Thursday, November 20, 2014

Reinhold Niebuhr and the Irony of the Jonathan Gruber Story


The children of this world are wiser in this generation than the children of light.

Luke 16:8

Once upon a time everyone who was serious about politics was reading Reinhold Niebuhr. Today it is hard to find anyone who knows who he is. That is too bad, because his insights are at least as relevant now as they were when he was alive and at the height of his popularity in the early 1960’s.

Niebuhr was one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century, but his greatest contributions were in the area of political philosophy. He took the deepest insights of Christian theology and applied them to the practice of politics.

The people who worry about “mixing religion and politics” need to go read Niebuhr. And the people who want to impose their own (highly selective) literal reading of the Bible also need to go read Niebuhr.

Niebuhr’s best book on politics, “The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness” ought to be required reading for anyone who aspires to public service. The book is inspired by that verse from Luke's Gospel. His basic insight was simple and undeniably true: the “children of light” do more harm through their naïve ineptitude than the “children of darkness” do on purpose.

“It must be understood,” Niebuhr wrote, “that the children of light are foolish not merely because they underestimate the power of self-interest among the children of darkness. They underestimate this power among themselves.” The children of light have a naïve understanding of the world around them and are unrealistic in their assessment of the human capacity for evil. But they are also naïve about their own mixed motives.

The strange case of MIT economist Jonathan Gruber is just the latest evidence of the truth of Niebuhr’s insights. He was so taken with his own cleverness, and had such a great need to talk about that cleverness with other clever people that he had no sense of the harm he might do.

When he was first confronted with a video of himself talking about “the stupidity of the American people” and how that figured into the marketing of the Affordable Care Act, he said that it was just an “off the cuff” remark at an informal conference. But it turns out there are many video recordings of him making approximately the same statements at many conferences over several years.

The irony, to use one of Niebuhr’s favorite concepts, is astonishing. How is it possible for anyone, let alone an economist at MIT, to be that stupid?

In this instance there is plenty of irony to go around.

Bill O’Reilly spoke piously about Gruber insulting the American people, but his program has a regular segment in which a young staffer is sent out to cities and college campuses to ask people questions they can’t answer and then make fun of their stupidity. And after the last presidential election there were many references to the stupidity of the American voters who did not understand the issues.

Seriously, the stupidity of the American people is one of the few things on which commentators from both ends of the political spectrum seem to agree. Of course one side thought the 2012 voters were stupid, while the other side thought the 2014 voters were the stupid ones.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The World Is Broken, But It Will Be Healed in the End


No one has greater love than this,
to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

John 15:13

While waiting for my bagel at Panera I was absentmindedly checking my email when I came across this note from my friend and colleague Bill Flug:

I watched the Kassigs yesterday offer their statement about their son's death and said to myself, "They're Methodists." I was right, as you may know by now. Epworth UMC Indianapolis.

Bill concluded by saying that it made him proud to be a Methodist.

Later, in my office, I watched a CNN recording of their statement, which the reporter characterized as coming “from a church in Indianapolis.”

Peter’s dad, Ed Kassig began by quoting that verse from John’s Gospel. Peter Kassig gave his life in service of the people Syria, bringing humanitarian aid to the victims of the civil war there. He was captured in 2013 while delivering relief supplies.

His mother, Paula, began with a simple affirmation of their faith, "Our hearts are battered,” she said, “but they will mend. The world is broken, but it will be healed in the end. And good will prevail as the one God of many names will prevail.”

The world is broken, but it will be healed in the end.

It is not hard to see that the world is broken. The evidence is all around us. It is harder to believe that it will be healed in the end. But that is our faith and our vision. That hope was born with Israel’s vision in the Exile, and it endures today.

In a letter to his parents from captivity, he wrote, “I hope that this all has a happy ending but it may very well be coming down to the wire here, and if in fact that is the case then I figured it was time to say a few things that need saying before I have to go.” There was no happy ending, but hope endures.

Peter Kassig converted to Islam while in captivity and took the name Abdul-Rahman Kassig. “In terms of my faith,” he wrote, “I pray everyday and I am not angry about my situation in that sense. I am in a dogmatically complicated situation here, but I am at peace with my belief.”

“I am obviously pretty scared to die,” he wrote, “but the hardest part is not knowing, wondering, hoping, and wondering if I should even hope at all. I am very sad that all this has happened and for what all of you back home are going through. If I do die, I figure that at least you and I can seek refuge and comfort in knowing that I went out as a result of trying to alleviate suffering and helping those in need.”

“Good will prevail,” said Paula Kassig, “as the One God of many names will prevail.” It is hard to know what to make of Peter Kassig’s conversion to Islam. His reference to a “dogmatically complicated situation” is open to multiple interpretations. He could have “converted” in hopes of finding favor with his captors, and he could have entered into a profound shift in world view. But it is also possible that he saw faith, as many Methodists do, as a seamless garment. Or maybe a patchwork quilt. The differences are real, but we are still all connected.

Ed Kassig concluded their statement with a call to prayer. "Please pray for Abdul-Rahman, or Pete if that's how you know him, at sunset this evening," He said. "Pray also for all people in Syria, in Iraq, and around the world that are held against their will. And lastly, please allow our small family the time and privacy to mourn, cry -- and yes, forgive -- and begin to heal,"

Monday, November 10, 2014

Pope Francis and Evolution


The heavens are telling the glory of God; 
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.

Psalm 19:1-4

In an editorial today, The Providence Journal notes that “Pope Francis, unlike many of his predecessors, is more than willing to share his personal opinions on a wide variety of controversial issues.” According to the Journal, the most recent example of his willingness to speak out on controversial issues came at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in Vatican City, where he spoke out a few days ago on “the evolution-versus-creation debate.”

Essentially, what he said was that there was no inherent conflict between evolution and Christian faith.

One assumes this must have come as a great relief to the biology professors teaching evolution at Catholic Universities around the world, as well as to the thousands of teachers in Catholic high schools.

This is not news.

To be fair, the editorial acknowledges that Pope Francis is not the first pope to positively about evolution. The Journal quotes Josephine McKenna of Religion News Service as observing that “In 1950, Pope Pius XII proclaimed there was no opposition between evolution and Catholic doctrine. [And] In 1996, St. John Paul II endorsed Pius’ statement.”

According to the Journal, “it was the direct and remarkably straightforward manner of the pope’s response that caught more than a few observers off guard. He strongly defended the long-held position of the Roman Catholic Church and, most importantly, established a modern link between evolution and creation.”

The only reason anyone could have been caught off guard is because over the last several decades the news media have focused on the most anti-scientific members of the Christian community and made it seem like they spoke for everyone. Over the last five hundred years, faith and science have had few quarrels until these last few decades. And even now, the conflict does not exist for mainline Protestants or Roman Catholics. And it does not exist for many evangelicals.

I appreciate the willingness of Pope Francis to say things that need to be said. “When we read about Creation in Genesis,” he said, “we run the risk of imagining God was a magician, with a magic wand able to do everything. But that is not so. He created human beings and let them develop according to the internal laws that he gave to each one so they would reach their fulfillment.”

True enough. The book of Genesis is not a scientific treatise. And it is not a history book. It is symbolic language. It is about meaning and relationships. It is about who we are and whose we are.

Friday, October 31, 2014

A Life Lost and the Problem of Heteronormativity


“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”
Matthew 7:12

Julie Wood, a United Methodist from North Carolina made a touching video about her son Ben, who grew up in the United Methodist Church and was active in his youth group until he told the group that he was gay. Not long after that, the youth pastor told him that he would go to hell and yelled at Julie and her husband for raising him. The youth pastor encouraged members of the group to stay away from him. Ben never went back to church after that, and he committed suicide in 2013.

When I was ordained a Deacon in 1973 the major issue at our Annual Conference centered on the charges brought against a clergy colleague for marrying two gay men who were students at Harvard Divinity School.

We have been debating the place (or lack of place) of LGBTQ persons for a long time. We have been discussing and debating since before anyone used the terms LGBTQ or LGBT or even gay.

Back then, “they” were “homosexuals,” and “we” were . . . normal. And we did not realize how much pain we inflicted simply by casting the debate in that context. I did not realize the harm done even by those of us on the “right” side of that issue.

This fall, in the course of a panel discussion on diversity, there was a controversy at Duke Divinity School when a student asked a question about how the school was combating the problem of heteronormativity. The dean of the school responded (accounts vary about the exact sequence of events) by reading a passage from the United Methodist Discipline which asserts that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”

We will pause for a moment to consider the irony of the dean’s response.

In the debate following that incident, one of the recurring themes was that those supporting a “traditional” view and upholding the Discipline were being bullied by those who categorized such views as hateful and bigoted. The traditionalists lamented the fact that the discussion could not be more respectful and civilized. The problem, of course, is that what the traditionalists call respectful and civilized actually inflicts great pain on LGBTQ persons.

The video made by Julie Wood is a painful reminder of what real bullying looks like, and of the harm it inflicts.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Second Best Time to Change Your Mind


Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
Isaiah 43:18-19

There is a Chinese proverb that says, “The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time is now.”

David Gushee, a leading evangelical ethicist, has chosen the second best time to change his mind. Jonathan Merritt, in a column for the Religious News Service, writes that Gushee recently announced that he has changed his mind on issues relating to homosexuality and Christian faith and he is now an advocate for the full inclusion of LGBT Christians within the life of the church.

In an address planned for a training event to be hosted by The Reformation Project on November 6-8, Gushee will declare his change of heart. “I do join your crusade tonight,” According to a draft of the speech obtained by RNS, Gushee will declare that, “I will henceforth oppose any form of discrimination against you. I will seek to stand in solidarity with you who have suffered the lash of countless Christian rejections. I will be your ally in every way I know how to be.”

Gushee is clear that he should have changed his mind sooner, “It took me two decades of service as a married, straight evangelical Christian minister and ethicist to finally get here,” he told the group. And then he apologized for that long delay, saying, “I am truly sorry that it took me so long to come into full solidarity with the Church’s own most oppressed group.”

He identifies four factors that led to his change of heart.

His work on environmental ethics and torture brought him into contact with many gay evangelical Christians who were working on those same issues. Their witness led him to reconsider what he thought the Bible said about homosexuality, and that Bible study convinced him that the Bible did not say what he had thought it said. (For a review of the biblical issues, see my post on Sexual Orientation and the Bible.) Gushee recognized, as many others have, that the Bible has been misused to justify oppression and injustice in the past, on issues like slavery, women’s rights, segregation, anti-Semitism, and torture.

In addition to the witness of gay Christians and his reconsideration of the biblical basis for his position, he had an experience much closer to home. Merritt writes that “in 2008, his younger sister, Katey, came out as a lesbian. She is a Christian, single mother, and had been periodically hospitalized for depression and a suicide attempt.” This convinced Gushee that “traditionalist Christian teaching produces despair in just about every gay or lesbian person who must endure it.”

And finally, he was influenced by the overwhelming body of scientific research which says that sexual orientation is not a choice, it is a natural form of human diversity. All of this led him to begin his theological and ethical reflection from a new starting point: the suffering of LGBT Christians.

Gushee’s defection is important. He is a leading evangelical ethicist. His book, “Kingdom Ethics,” written with the late Glen Stassen, is a staple of courses on evangelical ethics. Gushee has written a book about his journey called “Changing Our Mind: A Call from America’s Leading Evangelical Ethics Scholar for Full Acceptance of LGBT Christians in the Church,” which will be released by David Crumm Media prior to the speech. He hopes that his new book, like his previous work, will become a basic resource for evangelical Christians and that it will provide an opportunity for other Christians to reexamine their views on this issue.

The book, and Gushee’s affirmation of solidarity with LGBT Christians, mark one more step in a long journey. He is not the first evangelical Christian to change his mind on this issue, and he will not be the last. One hopes that United Methodists who continue to exclude and condemn their gay sisters and brothers will pay attention.

Gushee knows that former friends and colleagues will be swift to condemn his epiphany, but he maintains that he does not worry. “I still love Jesus and read the Bible and pray every morning, and I don’t really care what they say,” he said, according to Merritt. “I’m willing to let God and history be my judge.”

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Thank God for Janet Yellen


Moses said, “This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Gather as much of the manna as each of you needs, an omer to a person according to the number of persons, all providing for those in their own tents.’” The Israelites did so, some gathering more, some less. But when they measured it with an omer, those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed.
Exodus 16:16-18

In biblical economics, a core principle is that there should not be a great gulf between those who have the most and those who have the least. The Bible is deeply suspicious of wealth. Jesus told his disciples that it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God. But Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were all rich by ancient standards, and the New Testament tells of disciples who used their resources to help others and support the early church. The biblical ideal is not economic equality, but an economy in which those with the least have enough and those with the most do not have too much.

We can (and should) debate the meaning of “enough” and “too much,” but there can be little doubt that the current widening gap between rich and poor does not fall within acceptable biblical parameters.

Last week, in an historic address at the Conference on Economic Opportunity and Inequality hosted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen spoke about the widening gap between rich and poor.

She began her remarks by noting that “The distribution of income and wealth in the United States has been widening more or less steadily for several decades, to a greater extent than in most advanced countries.” She went on to make an important declaration followed by several significant observations:

“The extent of and continuing increase in inequality in the United States greatly concern me. The past several decades have seen the most sustained rise in inequality since the 19th century after more than 40 years of narrowing inequality following the Great Depression. By some estimates, income and wealth inequality are near their highest levels in the past hundred years, much higher than the average during that time span and probably higher than for much of American history before then. It is no secret that the past few decades of widening inequality can be summed up as significant income and wealth gains for those at the very top and stagnant living standards for the majority. I think it is appropriate to ask whether this trend is compatible with values rooted in our nation's history, among them the high value Americans have traditionally placed on equality of opportunity.”

When the Chair of the Federal Reserve Board says that something (anything) “greatly concern(s) me,” that is important. And the widening gap should concern all of us.

Her suggested solutions are neither radical nor particularly biblical. She is not about to sing with Mary about casting down the mighty and lifting up the lowly. She does not suggest that the hungry be filled with good things or that the rich be sent away empty. But she does offer a place to start.

One of her most important insights is that the widening gap between rich and poor is incompatible “with values rooted in our nation's history, among them the high value Americans have traditionally placed on equality of opportunity.” Technically, she doesn’t make that as a statement, she poses it as a question, but I’m guessing that is what she thinks.

Her proposed building blocks of opportunity are hardly groundbreaking: early childhood education and support, access to higher education, business ownership, and inheritance. She talks about how budget cuts have decimated the funds available for education and weakened the safety net, but she does not propose a graduated tax to offset the losses and fund those programs. And she does not address the ways in which reductions in the marginal tax rate and other government policies have exacerbated the problem. But it is a beginning.

Naming our demons is an important first step in confronting and defeating them. When Janet Yellen names the demon of increasing inequality, it makes a difference. She is by no means the first person to say that the widening gap in income and wealth inevitably leads to inequality of opportunity and undermines a core common value for us as Americans, but when the Chair of the Federal Reserve Board speaks, people listen.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Problem with Prayer


Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
Romans 8:26-27

A few weeks ago a friend posted a link to an article titled “Why I Hate Prayer,” by Jim Mulholland, a former pastor who now maintains a web site called “Leaving Your Religion,” which offers “guidance for becoming non-religious.”

I was not surprised that someone hated prayer. The idea is common in both the Hebrew and Greek scriptures. The prophet Amos proclaimed God’s hatred of prayer and worship without justice. And Jesus had harsh words for those who made a show of their prayers.

But I was surprised by the idea that anyone needed help in “leaving your religion.” In my experience, folks seem to make that transition without any help at all. As witness the joke told in one variation or another in every denomination. It begins with the question of how to rid the church of mice and ends with the punchline: “We just confirm (or baptize) them and they never come back again.”

Mulholland hates prayer first because he grieves for those who pray desperately in horrific circumstances and face the pain of unanswered prayers. But his second reason is that the celebration of “answered” prayers can inflict even more pain on those whose prayers have not been answered.

He writes, “Perhaps the more graphic examples of this cruelty happened in one of my last years of ministry. One Sunday, a woman stood to announce that – after several months – her prayers had been answered and she was pregnant. Everyone was excited and happy for her, except for me and one other. As I looked out on the congregation I saw the crestfallen face of a woman who had recently shared with me her long depression over her infertility. It wasn’t enough that she would never have children. Now she had to struggle with why her prayers went unanswered.”

When Christians celebrate “answered prayers” as a sign of faithfulness, they imply that the reason why the prayers of their sisters and brothers have not yielded similar results is because they lacked faith. If we add in the folks who, often innocently, celebrate answers to trivial prayers, for a parking space, or a trip without traffic, or sunshine on a picnic, or the victory of their favorite sports team, it becomes even worse.

So Mulholland declares emphatically, “If there is a god who answers the prayers of some men, women and children, but ignores the prayers of others, I have no interest in such a god. That god would be source of inequity and not a god of justice. I would hate a god who answered trivial requests while ignoring the pleas of the parents of starving children.”

In a radio sermon preached in 1952, Reinhold Niebuhr said that for many people, believing in God means “that that we have found a way to the ultimate source and end of life that gives us, against all the chances and changes of life, some special security and some special favor.” As an example, he speaks of the prayers “that many a mother with a boy in Korea must pray, ‘A thousand at thy side and 10,000 at thy right hand, let no evil come to my boy.’”

For the mother or father with a child in danger, that is the most natural prayer in the world and it is the deepest desire of our hearts. Yet in the end it is impossible. As Niebuhr explains, “The Christian faith believes that beyond, within and beyond, the tragedies and the contradictions of history we have laid hold upon a loving heart, and the proof of whose love, on the one hand, is the impartiality toward all of his children and, secondly, a mercy which transcends good and evil.”

In a FaithLink article called “Prayer in a Postmodern World,” Alex Joyner begins with a reference to the movie “Gravity.” He describes poignant scenes of the astronauts “floating in space talking into the void in the hope that they will be heard.” The lead characters, played by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, are set adrift when flying debris strikes the space shuttle on which they are working. They do not know whether or not anyone can hear them, but hoping that ground control might somehow pick up their transmissions, they tell their story in great detail.

“Later,” writes Joyner, “Bullock’s character intercepts a radio signal from Earth, and though she can’t understand all that is being said, she pleads with the staticky voice to pray for her.” She feels compelled to explain, “I’d pray for myself, but I’ve never prayed. Nobody ever taught me how.”

In Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, he tells us that the astronaut is not alone. No one knows how to pray. We don’t know what to say and we don’t know how to say it. Prayer would be impossible if it were not for the intervention of the Spirit of God within us, which prays through us.

In a sermon on this passage, Paul Tillich writes, “This may help us also to understand the most mysterious part of Paul’s description of prayer, namely, that the Spirit "intercedes with sighs too deep for words." Just because every prayer is humanly impossible, just because it brings deeper levels of our being before God than the level of consciousness, something happens in it that cannot be expressed in words. Words, created by and used in our conscious life, are not the essence of prayer. The essence of prayer is the act of God who is working in us and raises our whole being to Himself. The way in which this happens is called by Paul "sighing." Sighing is an expression of the weakness of our creaturely existence. Only in terms of wordless sighs can we approach God, and even these sighs are His work in us.”

Karl Barth said that “To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the the disorder of the world.” It is a rebellion against the chaos and an affirmation of the Spirit. The promise of Christian faith is not that God will grant us a special exemption from life’s hardships, or give us a special reward for our virtue, but that at the center of life there is a loving heart, which will be with us now and forever. The gift of prayer is that we open ourselves to that loving heart.