Tuesday, October 18, 2016

War in Politics & Religion - 'Tis the Season #25

     When Jesus, God among us, was born, the angels sang “Peace on earth.”  Jesus grew up, and made peace with people who were at odds with one another.  Jesus said “Love your enemies,” and “Turn the other cheek.”  The prophet proclaimed that when the Messiah comes, “they shall beat their swords into plowshares; they shall learn war no more” (Isaiah 2:4).  On the last night of his life, he said “My peace I leave with you.”  Later that night, when his disciples pulled out weapons to defend him, he said “Put away your swords; he who lives by the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52).  Indeed, Jesus is the Prince of Peace.

     Right after the first Iraq war broke out, I saw a panel discussion on the McNeil-Lehrer Newshour.  When asked about God and the war, a famous pastor, and then a famous rabbi said “God is with us; God will be on our side; we trust God will bring us victory,” etc.  The third panelist, Rev. James Forbes, instead of commenting simply read from his Bible – those words Jesus uttered about loving your enemies, and putting away your sword.  The famous pastor literally shouted at him and said “That’s not relevant now; we’re at war!”  To which Forbes responded, “If it’s not relevant now, it’s never relevant.”

     Jesus’ life and death cry for peace is always relevant.  The basic Christian default position will always be against war.  Christian theologians are divided: some say our default position need not require every Christian to be opposed to every war, while others are adamantly and always against waging war.  The follower of Christ is likely to suspect that we get into too many wars for insufficient cause, and for self-indulgent reasons – and we shudder over the way war is glorified excessively.  Sometimes we forget that there are ways to resolve conflicts other than by force.  Some wars have been anointed as “holy war,” but the likelihood is always that it’s an all-too-human war with God pasted on the outside.

     Christians need to ponder how we follow Christ, whose dying passion was peace, in a fallen world where wars happen.  Governments fight wars, not the churches – so how do we as citizens lean toward peace, or toward the kinds of policies and initiatives that might make the world more peaceful? 

     No simple answers present themselves.  But we who follow Jesus never take our eyes off the goal of peace.  We never cheer war, but we grieve with our Lord.  We are the people who resist the glorification of fighting, explosions, and gunning down people in the media.  We are the first to count the cost in human suffering, and unintended consequences.  We are always among those who are intrigued by and by default supportive of creative ways to rethink how we might find peaceful fixes to conflicts. 

     Being for peace does not mean being against soldiers.  We honor soldiers and pray for them; we can be absolutely sure they of all people want peace.  They are the ones who bear the burden when they return home only to discover grossly inadequate programs to help them with post-traumatic stress complications.

     We humbly recognize that while we yearn for peace and refuse to rest until peace dawns, it is not always clear which candidate or which party is more likely to embrace this Christlike ideal, or even how to negotiate international life in an increasingly violent world.  But we are always, always, the peace people.

Immigration in Politics & Religion - 'Tis the Season #24

     Nothing illustrates the inner conflicts Christians might experience, and the brutal truth that we live in a fallen world better, than the question of immigration. On the one hand, we are law and order people; we believe laws are to be obeyed – so all illegal immigrants, on Christian principles, should be sent home immediately, right? “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1).

     But then we are hospitality people too; throughout the Bible we find warm sentiments toward the stranger, the foreigner, the sojourner, the needy – so immigrants, illegal or not, on Christian principles, should be welcomed and cared for, right? “The alien who lives near you shall be to you as the native born; you shall love him as yourself” (Leviticus 19:34) – or think of the way Jesus described the way those who will be saved treat aliens: “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35).  After all, Mary and Joseph, with the child Jesus in tow, were refugees themselves.

     What would the “default” Christian posture on immigration be?  I suspect it is to steer clear of hostile or suspicious attitudes, and if possible to err on the side of hospitality.  But why?  Modern America has something in common with ancient Israel that seems pertinent.  Repeatedly, God told the Israelites, “The stranger shall be to you as the native; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers once” (Leviticus 19:34). “Love the sojourner, for you once were sojourners” (Deuteronomy 10:19); “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you were strangers once” (Exodus 22:21).  Israel entered the Promised Land as immigrants from another place – so God urges them to be kind and welcoming to immigrants.

     America too is a nation of immigrants.  Way back we all came from somewhere.  The records from Ellis Island are free online; I’ve found quite a few Howells there.  While there has always been nagging prejudice against the Irish or Italians or Middle Eastern people and now Hispanics or Arabs, we never evade the eloquence of the poem Emma Lazarus composed for the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, which so many immigrants passed as they arrived on our shores:  Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free… Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”  These thoughts are not only kin to the Bible; back in those days, American thought on many issues was still shaped by the Bible!

     This default mood doesn’t settle policy.  Security certainly matters.  Israel must have had the occasional immigrant who proved to be a criminal.  But the baseline way we look at them, feel about them, and treat them is to be Christlike.  Churches all over the country are engaging in significant ministries of welcome and aid – something that pleases the heart of God.  Conservative evangelicals and mainline progressives are increasingly united in their determination to welcome refugees and press for immigration reform.

     Here’s something that fascinates me:  Bishop Daniel Flores of Texas compares the deportation of immigrants to abortion – believing that in both cases the innocent and vulnerable are exposed to death: “Why is it that one party is blind to the dignity of the unborn child, and one party is blind to the dignity of the immigrant?  Why does one party exalt choice above life, and the other exalt economic power above the good of family life?”

     A consistent Christian ethic that is pro-life will surprise and overturn classic political party alignments.  Could it be that pro-life, pro-immigration, anti-death penalty and anti-guns might fit together more neatly than we could have imagined?

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Politics, Religion & the Heartbreak of Abortion - 'Tis the Season #23

     When it comes to all the political combat in the past 40+ years over abortion, Parker Palmer’s wisdom helps us:  “Rage is simply one of the masks that heartbreak wears.”  The greatest heartbreak must be in God’s own heart.  Down here, good-hearted people struggle to select among society’s options:  we celebrate the gift of life; we also want women to be able to flourish in their working and personal lives; we want to save a woman if a pregnancy endangers her life; we loathe any kind of forced relationship that results in pregnancy.

     My denomination has a hybrid sort of position:  the sanctity of unborn life is affirmed, but also respect for the life of the mother, naming “tragic conflicts that may justify abortion,” hence supporting the legal option, while striving to reduce unintended, unwanted pregnancies.

     One way we who are Christian can help ourselves, and maybe even society, in the battle over abortion is in the way we talk and think about things.  One side speaks of “the right to life,” and the other speaks of “the right to choose,” and also “a woman’s right to have control over her own body.”  On September 22, my Politics & Religion blog explained how in Christian theology, we don’t think of “rights” of any kind.  There is no “right to life.”  Life is a gift from God, which is the best conceivable reason not to take life.  There is no “right to choose,” or a “right to control my own body.”  My body belongs to God, so I am responsible to use it in holy ways, pleasing to God.

     So before we pick a political posture, as Christians thinking theologically, we have a default mode on questions of abortion.  First, inevitably, we always affirm life as God’s good gift.  Of all God’s bountiful, marvelous gifts, the coming to be of human life is the most fabulous, the most vulnerable, and thus the most worthy of treasuring.  God grieves the loss of any life, however nascent.  God most certainly is for life.  You have to admire Mother Teresa's opposition to abortion.  Not condemning anyone, she and her sisters valued life so highly they said "Give us your child; we will raise your child."

     And second, as Christians, we still lift up a gold standard most have tossed aside – that the consummation of intimate relations is to be reserved for marriage.  People will scoff, and we in the church fully understand the realities of physical activity, and even the need to be sure protections are in place.  And yet, the most private, beautiful, vulnerable and frankly powerful part of each one of us is the body; careful, holy stewardship of that body is still God’s will for us.  How odd is it that email filters are so terribly sensitive about the word that begins with an s and ends with an x that if I type that word my email won't get through – and yet our culture everywhere trivializes, degrades, and commercializes that which begins with s and ends with x?  Have we lifted up the sheer goodness of abstinence and the delights of holy intimacy? Or have we let televisions dump moral sewage into our dens and winked or gawked at provocative clothing – then turned around and condemned abortion?

     Earlier in this series I’ve cited John Danforth’s wisdom, that sometimes when we want change in society, we think it’s about electing the right President or changing Congress or getting more Supreme Court seats.  But real change must come from within the people; change in mores of what we do in private will only come if we as the people are converted to a more splendid perspective and holier habits regarding our bodies.  Such a change, as laughably far off as it may seem, begins in Church.

     And we never forget the heartbreak, the numbing news, the way your life story turns on its axis in a moment, the guilt, career struggle, hidden grief, untold wounds.  “There is no condemnation in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).  God is all mercy.  We who are the Church are the mercy people.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Race & Politics: 'Tis the Season #22

   A question many Americans will argue over is whether race should be “politicized.”  In ways we may not realize, race is and always has been a profoundly political thing – and Christianity does have and always has had an illuminating, true and helpful theological viewpoint on race.  Whether it’s gerrymandering (in a liberal or a conservative direction), education or poverty policy, voting rights, or police and national security challenges, race matters.

   And race matters to God – who created us humans in precisely this way, evidently delighting in the variety of people on earth, and no doubt dreaming race would provide us with a special way to learn to love one another and see God’s image in everyone.  God could have made everybody white, or brown, so we’d all favor one another; but God let creation unfold so we’d have a dizzying spectrum of people – not so we’d dislike or distrust one another, but so we would love.

   Last February, during a great public conversation I had with Dr. Shannon Sullivan on “white privilege,” something dawned on me. Christian theology helps us realize what we do not realize about ourselves (that we are beneficiaries of God’s goodness in ways we never noticed, and also that we have sins we aren’t aware of that riddle our souls) – and so does the current race conversation!  We white people don’t see the privileges we get just for being white, and despite our good intentions, nagging traces of racist attitudes lurk inside us.

   For American Christians to think faithfully about any political issues related to race, we need to deal with what lurks inside us in healthier ways – both whites and non-whites!  Our stories matter, and listening to the stories of others matters even more.  White people may not be able to fathom the pain or anger in the black community.  But we can listen to real people, ask how they feel and why, and refrain from judging.  White Christians have good biblical cause to give the benefit of the doubt to the person of color, the one whose history has been far, far tougher than our own.

   Still, in 2016, there are policies that are detrimental to minority communities, not to mention implicit bias and lingering habits of racial profiling and judgment.  Christians notice, and they care.  As Christians, we can’t say definitively which party or which policy will in fact create a more productive climate for everyone, not just us – but we have to care, and we have to cheer for what lifts up our neighbor – the one we don’t know yet, but hope to.

   “Black lives matter” has become a controversial slogan.  The Bible most definitely would say “All lives matter,” but Scripture always has this bias, this special pleading for the stranger, the outcast, the one who’s been disadvantaged.  The Bible’s constant vision is not about me getting stuff I want, but a robust sharing and a radical inclusion of every person in God’s blessing.  Politics wields so much power on the quality of life; Christian political engagement dares us to labor for justice.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Politics & the Poor - 'Tis the Season #20

Shortly before his crucifixion, Jesus said “The poor will always be with you” (Mark 14:7).  He wasn’t saying Therefore ignore them, or There’s nothing you can do, or Blame them.  He was quoting Deuteronomy 15, where Moses clarifies that our work to care for the poor is a constant responsibility, never to be shirked.
    Poverty can be politicized, but in God’s mind and heart, poverty is a profoundly theological and moral issue.  In Old Testament times, and certainly since Jesus came along, God’s people have an absolute obligation to care about and for the poor.  We love Jesus by loving the poor (Matthew 25)!  Voting, for followers of Jesus, cannot be reduced to Who will fatten my pocketbook?  We hold in our hearts those who have no advocate, who cling to the bottom rungs of the economic ladder, children without means – and we strive for a politics that will lift them up and empower them.
    Of course, we’ve been warned about “toxic charity,” how many programs designed to help the poor don’t, or actually serve the well-off – or harm the poor.  But no glitch in a given effort to help the poor to flourish absolves us of the responsibility to be relentless in our passion to care, share, sacrifice, get engaged, and befriend.

    Mind you, knowing and abiding by this biblical mandate doesn’t settle which candidate or which party might actually achieve the most for the disenfranchised.  But as Christians, we lean toward those who care.  I love what John Kasich said during his ill-fated campaign for the Republican nomination: “When we arrive in heaven, St. Peter won’t ask if we kept government small or toed the party line; but he will ask What have you done for the poor?"
    I do not know precisely what role government should play; who really does?  Many argue that care for the poor should be handled by the private sector.  As one who leads in that private sector, I am sure of this:  once upon a time, in little rural towns, the private sector could and did care for those in need.  But in a post-industrial, massively urban society, for churches to pick up the slack, church members would need to quadruple or hundredtuple their giving for us to do what needs doing.  The best, most zealous efforts of both private and public sectors will be required to change our society and the ways in which poor children don’t get adequate nutrition or a decent education – and more. 
    In the Bible, this is a matter of Justice.  The Hebrew word we translate “justice,” mishpat, doesn’t mean the good are rewarded and the wicked punished.  No, biblical “justice” is when the poorest, those left out, the strangers and forlorn, are cared for, included, and enabled to flourish.  A just society grieves any single person who’s disenfranchised; an unjust society blames the needy or lives self-indulgently while leaving the needy to fend for themselves.  Do we want to shape an American culture that is more biblically just? Or unjust?

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Who Cares What the Church Stands For? - 'Tis the Season #19

     I have just completed two terms on my denomination’s General Board of Church & Society, our agency that strives to implement our Social Principles, through lobbying, advocacy, boycotts, and mission endeavors.  I am proud that our denomination cares enough about the realities of the world that we have an office in Washington, D.C., along with staffers and activists who do what they can to press for what they believe is God’s agenda in the real world.

     At the same time, we miss the mark now and then, and we forget what church “stands” can and cannot do.  Again I’ll turn to former Republican Senator John Danforth, who dreams of a church making a difference in every aspect of life – and yet he keeps us humble, reminding us that even if a whole denomination stakes itself out on a moral issue, that denomination isn’t 100% unified on it, and we are only a tiny fraction of the population.  Who cares what the Methodists or Lutherans think?  Is anyone listening in Washington, or the state capitol, or in Palestine or the Sudan.

     Sometimes we venture into zones where we simply have no expertise.  If the church or an individual Christian feels inclined to speak God’s word to housing or education or immigration or finance, we’d best study up on the issue and even better talk to somebody on the inside before we challenge anybody.

     And yet, even if nobody much is listening, and even if we don’t know all we need to know, as God’s people we stand up and speak, humbly, compassionately, but surely.  Maybe it’s not effective; but Vaclav Havel reminded us that “Hope is the ability to work for something simply because it is good, whether it stands a chance of succeeding or not.”  Jesus spoke, and wound up abandoned and on a cross.

     A fair test of the holiness of any Christian moral campaign was voiced by Jim Wallis:  “When the voice of God is invoked on behalf of those who have no voice, it is time to listen.  But when the name of God is used to benefit the interests of those who are speaking, it  is time to be very careful.”  Should we speak up only for ourselves, or battle for those who already have enough? or for God’s children who have no resources, and no one to stand with them?

     Danforth prods us from a different angle. As an Episcopalian, he observes his General Convention advancing positions on public policies.  They speak “many words about the responsibility of government,” but then they say “little to nothing about the responsibilities of the people, including its own members.”  Ouch.  A church that dares to be relevant, to bring God’s Word to life in the thick of the real issues of the world, had better be careful not just to talk about what somebody else ought to do differently.  We begin, and continue, with our own labor to change what we can.

     Mother Teresa was a staunch foe of abortion – but whenever she spoke of the importance of protecting the unborn life, she always added, “Give us the child.”  She and her Sisters of Charity were poised, always, to care for the life they said mattered.

     As we move into October, I want to try to say something about Christianity and how God asks us to think about race, life, immigration, marriage, guns, and a few other things – and in each instance reflecting on what God is simultaneously asking us to do.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Debates - 'Tis the Season #18

Tonight we will try to watch and absorb the first Clinton-Trump debate (or perhaps you feel you just can’t bear to watch).  When I was in 8th grade I joined a debate team, and there were pretty clear, reasonable rules regarding how to proceed, how rational arguments were to be presented and weighed, heard, and assessed – and oh my, how different the presidential debates (which have become utterly un-presidential…) have become.

   I have a fantasy – that once in my life, during such a televised debate, one candidate will make a good point, and the opponent will say “Hmm, good point, I need to rethink my position.”  Political suicide?  This is what we need, and maybe even crave.  For a debate shouldn’t be about crushing the opponent, or embarrassing your foe, or being more smart alecky than the other guy.  A debate should be like a classroom of eager students, guided by a wise teacher, sorting through various ideas, diligently pursuing truth.
     If the debates are disappointing to you, if the debates are little more than a sideshow of barbs, insults and gotchas, it may be because we ourselves do not know how to debate ideas that matter.  Jean Bethke Elshtain wrote that the virtue of a democracy ought to be that we can disagree and not have to kill one another.  We have forgotten how to disagree, and how even to learn and grow from the disagreement.
     The idea of debate, for us, should be a sought-after opportunity to learn, not how my foe is stupid, but where I’ve missed the boat.  I wonder if we were all to hone our own debating skills, our ability to listen, suggest, reiterate, and resolve, we might in a couple of decades have more intelligent presidential debates.  Christopher Lasch wisely told us that “It is only by subjecting our preferences to the test of debate that we come to understand what we know and what we still need to learn. Until we have to defend our opinions in public, they remain half-formed convictions based on random impressions and unexamined assumptions."
     Christians, of all people, have good cause to be humble, to acknowledge we don’t have it all figured out, that we have probably thought wrongly and self-indulgently and not very broadly on issues that matter.  So every opportunity to receive critique, to hear other viewpoints, to broaden our perspective, are welcomed, and even pursued zealously.
     So watch the debates, if you can.  Believe you and I can and will do better.  Trust that an honest, humble, passionate exchange of ideas is something that would be productive within a democracy, and even pleasing to Jesus.