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. 

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Rights Talk in Politics & Religion, 'Tis the Season #17

Mary Ann Glendon, who taught law at Harvard before being appointed U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican, wrote an important book called Rights Talk. In America, we talk endlessly about “rights,” and many political arguments are over “rights.” But whose “right” is right? Does the conceived child have a "right to life"? or does the woman have a "right to choose"? Do people have a right to privacy? or do citizens have a right to safety that overrides?

   Glendon has noticed in our “rights talk” a disturbing “starkness, legalistic character, exaggerated absoluteness, hyper-individualism, and a silence with respect to responsibility.” She believes the shrill insistence on rights has ruined democracy and shortchanged citizenship. Flatly asserted, “I have this right!” leaves no room for exploration, no room for give and take. Little wonder debates cannot be resolved and we wind up with gridlock.

   Usually, the notion of “rights” plays out as “my right,” which is pretty different from me defending “your right,” or those who have no “rights” at all. Not only do Americans have countless “rights,” but they curiously have no legal duty to come to the aid of someone in danger. Rights without responsibilities? God turns all this on its ear and lovingly suggests we have no rights, but many responsibilities.

   Instead of “rights,” the Bible speaks of “gifts.” There is no “right to life.” Life is a gift, and this may be the compelling reason we do not have any right to destroy life. I do not have “rights” over my own body; God has those “rights.” My body is a gift of God, an instrument to be used in service to God, a temple of God’s Spirit, not a private domain for me to use as I wish. Christians are given “responsibility” – which is “response-ability.” God has made us able to respond to God’s gifts. Responsible people do not gripe or whine so much as they get involved, they do something. Citizenship is responsibility, and perhaps the Christians could foster a buoyant hope in America life by simply refusing to play the “rights” card and instead lead the way in taking responsibility for the good stewardship of God’s gifts.

   Isn't it freeing to think I am not a fist seizing my rights? but instead I am an open hand, gratefully receiving gifts from a loving God? Rights are about me; gifts are about us. Rights require law; gifts require love. Rights build walls; gifts open doors. Rights I cling to; gifts I share. Rights depend on government; gifts come down from God.

   If we think of life as God’s gift, then the political argument shifts. We might even wind up with a new logic: years ago, Cardinal Bernardin popularized a notion called “the seamless garment of life.” If life is God’s good gift, and we don’t have the right to take another life, then we find ourselves against abortion, against capital punishment, against euthanasia, and against war. Of course, Christians who understand that life isn’t a right but is God’s beautiful gift may devise divergent arguments about how best to be responsible about life as God’s good gift – but at least we will be speaking the same language, and debating on the same terms

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Christians & Politics? It's Complicated - 'Tis the Season #16

So, over the past seven weeks we’ve looked at how to keep your spiritual equilibrium during this political season.  We’ve suggested that God is asking us to fix politics – and then explored some special gifts we have to offer.  We’ve asked what matters in a candidate, and how politics and religion intersect, even in a nation that prides itself on the separation of church and state.

     Now – at last! – we turn to ask what God’s thoughts might be on the big issues of our day, like race, the right to life (or choice), poverty, immigration, marriage, war, guns, and a few others.  I wish it were simple.  Political question #1? Here is a Bible verse that settles it!  Question #2? Another verse.  But no single Bible verse clinches anything.  We read the Bible across a gulf of 2000+ years and on the other side of the world, in a vastly different culture and technological epoch.  The Bible itself exhibits much complexity…

     …which is strangely helpful, as our problems today are complex, and aren’t fixable by easy solutions.  Rome wasn’t built in a day, and the mess we’re in didn’t develop suddenly in the last session of Congress or in a single Supreme Court decision.  Multiple events, cultural drift, a decision that at the time was outstanding, but had unforeseen results hidden inside.  We live in a fallen world, and we are broken, sinful people – the most maddening result of which is we constantly find ourselves having to choose between two unhappy options.  As the people of God, we understand well how healing and change happen only after much discipline, years of reformation, and patient, dogged labor.  Any Christian answer realizes “It’s complicated.”

     Yet another complication, which unravels any easy Christian answer we might devise, is that we live in a country where law is accountable to the Constitution, not the Bible – and the percentage of Christians is shrinking.  So we can’t take something Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount or a paragraph out of one of Paul’s letters and press it into duty as American jurisprudence.

     And one more complication!  Many believers feel called by God to focus on a single issue, and they wind up voting on that one big thing, like abortion, or inclusivity, or war.  I do not fault any Christian whose avocation is to press for one good thing.  But I would ask single-issue voters to have mercy on other Christians who might reflect on the broad spectrum of issues (or even zoom in on a different single issue) and not mutter disgust (“How could a Christian be for that candidate?”).  I like to remind myself and others that God cares about all issues that impact humanity – and we also are not always cognizant of the way what happens in one zone of life impacts another.  You may care about the right to life; but how do issues of poverty, or race compound the desperation or confusion that lead to decisions around life?  How does race factor in to whatever we think about guns, or housing?

     As Christians, we can’t help being idealists – and God would always have us dream of the best conceivable world, even the dawning of God’s kingdom.  We yearn for pristine goodness, and we want to be upright.  But the way there is steep and rocky; patience, humility and prayer are required.  It’s complicated.

     And we can frame our questions and conversations in theologically responsible ways – as we will see on Thursday.

   *** A great skill in this fixing of politics, and being holy, is How to Have a Conversation with Someone You Don’t Know or Don’t Understand – so view my wonderful interview with Molly Barker and a surprise guest. 
     Previous installments of this series are archived here.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Separation of Church & State: 'Tis the Season #15

    With much wisdom and foresight, the founders of America built a “wall of separation” between Church and state. Thomas Jefferson was adamant that the state has no business forcing religion on anybody, and that state-sponsored religion is a bad idea.  I would say the Church was the true winner (if we consider the demise of government-run churches in Europe...)! Garry Wills explains: “Jefferson was trying to save a secular republic from the superstitions of the past, Roger Williams was trying to sequester religion from the interference of earthly rulers."
   Yet something something went haywire with this reasonable separation.  In some ways, religion has been silenced as a moral voice in America. 
 Stephen L. Carter is right: “In our sensible zeal to keep religion from dominating our politics, we have created a culture that presses the religiously faithful to be other than themselves, to act publicly, and privately as well, as though their faith does not matter to them.”  Church and state are separate – but we can have a conversation!  In 1970, the Supreme Court clarified that “Churches, as much as secular bodies and private citizens, have the right of vigorous advocacy of legal and constitutional positions.”
   But something else is even crazier nowadays.  In my experience, when someone chides me for stepping over that line between religion and politics, it is not so much that I have said something “political.”  Rather, I said something that disagrees with or pits Jesus against my critic’s political ideology.  If I say something that agrees with someone listening, they never rise up and denounce me for stepping over the church/state line.
    You see, everything that matters in the real world can be labeled “political,” since we wind up having laws, policies and government programs related to all those things Christians inevitably care about:  because of Jesus, the prophets and apostles, we harbor strong feelings about war and peace, or when life begins, or the plight of the poor, or strangers within our borders, or character, honesty and virtue.  As people of faith, how could we function faithfully as citizens or voters if we had to leave God in a drawer at home or in the pew at Church?
    In my tradition (and as is the law, given the 1954 Johnson amendment regarding church’s tax exempt status!), clergy don’t endorse candidates – although conservative evangelicals do, the African-American churches do, and the Roman Catholics do!  What we must do, during an election year and every year, month and day, is talk about and labor for the things that most clearly matter to God, the campaigns Jesus, the prophets and apostles waged.
    We need to calm down and not get our back up if we hear something biblical and it seems to jam up against our political ideology; we should thank God, and try to see if there is a way to get closer to God, and more engaged in God’s adventure on earth.  We should gravitate toward candidates who mirror Jesus to us more clearly than others, and to policies that enact something resembling the kingdom of God – and we are slackers if we don’t invite others to join us, albeit respectfully, and humbly, and with an open mind that might be changed at any time.
    So if God, and God’s Church, have something to say to the state, to its leaders and its citizens, what might that be?  Next week we will think about how Christians think and talk, and then what they need to say.
 Earlier installments in this series are archived here

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Whose side is God on? 'Tis the Season #14

In America, we have what appears to be an ever-widening divide between conservatives and liberals.  Which side is God on?  Or is there one God’s a little more fond of?
   Again, Abraham Lincoln can help us.  In his 2nd Inaugural, he told the truth about those certain God is on their side: 
Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; each invokes His aid against the other. The prayers of both could not be answered… The Almighty has His own purposes.”  When it comes to how we are to arrange life in this world, even in our fallen, broken state, we know a good bit about God’s purposes.
   But then people who have been at odds with one another, in ways that both are a little bit right and a good bit wrong, have to move forward.  I love Jim Wallis’s idea:  that instead of seeking “common ground,” we move together toward “higher ground.”  It’s not some lowest common denominator that will bring vitality and wholeness to our world.  We need something not yet realized, something better and richer, something transformative, not muddling along, but bold and soaring. 
When Jesus spoke those words Bibles highlight in red (for us who would be Red Letter Christians!), he was taking us way up higher.
   Then there’s this: the Church inevitably plays something of a “contrarian” role in politics.  Life the lifeguard blowing the whistle when swimmers play too far from the shore, the Church issues warnings. When we look at things through the lens of God’s Word and God’s redemptive work in the world, we spot idolatry, we spot what is bogus, we spot what is narrow prejudice.  We notice what feeds and grows the dark side of humanity.  We veer away from whatever does not bring life and wholeness for God’s people.
   When Christianity showed up in the Roman empire, no one said “Ah, so glad the Christians have come to cozy up to us and support our endeavors.  No: the complaint filed against them was that “they are turning the world upside down” (Acts 17). In a world that does not love the Lord Jesus, we will expect to find ourselves at odds with business as usual; we shun a judgmental spirit, but we do not refrain from making judgments. And so, inevitably, like the prophets of Israel, like Jesus, maybe even like your psychoanalyst or cancer doctor, the church stands outside the system, and lovingly tells the truth:  There’s something we see that will be fatal if left untreated.  You’ve got to do something – and we’ll be part of the cure.
   For beyond the critique Christianity can and must offer, our singular responsibility is to be constructive.  The way we may enact positive change isn’t what it might have been in some bygone era.  If there was ever such a thing as a “Christian America,” clearly those days are long gone.  The Church cannot vaunt itself as the big fixer of the world.  If we get anything done, it will be by sitting around the table with others we’ve befriended: different kinds of Christians, Jews, Muslims, other faiths, agnostics, atheists.  We have to be humble, and listen, even as we share.  Mostly we have to live into our beliefs, and put into energetic practice what we know to be in God’s mind and heart.  Then and only then can we be good, trusted, admired partners – and the world will be blessed.

FYI: Earlier installments in this series are archived here.