Monday, June 29, 2015

Bree Newsome's Act of Faithful Obedience




The LORD is my light and my salvation; 
whom shall I fear? 
The LORD is the stronghold of my life; 
of whom shall I be afraid?
When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh— 
my adversaries and foes—
 they shall stumble and fall.
Though an army encamp against me, 
my heart shall not fear;
though war rise up against me,
 yet I will be confident.
One thing I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after:
 to live in the house of the LORD 
all the days of my life, 
to behold the beauty of the LORD, 
and to inquire in his temple.
For he will hide me in his shelter 
in the day of trouble; 
he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; 
he will set me high on a rock.
Psalm 27:1-5

On Saturday morning Bree Newsome, an African American activist and film maker, climbed the flag pole at the South Carolina State Capitol and took down the Confederate flag.

It was a bold act of civil disobedience for which she was promptly and peacefully arrested. She was taken to jail, charged with defacing a monument, and the Confederate flag was raised again. The whole event took just minutes. There were no large crowds, and absent the pictures on social media it would have passed unnoticed.


This morning I saw the video for the first time.

As she takes down the flag you can hear the guards shouting for her to stop and telling her that she will be arrested. She cheerfully assures them that she is prepared to be arrested, and then she shouts to them, “You come against me in hatred and oppression and violence. I come against you in the name of God.”

As she climbs down the pole she recites the 27th Psalm:

The LORD is my light and my salvation; 
whom shall I fear? 
The LORD is the stronghold of my life; 
of whom shall I be afraid?

Finally, as they lead her away in handcuffs you can hear her reciting the 23rd Psalm.

The Lord is my shepherd,
I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures;
He leadeth me beside still waters;
He restoreth my soul . . .

I have a confession. I am not comfortable with civil disobedience. Even when it is completely non-violent and respectful of people and property, it makes me uneasy.

Intellectually, I love it. I am completely at home with Henry David Thoreau’s essay. I celebrate the civil disobedience of Gandhi and King. But my intellectual affirmation is not matched by my emotions.

Of course, civil disobedience is supposed to make us uncomfortable. That is part of the strategy. But I confess it troubles me that I am uncomfortable. 

When I was at Wesleyan I was part of a small group that briefly occupied an office to protest campus recruitment by Dow Chemical, which was making napalm for the war in Vietnam. But that was then, and this is now. 

I am older now and in some ways I am wiser. But I am also more cautious. More respectful of order and authority. And I am not sure that is a good thing. At some point we need to be more committed to the Gospel than we are to being orderly and polite.

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “One act of obedience is better than one hundred sermons.”

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Feeling Hope Today: But Where Will It All End?


When the invited guests did not come to the banquet, “the owner of the house became angry and said to his servant, ‘Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’ And the slave said, ‘Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room.” Then the master said to the servant, ‘Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled.’”
Luke 14:21-24

Yesterday a friend posted about hearing news of the Supreme Court ruling on Gay Marriage while on vacation with her family in Provincetown:

Today, June 26th 2015, my family and I had the amazing experience of celebrating the Supreme Court decision in Provincetown, MA. It was the state (and town!)that the first same sex marriage was recognized. My children had the unique experience of witnessing history being made. My grandchildren will never know a world where you couldn't marry whomever you want to. Feeling hope today!!!

Hope. With exclamation points!

How different this week seems from last. A week ago it seemed like such deep darkness. And today, like my friend, I feel great hope.

On Monday came the decision by Governor Nikki Haley to ask the South Carolina legislature to remove the Confederate flag from the Capitol grounds. And other leaders across the South followed suit.

On Thursday I attended a local memorial service at Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church in Providence. It was a beautiful service. Amazing prayers of grief and comfort and hope. A wonderful sermon. But beyond the content of the service, I was filled with hope when I saw that half of the congregation that night was made up of white people. And outside of the church, in between the anthems and the preaching and the prayers, we could hear the sounds of children playing.

And then there was the Health Care ruling. Whatever one may think about the Affordable Care Act, health care ought to be a basic right. Taking health insurance away from millions of Americans would not have been a good thing.

And finally, on Friday the Supreme Court ruled that equality under the law requires the right to equal marriage for gays and lesbians. And President Obama delivered an inspiring and challenging eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney that ended with him singing “Amazing Grace.” It was amazing. And it was grace-filled.

Of course, not everyone sees the events of this week the same way.

Some see the events of this week as signs of moral decay and an assault on their worldview. 

Publicly and privately, on television and radio and all over social media, they ask, “Where will it all end?”

Rush Limbaugh predicted that once the Confederate flag goes, the American flag will be next. The opponents of gay marriage had all sorts of dire predictions. Most of them are not repeatable in polite company, but they believe we are on a slippery slope and they believe that God will destroy the country in righteous judgment unless we reverse course.

But seriously, where will it all end?

Jesus had an answer to that question. 

It will end in that strange and wonderful place called the Kingdom of God. It will end in a place where the poor are lifted up, the lame walk and the blind see, where everyone has enough and no one has too much, where the stranger is welcome, and everyone has a place at the table.

We are not there, yet. But this past week gave us reason to dare to hope that we are moving in that direction.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Removing the Confederate Flag



Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death.
Matthew 10:21

The Civil War ended 150 years ago this April.

After 620,000 deaths, the war to end slavery was over. 

In his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln was more theologian than politician. He suggested that the war had come to both North and South as divine judgment for the great offense of slavery. In the next to last paragraph, he delivered a confession of faith:

“If God wills, that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”

And then the famous conclusion:

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”


The Dead at Gettysburg
If you doubt that Abraham Lincoln was our greatest President and our greatest public theologian, go read the Second Inaugural. His address would be amazing for its grace and generosity of spirit even if you didn’t know that in the South, Lincoln was our most hated president. And in some parts of the country, he is still the most hated, although our first African American president may have him beaten in some areas.

Lincoln's solemn and sacred reflections are much more in keeping with the picture of the dead at Gettysburg than with with the romanticized picture above. And it is useful to remember that the second picture is real and the first is not. The Civil war was our deadliest and most brutal conflict. More Americans died in the Civil War than in any other war. It was not until the Vietnam War that the total combined deaths in all other wars was more than the number of deaths in the Civil War.

Sadly, the Civil War did not really end at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865. And it did not end on June 19, 1865 (Juneteenth) when Union Troops began liberating the slaves in Texas. In many ways, it is not yet over. 

The decision by South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley to ask legislators to remove the Confederate Flag from the grounds of the State Capitol is important because it is one more step in ending that war and moving the country healing our racial divisions. One hopes that a movement in South Carolina will lead other states to follow suit. 

For many years after the Civil War, the use of the flag was limited to cemeteries and historic memorials. But that changed over time. Popularity of the flag soared after Dixiecrats used it as the emblem of their support for Jim Crow laws and segregation. Strom Thurmond used the flag in 1948. George Wallace raised the flag over the Alabama legislature in 1962.

The flag is important today because it has become a symbol of racial hatred. As South Carolina Republican state legislator Douglas Brannon candidly observed, "It's not just a symbol of hate, it's actually a symbol of pride in one's hatred."

Removing the flag will not end racism in America. But it is important. It is a step. It matters because symbols matter.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Giving Up on "The Word of God"


All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
II Timothy 3:16-17

I have given up on “The Word of God.”

That does not mean that I have given up on the Bible. I do more in-depth Bible study now than I ever did. And I learn more now than I ever did. The new biblical scholarship of Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan has opened up new insights. And I read the classical works of William Barclay with renewed appreciation. I can go on for a long time about “The New Interpreter’s Study Bible,” which is, by the way, the best study Bible ever. I would not describe myself, as John Wesley did, as “a man of one book,” but the Bible holds a special and sacred place in my thinking. Because it is so important, I am careful in how I describe it.

Christians routinely speak of the Bible as the "Word of God."

In many congregations, the weekly reading of Scripture on Sunday mornings is punctuated by saying, “The Word of God for the people of God,” and the people respond, “Thanks be to God.”

The problem is that when we call the Bible the “Word of God,” many people both inside and outside the church take it as an endorsement of biblical literalism. In spite of our efforts to make clear that when we say that the Bible is the Word of God, we don’t mean “the words of God,” many people still hear it as meaning that we believe the Bible is inerrant and infallible. Many assume we believe that God actually communicated those words in some form to the people who then wrote them down. Of course, we don’t mean that at all; we mean that it is inspired, that it speaks to us of the deepest things of the human soul and spirit.

A few years ago at our church we replaced that response with something that is closer to our theological understanding. Now after reading the Scripture, the leader says, “As we hear what the Spirit says to the Church.” And the people respond, “May our hearts be open.” 

We hope that makes it clearer that we are listening for the Spirit to speak to us through the text, that we are listening as the community of the church, and that we want to be open to what the Spirit of God is saying to us today.

More than half a century ago, Paul Tillich argued that much of our Christian language had lost its power. Words like “grace,” “salvation,” “sin,” and even “God,” no longer resonated in the way that they did across nearly two millennia of Christian history. He believed they needed to be reinterpreted, or perhaps even abandoned completely and replaced with new language.

Tillich was clearly right that we needed then and now to learn new ways of speaking. It is not so much that the ancient words have lost their power as that we no longer understand them in the way that earlier Christians once did. Their power has been corrupted by the modern tendency toward literalism. And taken literally, the words sound crude and strange to modern ears.

The words are still powerful. But not in a good way. 

As the Apostle Paul wisely said, “the letter kills, but the spirit gives life.” Literalism kills the spirit and makes the letter all powerful. It does not encourage the spiritual journey. It excludes rather than invites. And, of course it misunderstands the very text it is trying to elevate.


Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Franklin Graham Warns of Moral Decay



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 4:20-21

The Rev. Franklin Graham has been in the news recently, declaring his determination to “fight the tide of moral decay that is being crammed down our throats by big business, the media, and the gay & lesbian community.”

On his Facebook page, Graham wrote:

Have you ever asked yourself–how can we fight the tide of moral decay that is being crammed down our throats by big business, the media, and the gay & lesbian community? Every day it is something else! Tiffany’s started advertising wedding rings for gay couples. Wells Fargo bank is using a same-sex couple in their advertising. And there are more. But it has dawned on me that we don’t have to do business with them. At the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, we are moving our accounts from Wells Fargo to another bank. And guess what—we don’t have to shop at Tiffany & Co., there are plenty of other jewelry stores. This is one way we as Christians can speak out—we have the power of choice. Let’s just stop doing business with those who promote sin and stand against Almighty God’s laws and His standards. Maybe if enough of us do this, it will get their attention. Share this if you agree.

This is not a new crusade for Graham, who is the director of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association started by his famous father. In seminary, my Old Testament professor, Dr. Harrell Beck, frequently expressed his dismay at the shallow theology and limited biblical scholarship of the elder Graham. The Rev. Franklin Graham and his sister, the Rev. Anne Graham Lotz share their father’s aversion to scholarly inquiry and theological reflection, but they have added something new to the mix. 

They are mean in ways that their father never was. 

In his most recent pronouncement, Franklin Graham is calling for a boycott of businesses that are, in his mind, promoting the gay agenda. His target this week is Wells Fargo Bank, and Graham announced that he will lead the boycott by withdrawing all the funds of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (nearly $300,000,000, as I recall) and depositing them in another bank. 

The story has its own amusing punch line.  The bank Graham chose as the new repository for his funds, BB&T, received an 80% score on the Corporate Equality Index of the Human Rights Campaign and this year they are sponsoring the Miami Beach Gay Pride Parade as well as something called the “Legacy Couples” program, which honors gay and lesbian couples who have been in committed relationships for ten years or longer.

But let’s get back to the Wells Fargo ad that touched off this most recent outburst. Where Graham sees moral decay I see joy and commitment and God at work in the world. It’s simply wonderful and you have to see it. 






How can you not love those two moms? How can you not love that little girl? And if you cannot love the moms and the little girl, then how can you possibly love God?

Monday, June 8, 2015

Can We Ever Learn Not to Litter?

The Green at Brown University after Graduation 2015

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Romans 12:2

Sometime in the spring of 1970, during the great student mobilizing effort against the war in Vietnam, I was meeting with a small group in the chapel at Wesleyan University. We must have been a sub-committee of something, but I don’t remember what that was. I am sure we had some very high purpose. We were pretty certain that what we were doing would have a lasting impact on society and make the world more just and peaceful.

I remember that it was a small group, but I only remember one of the participants. I could not tell you anything about our discussion. One image is indelibly burned into my brain. I remember one person perfectly. What I remember is that after he finished speaking he took one last drag on his cigarette and then dropped it on the chapel floor. As he exhaled, he ground out the stub with his boot.

In his mind, I think, it was an act of defiance against the University, which he saw as symbolic of everything wrong with society. It may also have been an indication of his contempt for religion.

What I thought, as I contemplated the smudged ashes on the chapel floor, was that the person who would clean that up was one of the very people that we, in our high purpose, claimed to care so much about.

That image has come back to me many times. In his great Book of Public Prayers, Harry Emerson Fosdick prays that we remember that God cannot make a good world without good people. My concern about the cigarette on the chapel floor may say more about the influence of my Pilgrim and Puritan ancestors than it does about the Kingdom of God, but I can’t help believing that it all matters.

I thought about that episode in the chapel as I read a story by Frank Carini on the recent graduation at Brown University. “The trashy scene recently left behind after the Brown University Class of 2015 graduated perfectly exemplified growing U.S. selfishness,” he writes. “Kindergartners leave a cafeteria with more grace than the ‘litterati’ who exited the Main Green by dumping their lunch trays on the ground. It’s sickening how little we think of others and the places we share that it’s considered acceptable to leave behind an easily-avoidable mess for someone else to clean.”

He goes on to describe “the university lawn littered with half-drunk plastic water bottles, newspapers, commencement programs, half-empty coffee carafes, pieces of lightly bitten fruit and other barely touched foods, and, of course, all things plastic.” This happened in spite of the fact that there were many containers labeled for trash and recycling.

It is unfair to pick on Brown. That scene was probably replicated at graduations across the country. Which is precisely the problem. The Brown graduation is not an outlier. It is not surprising that according to the EPA, Americans only recycle about 35% of our recyclables, and we compost at an every lower percentage. And we do this, for the most part, just because we are too lazy to do anything differently. According to the EPA, we throw away about 40% of our food, wasting 10 times as much per citizen as our sisters and brothers in Southeast Asia. We waste 50% more food today than we did in the 1970’s, before the environment became a (supposedly) popular issue.

What does it say about us that our brightest and best people don’t care enough about the world and their neighbors to pick up after themselves?

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Nones Also Rise


They gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” 
Matthew 22:35-40

The ‘nones” are still growing.

Six years ago I used that same passage from Matthew’s Gospel in a blog post about a recent public opinion survey showing that the fastest growing religious group in America was the “nones,” as in “none of the above.” The “nones” don’t identify with any religious group.

When I wrote that original post, the “nones” had grown from just 8% of the U.S.  population in 1990 to 15% in 2008.  Today that same group comprises 23% of the population. Over that same period of time, the percentage identifying themselves as Christian has dipped from 78% in 2007 to 71% in the most recent survey.

The “nones” are still trailing Evangelical Protestants, who make up about 25% of all adults, but they are gaining.

We are not surprised.

Every community organization is confronting shrinkage and stagnation to one degree or another. That’s true for Rotary Clubs, Granges, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, unions and political parties, as well as for churches. We are not joiners. We don’t go to town meetings and we don’t make the same community connections that we used to make.

There are also broad trends of secularization that have been going on for centuries, with a brief interruption after the Second World War. If we were not constantly comparing church membership and attendance numbers today with the unprecedented growth after World War II, we would probably be less alarmed about the present situation.

But beyond the broad trends and the factors we cannot control, there are issues within Christianity today that ought to be addressed. Two leading United Methodist pastors, Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter talked about “What’s keeping young people away from church?” They point to some reasons which are the same today as they have always been. Young people have always been critical of the hypocrisy they see in their elders. But beyond the petty moralisms, Christianity today suffers from a deeper moral and spiritual disconnect. Young people today are turned off by churches which seem focused on rules rather than on people. Particularly on issues of LGBTQ equality, the church is seen as mean spirited and judgmental. In addition to the practical problem of losing an entire generation of young people, the church has lost the spirit of Jesus. In the view of Hamilton and Slaughter, the church today acts like the very people that Jesus confronted two thousand years ago.

In a recent issue of “Good News,” a magazine for a well funded traditionalist group committed to keeping the United Methodist Church from taking a more inclusive stance with regard to gay and lesbian issues, they note that “RELIGION [is a] LOW PRIORITY FOR MILLENIALS.” As evidence, they cite the results of a Pew Research Center poll asking adults ages 18-29, “What are the most important things in your life?”

Only 15% checked off “Living a very religious life” as one of the most important things in their lives. Given the very narrow phrasing of the question, the result is hardly surprising. Would Jesus think that “Living a very religious life” ought to be one of our most important goals?

The survey reported the responses to eight possible choices. Respondents were able to check all that applied, and the results looked like this:

Being a good parent: 52%
Having a successful marriage: 30%
Helping others in need: 21%
Owning a home: 20%
Living a very religious life: 15%
Having a high-paying career: 15%
Having lots of free time: 9%
Becoming famous: 1%

It’s hard to argue with putting a priority on being a good parent, and having a successful marriage, and helping others in need. Owning a home is a basic and practical financial goal. Living a very religious life edges out having a high paying career. And almost no one cares about becoming famous.

Not bad.

I wish that more young people were in church. Or more importantly, I wish that church could more often be the kind of place where young people would want to be. But if that survey is any indication, then the kids are alright.