Sunday, November 27, 2016

A Divided United Methodist Church: How We'll Fail at the Main Thing

     I’ve blogged quite a few times about our fragile United Methodist Church, making the case for, but really just pleading for unity.  I’ve reflected on how our Book of Discipline functions, on why Robert’s Rules of Order create dysfunction in the Body of Christ, on how we relate to fellow members in that Body who think differently.

     I have tried to point out that sexuality, while enormously important, and at the core of what it means to be holy, is not at the center of our theology.  Our cardinal beliefs, which pertain to salvation, are about God, not us – and our sexuality is always a bit broken, fallen, bedeviled by subterranean forces we hardly understand.  I would exit the denomination if it declared Jesus was just a man, or we are saved by works.  But not over a single practice among hundreds.

     Most importantly, I’ve explained how splitting up would be the worst conceivable witness to the unchurched, and to our cynical world.  If we can’t do any better than the division and rancor in our country right now, we prove we have nothing to offer.

     Now, during this hazy time when the Bishops’ Commission has been named, and when all we can do is pray for them, and for ourselves – and as many of us feel gloomier than ever, fearing or even expecting a split, I keep drifting in my mind to utterly practical questions.  Like, if there is the dreaded split right down the middle: What will I be doing for a living and where?  Where will my pastor friends wind up?  What signage will need changing?  What won’t get paid for any longer?  And in a way, the most pressing question of all:  What will become of the church where I am serving?

     Suppose we get the divorce.  One denomination becomes two, a conservative, brooking no deviation from straight or celibate sexuality, and a progressive, allowing and even affirming same gender marriage and LGBTQ ordinations.  What then?  The General Conference sends a memo to me and our board chair, giving us ninety days or six months to select which way we go?

     Our case is pretty interesting, indicative of why there will be more carnage than we anticipate, utterly harrowing and heartbreaking to me and the people I love.  Just the property: our trustees hold, in trust for the conference, massive neo-gothic structures sitting on prime real estate in Charlotte.  Both of the new judicatories would covet the property, and the apportionment income.  Our contributions are a significant percentage of our conference’s income now.  But that amount will shrink drastically for whoever winds up with our facility.
     Because internally we would be forced to make a choice we do not wish or need to make.  We have engaged in the arduous labor our denomination as a whole has never engaged in: a prayerful, thoughtful, respectful conversation on the theology and practice of sexuality.  With broad and strongly felt disagreement on the matter, we have chosen to stay together, to love, and by our very unity to be a witness to the world. 

     And yet we would be compelled to make a choice.  How would that happen?  Is it simply an item on the agenda of the next Administrative Board meeting, and majority wins?  Do we take a congregational vote, with each member getting to cast a ballot?  Would there be campaigning within? Or even from outside groups lobbying to win Myers Park?

     I’ve tried to guesstimate what the tally here would be.  We have 5,200 members.  We treat the children like members, and also the super active adults, especially young adults, who’ve never actually joined.  But let’s leave them out for now.  Of the 5,200 official members, I’d guess 1,600 wouldn’t pay attention or open their mail.  Of the 3,600 left, I’d imagine 1,400 would rally to the progressive side, and about 1,000 would go conservative.  Or maybe it would be roughly a tie.  Or maybe 1,400 to 1,000 the other way.  What would happen to the "losers"?  Of course, the remaining 1,200 would be too disgusted to vote at all.  Our young adults would, quite simply, be done with us.

     Many – several dozen, I'd estimate – would exit and become Southern Baptist, or Episcopalians.  I’d suspect that many more, though, in the hundreds, would just give up on church altogether, if the one they loved and trusted couldn’t do any better than this sorry state of affairs.  And I would not blame one of them.  We’d suddenly have more Sunday School classes, since they’d have to split too.  Families would be divided over which way to go.  A 5,200 member church gutted, with maybe 1,500 left.

     We would quickly have to lay off two thirds of our staff, and hack our mission spending down to a small fraction of what it’s been.  Within months, a clinic in Haiti would shut down, families moving out of homelessness would head back to the streets.  We’d be the laughingstock of Charlotte.  The new conference of the new denomination wouldn’t even be all that glad to have us, as we’d have so little money left to send in.

     Then where would the clergy we’d have to let go wind up?  Not only would the financial decimation reduce the number of pastoral jobs out there.  We would also have a rash of mismatched clergy and congregations.  If congregations get to choose which denomination to go with, I’d imagine the clergy would get to pick too.  At least in my part of the world, and I suspect all across the United States, on average the clergy are far more progressive than their congregations.  In Western North Carolina, for instance, out of 1,000 clergy I’d estimate at least 500 would choose the new progressive institution; but no more than a few dozen churches would do the same.  Where would the clergy work?  And who would pastor the conservative churches?

     I’m not a pessimist by nature.  But I do sense there is considerable naivete about how neatly a split might proceed.  I know those who think that basically the Southeast and the Midwest would overwhelmingly go conservative, and the West and Northeast would go liberal, or there might be a semblance of an urban/rural split, like the one we see now in presidential elections.

     But it’s way more complicated state by state, and even church by church.  The unforeseen ripple effects of a forced division, even in a single parish like mine, would be catastrophic.  A split in United Methodism, beyond the heartache, the lost relationships, and the embarrassment of theological surrender, would create a black hole of practical disaster.  We would be the butt of church humor for the next generation.  And whatever shared mission work we cherish would evaporate. 
     Purists will say you should do the right thing, no matter what the consequences are.  But within our denomination, aren’t we picking one right thing, which isn’t really the main thing, and then by picking that one right thing to be right about, we render ourselves incapable of doing all the other right things that really are the main thing?

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Morning After - 'Tis the Season #30

(This is a blog I wrote several weeks ago, having no idea how it would turn out)

   The election is over. For the Oval Office, one winner, one loser. But neither is a loser. Both are people who offered themselves for public service, and have lived under a microscope, under intense scrutiny, with a schedule that would exhaust the most energetic of us.

   Winning voters are tempted to strut, to gloat; losing voters are tempted to sigh, to rage, to shudder with disgust. This is fine, and serves as an index into the fact that we care, we are invested as citizens, we hold deep beliefs. But the election is over, and we have a new President, and a coterie of other public servants. Do we remain stuck in our giddy delight? Or in our exasperated disappointment? Not as the people of God, not for those who believe we might in some way be "one nation under God."

   George Bush left a handwritten note in the Oval Office for Bill Clinton in January, 1993, saying "I wish you great happiness here... Don't let the critics discourage you or push you off course. You will be our President. Your success now is our country's success. I am rooting hard for you."

   What if God left a letter for us today? God would remind us it is time to be one nation, one people, to throw all our support and hopes behind the democratically elected officials who will lead. The alternative is forever to oppose, to subvert, to grouse... but is the Spirit in us when we do?

   You'll recall that my grandparents, back in
January 1961, took down the photo of President Dwight Eisenhower in their den and replaced it with one of the new President, John Kennedy. They prayed for their President. Imagine if all the people in America who claim to believe in God actually prayed for their leaders? Or spent one-tenth as much time in seeking the heart of God as they do in griping?

   If you believe that the election of Candidate X will be catastrophic, if you think Candidate Y's policies are faulty, then you would be wise to begin to pray, today, that you turn out to be wrong. The morning after an election - and every morning for the believer, prayer is in order.

   And citizenship. We harbor this foolish belief that just one person can change everything. Leadership really matters. But leadership requires active following, not passive spectatorship or hostile criticism. If there has been energy and passion around this year's election, it will have been wasted unless we translate that into consistent citizenship, involvement, each person doing his or her part to work at the problems and hopes before us, every organization - and especially the Church getting engaged with what's going on with compassion, justice, an optimistic spirit, and a dogged zeal.

   So let us conclude by recalling the immortal words of Lincoln, trying to lead a divided nation, and make them our hope, our prayer, our marching orders: "The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes... With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds."

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Not Voting? 'Tis the Season #27

   More than in any election in my lifetime, I’ve heard so many people say “I just can’t vote for Trump or Clinton.”  Mind you, in 2012, 42% of Americans didn’t vote for Obama or Romney! and this figure is always worse in local elections.  Do Christians have an obligation to vote? 

   What we have right now is not that people are too busy or too uncaring to vote.  They are voters; they care deeply – but cannot in good faith pull the lever for someone they loathe.  The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre argued for this kind of ethic: when we are given two bad options, we must choose neither.

   This I understand and feel.  But something about it feels odd, even troubling to me – and for three reasons. (1) None of us has ever, ever voted for an un-flawed human being.  Christians should know well that all of us are broken, fallen, sinful, confused people, with hidden turmoil and a string of botched decisions in our past.  Is there some threshold of “good enough”? and if so, where would you draw it? and if you did, is that line where you happen to be, or are you above or below it?  If I pass judgment on candidates (and in a way, we all must), is there simultaneously a huge log in my own eye?

   (2) Maybe of more interest is this: if I just can’t cast my vote for either person, am I treating my vote as something sacred, or utterly holy?  It is lovely and fitting to think of your vote as a huge deal, not to be squandered lightly.  But is it so sacred, does it have a pristine history of purity, that it can’t be soiled?  Or is my vote my best stab at doing my small part in helping the world to be less woeful than it would be if I withdrew?

   (3) Almost every day, I find myself faced with some choice between bad options, and you do too – so we should be used to it.  Some are little trifles, some are heart-wrenching, but the decisions we make in our working and personal lives, if we step back and ponder them from the perspective Jesus might have, in a fallen and constantly compromised world and culture, are really in that “lesser of two evils” zone.  And you find each day that not to choose really is to choose, because something ugly steps into the vacuum where you were supposed to be.  Not choosing is itself a choice that does impact the outcome.

   But I am not at all sure about these things.  They are just questions that surface in my gut when I think about just not voting at all.  Even if you can’t go for Hillary or Donald, there are other important elections at the state and local levels…

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Guns, Politics & Jesus - 'Tis the Season #26

   When the NRA convention was in Charlotte in 2000, I had an op-ed in The Charlotte Observer that asked “Would Jesus join the NRA?”  I did not answer the question – but as you can imagine, I got hammered with intense criticism; threats were made on my family and on me.  For Christians, I still contend, it’s a pretty important question.  How do we think theologically about guns?  What are God’s feelings about guns?

   Guns loom large in politics in America, with an intensity of feeling rivaling that of questions of who should be able to marry.  There’s something beyond rationality for most in this discussion – that isn’t really a discussion at all.  We shout past one another, or mutter as we turn away from one another.  As we’ve seen earlier in our series, most of the talk is about “rights,” which isn’t a biblical category at all, and only adds to the shrillness in the political arena.

   I cannot begin to prescribe what would be the right legislation or party or candidate on this thorny issue.  But there are a couple of questions I do know the answer to.  One is “What would Jesus do if he were watching TV, and people started shooting at other people?”  Jesus would shudder, and then turn off the TV.  To me, it is entirely clear that a reason we have so many shootings, and so much violence, is because we absorb so much of it over a lifetime.  Seeing shooting doesn’t make me shoot someone, but when shooting is normalized over the general population, we need not be surprised when someone on the edge loses it and starts firing, and no one knows how to settle a conflict except by force.

   The second is this: Would Jesus shoot someone?  I would say No.  If I’m right, this doesn’t settle what public policy should be on guns, as security in a fallen world seems to require the certain even if regrettable deployment of weapons.  But the Christian is rightly moved and humbled by Jesus’ determination to love his enemies, to turn the other cheek, which wasn’t just talk for him but reality.  When he was being arrested, he didn’t fight back; and when his disciples drew weapons to defend him, he said “Put away your swords.” 

   Mind you, Jesus was and is our savior, which involved his suffering; we can’t be saviors.  But can there be a holy, humble way of talking about gun rights?  It was here in Charlotte that Charlton Heston reinvigorated that stern slogan, “I’ll give you my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.”  What got pried from Jesus’ cold, dead hands were nails, driven through the hands that healed and touched the people everybody else was afraid of. Could we at least learn to talk peaceably, and listen charitably on this subject – and to do so in a Christlike manner?

   One of the loveliest men I’ve ever known gave me a gun and took me hunting when I was a young pastor.  He was humble, careful and respectful of guns and people, and wanted no part of adamant, shrill campaigns for guns.  He favored rational changes in gun legislation, and never fretted for one moment any politician would take his hunting rifles away from him.

   I wonder what Jesus might say about compromise on gun issues.  Interestingly, I have a friend who says No compromise ever on guns – but then he is a pro-life advocate who is upset that America is the lone nation with abortion on demand, and we can’t seem to garner support for compromise legislation to limit certain kinds of abortions.  We complain about gridlock in Washington, but then we have our own as people.  Could it be God would be pleased by a bit of give and take on gun laws, and on abortion laws, and on the rest of what politicians and people try to resolve, so we might save a few more lives, and find ways to work together for a safer world for people in cities, and those yet unborn?

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.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Chaos in Charlotte & the Casualty of Truth

    It was on the third day of the chaos in Charlotte that I realized that what had gone up in flames on our streets was truth, or several truths actually.  Standing behind Rev. William Barber at a press conference as he asked for transparency from the police, and for all of us to look squarely in the face of governmental policies and personal attitudes that are blatantly adverse to the African-American community, I got stuck on his words which were first Jesus’ words: “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.”  I wonder if, in order for us to get anywhere with race or justice or anything that matters, we have to dig our way out of the crusty cynicism that has given up on the idea of truth.  No matter how flawed the press or politicians or religious leaders or even we ourselves might be, there is still such a thing as reality.  God not only wants us to know what's true, but has mercifully given us the ability to figure out what happened.  When we do, we’ll begin to walk toward freedom.

     Many of us were distressed with the press right now, and for two good reasons.  The storyline on TV and in the newspaper was this:  “Three thousand people showed up to protest in Charlotte, and although it began peacefully, it grew violent.”  Whites and those who support the police gobble up this storyline, but it is patently false and only feeds false biases.  I was there.  What happened was: Three thousand people, black, white and brown, engaged in an intense but peaceful demonstration that remained peaceful.  Two or three dozen provocateurs jumped into that march, and began throwing rocks, breaking windows, and setting things on fire.  Who was most mortified, and actually terrified by the provocateurs?  The three thousand peaceful demonstrators.  This is what really happened, and the distinction is enormously important to us, and in God’s eyes.
     The press sensationalizes in these instances by showing the guy hurling a metal chair through a window and the teargas looming.  I could fault them, but that’s what the public has a taste for; it’s what we demand – which means we insist upon a very narrow picture of the larger truth.  But there is a larger truth.  I personally was distressed with the paper, as I appeared in a photo standing behind a speaker on a podium who, according to the story, was fomenting the anger that turned the crowd violent.  Of course, he didn’t want violence, and the crowd as a crowd wasn’t violent.  Personally I was chagrined in that I'd been nowhere near that speaker.  The paper had lifted a photo from an event more than three years ago where he and I and others were at an event promoting good education for children.  Naturally I started getting calls from parishioners, either applauding me for supporting him or castigating me for promoting violence.

     Neither of which were true, but when I posted a disclaimer on Facebook, my friends unleashed a torrent of scathing remarks about the press, that they are vile, biased, liars, we can’t trust them.  The worst ravage of postmodernity, and what will be the ruin of Christianity if we are not careful, is this ferocious rage against the idea that events can in fact be accurately reported.  I have many friends who work at my local paper.  They are thoughtful, hardworking, diligent people doing their best to get out complicated stories under the pressure of deadlines.  I posted a rejoinder, explaining that newspapers actually say true things we need to know.  You should even consume news from multiple sources.  Something happened, and you can figure it out.  But the hostile fantasy that you just can’t know leads to the fiction that there is nothing left but ideology, which is nothing but idolatry, and a faith like Christianity that really does hinge on some facts winds up crucified.

     Truth is the casualty when our ideology blinds us to simple facts.  I was quizzed by church members asking me why I was standing behind leaders of the NAACP “who as we know are anti-police.”  At first, I defended myself, saying “It’s important to stand with African-American clergy during these days, doesn’t mean I have to agree with everything they say.”  But I actually did agree with what Rev. Barber had to say.  He named simple facts, like an all-too pervasive anti-black mood in the police force, laws our legislature have passed that are detrimental to the poor, unacknowledged racism.  He denounced violence.  The protesters are angry for reasons that aren’t mere moods.  There are some simple truths, and if the truth will set us free, we can detect it in the exasperation, the frustration and the pain of our brothers and sisters who are black - and we have to find a way forward to change things.  Change is another real thing that can happen. 

    In Charlotte we see how truth really is the foundation of trust.  A huge segment of our community doesn’t trust the police; but another segment swiftly and adamantly supports our police.  There are some basic facts, though.  Our clergy asked officials for transparency.  If evidence isn’t released, if we can’t be trusted to sort through what happened in the shooting, why should trust be returned?  If no policeman is ever prosecuted successfully for wrongful killing, how could there be anything but exasperated rage?  Our police chief is African-American, and his own father was killed under questionable circumstances by a policeman.  Surely he will know that facts matter, and then accountability to those facts will be the only way to trust, and then freedom from distrust.

     Here’s a simple, obvious truth I denied myself.  For three days I have harbored a kind of crushing disappointment in myself.  I’ve moaned things like "Race relations are worse than ever."  "I’ve spent my entire adult life working on racial reconciliation, and here we are."  "All those workshops, community dinners and conversations, friendships with clergy who look different, it was all a chimera, a waste."  I was so forlorn I thought I’d reach out to a couple of friends who would commiserate with me.  One was an African-American pastor I’d phoned the night before near midnight, the other a conservative rabbi in town.  Then truth dawned in my embarrassingly dense skull.  I had their cell numbers, and their love and trust.  I’d whined to my rabbi friend a few years ago saying, "Murray, we’ve been working so hard and so long on this stuff but things are still awful."  He responded, "You’ve got it all wrong.  If we hadn’t been doing all we’ve been doing, things would really be in a much worse mess."

     Lost in the smoke is the truth of a great work God has been doing in my lifetime.  We have actually made great progress on race.  Sure, we have light years to go.  But many of us who follow Jesus have made friends we’d not have had a generation ago.  We know how to stand together, how to support one another, how to be the Body of Christ.  We haven’t perfected the thing, but we’re on our way.  Why should I feel discouraged?  His eye is on the sparrow, and his eye sees we really are making some progress down here.

     It was on the third day that something actually happened, and it got reported.  Those who heard the news were confused, and there was violence to come.  But the truth was out, and the truth then did begin its relentless labor of setting us free.  So call somebody, read the paper, pray, and hope.  God is still God.