Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Progress and the Bending of the Moral Arc

When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.
Deuteronomy 26:6-9

Senator Dianne Feinstein
In a recent blogpost on the Juicy Ecumenism blog of the Institute for Religion and Democracy, the Rev. Dr. David Watson commented on remarks by Senator Dianne Feinstein directed at Roman Catholic judicial nominee Amy Barrett addressing the role which
Professor Amy Barrett
Barrett’s faith might play in her judicial decisions.

“Dogma and law are two different things,” said Feinstein. “I think, whatever a religion is, it has its own dogma. The law is totally different; in your case, Professor [Barrett], when you read your speeches, the conclusion one draws is that the dogma lives loudly within you, and that’s of concern when you come to big issues that large numbers of people have fought for, for years, in this country.”

Watson’s indictment is scathing. “Let’s be clear,” he writes. “Senator Feinstein’s statement cannot mean, ‘You are dogmatic and I am not.’ Rather, it means, ‘I prefer my dogma over yours.’”

Although the term “dogma” is often used negatively as the description of a rigidly held system of beliefs that is impervious to rational inquiry, it can have a more neutral meaning as an established set of opinions. Watson defines it as “a body of accepted teaching.”

Secular liberals, he argues, have their own dogma.
“Secular liberalism is not a value-neutral position. It is a value-laden position with its own set of moral and philosophical underpinnings. One of those presuppositions is the idea of “progress,” that human beings are becoming better and better as time goes on. . . . We are becoming better in our understanding of the natural world and in our mastery of it. We are learning to understand human behavior and human flourishing better than we ever have before. We are developing a keener sense of morality than those who came before us in history. We know better than they did.”
For Watson, “the idea of human progress . . . is an untenable myth, at least with regard to our moral and spiritual development.” And then he lists the evidence for his assertion:
“Two World Wars, the Holocaust, the development of nuclear weapons, the Vietnam War, the Khmer Rouge, the Rwandan Genocide, ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, 9/11, chemical warfare, the rise of global extreme poverty… It was a bloody hundred years.”
Yes. It was a bloody hundred years. But it was also an amazing hundred years: the rights of women, the advancement of race relations, the end of segregation and apartheid, advances in worker rights, advances in the rights of the handicapped, giant leaps in our global standard of living, the end of colonialism, increases in life expectancy and healthcare, and that's just a partial list.

A lot of good things happened in the twentieth century, but the belief in human progress is not based on a single century; it is based on the observation of human history over thousands of years. 

The belief in human progress grows out of a fundamental biblical idea, that God is at work in human history. That’s why, as Dr. King said in his sermon after the march from Selma to Montgomery, the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice. This is the central claim of the Exodus. And it is the theology of the Kingdom of God.

In the rich symbolic language of Deuteronomy, "The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm . . . and he brought us into this place . . .”

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Shiphrah and Puah Resist the Transgender Decree

The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?”
Exodus 1:15-18

In the modern day version of this story Pharaoh tells the women that they should enforce his decree that transgender men and women should be forced out of his army, but here as in the original, they do not do as the king commanded them.

In today’s story the women are United States Senators rather than Hebrew midwives, but like the women in the ancient text, they love justice more than they fear the king (or his political operatives). 

Justice is a bipartisan issue.

Republican Susan Collins and Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand have proposed a joint amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would prevent the Department of Defense from enacting the President’s ban on transgender persons serving in the military.  

In July, Mr. Trump issued the ban in a tweet that came as a surprise to his own administration, including the Secretary of Defense, James Mattis.

Senator Gillibrand tweeted in response, "To all trans men and women serving bravely in the military: I plan to introduce legislation to fight back. We'll keep raising our voices." Senator John McCain, the chair of the Armed Services Committee called the decree a "step in the wrong direction."

The amendment introduced on September 11 would prevent the Department of Defense from discharging current transgender service personnel "solely on the basis of the member’s gender identity.”

“Any individual who wants to join our military and meets the standards should be allowed to serve, period. Gender identity should have nothing to do with it,” said Senator Gillibrand in her statement.

“If individuals are willing to put on the uniform of our country, be deployed in war zones, and risk their lives for our freedoms, then we should be expressing our gratitude to them, not trying to exclude them from military service," said Senator Collins.

Thank you for reading. Please feel free to comment here or on Facebook. Please share on social media as you wish.

Monday, September 11, 2017

The End of the World as We Knew It

“When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. Then those in Judea must flee to the mountains, and those inside the city must leave it, and those out in the country must not enter it; for these are days of vengeance, as a fulfillment of all that is written. Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! For there will be great distress on the earth and wrath against this people; they will fall by the edge of the sword and be taken away as captives among all nations; and Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled. “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. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
Luke 21:20-28

(This is the sermon I preached 
on September 16, 2001, 
the Sunday after 9/11.)

"When these things begin to take place, 
stand up and raise your heads,
because your redemption is drawing near." 

The Scripture reading is actually an advent text in our lectionary. It is also a Holy Week text, since it comes from the last week of Jesus’ life in Jerusalem. He is talking about the second coming. I chose it for today because it speaks of disaster and catastrophe, and I believe it is useful to remind ourselves that this is not the first time that people of faith have faced such things. It is useful to remind ourselves that such catastrophe was not unknown or unanticipated in biblical times.

The events of this week have been tragic and catastrophic. The pain endured has been immense. Our lives have been shaken. there is a real sense in which this kind of war in our global village has changed our world forever. What Jesus tells his disciples is that in times such as these, precisely in this kind of situation, we are called to respond with faith and courage. In the last verse, he tells them, "When these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."

Stand Up

This is a time for people to stand up; to stand up and think; to stand up and question; to stand up and pray. People have a lot of questions. Obviously, there are a host of questions. There are questions of security and politics, but I am thinking about theological questions. I hear people asking, “How could this happen?”

That question has been asked of many religious leaders in television interviews this week, and most of the answers have been awful. I understand that Billy Graham did a great job at the service in Washington, and I thought the Roman Catholic Bishop of New York was wonderful, but most of the responses were poor. 

The low point for me came when Ann Graham Lotz, Billy Graham's daughter, was asked how God could let this happen, and she said, “You have to understand, we have spent years driving God out of our lives,” and she went on to talk about taking prayer out of our schools. Apparently, she believes that God killed three thousand innocent people to teach us that we ought to make kids pray in school. I don’t know what kind of barbarian god she worships, but that is not the God that I know.

Some of us wish that God would work the way King Kong did in the old movie. Do you remember King Kong on the Empire State Building, grabbing the planes out of the air and smashing them on the ground? Some of us wish that God had done something like that last Tuesday, perhaps snatching the planes out of the air and then setting them gently on the ground. But God simply does not work that way.

As I contemplated the events of last Tuesday and began to think about coming together on Sunday morning, I asked myself, “What can I possibly say? And what difference does it make anyway? After something like this, what’s the point?” And then I remembered that this is not the first time that something like this has happened. Twenty-six hundred years ago, when Jerusalem fell and many of the people were carried into captivity in Babylon, the people of Israel still gathered to sing and pray and worship. The faithful gathered for worship after Gettysburg and during the London Blitz. We can think of dozens of examples. People of faith have gathered for prayer and worship in crises large and small all across the centuries.

For many years, we Americans have enjoyed an unprecedented sense of personal and national security. For more than twenty-five years we have been almost untouched by the threat of war. Desert Storm happened far away and with few American casualties. The threat of nuclear war has been almost non-existent for more than a decade. This week we have suffered a huge loss in that sense of security. And some of us have been tempted to equate that loss of personal and national security with a loss of God’s presence. But that is not the security that God provides. At the end of his life, Moses blessed the people of Israel with the promise that “underneath are the everlasting arms.” The promise is not that God will protect us from every evil deed, but that God will always be there.

The reality is that God gives freedom to human beings, and we can use that in a variety of ways. Today I wore my “Palm Sunday” tie. You can see the handprints or palm prints of children. I wore it in part because it feels to me like Palm Sunday. I feel that somber sense that I experience in Holy Week. I also wore it because I have been thinking about what hands do. God gave us hands, and we can use them to do good things or evil things. We have seen both this week.

And Raise Your Heads

"When these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads . . . ." This week we have seen human beings at their best and at their worst. Obviously, what the terrorists did on Tuesday was beyond the scope of what most people had contemplated. When I heard that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center, I immediately assumed it was a tragic accident. Even after the second plane, my mind was searching for an explanation. It was literally incomprehensible.

We have also seen people at their best. What amazing courage it must have taken for people to crash that plane near Pittsburgh, rather than let it go on toward a major population center. The heroism of the rescue workers was magnificent. And was it not a minor miracle that the evacuation of the towers was as orderly as it was. In the face of imminent danger, reports say that people were polite and brave. If even a small number had panicked, the death toll might have been doubled or tripled. One man fell and broke his ankle, and four strangers picked him up and carried him down fifteen flights to safety. Seldom have we seen so many individual acts of caring and kindness in such a small space and time.

We have seen people at their best in our nation, but we have also seen them at their worst. There have been hundreds of attacks on Arab-Americans and on people who looked like Arabs. Molotov cocktails have been thrown into business, guns have been fired, threats and epithets have been shouted.

That is not who we are and that can never be who we are. To put it crudely, we are not them. (To be grammatically correct, I should say, “We are not they,” but it doesn’t sound right.) We are not terrorists and we must not let this tragedy turn us into something less than what we are called to be, as Christians and as Americans. We have an obligation to raise our heads, to lift our vision, and to raise our standards.

The Apostle Paul said that we must “hate what is evil and love what is good.” And he’s right. If we only love the good and do not hate the evil, we become merely sentimental. But William Sloan Coffin was also right when he said that we must love the good more than we hate the evil. If we do not love the good more than we hate the evil, we will simply become good haters. We must not become good haters. We must love the good more than we hate the evil.

Because Your Redemption Is Drawing Near."When these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near." After describing a great crisis in the most vivid language, Jesus then tells them that the time of crisis will also be a time of redemption. He can speak with confidence about the future because he knows this has happened in the past.

When Jerusalem fell and the people of Israel were taken into captivity, the prophets and great religious thinkers asked themselves, “How could this happen? How can it be that the holiest city of the very people God has chosen to bring his message to the world has fallen? If this can happen, then how can we trust God?” 

This was the greatest challenge that Israel had ever faced. And Israel responded to this theological crisis with some of the most brilliant and beautiful literature that human beings have ever produced. The wisdom and depth of thought were amazing. Israel responded, in the words of Professor Walter Brueggemann, “precisely against the data.” It was out of this crisis, says Brueggemann, that Israel gave birth to the concept of hope. It was in these great reflections on the crisis of exile that the concept of hope was first introduced to the world. Hope was Israel’s gift to the world.

Hope is always “against the data.” It is not an analysis which says that things will get better. It is not the cheerful assertion that every cloud has a silver lining. Hope says we trust in God, regardless of the data; regardless of the presence or absence of a silver lining.

You and I are called to reaffirm our hope: our hope in human beings, our hope in our nation, and underneath it all, our hope in God. One of the many posters placed near the destruction at ground zero quoted Paul’s letter to the Philippians:

“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think on these things.”

This is a time for people of faith to stand up and raise our heads. This is a time for people of faith to raise our standards higher than they have ever been. This is a time for us to reaffirm the gift of hope and this is a time for us to love the good.

Thank you for reading. Please feel free to comment here or on Facebook. Please share on social media as you wish.

Monday, August 28, 2017

What Jesus Actually Taught

The poor are invited to the feast. Luke 14:15-24
Once Jesus was asked when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”
Luke 17:20-21

It is time for my annual reflection on Kingdomtide and why it matters.

Yesterday was the First Sunday in Kingdomtide.

At least that’s what it was when I was growing up. In the old United Methodist liturgical calendar the Sundays from the end of August to the beginning of Advent were known as the season of “Kingdomtide.”

It was a time to reflect on the biblical promise of the Kingdom of God and to ask ourselves what the world would look like if we were serious about building the Kingdom of God on earth. Jesus preached the “good news of the Kingdom of God.”

For Jesus, the Kingdom of God was the Gospel. He announced that God was already at work in the world, and we were invited to live in the new reality that God was creating.

The idea of Kingdomtide as a liturgical season began in 1937 and lasted for barely half a century. Kingdomtide just never caught on. Initially, it seemed to have a lot going for it, not the least of which is that stretching out Pentecost, and counting the Sundays after Pentecost, is pretty boring. It also made sense because the fall lectionary texts emphasize building up the Kingdom of God.

And after all, Jesus’ whole message was about the Kingdom of God. That was what he called “the good news.”

But the season of Kingdomtide was doomed by the combined weight of liturgical purity and the concern (which I share) for looking beyond exclusively masculine terms for God.

God is not a King.

When the “new” United Methodist Hymnal was published in 1989, Kingdomtide was gone. I didn’t notice the change for several years. When I saw my error, I briefly surrendered to liturgical conformity and abandoned the season. But it was not long before I changed my mind.

How can we abandon the only liturgical season that is focused on what Jesus actually taught?

Whatever we call it, we need to do it.

Some time in the middle of the last century one of the great preachers said that our most important task is keeping the idea of the Kingdom of God alive in the human spirit. 

In the hyper-competitive winner-take-all culture of the twenty-first century, that task is even more urgent. Notions of economic justice, concern for the poor, non-violence, and simplicity are often seen as na├»ve or un-American. 

We need to reclaim the language of Jesus.

The Kingdom of God is a profoundly political idea. But it does not translate directly into what we popularly associate with “politics.” It is not about political parties or political labels.

As Robert Bellah wrote, "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."

In these deeply troubled times, it is easy to feel hopeless, but it is precisely in times such as these that we need to be grounded in Jesus’ message.

When his disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray, he told them to pray first for the Kingdom of God to come on earth. Two thousand years later, that should still be our first concern.

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

*A version of this post was first published on September 1, 2011.

Friday, August 25, 2017

The President's Rally in Phoenix

When it was evening, he sat at table with the twelve disciples; and as they were eating, he said, “Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” And they were very sorrowful, and began to say to him one after another, “Is it I, Lord?”
Matthew 26:20-22

Is it I, Lord?

There are many strange scenes in the Bible, but this is one of the strangest.

We commonly call this “The Last Supper.” Jesus is celebrating Passover with his disciples. And he tells them he knows that one of them will betray him. Immediately they begin, one by one, to ask him, “Is it me? Am I the one who will betray you?”

Christians have wondered for two millennia how all of them could be asking that question. How could they not know the answer?

I thought of this scene as I contemplated the President’s rally in Phoenix.

There is an almost (or more than almost) messianic quality to the loyalty and praise he receives from some of his followers. Many believe that he has sacrificed his life to serve the country. They see the Trump White House as a forerunner of the Kingdom of God.

Where Christians might believe that “if Jesus said it, then it must be true,” in a similar way many of Trump’s supporter believe that if Donald Trump said it, then it must be true. So when he says that the television cameras have been turned off, they believe him even if they can see that the cameras are still on. 

And he does seem to believe that he is the Messiah.

But in this case I was not thinking about similarities. I was thinking about a profound difference.

David Smith wrote an article for The Guardian, reporting on interviews he had with Trump supporters at the Phoenix rally. He interviewed nine people, so it hardly qualifies as a scientific study, but the results are interesting.

Most of it was very predictable. They voted for him because he is not a politician, because he is not afraid to say what he thinks, because he will shake things up in Washington, and, amazingly, because they trust him.

One woman voted for him because she “didn’t want someone being investigated by the FBI sitting in our president’s seat.” She did not seem aware of the irony in her statement.

They were asked whether or not they thought that Mr. Trump was a racist. Not surprisingly, they all said no. They did not think he was a racist. In fact, they were certain he was not a racist. 

They knew this because each of them said in one way or another, “he believes what I believe.”

There is logic to it:

“I am not a racist. Mr. Trump believes what I believe. Therefore, Mr. Trump is not a racist.”

When Christians discuss that interchange at the Last Supper, they often marvel that the disciples would have so little self-knowledge that each would think himself capable of betraying Jesus.

But I think that misses the point. The Disciples doubt themselves precisely because they know themselves all too well. They know their own weakness and moral frailty. And they know the darkness that can cloud the human heart.

When we look back on the great moral divides in human history we often feel certain that if we had lived in that time and faced those issues we would have been on the right side. We would have stood with Jesus against the violence of the empire. We would have sided with the abolitionists. We would have been against child labor. We would have supported women’s suffrage. We would have marched for civil rights. 

And if we had lived in Germany in the 1930’s we would have resisted the Nazis.

In other words, we are certain of our own goodness. 

The Trump loyalists in Arizona were not asking, “Is it I, Lord?” 

“Am I a racist?”

A year and a half ago, before the Iowa caucuses, Donald Trump was interviewed about the surprising revelation that he was actually a Christian and that he went to church. Frank Luntz asked him if he had ever asked God for forgiveness and he basically said, no.

Of course not. 

A real Trump supporter would know that’s a pretty silly question.

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

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Trump Tweets, Confederate Statues, and Our Three Cats

When Moses saw that the people were running wild (for Aaron had let them run wild, to the derision of their enemies), then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, “Who is on the Lord’s side? Come to me!”
Exodus 32:25-26

Once upon a time in our family we had three cats.

Their given names were Duster, Longfellow, and Wamba.

Their nicknames were General Lee, General Longstreet, and the Gray Ghost, Colonel John Mosby. Since they were gray there was some logic to naming them after Confederate officers. Duster, always looked dignified with his long gray fur and a beautiful white patch from his chin down his chest that reminded us of Lee’s beard. Wamba was fast and elusive and somewhat of a guerrilla fighter, so Gray Ghost seemed to fit. And Longy had to be Longstreet.

The nicknames came into being when we were reading “The Killer Angels,” Michael Shaara’s brilliant historical novel about the Battle of Gettysburg.

We were reading the book because of an interest in Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, who left his position as a professor of Rhetoric and Revealed Religion at Bowdoin College to volunteer for the Union Army. At Gettysburg he led the Twentieth Maine Volunteers to hold the extreme left flank of the Union line against repeated Confederate assaults. Chamberlain’s leadership saved the day, and the battle, and possibly the war itself.

Chamberlain was our hero, but General James Longstreet was the most sympathetic character. Shaara portrays him as a pensive and deeply devout man, shaken by the loss of three children who died in rapid succession in an epidemic of scarlet fever in 1862. He was also a brilliant general who tried in vain to dissuade Lee from ordering Pickett’s disastrous charge.

The nicknames took hold without any conscious decision on our part. They were gray guys and of course they were Confederates.

But when I think about it, it is odd that we did not think it odd at the time.

We were the unlikeliest people to indulge in southern nostalgia.

Elaine and I are Yankees. I am named after my great-great-grandfather, William Crowell Gibbs, who was a Lieutenant Commander in the Union Navy, served under Admiral David Farragut and lost an eye in the Battle of Mobile Bay. And Elaine’s great-grandfather, who was not old enough to fight in the Civil War, was part of reconstruction. He went south after the war to teach former slaves on Wadmalaw Island in South Carolina.

We grew up on Civil Rights. We know about systemic racism. We understand white privilege. And anyone who reads this blog knows that racism has been a frequent topic.

But still.

We named our cats after Confederate war heroes.

Which goes to show how deeply the romanticism of the Civil War is embedded in our national psyche.

I was meditating on all of this as I considered the matter of Confederate Statuary. When the President called the statues part of our culture and history, he was only partly wrong. His advocacy against removal of the monuments was wrong and insensitive. But he was right in his observation. Unfortunately, the statues are part of our history and they remain part of our culture. The myth of the “Lost Cause” which says that the Civil War was not really about slavery, is alive and well. We may be against racism, but we still love “Gone with the Wind.”

But there’s more to our family story

In our little gray trinity, I was surprised to learn that both Longstreet and Mosby became Republicans after the war. They actively supported the reunited Union and each served in the government.

Longstreet’s work after the war was particularly significant. He moved to New Orleans where he played a key role in government and civilian endeavors.

His biography in “The Civil War Trust” views his post war years through a hazy mist of Civil War romanticism:

“In 1867, the New Orleans Times asked several leading citizens to comment on the newly passed Reconstruction Acts. Unwisely, Longstreet suggested that Southerners support the Republicans. . . He supported Grant for president, and when elected, Grant nominated Longstreet to be the Surveyor of Customs for the Port of New Orleans. For this last betrayal of the South he was labeled a ‘scalawag.’”
Longstreet became the target of “Lost Cause” advocates such as Jubal Early, William Pendleton, and Rev. J. William Jones among others. They were so outraged by his support for black suffrage and his willingness to command a biracial force against an uprising of white supremacists that they tried to smear his war record and blamed him for the Southern defeat at Gettysburg.

One of the monuments that the city of New Orleans now proposes to remove is dedicated to the white supremacists that General Longstreet put down in 1874 with an African American militia. It would be fitting to replace that monument with one that honors Longstreet, not for his Civil War exploits, though they were extensive, but for the service he rendered to his country after the war.

Mr. Trump is right that the Confederate statues are part of our history and culture. But we need to reclaim that history from the romantic imagery of the Lost Cause and recognize it for the evil that it was.

William Faulkner wrote, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”

In this case, it is long past time to let go of the past. We cannot and should not forget it. But we should stop celebrating it.

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

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

With Nazis There Is No Moral Equivalence

"There is blame on both sides."
"There were very fine people on both sides."
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

“They are Nazis,” Jurgen Moltmann declared, “and when you are confronted by Nazis you must defeat them.”

Nothing else matters, he insisted, until you get rid of the Nazis.

Moltmann, perhaps the last of the great German theologians of the twentieth century, made that prophetic declaration half a century ago. He was visiting the United States for a theological conference and he was talking about the segregationists in the south.

As my theology professor told the story, Moltmann had insisted  to his fellow theologians that they had no business discussing theology until they had first done something about the Nazis.

I remember thinking that although the segregationists were certainly bad, it was hyperbole to call them Nazis. But the events in Charlottesville this past weekend have proven me wrong. They call themselves Nazis.

Jurgen Moltmann grew up in a secular family in Hamburg. As a teenager he was drafted into the German Army near the end of the war. He was captured by the British and spent several years as a prisoner of war. During that time his captors presented him with descriptions and pictures of the concentration camps at Buchenwald and Auschwitz, and he was overwhelmed with guilt for what his country had done.

While he was held prisoner an American Army Chaplain gave him a New Testament and it transformed his life. “I did not find Christ,” he would later say, “Christ found me.” After the war he completed a doctorate in theology and his reflections on Nazism and the war led him to develop “A Theology of Hope.”

Moltmann could see, as Paul Tillich, Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Reinhold Niebuhr, and others had made clear before him that the absolute claims of Nazism were theological as well as political. And that those absolute claims made it antithetical to Christianity. 

When Moltmann insisted that there could be no theological discussion until Nazism had been addressed, he wasn’t introducing politics into theological discourse. He was recognizing that until they were dealt with, the absolute claims of Nazism made authentic theological discussion impossible.

I think we can say with absolute certainty that Donald Trump has not read Jurgen Moltmann, or any of the great theologians who could see the dangers of Nazism long before the first concentration camps were built. But one doesn’t need a deep understanding of theology and ethics to make a judgment on the events in Charlottesville.

When it comes to Nazis there are not two sides.

After the violence and death last Saturday, the President condemned the hatred and violence “on many sides.” And for emphasis he paused before repeating, “on many sides.”

On Monday he responded to forty-eight hours of nearly universal bipartisan criticism by “clarifying” his Saturday remarks to say that he unequivocally condemned the KKK, the Neo-Nazis, and the white supremacists. He was reading a script and looking very uncomfortable, but he stuck to his text. 

He did not try to spread the blame.

As CNN’s Dan Merica wrote, Tuesday’s news conference was a different story:
“The news conference laid bare his unvarnished view of who was to blame for the violence and what he thinks about the nationwide effort to remove statues of Confederate leaders. Trump's comments were the latest in what has been a jaw-dropping saga ever since the President made his first vague statement on the violence, blaming the conflicts on many sides.’ The comments also made clear that Trump's speech on Monday -- which vociferously blamed the violence on the ‘alt-right’ and neo-Nazi groups who initiated the protest -- was largely a sterilized version of his view.”
David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan leader, felt vindicated. In a Twitter post he said, “Thank you President Trump for your honesty and courage to tell the truth.”

White nationalist leader, Richard B. Spencer, who like Duke participated in the demonstrations over the weekend and has promised to continue protesting the planned removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee, tweeted that, “Trump’s statement was fair and down to earth.”

At the conclusion of the news conference, as he was leaving, Mr. Trump was asked if he was planning to visit Charlottesville. He answered with a question, “Does anyone know I own a house in Charlottesville?”

Actually, he owns a winery.

"I mean I know a lot about Charlottesville," said the President. "Charlottesville is a great place that has been very badly hurt over the last couple of days."

He added: "I own actually one of the largest wineries in the United States, it is in Charlottesville."

Even by the strange standards of this administration it was bizarre and unsettling. His defenders will say that he is not a traditional politician and we need to get used to a very different style. But it was appalling by any measure. And deeply troubling.

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