Thursday, May 30, 2019

Proclaiming the Gospel in a Declining Church

Obsession with news about declines in church attendance and denominational affiliation drive me nuts.  It diverts attention from focus on gospel proclamation.  It encourages refocus on church growth by the numbers.  It creates a market for church marketing schemes by the dozen.  And it raises clergy and lay leader anxiety over who’s ahead, who’s behind, and who has the larger market share.  It’s a cross between reporting on major league team standings, and odds making on which major car company will survive.

We can’t seem to help it, and I’ve been a part of it.  Some years ago I helped create a massive ad campaign for a parish in a large city, and chaired a committee charged with developing diocesan marketing plans in a rural part of the country.  In my own defense, my intention then and conviction now is that if it isn’t about proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ, it’s going in the wrong direction.  This isn’t our church, whatever the denomination.  It’s God’s church.  If what we say and believe about Jesus is true, the future of the church is out of our hands.  Our only job is to proclaim the gospel as faithfully as we are able, which is not easy to do.  Since it is our job, and not an easy one, it needs to be our primary focus at all times in every place, but what makes it so difficult?

Let me offer a few observations for your consideration.

We have a tendency to imagine ourselves taking huge leaps of progress, overcoming enormous obstacles, when the issues demanding our attention are less imposing, more local, and require the hard of work of persevering with small steps where progress is hard to measure.  Mastering small steps toward uncertain success is not a compelling path toward ecclesiastical greatness.

We live in a time and place where many people don’t go to church, not because they don’t believe in God, but because they don’t care much one way or the other.  They get along just fine without going, and can’t see what they’d get out of it if they did.  Christianity may remain the de facto American religion, but there are others, so what makes it better or more right?  All they do is argue with each other, so why bother?  It’s hard to persuade people who don’t care.

Some denominations have distorted the scripture to make it serve political agendas inconsistent with what Jesus taught.  Others have adopted a fundamentalist way of expressing Christian faith that rejects things scientific or intellectual.  While they attract some adherents, they repel the greater number who ridicule them for their gullible naiveté, and assume that’s what Christianity is in every place.  People can be very gullible all by themselves, but who wants to associate deliberately with a church full of them?

What attracts some to conservative evangelicalism is the same thing that motivates a great many of us: the desire to know the right way among all the ways that are not.  Black and white thinking is common.  Some things are good, some bad, some right, some wrong, it has to be one or the other.  But classical Christianity declares that following Jesus leads on an uncertain path, knowing is hemmed in by unknowing, and God still speaks in ways new and uncomfortable to our ears.  Why give one’s life to a tradition that won’t stand still, can’t declare absolute truth?

Of course some denominations do dare to declare absolute truth, and with it theological warfare on any who disagree. Less combative denominations may not go to rhetorical war with others, but throwing a few rocks is not out of the question.  The same remains a popular sport within denominations as cliques take aim at one another.  Why would anyone want to get in the middle of that?

Then there are the armies of theologians crafting impenetrable philosophies of religion that leave ordinary inquirers squirming in confusion and boredom.  Good grief!

Those are only the basics.  They exist within a society buffeted by accelerating social and economic change, some for the better, some not, that tend to shove ordinary people toward more conservative or more liberal poles.   What they really want is for the world to slow down long enough for them to figure out what’s going on.  

It’s all part of what makes proclaiming the gospel so difficult, and why maintaining primary focus on gospel proclamation is essential.  Think of Paul, Barnabas and Silas wandering from place to place preaching to the curious.  A few successes, many failures and small starts; they didn’t spend much time worrying about numbers, they just proclaimed the good news of God’s love as revealed in Jesus Christ.  But the gospel they proclaimed was more than just godly love.  It also introduced a greater reality than can be experienced through ordinary daily life.  It wasn’t an imaginary reality grounded in ancient myth, but a hard core reality grounded in the real life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus, the Word of God made flesh.  To the Greeks they were Greek, to the Jews they were Jews, to the Romans they were Latin, to the small town they were rural, to the big city they were urban, to the uneducated they were basic, to the educated they were profound.  It wasn’t hypocrisy, it was fitting the good news to the context in which was proclaimed. The gospel was always at the center.  It was never displaced by anything else.  Everything else was displaced by the gospel.  They may not have got everything right, but they set a good example for us to follow.

To be sure, denominations differ in how the good news of God in Christ Jesus is proclaimed and understood, and differences between them are not unimportant.  The Anglican tradition of the Episcopal Church, that is both Catholic and Protestant, is where I am most comfortable seeking, finding and celebrating God’s presence in my life.  Sacraments and liturgy mean a great deal to me.  It’s not the same as the Baptists, Methodists, or Romans.  But that doesn’t make them wrong.  They have different ways, some I can’t agree with, but their ways serve their members as well as mine serve me.


Someone might object, yes but what about the conflicts and scandals that are tearing denominations apart?  Don’t they collapse Christianity’s house of cards?  They’re realities that have to be dealt with.  The church, as institution, is ever in need of reform.  But even in the midst of the most troubling controversies, keeping the good news of God in Christ Jesus at the core guarantees that the church, God’s church, manifested in the worship of assembled Christians, will not fail.  It may be that some institutions housing the church will be exposed as frauds and failures, but the church will not fail.  

Friday, May 24, 2019

Reflections: Memorial Day 2019

Memorial Day honors those who have died in combat.  In years gone by I’ve reflected on the life of Harlan Miller, a WWII veteran who was blown up in North Africa, survived, and lived out his life as an impoverished, lonely man unable to find a comfortable place in the world he helped save.  It was, I said, a form of death in combat that took many decades to achieve its end.  War always kills body and soul by degrees, and modern warfare does it more surely.  Perhaps that’s due to the brutality of the killing machinery modern warfare brings to the field.  Perhaps in older times death by poverty and disease was so common that death in battle was easier to accept.  It might even come with a touch of glory crowning an otherwise inglorious life.

This Memorial Day weekend, I want to turn to wars in our own time.  On this, the year of the 75th anniversary of D Day, I’ve been thinking of the nearly 3,000 young men who died on Omaha Beach.  Others died on other beaches, but these stand out because it was known they would become the fodder of war, the collateral damage that could not be avoided if the invasion was to succeed.  Did they die in vain?  History says no.  It was a war of moral purpose with an end in sight, a clear understanding of who the enemy was, and public awareness about where the front lines were.  When victory came, it was a great victory.  Those who served and survived have become our Greatest Generation.  The GI Bill and various housing programs continued the nation’s support for them in the decade that followed.  Not all benefitted, some were discriminated against, but for most, resources were available to help make opportunities in civilian life available to them.  Death, when it came, came with dignified thanksgiving for their service, regardless of how they’d lived their civilian lives.

Korea was different.  Residual public support for the troops remained.  Although the nation was tired of war, it wasn’t hard to convince the public that stopping a communist takeover in Korea would help to stop it everywhere.  There was a front and a clearly defined enemy, but victory, whatever that might have been, was elusive.  In the end, all we could get was a truce.  South Korea was saved, but nothing else changed.  Returning troops continued to have access to WWII resources, but what they experienced made less sense to them; the public was less appreciative; they were expected to get on with civilian life as if nothing much had happened.  Emotional recovery from what makes less sense, in an environment of less appreciation, is hard to do, but Korean vets emulated their elders and made do.  Death, when it came, came in the normal way.  What parts of them that had died in combat were ignored.

Vietnam had a flimsy moral purpose constructed on a foundation of propaganda.  There was no front.  The enemy was ill defined, almost undifferentiated from the civilian population.  Though battles were won at great cost, no victory was at hand.  Indeed, no one knew what victory might look like.  In the end, we just left.  The South fell.  Vietnam became communist.  Not much else happened because of it.  No dominoes went down.  In time Vietnam became a relatively prosperous American trading partner and popular tourist site.  Troops drafted to serve were not honored by a nation that abhorred the war.  Veterans needed to sneak back into civilian life if they hoped to succeed at it.  The emotional scars inflicted by combat ran deep, and were left to fester.  Wounds that didn’t heal on their own brought death by degree, year after year.  We who did not serve in Vietnam are not guiltless because we did nothing to help.  Like the Levite and the priest on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho, we passed by on the other side.  Unlike the parable, no good Samaritan came along. 

War related moral degradation, once it sets in, is hard to stop.  What seemed righteous in 1991 when American forces liberated Kuwait from Iraq, became, in 2003, a new war with Iraq whose justification was constructed on deliberate falsehoods.  Its government was defeated, but not its people, and we have ever since been fighting competing insurgencies, which, if we ever quit, will likely leave a land engaged in permanent civil war with itself.  Call it the Libyan solution.  In like manner, the 2001 American invasion of Afghanistan, in retaliation for 9/11 (of which no Afghan was a part - most were Saudis), brought us into armed conflict to this day.  We’re at war in Afghanistan not to achieve a purpose, moral or otherwise, but because we don’t know how to get out.  Those who are sent to fight, are sent because fighting is what we do.  Apparently we’re willing, as a nation, to endure the emotional killing fields of war without purpose because it’s become our way of life.  Besides, it’s a very profitable undertaking for the arms industry.  With at``` least some degree of guilt, the nation now openly talks about PTSD, veteran suicides, and what needs to be done about it.  Doing it is another matter, although there seems to be some sputtering progress.  

On this Memorial Day, between the beers and brats, let us honor those who have died in battle for great moral causes, and those who have died piece by piece from the scars of battle.  Let us humbly confess and repent of the brutality we’ve inflicted on those we’ve sent into armed conflict for no good purpose.  We cannot ask their forgiveness, but we can elect leaders who will stop this nonsense, and we can demand public policies and resources needed to do everything possible for today’s veterans to live healthy and well as civilians. 




Sunday, May 19, 2019

Conversations with a Conservative

Conservative friends (I actually have a few) come in a variety of flavors ranging from life long Republicans who are conservative because that’s what they’ve always said they were, to hard core right wingers.  A few weeks ago I asked several of the most conservative to tell me what they believe about America is most under threat, and what is threatening it.  It was disappointing to get only one and a half replies.  My guess is they were hesitant about falling into a rhetorical trap where they would be publicly humiliated.  A perfectly reasonable fear.  

The half a response came from an old friend who believes the ‘rule of law’ has been abandoned by liberals, and he wants it back.  He’s one of the ‘if you’re a liberal you’re a left wing socialist' gang.  Unwilling to add more, except that Hillary should be in jail, I’ve known him long enough to suspect his focus is on the standard menu of street crimes: burglary, robbery, drug dealing, bodily assaults, and that sort of thing.  Society, he believes, is too easy on criminals, too quick to let suspects out on bail, too slow to try, convict and sentence.  I think it unlikely he’s concerned about upper class white collar crimes.  They’re just the price of a free market economy.  I’ve never been able to find out why he wants Hillary in jail, yet can believe Trump is one of the finest presidents ever.  Politically, he’s a confirmed tea partier, content to echo whatever right wing talk radio has to offer, but he’s also a generous contributor of time and energy to worthy projects in his church and community.  Obviously there’s more there, and I may never know what it is.  Suffice it to say, he remains a friend.

The more full response was from another old friend, conservative in a more traditional way, and immovable in what he believes to be right or wrong.  He’s only one person, but he’s well educated, thoughtful, willing to talk, and expresses what many others believe but are unwilling to put into words.  He believes, and many others with him, that America is threatened by loss of patriotic love of country.  Millennials, everybody’s favorite target, don’t just hate the president, they hate the country too.  They abuse their First Amendment rights by expressing views that intentionally offend innocent people.  

In like manner he said there is growing disrespect for America’s Christian heritage.  There should be respect for all religions, everyone should be free to worship as they please, but there’s no excuse for Christianity to be attacked on every front.  Related to it, we should be able to rely on colleges to educate our youth, but they’re indoctrinating them with liberal biases that demean any other point of view.  They won’t allow dissenting speakers, and openly ridicule Christians, the bible, and the religious history of the Western world.  It’s a form of mind programming and is a threat to all that has made America great.

He treasures the traditional male role as primary breadwinner and patriarch who loves, cares for and protects his family.  While he recognizes there are other roles, and other ways of being family, he resents the disrespect many have for more traditional ways.  The idea that males are, ipso facto, toxic dismays and angers him.  Why can’t liberals just let other people be?  It’s what he tries to do.

Traditional ways also mean not everyone is a winner.  Kids today don’t think blue collar trades are good enough for them, they don’t want to work their way up.  They want high paying jobs without doing the hard work to deserve them.  That kind of thinking leads to a welfare mentality of leeching off parents and the government as if it was a right.  That response covers a lot of ground, but the intent is clear.  It combines old time complaints about living easy on welfare with new complaints about well off youth unwilling to become self reliant.  This morning I heard a young professional in a thriving practice say pretty much the same thing from a more liberal point of view.  

His final thought, for the moment, was that America is threatened by environmental extremism.  Yes, there are real problems, but liberal solutions are out of balance with reality.  The extreme left is willing to sacrifice half the economy for environmental fixes of one kind or another, and liberal interests use government policy to make money for their favored industries: it’s all about money.  

I mentioned a few of these thoughts to some liberal friends, and got a highly predictable response.  My conservative friend is all wrong, the facts don’t support him, he’s part of the problem.  People who think like him are the real threat to America, etc.  It’s a response that leads to an attitude of self righteously high dudgeon.  Well, he may be wrong, but blasting him with insult laced facts won’t change anything.  Moreover, there is much in what he says that resonates with progressive values.  

Liberals are patriotic.  They love the best of all that America stands for.  They may be more realistic about how far it has to go to achieve it.  They recognize its founding documents and historical myths establish high expectations not only for us, but for much of the world.  Patriotism, in that sense, should be honored, and that means honoring the patriotic authenticity of conservatives who want the same things even when they bridle at criticisms of failings they’d rather not have to face.  Liberals fail when they allow right wingers to own patriotism.  It gives more traditional conservatives nowhere to turn but to the far right.  Liberals can stand courageously against nationalistic degradation of liberal democratic ideals, and still offer public respect for the patriotic desires of conservatives. 

No one wants to live where street crime is rampant, where gangs rule territory, where one doesn’t feel safe in one’s own neighborhood.  That’s universal.  It’s something all can agree on.  Progressives might make progress by agreeing more strongly with conservatives about their shared desire to live in peace and safety.  It might increase the likelihood  for progressive solutions to be heard.  Police reform will be a part of it, and it will get a better hearing if it’s sold as part of a plan to strengthen police effectiveness for the good of the entire community.  

Liberals need to be honest about admitting that higher education generally has a progressive bias.  Not always, not with every teacher, not in every discipline, but higher education is neither higher nor education if it doesn’t challenge the status quo, guiding students to develop critical thinking skills.  It can be done without demeaning or belittling students who challenge the status quo of progressive teaching.  Conservatives are concerned that liberal educators are teaching students what to think, not how to think.  Liberal educators can do more to demonstrate it’s the other way round.  Schools that decided to abandon the Western canon to make room for others made a huge mistake. The story of Western civilization is crucial to understanding world history.  We need a new, expanded canon, not one that exchanges ignorance about one thing for ignorance about another. 

In the entire recorded history of the world, the youngest generation has always been pilloried as lazy, entitled, disrespectful, and the source of civilization’s decline.  Once every few centuries there may be a “greatest generation,” but not often.  The youngest generation, of course, thinks their seniors need to step aside because they’re out of date, out of step, and out of energy.  Well, that’s the way it goes.  There’s not much point in going to battle over entitled youth.  They will too soon become old stuffed shirts.  In the meantime, the underlying values of hard work and self reliance are values shared by conservatives and liberals alike.  They should be celebrated, as encouragement, as the passing on of wisdom, as measures to be met, but not as dehumanizing insults.  

As a progressive, orthodox Christian, I’ve never felt under attack in any serious way.  To be sure, there are atheists who vehemently disparage my faith, adherents of other religions who think mine is wrong, and a handful of virulently anti Christian grumblers.  None mount a serious attack.  In recent decades conservative evangelicals have opened up with political broadsides at every target to their disliking, and received return fire in kind.  They may not like it, but what did they expect?  Christianity is not under attack in America.  It is in other parts of the world, and in other parts of the world, other religions are also under attack, sometimes by their own.  The U.S. remains a safe haven for most people of faith, with the exception of black Christian churches in the South, and Synagogues and Mosques anywhere. So what’s really going on when Christian conservatives complain about being under attack?  It’s about feeling vulnerable in a country where it is no longer true that the nominal national religion is generic Christianity.  The loss of religion hegemony goes hand in hand with loss of white male hegemony, and that means loss of status, place, indeed of identity itself.  It’s not an easy transition to make.  Rather than hammering them with facts and claims of moral superiority, they need a day at a time encouragement to move toward  a new identity as Christians who don’t need to dominate or be domineering.  It’s a very Christlike direction, but it’s not easy, so offer a helping hand.       

There was a time when the patriarchal nuclear family was the standard by which all families were measured.  It was celebrated in post war America on radio and television by dozens of shows like Fibber McGee and Molly, The Great Gildersleeve, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best, and Leave it to Beaver.  Its idealization created the myth of traditional family values.  It is no longer the ideal, nor is it a standard by which all families can be measured.  In many ways it never was, but it’s also not a bad model.  It isn’t, by its nature, oppressive, evil, wrong or toxic.  Bracket patriarchy and one is left with values such as mutual love, trust, responsible parenthood, and all the other things every kind of family desires to have.  They, and not patriarchy, are what have value.  Progressives encourage acceptance of other forms of family with the same values. But many have gone too far in demonizing men as inherently oppressive, and any form of patriarchy as evil.  There are families who prosper in patriarchal settings, and they should not be condemned for what nourishes them, but neither do they have a right to demand that theirs is the only acceptable form of family life. 

The question of patriarchy is related to the broader issue of white male dominance in business and government that has prevented others from enjoying all the privileges and responsibilities of leadership.  That’s changing, and progressives need to be more intelligent about recognizing that it’s normal for those accustomed to control to try to keep control.  Brutal name calling battles may be emotionally satisfying, but they produce little progress.  Don’t get sucked into them. Just keep pushing, but resist the temptation to dispossess them of their human dignity by giving it to others.  That’s not progress.  That’s revenge. 

My friend’s last point, but certainly not in conclusion, was about environmental extremism as a threat to America’s future.  The local paper features a decade long running battle between letter writers who deny that humans have anything to do with climate change, if there even is such a thing, and writers who recite loads of facts to prove them wrong.  In between are letter writers arguing over dams, agricultural chemicals, forest management, water use, endangered species, and anything environmental.  For what it’s worth, I’m convinced the only way to open productive conversation is to reframe the issues as matters of stewardship.  Are we treating our environment to leave it better than we found it?  What legacy of stewardship do we want to leave for generations yet to follow?  We’ve never had to ask questions that way because only in the last hundred years have there been enough humans to seriously misuse and trash our island home.  Now there are enough of us, and each generation has to choose whether to leave squalor and deterioration behind, or establish better housekeeping standards for those who follw.  Conservatives and liberals can agree it’s time to clean up the mess, and change our ways.  How?  We’ll have to work that out.  Some things will work.  Some things won’t.  Unyielding in favor of the absolute is one thing that won’t.

The point of this exercise was to share with a broader audience a taste of what it can be like for a progressive like me to engage in appreciative listening with a rock solid conservative, and probe a little deeper for areas where we might find a place to negotiate agreement.  Whether I found any remains to be seen, but it’s better than tossing rhetorical hand grenades at each other.





Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Elites vs. Deplorables

Elites vs. Deplorables

Continuing the vocabulary theme, campaign and legislative debate politics have devolved to name calling intended to marginalize, even demonize, the other.  It elicits emotionally biased responses while avoiding meaningful discussion of the issues.  America has a long, inglorious history of humiliating, demonizing political name calling, but it also has a long history of serious public debate about the issues.  

The 2016 election changed whatever balance there was between the two, making it more difficult to have worthwhile negotiations over issues in need of resolution.  The 2012 Republican primary debates saw it coming when one candidate, Trump, used humiliating nicknames and snide remarks to cover up his lack of knowledge and inability to engage in intellectual debate (insofar as primary debates are ever intellectual).  He transformed debate into name calling humiliation of the other to demean whatever they had to say about anything, without having to say anything of substance himself.

It might have ended there, but Clinton gave him all the ammunition he needed to finish out the campaign as a contest between two irreconcilable forces when she coined the term “A basket of deplorables” in a September 9 fund raising speech.  She was recorded as saying half of Trump’s supporters were a “basket of deplorables” who were racist, homophobic, xenophobic, and Islamophobic.  He used the moment to wholeheartedly agree, setting his deplorables against her elites.

That gave license and permission to those who held any kind of racist, homophobic, xenophobic, or Islamophobic belief or attitude.  No longer constrained by social mores that kept them in check, they had a champion on their side running for president, and he had won their vote.  The added plus was the creation of a new scapegoat to be blamed for everything, the elites, especially coastal elites, snowflakes, every one of them.

Who were the elites?  Well, Democrats to be sure, but not working class Democrats, only the Democrats who always looked down on working class people.  And educated people who were book smart but lacked common sense and never worked a hard ten hour day under heavy handed supervision.  They had no moral standards, were pro homosexuality, wanted open borders to let anyone in, refused to recognize the Muslim threat to America, and had no respect for the traditions that kept races in their proper places.  And, yes, they mostly lived on the coasts, and in cities with colleges and universities, but not in the Southeast.

It was a cascading sort of thing that created its own reality transcending every assault by facts, demographic studies, op ed columns and popular books: weren’t they all produced by elites?  We continue to live with it, not only because the president uses it with cunning skill, but because Congress has become a place of us against them in which one side must win, the other lose, or both will die, and negotiating with mutual intent to solve problems in ways workable for most is not an option.      

Can all of it be blamed on Trump’s primary debate insults and Clinton’s basket of deplorables speech?  No.  The ground first had to be prepared, and that can be traced in large part to Mitch McConnell’s September 12, 2012 speech where he said,”When I first came into office my number one priority was making sure president Obama is a one-term president.”  It was his intent to see that nothing coming from the Obama administration would ever see the legislative light of day, not even if it had once been a Republican idea.  Other powerful legislators have been as pugnaciously intransigent, but none in recent history has been Senate Majority Leader, the office he assumed in 2015, and under whose authority lay the at will power to allow or disallow legislative progress.  

The strategy McConnell began to hone as Senate Minority Whip back in 2003, would evolve into the take no prisoners and negotiate with no one policy that appears to have become the norm in today’s political environment.  It works by humiliating and marginalizing the other, whoever the other might be, so that they become a dehumanized enemy unworthy of consideration.   As deplorable as it is, it works because it lifts up the worthiness of ‘us’ against the unworthiness of ‘them’ who have always looked down on ‘us’ and had it in for ‘us,’ and now ‘they’ are getting what ‘they deserve.

‘They’ in turn, are incited to be well aware of who the enemy really is, and what must be done about it.  We’ve seen this played out in fiction (1984, Lord of the Flies, etc.), and in the history of the world’s wars.  Most frighteningly, we’ve seen it played out in European fascist populism we thought was defeated 74 years ago.  But here it is again, with a wannabe fascist in the White House, and a skilled enabler heading the Senate.


I don’t know how we get out of this mess, but we must.  Perhaps the voting public will wake up and clear the decks of such as Trump and McConnell.  There are emerging voices from the center-right suggesting movement in that direction.  There are center-left voices expressing hope.  There are public voices who reject that legislative proposals have to be left or right, capitalist or socialist, but can be simply ideas, worthy of consideration, about how to solve real problems.  Some might work, some might not, and something else might emerge out of the legislative process.  

Friday, May 10, 2019

Haters gonna Hate, or must they?

A prolific local writer of letters to the editor makes abundant use of her favorite word: hate.  She’s particularly upset with people who hate Trump and Christianity.  For her, all Liberals are extreme left wingers, secular humanists, motivated by hatred of America, capitalism, freedom, and Jesus.  Along with a multitude of Facebook commentators, she generally slips in “haters gonna hate” as a concluding insult labeling others as emotionally out of control with intensely irrational distaste for a great president.

She echoes Trump’s media representatives who skillfully use the hate mantra  to deflect challenging questions and fact checking observations.  By assuring listeners that opposition to Trump is motivated by nothing more than jealousy and irrational hatred, whatever “haters” say should be dismissed, ignored, swept under the rug.   

They’re not alone.  Conservative friends are adept at shutting down discussion they don’t want to be in by claiming contrary views are nothing but hate for America, patriots, Trump, guns, capitalism, whatever.  Some conservative evangelicals manage to work Jesus into the mix one way or another.  Hate is a multipurpose word that can be laid as the force motivating anyone with whom one disagrees.  It asserts that whatever their disagreement, it’s emotionally irrational, and therefore invalid.  In the words of Mitch McConnell, “Case Closed.”  Would that it were a conservative thing only, but it isn’t.  Hate, being such a useful tool for avoiding authentic conversation, has been creeping into liberal talk as well. 

So what do you think is meant by hate?  Take some time.  Give it some thought.  Then read on.  

Contemporary American English offers hate in many flavors: I hate liver and onions; I hate this weather; I hate my hair.  It’s mild stuff generally meaning to dislike something for a variety of unspecified reasons that could lead to more conversation, but if not it’s OK to drop it and move on.   Hate can also mean an irrational emotion – deeply felt revulsion and condemnation of something or someone.  With roots buried deep in the psyche, it’s an emotion that triggers unrestrained anger, outrage, and a desire to violently punish.  Somewhere in the middle is a kind of hate that represents moral standards offended by injustice, dishonesty, oppression of others, and the like.  Call it righteous indignation, although it can easily become a form of unjustified self righteousness.

It’s in that middle ground where English versions of scripture use hate in more subtle ways.  For the most part, it’s intended to mean something less emotional and more rational as a way to express disowning evil, indeed to have a reasoned aversion toward that which is evil.  Biblical hate rejects that which is opposed to God’s will.  Hate goes along with ‘rebuke’ as a strongly felt but well reasoned censure of that which violates God’s love, and all that God’s love wills.

Unfortunately, people such as our letter writer use scripture’s endorsement of the word to justify their misuse of it, and to do it in the name of Christ.  They manage to twist scripture’s intent to disavow evil by assuming whatever they believe is morally wrong is the same thing that God believes is morally wrong.  It makes their expressions of hatred righteous, even holy.  It entitles them to condemn others on God’s behalf by inserting the word hate wherever they choose, as in “God hates homosexuality.”

A local letter writer is more to be pitied than anything else, but national media personalities can do serious damage to society with their accusations.  They must be called out for it without falling into the trap of mutual hate baiting and name calling.

The rest of us have become far too lazy in our use of hate to mean too many things in too many ways.   It might be good to give it a long rest for a few years.  Instead of hate, take the time and effort to describe feelings and thoughts, and why you’re justified to make them known.  It might lead to less divisiveness.  It will certainly lead to more clarity, and less misunderstanding.  Stop using God to prop up your biases.  It’s presumptuous.  Restrict hate for that which is truly deserving of the word: liver and onions for instance.




   

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Preaching Across the Divide

I just returned from a three day clergy conference with the theme of preaching across the divide.  How can preachers proclaim the gospel with authenticity when the message is corrupted by divisiveness that defines the life of our nation?  It’s divisiveness existing in every congregation, even if well hidden, including in the strongly held beliefs of preachers.  I don’t think the presenters offered an answer, but they got me thinking about the vocabularies used to express strongly held views, and using them to speak about moving in good faith toward collaborative conversation with the other side(s).  In other words, use conservative vocabulary to give value to liberal ideas, and liberal vocabulary to do the same for conservative ideas.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m deeply concerned about right wing extremism that’s infected our national and local communities in ways threatening the future of our democratic republic.  Moreover, I think it’s corrosive of the gospel message that must be our supreme guide and law.  

If preaching across the divide is supposed to show a way to bridge that which divides us, it has to have fluency in the language of those whom it wishes to reach.  That we all speak English is irrelevant because each side of the divide uses its own English vocabulary with its own political meaning.  Extremists have excelled in using mainline conservative vocabulary to extoll conservative values in the service of neofascist aims.  More liberal minded people have exhausted themselves with fact checking and rebuttal arguments to no avail, and must change their tactics.  They need to adapt the mainline conservative vocabulary to illustrate how progressive agendas will preserve and enhance cherished American values. 

Societal divisions are not new, but in years past extremist views, and those who held them, were constrained by unwritten rules of civility tethered to an ideal of “truth, justice and the American way.”  What that was, was never defined, yet was understood to involve people with different views working together solving problems to make life better for all.  Government wasn’t the enemy, but a valued agent helping make good things happen, not perfect, but valued.  It was the great conservative middle ground. 

Those constraints have been lifted in our time, and in a different way from prior episodes, for it’s not the first time right wing extremism has infected the nation.  Consider the Civil War as the prime example.  Decades of Jim Crow is another.  The America First movement supported Hitler’s Nazism.  In the McCarthy era, commies were suspected of hiding under every bed.  The John Birch Society fueled Barry Goldwater’s candidacy.  In all of it, the President of the United States stood, a bit wobbly sometimes, in defense of the best of what truth, justice, and the American way meant.  It gave hope to the good people of the land, encouraged them to suppress their own tendencies toward extremism, and endowed a few with courage to ‘stand tall’ in the face of oppression and injustice.

What about left wing extremism? We had years of anti war and race riots partially tied to left wing extremism.  Always present, left wing provocateurs were never able to move very far beyond the fringe, even when featured on magazine covers.  Americans were, and are, too mainline conservative for them.  Business interests did their best to characterize union activists, social progressives, and New Dealers as left wing extremists, but it didn’t make them so.  Others fighting for racial justice, confronting environmental degradation, exposing oppressive policies, etc., weren’t left wing, but resisting interests tried to make them appear that way.  For the most part, they were pragmatists seeking realistic solutions to real social problems.  Left wing extremism has never been a serious threat to the republic, no matter how loud others scream ‘Socialist.’

The various forces restraining right wing extremism began to unravel with the election of a popular black president in the depths of the “Great Recession.” It was a moment unleashing pent up racism morphing into tea party type movements, abetted by calculating corporate interests, that finally gathered enough momentum to see the election of Donald Trump.  For the first time, we have a president who is an enthusiastic cheerleader for the worst of American right wing extremism.  It’s given them the freedom and authority to flout the rules of civil discourse, and it’s invited everyone else to express their own long repressed prejudices without fear of consequence.  They’ve done it by using the centrist vocabulary of truth, justice, and the American way to give veracity to extremist views.

It’s essential for progressives to adapt a centrist conservative vocabulary to give credence to progressive ideas on how to address pressing social and economic issues, but where to start?

It begins in the pulpit for progressive pastors.  There are few parishioners who want to hear political preaching, and many who are adamant about keeping politics out of the church.  But the gospel is political.  It speaks with God’s authority about right ways in which people are to live together in community.  High standards for justice, equity, political morality, and a bias for the poor and oppressed are at the core of Jesus’ teaching.  Neither conservative nor liberal, in our modern political sense, the gospel message is God’s word, and it is not compatible with left or right wing extremism.  

To preach across the divide is to recognize that the vocabulary of division is alive, well and working in the hearts and minds of each person sitting in the pews, and also in the heart and mind of the preacher.  Preaching across the divide requires judicial use of the vocabulary of those one wants to reach to give credence to a gospel message that may conflict with their secular politics.  You can’t use their vocabulary if you don’t know it.  Knowing it means understanding the cherished values that define for them what truth, justice, and the American way means, and demonstrating for them that the gospel provides a better, more Godly and just way to strengthen those values for more people in more places. 


That kind of progressive Christian preaching is unlikely to change hearts and minds very quickly, but it will create an open path to more genuine conversation.  Moreover, it will help break down the bulwark of gospel flavored political self righteousness that can easily inhabit a preacher’s soul.  

Friday, May 3, 2019

Is Jesus The Only Way of Truth and Life?

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14.6) You have heard these words often, at funerals if nowhere else, but they’re also popular as a bludgeon to declare that only by being a Christian, a certain kind of Christian, can one avoid spending eternity in hell. Some assert that only by accepting Jesus as one’s personal lord and savior, in those formulaic words, can one be assured of being a real Christian.  

On the other hand, the same words are used by skeptics as evidence of the arrogant hubris exhibited by Christians claiming their way is the only way –– religious imperialism at its worst.

Is Christianity the only way to salvation?  It’s a problem, and not just for rank and file Christians.  Many a clergy gathering has pondered how to understand it.  It doesn’t help when more of this part of John’s gospel is read: where Jesus made it clear that he and his Father are one.  If you know Jesus, you know the Father.  It’s a cornerstone of Anglican theology, and it’s tempting to take it as the seal to the argument: Christianity is the only way.  In John, there is no doubt that Jesus is the Word of God made flesh.  As Trinitarians, we boldly assert that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit may be spoken of as three, but they’re nevertheless manifestations of one God, and there is no other God.  When Jesus said he and the Father are one, he meant it.  

How that works is a mystery we have to be willing to live into.  It’s not ours to rationalize, or simplify to make it easily understandable, not that two thousand years of theology hasn’t tried.  All we end up doing when we try is add to the number of rejected heresies.  Although, in fairness, each heresy offers a brief glimpse of a partial truth. So forget about explaining how it works, and focus on this truth: the only way to get to God is through God, and Jesus, as we know God in Jesus, is the face we will meet.  There isn’t any other. 

That’s one thing, but we need to step back a little and separate Jesus from Christianity because Christianity is another thing.  Jesus, whose earthly life was spent as an observant Jew, is not a religion, and he certainly wasn’t a Christian.  Christianity is a religion.  It’s the constellation of creeds, traditions, and rituals through which believers in and followers of Jesus as the Son of God have organized their lives and worship.  It’s what gives structure and meaning to discipleship.

So here’s the conundrum under which we live.

There is only one God, whom we know in Jesus, and it is God in Christ  Jesus who gets to decide who is saved and who is not.  To put it another way, God gets to do what God gets to do, and no one else gets to do it. If I recall, Calvin poked around a bit with that idea.

Christians may be confident they’re following Jesus now and for eternity, but it’s not up to Christians to tell God, or anyone else, who is eligible for salvation.  There is no set of magic words that must be chanted.  There is no ritual that must be enacted.  It is God, and God alone, who decides who is first, and who is last.  

“Jesus, let us in, we’re the ones who preached in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and did many deeds of power in your name.”  

“I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.” So says Jesus in Matthew 7.  So much for Christian hubris.

I have no doubt that everyone, in every place, and every time, will meet Jesus.  Those who hear his voice, and recognize God in it will find an open door.  Is there an expiration date?  Do you have to meet Jesus and recognize him as God incarnate in this church, in this life, to make it into heaven?  Scripture never says so.  During his earthly ministry, it seems Jesus was gloriously inconsistent in whom he healed, restored, or to whom he promised salvation.  If there is an other side to death, why not meet him there for the first time?

Does that mean anything goes?  Of course not.  All humanity is under commandment to love God, love neighbors, and love each other as Christ loves us.  The bar is set high.  It’s not easy to get over.  But the bar of merciful grace is set higher, and we're invited to be lifted over it.


As for me, it is as a Christian, worshiping in the Anglican tradition of the Episcopal Church, that I meet and recognize Jesus as the Son of God, the Word of God made flesh, and through whom I have my life and being, now and for eternity.  Of that I have no doubt.  It is an unshakable faith.  It’s the good news I want to share with everybody in every place, inviting them to begin living now, this day, into their eternal life, not by believing in Jesus, but by following him as disciples.  Christianity is the sure and certain way.  Of that I have no doubt.  Are there other ways?  Of that I am agnostic.  What I know is this: there is nothing that deprives God of saving whom God will save, Christian or not.