Friday, January 13, 2017

Strangers and Aliens

Deuteronomy 10: 19 You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Leviticus 19:34 The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.
(NRSV)


From: www.freebibleimages.com

See this article:  Jeff Sessions got it right on immigrants and the Bible. It has been circulating around social media, and it has caused quite a stir. 

The basic argument of James K. Hoffmeier is that "social justice advocates" often employ a simplistic read of the Old Testament when they use it to advocate for amnesty for undocumented immigrants.

"Strangers" and "aliens" were not broad terms referring to just anybody who happens to wander into a foreign land, Hoffmeier argues, but rather people with varying levels of permission to be there.

Hoffmeier writes: "I would argue that if one wants to apply biblical passages ... to our context, green card holders would better correspond. They need protections so as not to be abused and exploited as we have unfortunately seen. Old Testament law simply does not address how people in the U.S. illegally should be treated."

He may be right in the Hebrew language translation, I don't know. I support all efforts to employ good scholarship and make sure we are reading as accurately as possible. But using his own argument, he is wrong on at least two points.

The first: Is he actually suggesting that those without a green card should be abused and exploited? Abuse and exploitation are never appropriate actions, regardless of whether the Old Testament fails to mention them or not. The argument that legal status is the determining factor for protections from abuse and exploitation is morally empty by any standard. People do not void their human rights just because of their legal status. That's why they are called "rights." They don't go away just because they are in an awkward situation.

For example, if a cop pulls you over for speeding, the fact that you broke the law does not mean that it's a free-for-all and the cop can suddenly do whatever he wants to do. Absolutely not. You have a fracture in your relationship with the state that needs to be addressed, but all your other rights remain intact. The only issue between you and the state is whatever specifically relates to your speeding. The cop cannot rape you, take your money or attack you just because of speeding. The same is true for immigration status.

Second point: The main premise of Hoffmeier is that "green card holder" is the closest modern equivalent of the aliens and strangers mentioned in these texts. I would argue that green card holder is not inclusive of all the immigrants in question. Instead of an "alien" being compared to a green card holder, the alien could also be compared to a refugee. Green card holders often have the means to live comfortably and safely in their home country. Some are refugees, some are not. Refugees specifically come because they are fleeing a hostile situation. Refugee is a necessary category (along with green card holder) to describe these sanctioned aliens, because of the next point:

There are two kinds of refugees. The first are those approved and brought over by the State Department. The second are those who should be considered refugees but due to political games are not. Most undocumented immigrants in America meet the moral definition of refugee. They may not be sanctioned by the state, but they are sanctioned by God. Many of them are not "officially" declared by the US government as refugee, but that is a sin on us, not them. They meet the qualifications. Many are fleeing violence, war or life-threatening poverty, much of it brought on by the actions of our own country. They should be welcomed in our land with full rights. The fact that they are not is OUR sin, not theirs.

Hoffmeier used the example of Jacob. Due to a drought, Jacob's family fled to Egypt. They got the permission of the Pharaoh to do this. That's wonderful. However, what would Jacob's family have done if the Pharaoh did not grant this permission and give the equivalent of a "green card"? They would be faced with a tough choiceeither watch their family and flocks die in the drought or escape into Egypt without permission. Every responsible father would do the right thing and break a law instead of watch his family die. You would do it. I would do it. And we would be called heroes, not criminals. This more accurately captures the situation of undocumented immigrants in the USA today. If the Pharaoh (i.e. US government) does not grant permission, the one who commits the sin is NOT the undocumented immigrant trying to feed his familythe one who commits the sin is the one who denies permission.

The Scripture quotes at the top of this post tell us to treat the stranger as we were treated in Egypt.  What happened in Egypt? We were in a desperate situation and needed to escape a drought. The Pharaoh welcomed us. Our job, according to Scripture, is not to differentiate between those who are welcomed legally and those who are notrather, our job is to do the welcoming and grant legal permission to those who need it.

The term green card holder is helpful, but it is not inclusive of all the people and situations that Scripture is describing.

We are to treat people as we were treated in Egypt. How we were treated there? We were welcomed.  Hoffmeier starts his definition after the welcoming had already happened. It seems to me that the decision to do the welcoming is an integral part of the moral decision that Scripture is describing.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

What's on TV Tonight?

A scene depicting an American heartland barn dance
by William Medcalf

I didn't intend to write a series on smart phones and social media. This is a blog about spirituality, religious harmony and related topics, after all. I try to keep on topic. However, given the tumultuous 2016 presidential election, many people have been rethinking how we use these new technologies. Does it serve our faith life? Does it improve our culture and society? Is this really the best way to evangelize? One thing led to another.

I stumbled upon some thoughts that have been sitting with me a long time. 

It's tragically ironic when older folks criticize young people for using smart phones and social media. It was precisely those older folks--the World War II generation and the baby boomers--who gave us the television.

I don't want to get into a battle between the generations, but I can't let this one go.

Absolutely nothing in human history has lulled more people into a lifestyle of blatant passivity than the television. Probably nothing else has eroded the foundational interactions of community itself more than the TV. Smart phones and social media are actually an attempt to re-discover community and reclaim an active role in our own lives. They come with their own problems, for certain, but they are an attempt to recover what our culture has lost. 

Compared with TV, when I surf Facebook I'm actually communicating with other human beings directly. I'm debating and interacting. This includes geographically distant family and friends. I have access to all sorts of independent news and opinion sources. Yes, the rise of "fake news" is a problem, and choosing social media instead of interacting with the people physically adjacent to us is problematic, but the Enquirer was in print and the TV embedded in every western home long before the internet came along.

I found parallel thoughts when reading How Did We Get Into This Mess? by George Monbiot. To paraphrase one of my favorite contemporary authors: The last few generations have had more free time and recreational income than perhaps any other people in human history. Yet, we squander our lives passively watching others live their lives on a flashing box in our living rooms. 

I will challenge Monbiot by saying that watching other humans is nothing new. Humans have been acting out skits, performing theater and sharing story narratives since the tribal days. But at least in those older forms, presenters and audience members had more active roles compared with a TV viewers. The TV is categorically different than tribal kids acting out a skit they made, but it does feed a similar need to interpret and observe human drama as it unfolds.

If you ask people what did human beings do before the invention of the television, most will stare at you blankly. Few people have any idea. It should scare the living daylights out of us that we can't answer this question very easily. The fact that it doesn't scare us should alarm us even more. The rise of the TV is perhaps the most quiet revolution ever but perhaps the most destructive.

Yet, the human race has existed for thousands and thousands of years. The television has only been a mainstay in our culture for less than 75 years, and yet we have completely lost all ability to imagine life without it. We have also lost the ability to function with it, too, as it is a very passive activity that erodes our very functioning--the fact that we don't even know what people did before it is a testament to its destructive influence. 

People played sports. They talked. They make their own fun. They planned events, knew their neighbors and got invested in hobbies. Small towns would organize dances and shows. People sat on porches and chatted with neighbors as they walked by. Families sang together. They played parlor games. Kids probably got into all sorts of mischief. People knew how to be social in a way that we no longer do.

The TV doesn't have to get in the way of this. Families can use the TV as a focal point to gather together in one room and talk, read and play games while the glowing box is playing. But far too often, TV has been a replacement for human interaction rather than a stimulus for it. Like any technology, on the surface, it seems like it's neither good nor evil, it's more about how you use it. But I don't think it's completely innocent, either: The TV can help community, but more often than not, is makes it difficult for that to happen.

Just like smart phones and social media, the TV is not going away anytime soon. I'd love to issue a rallying cry of "blow up your TV!" but I'm far too cynical that this is a realistic scenario to hope for. The TV is probably not going away, so we best learn to live with it. But since this is indeed a blog about Christian hope, let me dig deep and say we must hope against hope, even for things that seem impossible. 

But let's not be so quick to attack the newer technologies that give users a more active role, because TV has probably been rock bottom when it comes to active community interaction. Maybe, just maybe, smart phones and social media represent some of our first steps out of the pit we've been in and not a step further down.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

To Tweet or Not To Tweet?

Opensource.com/Flickr, CC BY-SA

You may be wondering why a blog dedicated to exploring spiritual and religious issues would be spending time talking about social media. This is my second installment on the topic, so far.

The 2016 US Presidential election was fought on a new battlefield:  Social media. A lot of folks are asking ourselves if this was really such a good idea. Should we "get back" to news sources we all share in common with more in-person dialogue in between?

We have more open, more vigorous debates than ever before on social media. But people do a fine job of creating the perfect little echo chambers for themselves. People will cancel, un-friend or un-like pages and posts they disagree with. They are quickly left hearing only what they already believe. If you have a contrary idea, you can spread it all around the world, but you can't get it in front the people on the "other side" of the issue--even if those people literally live next door or work in an adjacent cubicle.

Did social media change the outcome of the election? There's reason to believe that we are simply playing out the hand we were dealt a long time ago. By that perspective, social media didn't radically change the outcome. However, political parties know we are isolated in our personal echo chambers, and they use this to manipulate people. This could be having an impact.

Many of us are feeling the need for a collective pause. Maybe we need to reconsider how we use social media and not lose sight of in-person, local interactions. We might benefit from checks and balances to prevent echo chambers.

I am glad we are asking ourselves these questions.

Invention of Writing


Imagine the controversy that must have erupted when writing itself was invented!

I'm sure there were many young writers heckled, insulted and laughed at for this strange new invention. Why write something down when you can actually go and talk to someone in person? I can imagine the heated debates. Writing must have seemed so subversive, secretive and passive-aggressive when it first appeared. Tribal elders probably wanted people to sit together, look each other in the eye and say what they had to say. This new "writing" invention seemed to betray the very fundamental way that human society operated. 

Today, we all regard writing as a cornerstone of civilization. It's one of the greatest inventions of all time, perhaps second only to language itself. But I imagine there was a tumultuous period of adjustment as writing entered the human experience.

Everything we say about social media can be said about writing--it expands the reach of who we can communicate with, but it also creates enormous distances between people. It bridges distances and creates new ones. Yes, there are differences--major differences. But there are also similarities.

I grew up with my grandparents next door and my cousins at the next house down. Today, those cousins are scattered across several states. Social media allows me to stay in touch with them. Through Facebook life updates, memes, jokes, stories and news article shares, we can have an ongoing role in each other's lives. It is not the same as living next door. We can't just drop in on each other in the afternoon, pull out some lawn chairs, pop open some drinks and talk. On the flip side, we can share in-depth testimonies and views that we wouldn't share at a Sunday picnic. If we are going to live so far apart geographically, then social media helps bridge that gap.

In the final wash, internet communication is probably like any other form of communication--it has positives and downsides. It creates new opportunities and limits others. It's going to require a big shift in how we organize ourselves as a society.  But we also have to admit that it's not going away.  Because of that, it's well worth the time to take a pause and reconsider how we use it and see if there are any adjustments we can make so that it serves our lives better.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Community Died Long Before Smartphones





 
Baby boomers and older are quick to claim that smartphones and social media are killing off interpersonal interactions. They waste no opportunity to criticize.

Younger generations might say that smart phones and social media are giving us a community we never had.

Vibrant, local communities with lots of interpersonal interaction--always a mainstay in human culture--died in America long before smartphones and social media.
 
When my mom was growing up, kids played freely in the neighborhood and families sat on front porches and talked. It would take my grandmother all afternoon just to walk a couple blocks to the local store, because she would stop and talk with folks on their porches the whole way there and back.

My parents could "remember a time" when folks lived like that. Gen X and younger have never known that time. My generation has been starved for community and has been working overdrive to rediscover it. Folks are reclaiming walkable urban areas, experimenting with intentional living arrangements and building tiny houses. There are all manner of efforts afoot.

When my grandparents were young, it was customary to spend weekends going to dances with live bands. Today, many young people are locked in the loneliness of their homes watching Dancing with the Stars. This changed long before smart phones and social media.

Television, air conditioning and other technological "advances" have destroyed community. People willingly imprison themselves in their own homes, not talking to (or even knowing) their neighbors, each person engaged in her or his own private form of entertainment. People would rather buy their own books than use public libraries. They would rather build and maintain their own private swimming pool than use a community pool. A home owner will purchase his own lawnmower, even though he'll use it at most one hour each week in the summer. Having anything at all shared in common elicits a response of revulsion from most Americans.
 
My grandparents were farmers in Ohio. They lived near other farmers. No single family owned all the necessary farming equipment. A group of families shared with each other and had to (gasp!) communicate so that it could be properly scheduled and maintained. Each piece of equipment was needed for only a small window of time each year, so each item could be rotated between them as needed.

I drive a lot through the South. Almost every house is decked out with a ginormous, wide-open porch--some porches have almost as much square footage as the adjoining house itself. Yet, I have never seen a single person actually using any of them. At one time, people depended on porches to survive blisteringly hot summer days and for community interaction. Those porches were abandoned long before smartphones and social media.

I was at a Cracker Barrel restaurant with my family this past summer.  It was a scortchingly hot day.  It was almost unbearable directly under the sun in the parking lot. On the way out, we decided to occupy a row of rocking chairs on the spacious porch. With a gentle breeze, it was quite nice. We could have sat out there all day talking without being the least bit uncomfortable. It's not that A/C hassaved us, it's that we forgot how to survive without it.

You can complain that young kids are constantly attached to their smart phones. But you might be better served asking why their lives are so deprived of human interaction that they have been sucked into the internet so strongly. Drive through most US suburbs, cities and small towns, you won't see kids playing in the yards, families talking on porches or town folk gathering for public entertainment. This is completely antithetical to how humans have always lived. Children grow up desperately lonely and disconnected from others. Along comes the internet and suddenly they can be plugged in to people all over. Can we blame them? Then yes, over time, they lose (or never develop) the skills at interpersonal interaction.
 
If you never practice interpersonal socializing, then you don't develop the skill. My grandparents on both sides could strike up a conversation with anyone, anywhere. Yet, I rarely talk to strangers when I'm out in public. However, when spending significant time with my extended family, I find myself getting into this mode, and it feels good.  It is something that is natural to humans, but it has to be practiced to be maintained. I suspect that people today reach for smartphones and social media to fill a void, and then once there they lose the ability to interact with those around them. It then becomes a downward spiral and we move further and further away from what we most desperately need.

I remember when the power went out for several days after a storm. Folks emerged from their houses and began talking over backyard fences. They shared ideas and helped each other out. Their TVs were out cold and they were hungry for human interaction. The first fledgling attempts at neighborliness were budding, and we pledged to keep it going long into the future. However, when the power came back on, these efforts died out quickly and never returned. This was long before social media and smart phones.
 
If we are going to reclaim interpersonal community interactions, we have to go back a lot further than smart phones and social media. Instead do what people have long advocated for:  Throw out the TV and other technological "advances" that coax us into being so isolated.  Smartphones and social media addiction is perhaps not the cause of isolation, but perhaps a symptom in response to it.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Holy Silence in the Wake of the US Election



Count me among those who don't know what to say after the recent US presidential election.

Despite my best efforts, I've been consistently unable to put thought and word together on this blog for the past month.

I don't think I'm alone. Participation in the social media platforms I manage has changed dramatically since the election. Drop-offs in likes, comments and overall views has been extraordinary, especially for any post that is even remotely political. Posts that would have predictably gotten hundreds of "likes" a month ago are now getting responses in the single-digits. (By contrast, I shared an article about the Peanuts cartoon and got a tremendous 72 shares, without any marketing effort expended.) It's too early to tell if this reflects a need for rest, a pause out of uncertainty or simply shock. The entire election cycle rocked this nation to the core--even those with diverse political views can probably agree on this.

Activist and pundit websites still seem pretty active, but something has changed for the rest of us. It's like a hush has fallen over the land. A pregnant pause, perhaps, but a pause nonetheless.

I participated in countless discussions online over the course of the election. I've seen articles and internet memes shared of every tone and timbre. I wrote my fair share. It's easy to wonder if all that effort was wasted. One outcome certainly doesn't mean all effort was wasted--those of us who work for social change know that the struggle requires ongoing, consistent effort--but I would be remiss not to wonder if all the internet chatter were more part of the problem than solution. We may need something else.

Maybe a chain of events is simply unfolding, following a predictable trajectory, of something put in motion a long time ago. The state of the union may be the inevitable result of  years of big money in politics, disenfranchisement of the people, a media that is more propaganda than news and a lack of any reliable checks and balances in government. It is like all norms and standards have been chucked out the proverbial window.

History has shown time and again that in prolonged periods of economic distress, people are vulnerable to the lure of an authoritarian demagogue who promises to make everything great again.  As if it were so easy. The alternative of "business as usual" doesn't capture the imagination of the people, either, but the system is all too resistant to substantial change. Like an addict out of control, the system may have to regrettably hit rock before it realizes it has a problem and has the will to do anything about it.

We've all heard the Trump/Clinton/Sanders debates ad nauseam. There's no need to rehash them here. When a system is vulnerable, it doesn't take very long for people to come along to exploit those vulnerabilities. People are often surprised by what they see in Trump and his behavior, because almost daily he makes statements any one of which would predictably end the political career of anyone else in normal times. But these are not normal times. Despite that, a very good case can be made that it's simply an extension--and exaggeration--of what has already been going on for years. The tree which has been nurtured is simply bearing its fruit.

It is dismal--but in some ways reassuring--to realize we may be entering a dark time. But this "dark night of the soul" can be at time of cleansing and renewal, as some writers have pointed out.  That is encouraging, even though "cleansing and renewal" on the stage of world politics usually mean death and destruction for multitudes before the ship rights itself again.  All shall be well.  Eventually. We are reminded of this Holy Good News. But tell that to the people of Aleppo today, if you can find any still alive, to share the news with. Finding hope in the dark night is definitely a long-range proposal.

Silence


Perhaps the reason it has been difficult to write is because silence is the only coherent response. By no means do I mean to suggest that silence equals inaction. The central Christian call to love one another requires bold, stark action--eventually. But almost all religious traditions of the world affirm a fundamental need to tune into silence, to take a pause and stop the chatter of the mind. We all instinctively know this.

Silence is the proper stance to take in the early moments of December 25th, when the long-awaited Emmanuel comes to us. That holy night is, after all, a silent night.

It is in that silence that God speaks best. God speaks his Word out of silence and all Creation unfolds. God speaks on that Silent Night when human and divine are birthed together. 

When I drive through the majestic mountains of western North Carolina, I just know in my bones to be quiet. I don't just fall silent--I shut the hell up. It's not a conscious decision. As the mountains get bigger as I journey deeper into the Smokies, it becomes abundantly clear to just be quiet. Whether I'm listening to music or engaged in conversation, there comes a point when it all stops as a matter of course. It doesn't feel like a request as much of a command. The mountains simply demand that kind of respect. Anyone who has ever been in the mountains knows this. If you absolutely must speak, you instinctively know to do it in a hushed whisper.

When confronting unspeakable horrors, like visiting a former Concentration camp, many people find there are no words. In the face of either awesome majesty or incomprehensible tragedy, there is something in us that knows that silence is the only appropriate stance.

When things fall apart, we get a clear message: Something is wrong. Perhaps we ignored the warning signs and best practices or were simply caught off guard. The house was either built with faulty materials or on a foundation of sand. We know this by the simple truth that is no longer stands. We then retreat back to the space where we know everything still makes sense. It's a system reboot to the last point in time when everything was okay. In extreme times, that requires us to go as far back as we can possibly go. That point--the alpha and the omega (or at least as close as we can get to it)--is silence.

Silence is the place of transformation. It is the place of ultimate humility. It is the place of admission that we simply do no have the answers and need to go to the ultimate Source, the Wellspring of all that is Good. We realize we need to listen, and listen deeply, before we dare start speaking again.

I don't despise the human condition. Human chatter is as much a part of the unfolding of Creation as birds singing in nature or the peaceful splatter of a waterfall. But we all know the propensity of humans to fantasize that we are somehow separate or superior to what God has created. In order to grow into the people we are built to be, we have to learn how to set aside this pride--this ego--this idolatry--whatever you want to call it, and find our deeper calling and participation in this harmony. We've got work to do to reclaim this. Christian tradition refers to this as our "fallen" condition.

Leonard Cohen tells us that King David had a "secret chord that pleased the Lord." Musicians will spare no expense of energy searching for it. But what if that secret chord was the music of silence? But whatever it is, it is no small wonder it came from the "baffled King," as no human could truly compose it out of his own genius.

Silence doesn't change the world--at least not at first. I'm reminded of another songSilence is golden, but my eyes still see. In fact, silence actually helps us see better, as we step away from our self-made distractions and face the scariest word of all: Is. Not our fantasy, but what actually is. Reality. That is the risk of silence. That's why we avoid it--I know that's true for me.  But sometimes things happen that force us kicking and screaming to simply shut up. A hush has fallen over the land. Things will happen. Words will be said. But for now, the task is ours to listen and be still and know that God is Lord. And we ought not step out of this silence until we have damn well learned what we need to learn and centered ourselves where we need to be centered.

***

Another great song that has been going through my mind in writing this post:
Holy Darkness, by Dan Schutte and performed by John Michael Talbot.


Monday, November 14, 2016

The Minimum Wage and Christian Hope

Holy Family by Ade Bethune

There is a lot of debate about raising the minimum wage. The fight for $15 movement is going strong and has gained footing in a number of regions in the USA. 

People are debating the merits from both sides.

However, there is one line of reasoning that I have not heard anyone else make, and it is significant. It is probably missed because it is so obvious that it's right in front of our eyes.

Even better, you do not need a degree in economics to understand it.


St. Joseph the Worker, by Ade Bethune
It goes like this:

A lot of people are against raising the minimum wage because they say it will ultimately hurt people and the economy. They claim the wage increase with bring about a corresponding increase in inflation, which would effectively neutralize the value of that additional income. Even worse, critics argue, businesses will also speed up the process of automating their facilities (and thus laying off workers) to avoid the higher wages they would have to pay.

I'm not here to argue about the method of increasing wages. While I would love to see more people earing higher wages, I'm willing to accept that here are better and worse ways of doing this. Fine.

We must be careful not to assume that all attempts of raising wages are going to be a disaster.

If we accept this, then we give in to hopelessness. We would have to assume that most citizens are just going to have to live in poverty. Under this logic, the best anyone can hope for is to not be one of those people. The argument against raising wages is that keeping them low is the only way to preserve some wealth for some people. Raising wages, they argue, will hurt the economy for the rest of us and not help the poor in the end.

If you can't raise wages, then that means that you lose all hope that we can ever overcome widespread poverty. It means that the people who are poor are always going to be poor. It means that success is only available for some of us and that there's nothing we can do about it. It means we live in a world without hope that the earth will ever be as it is in heaven.

Wrong.

This defies all common sense and a basic look at history. We know that there have been societies throughout history where the vast majority of people were deeply impoverished while a few were wealthy. We also know that there have been societies where there was a thriving middle class and poverty was kept to a minimum--many countries in Europe are like that right now.

In fact, if you look back just a generation in the USA, it was once typical for a man to leave high school, enter the workforce and earn enough to support an entire family on one income and expect to live a middle-class lifestyle. That used to be typical in the USA.

If it used to be typical, what is stopping us from going back to that system?

There is no fixed law that says a certain percentage of society must be poor. That percentage changes based on the leadership of the society and the economic approach they use. Some places in the world have more poverty than others. That means a better society is always available. Far too many places have proven that it can be done and done well.

Economists will argue whether it's wise to raise wages too quickly or whether it's best to roll out changes regionally or nationally. I will leave it to the experts to debate the method. But let's all be 100% clear: It is possible to have a society where poverty is kept to a minimum (if not downright eradicated) and the vast majority of people maintain at least a middle-class lifestyle. There are simply too many examples in the world of places that do exactly that.

How we get there may be in question. But we should never doubt that we can get there.

It is incumbent on Christian morality to fight for a living wage for all. If we believe the words of Jesus Himself, we have to believe that not only is it possible but that it is part of our duty as Christians to remake this world in the image of the Kingdom--through God's grace, of course.

Businesses will make every prediction of gloom and doom. We know this. Every time society has worked to improve the lives of its citizens, many in the business community have fought against this claiming, "It'll kill business!" Yet, businesses continued to thrive after those changes were enacted. In fact, the more rights and better wages for workers has usually translated into a better society for all, including the business community. And none of this has to happen by using military force or other violent means (in fact, that rarely (if ever) works). We just have to make sure everyone has the opportunity for a living wage.

This comic below is one of my all-time favorites and pretty much tells the story:

Monday, November 7, 2016

Politically Correct Triumphalism


Luther burns the Papal bull in the square of Wittenberg year 1520
Karl Aspelin 1857-1922; WikimediaCommons

I have one request for my Protestant and Evangelical Christian friends:

When you remember the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation,

And talk about all the dirty, rotten practices and policies that were done in the name of the Catholic Church (and some that still continue to this day),

And triumphantly celebrate how the Reformers rose up out of it,

I ask that you keep in mind that in that Catholic Church there are real human beings with real feelings today. Catholics have great affection for their Church--it's their home and family. They consider it sacred, beautiful and full of Mystery.

Catholics are having to learn this, too. We have been guilty of a bit too much triumphalism when talking about the Jewish tradition. You could argue that Christianity is, among other things, a reformation of Judaism. Jesus spoke out against many Jewish practices. We read in the Gospels how Jesus was treated poorly by his Jewish contemporaries--there was even a conspiracy to kill him which succeeded. It can be all-too-easy for Christians to conclude that much of the Judaism is obsolete, archaic and even harmful. It's even in our language: Judaism represents the "Old Testament" and we are the "New."

Just stop for a minute and think about how that might sound to a Jewish person. 

Big-City Brother

Imagine you were born and raised on a farm in a small town and still live there today. Imagine you have a brother who moved to the city. Whenever that brother returns home for holidays, he continually talks about how much better city life is than the county and how glad he is that he left the farm. The impression he gives is that everything about city life is wonderful and sophisticated and everything about rural life is backwards and sterile. He can appreciate a few quaint details of farm life, but for the most part, he barely hides his pity for the people still stuck on the farm who haven't experienced all the "great things" he has experienced in the city.

Certainly, everyone is entitled to their opinion, and every opinion has a history behind it--perhaps he was mistreated in that small town. However, he's not just complaining about his own roots--he's also criticizing your current home. He left many years ago and isn't up-to-date on what's currently happening--just because he left doesn't mean that life and growth stopped happening on the farm. City living might work fine for him, but you may find farm life peaceful, healthy and enormously satisfying. You also wonder if, after a period of time, your brother may recognize that city life has problems of its own and come to appreciate rural life, again.

In the same way, Christians can act like Judaism is just a remnant of a bygone era that got surpassed by Christianity. Protestants and Evangelicals can think the same about the Catholic Church. We could easily appear to dance on the grave of these traditions.

However, neither Judaism nor Roman Catholicism is in the grave. The Jewish faith survived and  even flourished after the birth of Christianity. The Jewish tradition is not where it was 2,000 years ago, and the Catholic Church is not where it was 500 years ago. Just because a group broke away does not mean that the original has completely stalled out. While some regard Jewish Law and culture as cumbersome and even unfair, others find it enormously liberating and reassuring. The same is true for Catholicism.

"The Jews"

For centuries, Catholics pulled no punches in their disdain for the way Jesus was treated by his Jewish contemporaries. That sentiment spilled over into disdain for all Jewish people in all times and places, with catastrophic consequences. The refrain "the Jews" echoes throughout John's Gospel and rings like a battle cry--"the Jews" did this and "the Jews" did that, most of it with a negative connotation. That refrain haunted Medieval Europe and often erupted in epic violence. History is full of disturbing accounts of anti-Semitic prejudice, crippling segregation, torture, terrorism, imprisonment and the outright killing of Jewish people. The Inquisitions and Nazi holocaust are the most devastating consequences of centuries of bigotry and misplaced hatred. Anti-Semitism continues to have disturbing repercussions even to this day.

I'm not suggesting that Catholics are being persecuted as badly as the Jewish people. But I am saying that the way we all talk about each other has a real impact. Some of Europe's bloodiest wars have stemmed from religious intolerance between Catholics and Protestants. In some parts of the world, this fighting is still very fierce even to this day. Many Catholics, Protestants and Evangelicals have experienced violence and even death as a result of this bigotry. Even when the bigotry doesn't result in actual physical attacks, the psychological wounds can still be harmful.

The Catholic Church is learning how to be good neighbors to the Jewish people. We can celebrate the birth of Christianity while at the same time honoring and respecting the Jewish people and their incredible faith and tradition--a tradition which continues to produce amazing spiritual leaders and which brings inspiration to all of us worldwide.

Catholics are nowhere near done in our efforts to better relate to the Jewish people. We have documents of understanding. Popes and bishops work hard to promote reconciliation. Clergy are instructed in how to communicate respect from the pulpit. For example, check out this guide on the website of the US Catholic Bishops. It gives instructions for how to preach in relation to other faith traditions. Pages 3-4 give specific guidelines and stresses the importance of communicating respect and sensitivity about the Jewish history and faith.

It's an ongoing process. One apology is rarely enough.

Ongoing Reformation for Us All

History can be a tough teacher for all of us. The Protestant Reformation has had its dark side. We could all easily look at the specks in each others' eyes while neglecting the boulders in our own. Every church denomination has manifested the full range of human failings. Yes, the Reformers broke new and important ground that has enriched all of us; they also re-discovered many of the same sins all over again and perhaps generated new problems that were not there before. Every new moment begins with freshness and purity. After a while, we see the same old corruption, prejudice, appeals to power, gravitation toward money and political posturing creep into it. The act of reformation has to be ongoing.

Most educated Catholics are pretty upfront about the Reformation. We know there were embarrassing practices and much corruption in the 16th century. It was tragic to condemn the reformers who decided in their conscience to break away.

I believe the Catholic Church has done much to reconcile with the concerns of the Reformers. In fact, most (if not all) of Martin Luther's concerns have been adopted by the Catholic Church in some fashion. We can now recognize the Reformation leaders like Martin Luther, Menno Simon and John Calvin as children of the Catholic Church--we can claim their influence and legacy as part of our own. In the same way, many Jewish people today can recognize Jesus of Nazareth and Paul of Tarsus as being great leaders that arose out of the Jewish tradition.

As 41 year old raised in the Catholic Church, I cannot recall a single homily preached at Mass condemning the existence or practices of another religion or denomination. We're not where we were 500 years ago.  Perhaps, though, instead of patting ourselves on the back, we should instead ask the Jewish people, Protestants and Evangelicals if we have done enough to reconcile and soften our sharpness, rather than trusting our own judgment.

Triumphalism

Triumphalism can feel good. It's a great legacy when a group of people takes risks to stand up for what they feel is healthy reform. We all may be entitled to triumphantly celebrate from time to time. It's good to savor those stories. Just keep in mind how your triumph might sound to someone who is being triumphed over.

Christianity started as a small movement that was often persecuted by the Jews and Romans. Eventually, though, Christianity became the big kid on the block. Unfortunately, Christians used a short period of mistreatment by Jewish people to justify 2,000 years of much more serious persecution in return. We can't live in the past.

Likewise, a lot of Protestants and Evangelicals are living like it's still the year 1517. By celebrating the reformation of the past, are we neglecting to see the need for a reformation today in our own home?

Lastly, though it's not as much the focus of this piece, we should also remember that those who were left behind should also not be bitter or condemnatory. Divisions can hurt deeply, but people are entitled to follow their conscience and go their separate ways--especially when it may be your own narrowness and stubbornness that drove them to that decision in the first place!

Thursday, October 27, 2016

What's Fundamental to a Christian?


Some Christian denominations call themselves "fundamentalists"they have identified a handful of concerns which they attest are, well, fundamental to Christianity. It's what is often referred to as "lowest common denominator Christianity" (for a good discussion, see John D. Pierce). It's a focus on the core values. There are pros and cons to this approach--it does reduce the whole of Christianity to a few basic principles, which can cut out a lot--too much, according to some. But it also helps to make sure that the most important pieces stay central, as Pierce discusses.

There are variation in the list of fundamentals, but a good representation is the original from the early 20th century:

1.       Biblical inspiration and the infallibility of scripture as a result of this
2.       Virgin birth of Jesus
3.       Belief that Christ's death was the atonement for sin
4.       Bodily resurrection of Jesus
5.       Historical reality of the miracles of Jesus

Other lists include the deity of Christ, the literal reading of the Creation account and the eventual return of Christ to earth. [I guess there's still disagreement as to what constitutes a "fundamental," as the list keeps shifting over time.]

My point here is: Absolutely none of these lists include the thing that Jesus Himself said was fundamental, despite the quadruple Gospel repetition: The command to "love God and love one another."

Isn't that a problem?

You could argue that the Greatest Commandment is included under the "inerrancy of Scripture" and it permeates everything on this list. That would be a fair point. But there are a few pieces of Scripture that were brought out for extra emphasis, and the Greatest Commandment was not one of them. Sadly, it rarely is.

Just to make sure you don't think I'm picking just on Protestant fundamentalists here, let's roll out the Nicene Creed. This is adhered to by the Orthodox, Catholics and most mainline Protestants. Like the five fundamentals, there are some points of disagreement on which version of the Creed is canonical. However, the Greatest Commandment is not included in the Creed nor is it a mentioned in any of the debates surrounding it.

In fact, almost nothing of what Jesus actually said or taught is part of the Creed.  That's a strange homage to the guy we claim to be God Himself. 

Going even further, the Catholic Church subscribes to the doctrine of infallibility. This is a very misunderstood (and at the same time hotly contested) issue, but at its core, it basically claims that the Holy Spirit will never let the Church be in error. Is this referring to following the ultimate Commandment of God Himself?  No, it is about whether the Church could ever be wrong in dogmatic teachings regarding faith and morals. 

If the Holy Spirit were going to make absolutely certain that the Catholic Church, in all its humanity, does not make any major mistakes, wouldn't you think the Holy Spirit would make sure we got the big things right? And Jesus (you know, God, right?) said the "big thing" was the Greatest Commandment. Sure, we profess it—but it’s not first on our list. It's not our central rallying cry. It's not the goal we strive for in our daily labors. Given the prominence which Jesus gave it, it is shocking, if not downright scandalous, how rarely we discuss it.

But instead, Catholics are convinced of the inerrancy of dogmas--theological explanations. Jesus Himself never said that our Christology, Ecclesiology, Eschatology or any of the other -ologies had to be correct. Rather, He said we are to love God and love one another. 

Isn't that just so hysterical it's ridiculous? Here's this guy walking around the earth, and most Christians will say that this man was actually God--literally. Mind blowing. Amazing.  Emmanuel--God with us. God came to earth in the person of Jesus, had a lot to say and gave a lot of instructions. And we have managed to silence every. single. word. from. his. mouth. in our most fundamental faith statements--a universal tendency shared by all Christian denominations. As we get ready for a year-long anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, this one point on which virtually all Christian denominations have in common is not something to be proud of.

I don't want to over-simplify. Christians affirm that the whole of Scripture is the Word of God, not just the specific words of Jesus. And many Christians affirm that God continues to speak through the living Body of the Church--the Body of Christ in the world today. Still, none of that takes away the strangeness of the duct tape around the mouth of Jesus of Nazareth.

If you ask Christians for moral guidance, they are more likely to point you in the direction of the 10 Commandments of Mosaic Law from the Old Testament than to the Beatitudes, Works of Mercy or the Greatest Commandment preached by Jesus Himself.

God walked the earth as Jesus. Christians generally do not deny that. Many of Jesus' words are recorded in Scripture. Most Christians do not deny that. Jesus says out of all the things you do, this one should be the first. He even spells it right out for us! Here's the #1 place you'll want to devote your time and attention, folks. *Crickets*

Yet, when we come together to define ourselves as Christians, it doesn't even crack our top 10.

All around Christianity, the name of the game is belief. Dogmas and head games are the central talking points. Denominations have fragmented over arguments about nuances in the way we understand that which we, ironically, all agree is impossible to fully understand.

Yet, how many denominations have split over a desire to follow THE command of Jesus more fervently?

I admire the work of the Red Letter Christians who dare to ask:  What if Jesus actually meant what he said?

Friday, October 21, 2016

Sin of Sodom: A Case of Denial

The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, John Martin, 1852

Folks will tell you that the Biblical account of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18-19) is about the "sin of homosexuality." In fact, the word "sodomy" even comes from this interpretation.

Many do not question this interpretation at all. It is treated like it's built into the law of nature: Birds fly, fish swim and the sin of Sodom is homosexuality.

Easy peasy, right?

There is no shortage of commentaries on this subject with scholars exploring all angles. I'm going to risk looking at it from a simpler perspective to make this case: Sodom fits right into themes of denial and cognitive dissonance that I've been exploring on this blog lately.

Take a look at this:

Ezekiel 16:49-50 (NSRV)
This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty, and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it.

See also: Genesis 18-19, Jeremiah 23:14, Amos 4:1-11 and Jude 1:7

The Bible is full of brain-teasing parables and puzzling narratives. It's hard enough to figure out what a good many passages might mean. In fact, I hold that the Bible invites us on a multi-layered journey of introspection, growth and discovery. It's about a people who are in varying stages of that same journey. Good folks can reasonably disagree about many things. However, in the case of these texts above, Scripture does us a favor: Bible authors tell us point-blank where to direct our attention. 

The Ezekiel passage specifically lists the sins of Sodom. It even prefaces it to be as clear as possible:  "This was the guilt of your sister Sodom," followed by an actual list. I don't know how you can get any clearer than that. For those who take the Bible literally, this should be an even simpler matter.

Yet, people will insist that Sodom is about something other than what it actually says. I respect if people don't agree with the Bible here, but let's at least be honest about what it says.

The Book of Ezekiel very clearly writes that pride, haughtiness and hoarding riches at the expense of the poor are among those sins. It also lists "abominable things." What does this last point mean? You could argue that those "abominable" things could include homosexual acts, but it does not specify.

There were all sorts of "abominable acts" in the Old Testament, and the passages from Jeremiah and Jude seems to suggest those acts relating to Sodom were adultery. You could argue further that "homosexual acts" could be considered a form of adultery, but then you would have to bend and stretch the text all sorts of ways to get it to read that way. Even worse, you would be ignoring all the other possible ways to interpret it, especially those that have far more evidence to support them. In addition to the verses mentioned above, the original Genesis reading looks like the sin in question was gang rape of houseguests by a violent mob. Amos affirms that the sins were greed and a corresponding lack of charity. And so on.

Nothing that seems to match our modern understanding of same sex partnerships seems to be described in any of these verses.

It seems like the people of Sodom were violent and focused on partying and rowdy pleasure-seeking while the poor suffered. They were treated each other in outrageous displays of selfishness and meanness--these are the "abominable acts."

Why would people take the Ezekiel passage above, ignore the first three very clearly stated points, and then focus all attention on a questionable interpretation of the fourth point?


Even if the sins of Sodom were to include a general indictment against all "homosexual acts" (which I highly doubt), anyone preaching on this text should still give the most time and emphasis to the sins of pride, greed and haughtiness.

Preachers should be pounding the pulpit over and over again about pride and greed if they want to be consistent with Scripture. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of Bible passages condemning greed, for example. By contrast, there are a total of six that many claim relate to homosexuality, and even those have come under some serious doubt in light of recent scholarship (including the story of Sodom).

Are pride and greed no longer major problems in our world today? The United Nations claims that around 21,000 people die every single day from hunger and hunger-related causes. How do we sit with that given that many of us have time, talent and treasure that we spend pursuing pleasures of all kinds? That's the sin of Sodom. But we can't face the truth of that statement, so we redirect our attention to "those homosexuals." Regardless of your beliefs about homosexuality, how is this even an honest read of this particular story?  How can we justify the monumental attempt to distract attention from greed, pride, lack of charity and violence?

This blog post is not about homosexuality. Neither is the story of Sodom, but people have neutralized its meaning this way. It could powerfully critique the greed and pride in all of society. It could be a warning to all who are going down that path that God is going to blow us all to bits (figuratively, let's say). Leave that lifestyle and don't even look back. It's not the path that leads to love, goodness and wholeness. Just look at the classic painting at the top of this post--it's a fierce condemnation.

Given the stockpiling of nuclear weapons, climate change and endless wars, it is easy to see how this path of consumerism and world power will also end in ruin for us all, just like it did for the people of Sodom. We need to hear this story with new eyes today. Look at that painting again and see nuclear war, not homosexuality.

We've been robbed of the power of the story of Sodom. It should be a strong companion to Matthew 25:31-46, which also gives dire warnings for those who do not serve Jesus by feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger and the other Works of Mercy. It's a path that ends in destruction.

It's so tempting to bring the explanation we want to the Bible, rather than let the Bible teach us. We are afraid of the power of the Bible. If we don't already have a preconceived idea, a preacher tells us what to find in the Bible, and lo and behold, that is exactly what we find. It's the power of suggestion.

When a passage does not fit our preconceived notions, our brain simply discards it. It's how we deal with cognitive dissonance. People do it all the time. We've been told so often that Sodom is about homosexuality, so when we find lines about greed and pride we simply gloss over and discard them.

Thomas Merton in Opening the Bible says that the Bible tells us about ourselves. In other words, if we go to the Bible and ask, "What is this book about?" the response from the Bible is, "Who are you?"

The story of Sodom is a perfect example of this. The subjects in the story are not the people of Sodom. No, the true subjects are the people reading it. How you interpret the story and what you find says more about you than it does about the people living in that doomed city thousands of years ago.

As a closing, the fact that the "good guy" in the story named Lot offered up his virgin daughters to appease the violent mob from attacking his houseguests should make it pretty obvious that we should not be taking every detail from this story as direct instruction about morality. It should also make us wonder if this story is an allegory about some other spiritual truth. Or maybe the story does the very thing Merton proposed--we think it's telling us about something else but it is really tells us about ourselves.

***

NOTE: Thanks to this article for help in identifying verses which relate to Sodom.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Simplicity of Discipleship, the Complexity of Beliefs




If you ask what "Christian unity" means, the first thing most people talk about is their beliefs

Do we believe what this other church believes?

Are we saying the same things just in different ways? If not, do we try to convince them that we are right?

However, Christians may also be united by having common practices, too. In fact, this is the area where most of us have the most control and opportunity to explore right here and now.

If we focus too much on beliefs, we can be paralyzed to do anything when those beliefs seem to differ. This is especially true when some denominations require global councils with ample study, debate and votes before any change happens.

Many denominations have been divided for hundreds of years. Unless a miracle happens quickly, many of them will continue to be divided for probably hundreds more. Perhaps that's pessimistic, but there is an opportunity that comes by being realistic here: We have to figure out how to live out our Christian discipleship today in light of these differences.

I see the relationship between belief and practice as reciprocalbelief informs practice and practice informs belief.  In other words, when groups work together for a common cause it is good to look for signs of the unity that may emerge out of those efforts. 

People who hunger for unity among Christians usually recommend that we approach this task from both ends of the spectrum. What I mean is this:  On one side of the spectrum, church leaders and theologians work out the details that divide churches and see what's possible in the nitty-gritty details of doctrine and policy. They have made some rather amazing accomplishments in the last few decades, but it is slow and painstaking work.

On the other end of the spectrum, the rest of us can and should do together what we can in our Christian practices. Our churches may be formally divided in a number of ways, but we can all pray together. We can serve the poor together. We can raise our prophetic voices together. Our beliefs may seem like a tangled mess, but there is a wide open highway for living out our Christian practices available to all of us right now.

You might think that evangelizing is probably one thing we shouldn't do together. That certainly depends on how you want to understand evangelization, because we witness to the faith in all that we do--that list above, which includes prayer, justice advocacy and charity are all forms of evangelization, as well. We all know the famous quote attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: "Preach the Gospel at all times, use words when necessary." You get the idea.

Surprisingly, it was foreign missionaries who first started the modern ecumenical movement. They were having trouble gathering people into the church when the presence of competing denominations raised questions as to the validity of Christianity itself. You might think that the last thing a Catholic missionary would want to do is evangelize together with a Protestant or Evangelical missionary. What they found out is that staying in their separate, protected bubbles was not attractive to outsiders. With the fear of opening up and losing a few, they closed down and probably lost a lot. Why would someone be attracted to Christianity when even the Christians themselves can't agree on what it's all about? We should add evangelizing to the list of things we can do today.

Jesus prayed that "all who believe may be one" (John 17:21), then as followers of Christ we ought to hope and trust that this prayer will one day come true.  It seems like an impossible task.  Followers of Jesus started breaking away from each other right from the beginning. It is recorded in the New Testament. Divisions did not just begin with the Protestant Reformation in the year 1517!

There is a concept called the Lund Principle which argues that churches should only do the things separately that our denominational rules require us to do separately! This is pretty ambitious, but it is a goal worth working towards. If we take seriously that Christ wants unity among believers, and our churches don't have full unity, we can be stuck between a rock and a hard place. The Lund Principle helps us by pushing our churches to open up in the areas where we freely admit there is no reason to stay apart.

Our churches may disagree on the proper methods of baptism and who can and should participate in worship services, but we all affirm that Jesus commanded us all to "love one another." Jesus even said that that should be first and foremost. You could just be so busy loving one another that you don't have any time to squabble over doctrinal differences. Perhaps that overly simple. Perhaps it's simply beautiful.

We might as well spend our time doing that, because it's going to be a long time before the churches formally unite together. We don't know what that unity might look like or how it might come to pass here on this fallen planet, but one thing we can probably agree on is that it's probably not going to happen today. Or maybe better said--it might happen today, we can and should have abundant hope that it happens today, but we should also have a plan of how to live out our Christian discipleship if it doesn't happen today.


Let's not obsess so much about differences in beliefs and doctrines to the point where we fail to do what we already can do. Beliefs are interesting things to ponder over and raise our voices over, no question about that. But in the meantime, there is work to do--there is a lot of work to do.

And maybe--just maybe--by living out the unity that is already available to us, we may find that elusive unity that we have been missing. We may find that unity not in the destination but rather on the way there. If we wait to work together until full unity has been achieved, we may fail to do the very thing that will help bring it about!