might be a good day to reflect on how well our churches live up to their obligation to be houses of prayer for all peoples.  It gets complicated.  More than once I’ve struggled with making the church I served open to people who came to worship, but with expectations that we would become something other than Anglicans worshiping in the way of the Episcopal Church.  Some mega churches and religious media personalities appear to have followed in the footsteps of the thieves and deceivers of gospel notoriety.  Some churches are open to everybody, but as houses of entertainment instead of prayer.  Others are clearly not open to all peoples, but only those stamped with a seal of approval.  The universal objection to observations like these is, yes but.  Yes, but you don’t understand our special needs and intentions.  Yes but, which I have used frequently myself, should always be suspect.  It’s often sleight of hand for avoiding Jesus’ stern eye.  If Lent is a time for disciplined self examination, then Monday in Holy Week is the perfect  time for congregational leaders to engage in church self examination.  

And then there’s the poor innocent fig tree, cursed and killed for no good reason.  How is that an object lesson about prayer?  Think about it.  We’re quick to send thoughts and prayers to victims of violence.  Saying “God bless you” to sneezers is still popular.  When someone asks for our prayers, we almost always say we will.  We clergy offer God’s blessing at every worship service, and on everything from wheat, to boats, to birthdays.  What do we think these blessings and prayers do?  Have they any power?  Jesus says they do, more power than we can imagine.  Not the Hogwarts spells kind, but something far more mysterious and powerful over which we have little control. 

If blessings and prayers for others have such power, what about curses?  Cue the fig tree.  If “God bless you” has power, what might be said about “God damn you/it?”  Is it just a figure of speech?  Pay no attention?  I don’t think so, but let’s lay it aside for the moment and consider the other damning things we (including me) are prone to say when we share damaging gossip, lie and mislead, express dislike of another in threatening, violent ways, or just pick away at the minor faults of one another?  However much we might hate to admit it, they’re all forms of cursing, and they have real power.  What does scripture say,”bless don’t curse,” “let no evil speech come out of your mouth.”  That poor little fig tree is a powerful object lesson.  Pay attention.   Which brings me back to “God damn you/it.”  The word God may be just a place holder for the Holy Name, but it’s to be held holy and honored for the place it holds.  Isn’t that in the Ten Commandments somewhere?  I think so.  To invoke God’s name to damn anything, even excused as a harmless figure of speech, is to curse with the same mysterious and uncontrollable power as a blessing.  It’s to kill an innocent fig tree, and it’s likely to rebound with punishing force on the one who utters it.  Jesus was putting great power into the hands of his disciples.  I think he was warning them to be careful about how they used it.  Some of that power is in our hands too.


Monday in Holy Week.  It’s not an easy day.  It demands self examination I’d rather not do.  Maybe Tuesday will be easier.  Nope, just looked ahead.  

Friday, March 23, 2018

Sometimes there is no room. Nor should there be.

Along with many other religious leaders, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church signed a pledge to work for social justice in a variety of areas consistent with the Church’s understanding of the gospel.  Called the “Campaign to Reclaim Jesus in U.S. Culture,” it rejects as contrary to Jesus’ teaching the resurgence of white nationalism, racism and misogyny in all of its forms.  It rejects political language and policies that debase and abandon the most vulnerable.  It rejects the pervasive lying that has become normal in public discourse.  It rejects movement toward authoritarian rule, and it rejects “America First” as the theological heresy.  It calls for following Jesus first in all the ways that the gospel proclaims. 

The electronic news release about it invited comments, and the first two decried that there was now no place for conservatives in the Episcopal Church.  The majority that followed were enthusiastically supportive, but a significant number complained, in increasingly strident tones, that dragging the Episcopal Church into politics was wrong, especially because it left no place for conservatives.

In related news, articles about the March for Life events held across the country on Saturday, March 24 have generated letters to the editor, and columns from some commentators, complaining that conservative minded students have been left out, their voices muted, and that’s not right.

Indeed, there may be no place in the Church for voices that are willing to tolerate racism, misogyny, policies that hurt the most vulnerable, habitual lying by public leaders, authoritarian rule, and nationalism that displaces discipleship.  Satisfied with liturgy, music and preaching that remains sufficiently aloof from real life struggles for society to become more just, they’ve effectively muffled many, perhaps most, Episcopal clergy from making Christ’s voice heard in the public arena.  It has allowed other voices claiming Christ’s authority to form powerful political movements promoting stands on issues that sometimes appear antithetical to all that Jesus taught.  And if not antithetical, then leaving no room for other views, faithfully held, and firmly grounded in scripture.  

Indeed, there may be no room for conservative minded students to join in the March for Life events, if conservative minded means advocacy of unrestricted gun rights, or a desire to highjack the Marches with some other agenda.  

Voices that claim to represent conservatism, something about which  I have strong doubts, have long complained that they were the forgotten ones, the downtrodden ones, the left behind ones.  Nothing proved it to them more than the decline in well paid factory jobs for marginally educated persons, and the enormous turnout for Obama in his two elections.  Yet backed by the earlier Moral Majority, then the tea partiers, NRA, talk radio, propagandizing t.v., and finally the election of a morally corrupt president backed by self proclaimed Christian evangelicals, they have been heard loud and clear for their endorsement of positions and policies threatening democracy, social justice, and economic well being for all.  

No, there is no room for those voices in the Campaign to Reclaim Jesus in U.S. Culture, nor in the Marches for Life.

There are rooms for them, and they are free to make use of them, as they have already done with great effect.  They are even free to claim they speak for Jesus, and the right to own carry all the guns they want.  They are free to condemn homosexuality.  They are free to demand that their religious freedom allows them to discriminate in public business.  They are free to demand that the coercive power of the state be used to ban all abortions.  They are free to demand that the coercive power of the state be banned from interfering in their private and public lives.  They are free to claim they are conservatives.

They are not free to inject that into rooms where other voices are being raised.  


And before the most frequent objection is made: it is wrong for protesters to boo down and drown out invited speakers they don’t like.  Listen first, then boo; listen in stony silence with no response; don’t go at all; demonstrate outside without blocking others from attending.  But never shut down an invited speaker no matter how repulsive the message may be.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Wounded Knee and the 2nd Amendment

This article began as a FB post that generated more response than anticipated.  While the comments represented widely divergent views, they  were mostly respectful of each other, which is quite a change from most streams of commentary on FB.  In any case, let us begin again.

A well meaning friend reposted a piece on FB that used the Wounded Knee Massacre as an object lesson for why the 2nd amendment right to bear arms is so important.  The point being that a well armed citizenry is needed and could withstand the assault of a tyrannical government’s army.  

I doubt he had any idea how offensive that was in the context of American Indian history.  It was toward the end of the so called Indian Wars.  Their lands seized, their buffalo gone, and their treaties violated with impunity, the December 29, 1890 slaughter was orchestrated against a forced encampment of a small group of Lakota Indians who didn’t want to stay on the reservation.  Fifty-eight rifles were said to have been recovered from among the 150 or so killed: old men, women, children, a few warriors.  It was an act of terror fully endorsed by the white residents of the region, many of whom believed it was either kill or be killed.  

If there is an object lesson in that, it is that white men cannot be trusted by those who are neither white nor citizens.  And that brings us to the 2nd amendment.  Using 18th century reasoning to dictate answers to 21st century questions doesn’t work.  It can inform, but not dictate.  As it is, the founders, working from various, sometimes conflicting points of view, desired to assure the constitutional legitimacy of well regulated citizen militias.  An individual’s right to own a gun was not something that crossed their minds.  Why would it?  A musket was an everyday tool to hunt for food, and for frontier protection.  The right to own one was never a question anyone asked.  

Our founding fathers were interested in well regulated  state militias to take the place of a standing army.  Standing armies were expensive, and the British army of recent occupation led them to suspect they could not be trusted to back the nascent republic.  As it turned out, some of the not so well regulated militias couldn’t be trusted either.  You may remember Shay’s rebellion during the Articles of Confederation era, and the Whiskey rebellion in the early 1790s.  

The founders had different expectations for what well regulated militias could do.  Some expected them to protect slave owners, putting down any slave uprising.  The Haitian slave rebellion of 1791 had not yet begun, but they were not unaware the rising tensions and the possibility of it happening in the U.S.  There had been colonial slave uprisings, and their fears were justified by several others in the 1800s.  Others expected militias to forcefully “pacify” Indians displaced by westward white settlement.  Pacify would not have been a word back then, but it fits.  Still others intended them to protect the interests of land and business owners.    They didn’t want another Shay to organize another rebellion.  For good or ill, it was all about well regulated militias. 

Is that still true?

A local friend, an attorney and advocate of unrestricted gun rights, noted that the question was settled by the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Heller decision of 2008.  It doesn’t matter what the founders thought or wanted, the Heller decision established the right of individuals to be armed for “traditional lawful purposes,” including self defense.  Justice Scalia wrote for the majority, while Justice Stevens wrote for the dissent.  Dissent or no, the right for individuals to bear arms is now the law of the land.  Who am I to argue?  I’m no lawyer.

But I do know it’s the law of the land until it isn’t.  Most students of history have heard of the 1896  Plessy v. Ferguson case.  In it the Supreme Court held that segregation was legal as long as accommodations were “separate but equal.”  Plessy was never overturned by the court.  It just died an ignominious death as other decisions, and the civil rights laws of the 1960s, remanded it to the court of lousy decisions for reconsideration by high school history classes.

My hope and expectation is that the Heller decision will meet the same fate, but in less time than the seventy years it took Plessy to die.


Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Adam, Eve, Evil and Art

I want you to look closely at these two pictures.   I wish I could tell you the names of the artists, but I failed to write them down when we saw  them in Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art.  They are by Australian aboriginal artists daring to tell uncomfortable truths about the effects of European settlement on the lives of Aborigines.  They are the same truths that could be said, should be said, about the effects of European settlement on the lives of North and South American Indians.  

Sadly, to set the stage I need to begin with the most uncomfortable truth of all.  In parts of Australia and South America indigenous peoples were hunted sometimes for sport, and always to clear the land of their inconvenient presence.  North American European settlers did some of each, but mostly they forcibly moved Indians out of the way through wars and massacres.  None of it could have happened were it not for the seldom challenged assumption that they were less than human, or if human, savages in need of forced assimilation into the invading culture as subordinate members.   It’s not a history we like to admit.  Bringing it up always engenders defensive objections of one kind or another, and why not?  Who wants to admit being in the line of succession of such brutal injustice?  I certainly don’t.  Well, what’s done is done.  It can’t be undone, nor can adequate atonement be made.  We can only go forward.  

Going forward for them and for us requires that their stories be told in their own voices, and that we hear them as non-defensively as we are able.  It brings me to the two paintings I asked you to look at.  The painting on the left depicts the Garden of Eden – note the snake and forbidden tree.  Adam is black.  Eve is white, and not just white but blonde and blue eyed.  According to the missionaries that worked to convert the Aborigines, Eve was the one seduced by the snake, the one who took the first bite, the one who seduced Adam, and therefore, the source of evil entering human life.  It’s a line of thinking dating at least from the Middle Ages that popularized the idea that but for women and sex, evil would not exist.  It’s what made hanging witches so easy to justify, and it’s what the missionaries taught.  But there’s more.   From the aboriginal point of view it’s not women as such, but Europeans who were, are, and continue to be the source of evil in the lives of aboriginal peoples.  And they have a strong case.

Consider the painting on the right.  The top panel remembers the simple, basic life of Aborigines before the European invasion.  The romantic ideal of Rousseau’s noble savage living in harmonious innocence ignores the struggle to survive, intertribal warfare, and the reality of life as nasty, brutish and short, in Hobbes' words.  Nevertheless, it was their life lived their way without interference from the outside.  The second panel shows what Europeans brought to the scene: weapons, booze, destruction of their natural food supply, introduction of unhealthy new foods, and forced appropriation of the land on which they lived.  The third depicts how that evolved into alcoholism, loss of human dignity, trashing of the environment, death, and do you see the church in the background?Christianity not as salvation but as a screen for the imposition of European evil on Aborigines.  

The final panel offers 21st century hope.  The contemporary age isn’t going away.  There is no returning to pre-settlement times.  But Aborigines can refuse the evils of the modern age while adapting their culture to take advantage of its benefits.  They can reclaim the dignity of their heritage, and claim their rightful place as respected bearers of 50,000 or more years of human history in Australia.  They can demand that those of European descent know and understand all that has happened, not to impose guilt, but to evoke a new understanding of shared justice to guide the way into the future.  It will not be easy.  Prejudices are hard to change.  It may take generations, but it is the only hope there is for a future in which there is respect for the dignity of every human being.  

They are Australian paintings about Australia and its people, but the lessons are universal. 






Saturday, March 17, 2018

Elites Have a Problem

Elites have a problem.  Whoever they are, they’re the root cause of civic alienation and master minds of the wrong directions in which we are going.  Elites are arrogant, smug, and think others are stupid.  They’re over educated, believing they know better than everybody else.  Most elites live in big coastal cities, but they also have hideouts in colleges and universities all over the country.  Every town has a few elites, and they’re the ones who run things their own way no matter what the people want.  If you’re an elite, you’re the enemy of the common man, or possibly woman.  It used to be just the common man, but times change and the common woman has taken her place as the chief defender of the common man. 

Are you an elite?

You are if you’re opposed to far right wing libertarians, at least in the parlance of various propaganda machines that seem determined to bring down liberal American democracy, which, oddly enough, they claim is in defense of liberty.  Liberal, in this case meaning those favoring the broadest possible involvement of the people in the work of government dedicated to freedoms guaranteed by law, acting for the common good, and assuring justice in all aspects of public life. 

Where does this aversion to “liberal elites” come from?  How did it get to be so venomous?  

As I continue to plow my way through Arendt’s TheOrigins of Totalitarianism (in between old English murder mysteries), I’ve been struck by her insight into the ease with which the authors of mid-twentieth century fascism were able to seduce whole societies of supposedly liberal and sophisticated peoples.  One way was to prey on individual self interests by elevating them to ultimate value, asserting that ,“…the mere sum of individual interests adds up to he miracle of the common good.”  Arendt went on to write that, “[It] appeared to be the only rationalization of the recklessness with which private interests were pressed regardless of the common good.” (ebooks are inconsistent in pagination, but it’s at the 42% mark)

We don’t live in a world of mid-twentieth century fascists, but we do live in a country and time where an extreme version of libertarian politics has become married to far right wing ideologies to create a movement in which the common good is said to be the sum of each person’s private interests – with a twist.  The twist is that each person’s private interest is advertised as unique, in competition with all other private interests.  Governments are suspect because they exist to limit the freedom to pursue private interests.  Therefor, protection of private interests is really up to each individual.  The NRA, and their kin, boldly assert that the land is overflowing with armed others who intend to satisfy their private interests by attacking anyone who has what they want.  So the smart thing is to be well armed to defend one’s self against attacks certain to come.  Other persons are always a potential enemies, especially if they look sufficiently different.  Build walls, erect barriers, suspect foreigners, and don’t be too confident about neighbors.  Build on that, and the common good fades into an irrelevant background.

Hobbes may have been right about what happens when societies of mutual accountability for the common good collapse.  Anyone who advocates shared interests, shared responsibilities, and shared burdens of shared costs, is considered a threat to private interests.  They are the liberal elite, and must be shut down.  Lacking other means, holding them up to ridicule serves well for the time being.  Eliminating them would be better.

In the meantime, is  the current movement a spontaneous uprising of concerned citizens, or has it been manufactured in some way?  There’s no conspiracy theory to trot out.  The instigators are up front, out in public, proud of their work.  Who are they?  Obviously Trump comes to mind, but his adult track record doesn’t reveal capacity for strategic thinking, not even a tactical thinking.  He’s more of an opportunist riding a wave he did not create, and only vaguely understands.  Someone like Bannon understands well enough, but can never be anything but a third tier apparatchik; he has few resources and no ability to form enduring alliances.  Moreover, he’s held in contempt by those who do.  So who?

The group that revolves around the Koch brothers is the most likely candidate, but why would they?  What’s in it for them?  I doubt they can be cast in the mold of old time fascists, though they bear some of the same characteristics.  More likely they are motivated by a visceral dislike of government interfering with the way they want to run their businesses, and may truly believe that doing away with it would make for a more free and prosperous nation.  It would certainly mean more money with less hassle for them.  If so, they’ve planned and executed well, so far, but probably not for long.  However well planned, they’re also naive.  Their ways screams with contempt for commoners, and hatred for unions.  Sooner, rather than later, a critical mass among their base will wake up to having been duped, and made to play the fool, and that’s the one thing their base will not tolerate.  They’re vastly overconfident of their ability to control movements they’ve set in motion.  They severely underestimate the political and economic sophistication of the majority of voters, and of other leadership groups.  And they’re saddled with a buffoon in the White House whose unpredictability predictably predicts chaos.

Could be the elite really do have a problem, just a different gang of elitists.



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.