Friday, January 6, 2017

None Dare Call It Treason

The LORD your God you shall follow, him alone you shall fear, his commandments you shall keep, his voice you shall obey, him you shall serve, and to him you shall hold fast. But those prophets or those who divine by dreams shall be put to death for having spoken treason against the LORD your God—who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery—to turn you from the way in which the LORD your God commanded you to walk. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.
Deuteronomy 13:4-5

I can still see the book in the living room of the house where I grew up, sitting in the pine bookcase my father made. And there is still a copy on a bookshelf in our house in Maine, the legacy of Elaine’s great uncle Joe Higgins.

None Dare Call It Treason was written by John A. Stormer and published in 1964 in support of Barry Goldwater’s campaign for the presidency. Six million copies were distributed in bulk quantities that summer and fall.

The title of the book comes from an epigram by Sir John Harrington:
Treason doth never prosper.
What’s the reason?
Why if it prosper, none dare call it treason.
I grew up in a Republican household in a time when it was almost redundant to speak of “Protestant Republicans.” And the village of Sagamore, Massachusetts was part of rural America.

It was not long after the 1964 election that the combination of the Civil Rights struggle and the Viet Nam War moved our family away from the Republicans.

I never read the book, but I knew the basic thesis. America was being betrayed by the elites in politics and academia, who were procommunist. The Soviets were winning the Cold War because they were secretly supported by the elite liberal establishment. 

The title came back to me when Donald Trump began sending out tweets in support of Russia and Vladimir Putin, and against our own intelligence agencies. And it seemed bizarre that the script had been turned inside out. The longtime cold warriors must be suffering vertigo.

One can only imagine what the response would be if the situation were reversed and Hillary Clinton had been the candidate supported by Russian Spies who was now at odds with our own intelligence leaders.

In an article published online last month on Marty Kaplan wrote:
“It’s abysmal that Democrats didn’t have a good enough jobs message to convince enough Rust Belt voters to choose their economic alternative to Trump’s tax cuts for the rich. It’s disgraceful that the media normalized Trump, propagated his lies, monetized his notoriety and lapped up his tweet porn. It’s maddening that the Electoral College apportions ballot power inequitably. But as enervating as any of that is, none of it is as dangerous to democracy as the CIA’s finding that Putin hacked the 2016 election on Trump’s behalf. Without firing a single shot, the Kremlin is weeks away from installing its puppet in the White House.”
The puppet designation seems like a stretch to me. Donald Trump is too unpredictable and impulsive to be a reliable puppet for anyone. But Kaplan is right that the Russian intervention in our election is dangerous to democracy.

It is impossible to know whether the Russian hacking changed the outcome of the election. But the results were cheered in Moscow and celebrated by Vladimir Putin. It is hard to believe that could be a good thing.

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.

Friday, December 23, 2016

This Is What Hatred Looks Like

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.
I John 4:7-8, 20-21

The United States Department of Justice begins their analysis of violence against transgender persons with an alarming paragraph:
“Statistics documenting transgender people's experience of sexual violence indicate shockingly high levels of sexual abuse and assault. One in two transgender individuals are sexually abused or assaulted at some point in their lives. Some reports estimate that transgender survivors may experience rates of sexual assault up to 66 percent, often coupled with physical assaults or abuse. This indicates that the majority of transgender individuals are living with the aftermath of trauma and the fear of possible repeat victimization.”
Transgender people are among the most victimized, stigmatized, and marginalized people in our society. They are routinely humiliated and made fun of.

In North Carolina, the legislature has declared (again) that society will be better off if the transgender community is further marginalized.

This is what hatred looks like.

Just a few days ago it looked like Governor elect Roy Cooper and the legislature had brokered a deal that would get rid of the so-called “Bathroom Bill,” technically known as “HB2,” that required persons to use the bathroom corresponding to the gender they were assigned on their  birth certificate. 

HB2 specified that a transgender male (who was registered on his birth certificate as female) would be required to use the women’s bathroom. And a transgender female would be required to use the men’s room.

The deal was that the City of Charlotte would rescind its anti-discrimination ordinance, which had provided protections for LGBT people broadly, and transgender people specifically, and in return the legislature would repeal HB2.

It was at best a Faustian bargain. 

The Charlotte ordinance was an important step in protecting LGBT persons in the absence of a state anti-discrimination rule. It was a good ordinance. HB2, on the other hand, meant encoding discrimination into law.

It was hardly a fair trade. But still. It was a deal.

Governor-elect Cooper responded with restraint. "I'm disappointed for the people of North Carolina,” he said, “for the jobs that people won't have . . . I'm disappointed that we did not remove the stain on our great state."

"The Charlotte city council held up their end of the deal by repealing their ordinance," Cooper observed. "When it came time for Republican legislative leaders to do their job, they failed."

Supporters of the Bathroom Bill were unrepentant. 

"No economic, political or ideological pressure can convince me that what is wrong is right," Lt. Gov. Dan Forest declared. "It will always be wrong for men to have access to women's showers and bathrooms. If HB2 is repealed, there will be nothing on the books to prevent another city or county to take us down this path again."

The Lt. Governor needs to do a little research on gender identity. And while he is at it he might also research the statistics on crimes against transgender people.

In the meantime, maybe the Southern Poverty Law Center should list the North Carolina legislature as a hate group.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Preaching and Pastoring in the Age of Trump

They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace. They acted shamefully, they committed abomination; yet they were not ashamed, they did not know how to blush.
Jeremiah 6:14-15a

Russell Moore is the President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. And he is in trouble.

The Evangelical branch of Christianity in the United States was painfully split during the last election. The majority went with Donald Trump, but there were a few dissenters.

Russell Moore was probably the most visible among the critics. He was critical of Mr. Trump and he was critical of those Evangelicals who were willing to give up long held principles in order to support him.

In September of 2015, he published an op-ed piece in the New York Times asking, “Have Evangelicals Who Support Trump Lost Their Values?” 

He began his essay by recounting an episode from the television comedy “The Office,”
“. . . one of the characters, Dwight Schrute, nervously faces the prospect of delivering a speech after winning the title of top salesman of the year for his company, Dunder Mifflin. As a prank, his co-worker preps him for his moment by cribbing a speech from a dictator, coaching him to deliver it by pounding the lectern and waving his arms wildly. Dwight does it, and the audience gives a standing ovation to a manic tirade.”
“Watching a cartoonish TV character deliver authoritarian lines with no principles, just audacity,” he observed, “was hilarious back then, but that was before we saw it happening before our eyes in the race for the United States presidency.”
Moore was willing to give Trump a pass on his newly proclaimed and politically opportunistic affirmation of Evangelical Christianity. What bothered Moore was his personal morality, or lack thereof.
“We should not demand to see the long-form certificate for Mr. Trump’s second birth. We should, though, ask about his personal character and fitness for office. His personal morality is clear, not because of tabloid exposés but because of his own boasts. His attitude toward women is that of a Bronze Age warlord. He tells us in one of his books that he revels in the fact that he gets to sleep with some of the “top women in the world.” He has divorced two wives (so far) for other women.”
It is important to remember that he wrote those words more than a year before that famous tape surfaced in which Mr. Trump bragged about sexually assaulting women. 

A number of Evangelicals who at first shared Moore’s critique eventually came to support Mr. Trump as “the lesser to two evils.” But Russell Moore never wavered. 

Interestingly, almost all of the backlash directed against Moore is about his failure to represent the clear majority of Southern Baptists and Evangelicals who voted for Trump. No one is arguing that he is wrong in principle. He has committed the great sin of being out of touch with his constituency.

I have major disagreements with Dr. Moore on everything from marriage equality and abortion to biblical interpretation and theology. But I have always respected his clarity of vision and I understand his dilemma.

These are perilous times for those of us who are pastors. 

We have a responsibility which is unlike any other. We have to say something. It’s part of the job description. 

Not only are we supposed to say something. We are supposed to speak the truth. Not just any truth. We are specifically charged with speaking the truth of the Gospel, regardless of the circumstances. 

It is challenging in the best of times. Jesus called his disciples to take up the cross and follow him. In first century Israel the cross was a symbol of treason and a means of executing those who were guilty of that crime. To stand up for justice and peace and non-violence is to stand against the normalcy of violence and injustice, and to move in a different direction.

Authentic preaching is never easy.

Karl Barth said that we need to have the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. In the digital age, of course, we can have both in the same tablet or phone, but that does not make the task any easier.

We are always tempted toward timidity. We want to avoid conflict.
We want to say, “Peace, peace, when there is no peace.” 

The Gospel is always at odds with the culture. But in a time of great divisiveness, the gap seems even greater. And the divisions are within the church as well as outside of it.

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish. 

Friday, December 16, 2016

Ayn Rand, Donald Trump and the War on Christian Ethics

Ayn Rand (1905-1982)

Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out to the field.” And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him.
Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” And the LORD said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!”
Genesis 4:8-10

Cain assumes that he is asking a rhetorical question.

But he is mistaken.

The question is real and it will be fundamental to the long biblical narrative that follows through the Hebrew Scriptures to the end of the New Testament. Cain poses the question for God, but it is quickly turned back as the question God asks of us. And Jesus will tell his followers that it is the question by which their lives will be judged.

Ayn Rand, on the other hand, sides with Cain.

Her philosophy, which has always had a very strong (though typically brief) following among college freshmen, has recently been adopted and endorsed by a significant group of folks who really ought to know better.

Her basic position is that selfishness is a virtue and altruism is a sin, though as a staunch atheist, she would not call it a sin. It is not just that we are not obligated to help others; we ought not to do it. Our responsibility is to take care of ourselves. Period.

In a recent report in the Washington Post, James Hohmann identifies Donald Trump as an “Ayn Rand-acolyte” and notes that as a connection among several of his recent nominees for key positions in a Trump administration. He describes Rand as “perhaps the leading literary voice in 20th century America for the notion that, in society, there are makers and takers, and that the takers are parasitic moochers who get in the way of the morally-superior innovators.”
“Her books portray the federal government as an evil force, trying to stop hard-working men from accumulating the wealth that she believes they deserve. The author was also an outspoken atheist, something that oozes through in her writing. Rand explained that the essence of ‘objectivism,’ as she called her ideology, is that ‘man exists for his own sake, that the pursuit of his own happiness is his highest moral purpose, that he must not sacrifice himself to others, nor sacrifice others to himself.’”
Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil, has been nominated for Secretary of State. Although they had not previously been acquainted, one of the things Trump and Tillerson found that they have in common, in addition to being billionaires, is that they are both Rand enthusiasts. Tillerson lists “Atlas Shrugged” as his favorite book. It tells the story of John Galt who secretly organizes a strike among the creative class in order to undermine and destroy the bureaucrats who are running the country.

In an interview with Kirsten Powers last spring, the president-elect described himself as a Rand fan and said that he identifies most with Howard Roark, the hero of “The Fountainhead,” an architect who blows up a housing project he designed because his blueprints were not exactly followed by the builders. He told Powers, “It relates to business, beauty, life and inner emotions. That book relates to ... everything.”

Andy Puzder, Trump’s choice for Secretary of Labor, also identifies with the hero from “The Fountainhead.” He wants to automate fast food jobs and is opposed to increasing the minimum wage. He is CEO of CKE Restaurants, which is owned by a private equity fund named for Howard Roark, Roark Capital Group.

Although Rand’s philosophy is explicitly and intentionally anti-Christian, Puzder sees it differently. “There’s no contradiction,” he argues, “between raising my children in the church, and urging them to lead the kind of lives of achievement, integrity and independence that Ayn Rand celebrated in her novels.”

Mike Pompeo, the Kansas congressman and Tea Party member whom Trump has nominated to direct the Central Intelligence Agency, is also a Rand fan. In 2011 he told an interviewer from Human Events, “One of the very first serious books I read when I was growing up was Atlas Shrugged, and it really had an impact on me.”

It has become fashionable in recent years for Christians to talk about the “war on Christmas,” and to crusade in favor of saying “Merry Christmas” and against saying “Happy Holidays.” In a world facing the greatest refugee crisis since the Second World War (among other crises), the outrage about the “war on Christmas” is at best a distraction. 

Ayn Rand was a second rate philosopher and it might seem that her fans should not be taken seriously. But her war on Christian faith and ethics is real and it is dangerous.

In A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens tells the story of Ebenezer Scrooge who is both terrified and inspired by the spirits of Christmas to move from a selfish and miserly character who hates Christmas because it celebrates goodwill and caring to become a man who keeps the spirit of Christmas all year round. 

Rand wants us to go in the opposite direction. She invites us to celebrate what she calls the virtue of selfishness.

“Capitalism and altruism are incompatible," she argues. "They are philosophical opposites; they cannot co-exist in the same man or in the same society. Today, the conflict has reached its ultimate climax; the choice is clear-cut: either a new morality of rational self-interest, with its consequence of freedom… or the primordial morality of altruism with its consequences of slavery, etc."
“To love money is to know and love the fact that money is the creation of the best power within you, and your passkey to trade your effort for the effort of the best among men.”

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish. 

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Advent and the Apocalypse

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”

Luke 21:25-26

The Advent texts that speak of the “Second Coming” present imagery that is wildly out of step with the manger scenes and Christmas trees that decorate our homes.

At least that is usually the case.

This year the images of apocalypse seem remarkably relevant. And that is pretty much the heart of the problem.

Honestly, I don’t know what to say. Or where to begin.

We have a President elect who has at best a tangential relationship to the truth. And we have cabinet appointments that are barely believable.

The nomination of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency may not may not be the worst proposed appointment, but it is bad enough.

In an editorial criticizing the Pruitt nomination, the New York Times writes:
“This is an aggressively bad choice, a poke in the eye to a long history of bipartisan cooperation on environmental issues, to a nation that has come to depend on the agency for healthy air and drinkable water, and to 195 countries that agreed in Paris last year to reduce their emissions of climate-changing greenhouse gases in the belief that the United States would show the way. A meeting Monday between Mr. Trump and Al Gore had raised hope among some that the president-elect might reverse his campaign pledge to withdraw the United States from the Paris accord. The Pruitt appointment says otherwise.”

Mr. Pruitt is not just critical of the E.P.A.; he wants to dismantle it. As Oklahoma Attorney General he has joined lawsuits against regulations reducing soot and smog pollution that crosses state lines and he has fought against regulations that provide protections against toxic pollutants from power plants.

Perhaps most troubling, he does not believe in the science of climate change. He is a proponent of the fossil fuel industry and wants to roll back our commitment to reducing greenhouse gasses.

For Christians concerned about the stewardship of planet earth, this is serious stuff.

His disagreements with the E.P.A. are not just about opposing some regulations, though that would be a problem all by itself. The real issue is that he disagrees with the science behind the regulations. And his disagreement with the science is ideological and political rather than scientific.

The bottom line is that an agency built on science will be directed by a person who does not believe in science.

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Dad Had It Right

Rev. Edwin A. Trench 1928-2006
But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many.  Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.
Romans 5:15,18

Dad died ten years ago today. 

It is perhaps just as well that he did not live to see our recent election. 

He might have mispronounced "misogynist," but he would not have been quiet about electing one to the white house. 

To say that he was outspoken would be an understatement. That's not always an advantage for a pastor. But to his credit, he never counted the cost of his witness in personal terms. 

Those who regularly read this blog know that over the past eighteen months I have written frequently about the issues, but I stopped short of endorsing a candidate. 

There are two major reasons for making that choice. First, I believe that although the gospel is an intensely political document, it transcends partisan politics. And although Jesus, like the Hebrew prophets before him, proclaimed an undeniably political message, we should not identify that message with one party or candidate. And second, I believe that I need to be a pastor to everyone, regardless of their politics. Endorsing a candidate would compromise that relationship.

Dad saw it differently.

For him, it was always about justice. He looked for the practical application of the gospel in contemporary life. And he was never afraid to tell you what he saw. In his mind, he had no choice.

His outspoken witness often got him into trouble, but that never kept him quiet.

His willingness to say what needed to be said was impressive, but his greatest gifts were as a pastor rather than as a prophet.

A few years ago, before a graveside service for a distant member of the church, a woman came over and introduced herself. She told me that she belonged to a neighboring United Methodist church and that she was a Lay Speaker, and a leader in that church. “I remember your father,” she said. He was the pastor in Coventry when I was a teenager.”

“He came to visit at our house and he was talking to my mother. And he invited me to come to the youth group. I told him that I didn’t really believe in Jesus, so I didn’t want to come to the youth group.

“My mother was so embarrassed. And she was so angry with me. But your father just smiled. ‘That’s okay,’ he said. ‘You think about it, and if you want to attend, we’d love to have you.’ He didn’t get upset. And he didn’t tell me I was wrong to think that way. I’ll always remember that. 

“And then later I went to the youth group and it was great. But I’ll always remember the way he reacted.”

When the great theologian Karl Barth was asked to sum up his many complex volumes of “Church Dogmatics,” he said, 

Jesu liebt mich, ganz gewiss,
Denn die Bibel sagt mir dies

“Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

That would also have summarized Dad’s theology, although it sounded much more profound coming from Barth. Dad was not a theologian, but he was a pastor, and he understood the practical application of the faith pastorally as well as politically.

He was convinced that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.” And he was convinced that God’s grace, in Christ, extended to everyone, whether they believed it or not. Sadly, Dad’s intuitive response to a questioning teen made a lasting impression in part because it was not what she expected from those who call themselves Christians.

In Paul’s exposition of Christ as the New Adam, his basic assertion is that in Adam we have all sinned and in Christ we have all been justified (forgiven and made right with God).

For two thousand years, the majority interpretation of that passage has been that the first “all” refers to everyone (everyone has sinned) and the second “all” refers only to baptized Christian believers. 

Ironically, this notion that sin is unlimited while grace is restricted, is one more evidence of our tendency to “sin” in our biblical interpretation. So (ironically) it proves the first of Paul’s assertions. We are all self-centered and we want to believe that grace applies only to us and to the people who think like us. We believe in sin, but we have doubts about grace.

Why is that? In traditional language, it’s because we are “sinners.”

But Dad had it right.

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.

Parts of this post were originally published on November 29, 2010.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Thanksgiving and the Kingdom of God in America

The First Thanksgiving by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1899)

"Politics are never ultimate, never absolute. We can and must fight the good fight for a better republic and a better world. But our hope does not depend on any political outcome. Our faith and our hope derive from Jesus Christ, who survives all nations and all politics."
Robert N. Bellah

I have a special fondness the notion of the Kingdom of God in America. 

First, and in a serious way, because it was (and is) the agenda of Jesus to build the Kingdom of God on earth, and since I am an American Christian, my first responsibility is to build it here. 

But I also enjoy talking about the Kingdom of God because it makes everyone uncomfortable (including me). 

The secular left gets nervous about a theocracy and a religious vision, and the religious left is uncomfortable with the King imagery (I share the discomfort with “King” and I agree that in many ways it would be better to get the King imagery out of it and speak about the Reign of God, but I still think that falls short of the original.). 

The religious right wants religion to be personal rather than social, and they are nervous about the “politicization” of the Gospel, and the political right gets nervous about the Social Gospel and Social Justice.

That’s all good, because we are supposed to be uncomfortable with the Kingdom of God.

We should not look for ways to escape that discomfort. Jesus’ vision calls us into the future. We pray for the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth, and that must mean change. As soon as we are comfortable with the present, we remember again that we are called into the future. We are called to be a pilgrim people.

In a special way, Thanksgiving is central to understanding the Kingdom of God in America.

Robert Bellah was one of the greatest American Sociologists. He rose to national prominence when he wrote an essay on Civil Religion in America. (If you have never read the essay, you can get it on line by clicking here.) 

Bellah explained how Americans had developed a religious sensibility which was rooted in our Judeo-Christian heritage, but also uniquely American. We began with a covenant and a mission. Slavery was our original sin. Lincoln was our central prophet. And though we had a high view of our calling in the world, we were clear that America always stood under the judgment of God.

Thanksgiving is the most important holiday in our American Civil Religion. It was first instituted by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, as a time of national Repentance and Thanksgiving. A national day of repentance would be a tough sell in today’s political climate. 

As Christians, how do we relate to the uncivil tone of our political debate today?

It is a difficult question and there are no easy answers. It is particularly problematic today after a long season political campaigning in which the president-elect distinguished himself by shattering almost every norm of civilized discourse. One of his Republican challengers declared dramatically that “you can’t insult your way to the presidency.” But apparently you can.

We are in uncharted waters.

But as Christians, it is important that we keep perspective and that we focus on long term goals.

The Gospel is intensely political and we cannot read it with any measure of intellectual honestly and pretend otherwise. It is about proclaiming a vision of the Kingdom of God. It is about social and economic justice. But we must also remember, as Bellah points out, that the Kingdom of God can never be identified with any single political group or cause, or country. Instead, it is always the standard by which every political plan is judged.

As Bellah notes, “We can and must fight the good fight for a better republic and a better world.” But we need to be clear that there is a gap between our vision and God’s vision. This does not mean that one idea is as good as another, or that political issues do not matter. It does mean that we should approach political issues with Lincoln’s repentance and humility. 

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish. 

A previous version of this blogpost was originally published on November 23, 2016.