Monday, February 27, 2017

Like an Everflowing Stream

I hate, I despise your festivals, 
and I take no delight 
in your solemn assemblies. 
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings 
and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals 
I will not look upon. 
Take away from me the noise of your songs; 
I will not listen to the melody of your harps. 
But let justice roll down like waters, 
and righteousness like an everflowing stream.
Amos 5:21-24

These verses from the prophet Amos will provide our worship theme for Lent at The United Methodist Church in East Greenwich, Rhode Island. Together we will look for the ways in which we can be God’s agents for change in our world. The Hebrew prophets were clear that working for justice in the world was central to their faith. Without justice God would not “listen to the melody” of their harps. Without justice their songs were just noise. We cannot worship God without working for justice in the world.

Historically, Amos has often been labeled as one of the twelve “Lesser Prophets” of the Hebrew Bible. But that “Lesser” label was about length rather than importance.

Writing and teaching nearly eight centuries before the birth of Jesus, Amos was the first prophet to speak as the nation’s conscience. In a time of relative prosperity, he speaks God’s word of condemnation for the national leaders and for the nation because they have oppressed the poor and needy. They wonder why God does not hear their songs of prayer and praise, or respond to their burnt offerings. But Amos tells them that without justice their rituals of piety and sacrifice mean nothing.

In the passage that provides our Lenten theme, Amos pronounces God’s blistering condemnation for the system of cultic sacrifice and the festivals that celebrate it. He declares that the rituals are meaningless as long as the people who keep them are morally polluted.

This call to moral accountability was as difficult to hear in ancient Israel as it is today in modern America. But condemnation is never the last word. And we must remember that Amos was critical of what he saw in Israel because he knew that the nation could do better. Ultimately, it was his hope for the future that resulted in his criticism of the present.

Lent is the perfect time for us to look forward and remind ourselves of the people we are called to be, and the nation we are called to be. If we will “let justice roll down,” then the future can be better than the past. “Like an Everflowing Stream,” God’s justice calls us into a future filled with hope and possibility.

Friday, February 17, 2017

With Charity Toward None

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”

Matthew 5:21-22

Political Correctness, also known as PC or P.C., is commonly defined as “the avoidance, often considered as taken to extremes, of forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against.”

Some trace it back to a statement by Mao Zedong, “Not to have a correct political point of view is like having no soul.”

The term was first used ironically by leftist commentators. But (ironically) one might suspect that it is true for most American politicians on both sides and especially on both extremes. No one would admit that because it would mean agreeing with Mao and that (again, ironically) would not be politically correct.

Mao’s aphorism explains the willingness of Conservative Evangelicals to abandon their supposed moral principles in order to advance their politics. Their politics is their theology.

Opponents of Political Correctness say that it stifles free speech.

Taken to extremes, it does stifle debate and discussion. But the foundational concept is a good one. We should not “exclude marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against.” That’s just common decency.

Nevertheless, Political Correctness is everyone’s favorite punching bag.

No one wants to be insulted or called a name. But everyone seems to be offended by the idea that they ought not to offend others.

Donald Trump rode that common feeling of indignation all the way to the White House. His ability to articulate that inchoate sense of victimization turned out to be a brilliant strategy. 

In an article published by The Guardian, Moira Weigel observes that, “Throughout an erratic campaign, Trump consistently blasted political correctness, blaming it for an extraordinary range of ills and using the phrase to deflect any and every criticism.” And she points to a key moment during the first debate of the Republican primaries when Fox News host Megyn Kelly asked Trump how he would answer the charge that he was “part of the war on women”.

“You’ve called women you don’t like ‘fat pigs,’ ‘dogs,’ ‘slobs,’ and ‘disgusting animals’,” Kelly pointed out. “You once told a contestant on Celebrity Apprentice it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees …”
“I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct,” Trump answered, to audience applause. “I’ve been challenged by so many people, I don’t frankly have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time either.”
Weigel asserts that pushed beyond what any other critics of Political Correctness had been willing to say and do. “Trump did not simply criticize the idea of political correctness,” she writes. “He actually said and did the kind of outrageous things that PC culture supposedly prohibited.”

One of the things his supporters liked best was his willingness to “tell it like it is.” He was willing to say what many of them were really thinking.

He broke the boundaries of what was acceptable.

Weigel summarizes this appeal by contrasting it with a much more conventional politician:

“In 1991, when George HW Bush warned that political correctness was a threat to free speech, he did not choose to exercise his free speech rights by publicly mocking a man with a disability or characterizing Mexican immigrants as rapists. Trump did.
“Having elevated the powers of PC to mythic status, the draft-dodging billionaire, son of a slumlord, taunted the parents of a fallen soldier and claimed that his cruelty and malice was, in fact, courage.”
In this strange new world, free of the chains of oppressive political correctness, we are now free to call names, ridicule the powerless, and slander the already marginalized. Best of all, we need not feel guilty for our cruelty. Instead we can celebrate our willingness to “tell it like it is.”

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

Friday, February 10, 2017

Nevertheless, She Persisted.

This 1906 Cartoon depicts the Senate as a more fearsome place than it is today.

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.
Galatians 3:28-29


She persisted.

This should not be a partisan issue.

The United States Senate has done something that they ought not to have done.

They have confirmed Jeff Sessions as Attorney General of the United States, which means they have placed a man with a public record of racism in charge of overseeing the Civil Rights laws that are supposed to protect our citizens against racial discrimination. And they have placed a man opposed to the equal treatment of our LGBTQ citizens in charge of protecting those citizens.

Along the way they silenced Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren using an obscure Senate regulation  called “Rule Nineteen,” which dictates polite discourse in Senate debates and states in its second section:
“No Senator in debate shall, directly or indirectly, by any form of words impute to another Senator or to other Senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator.”
Her sin was in reading a letter from Coretta Scott King written in opposition to the appointment of Sessions to a Federal judgeship after he was nominated by President Reagan. In her letter she detailed how Sessions had worked against Civil Rights and had used the Voting Rights Act to harass civil rights workers who were trying to help African Americans to vote by absentee ballot.

He used an act designed to prevent voter suppression in order to suppress voters.

Sessions was defeated for the judgeship, but he was elected to the senate a few years later. And as a senator he has continued to oppose Civil Rights for African Americans as well as for LGBTQ persons. 

Curiously, after voting to use Rule Nineteen to silence Senator Warren, no one objected a day later when several of her male colleagues read the full text of the letter into the Congressional Record.

In an article published in, Russell Berman reviewed the genesis of Rule Nineteen:
“In February 1902, the Senate was debating a treaty to annex the Philippines when Senator Benjamin ‘Pitchfork Ben’ Tillman became infuriated that his fellow South Carolina Democrat and onetime close friend, John McLaurin, had switched his position to join Republicans in supporting the accord. McLaurin, Tillman raged, had succumbed to ‘improper influences’; Republicans had showered him with perks and privileges, Tillman charged, and he had caved in return.
“A former South Carolina governor whose statue still stands on the statehouse grounds, Tillman has drawn more recent attention for being a white supremacist who advocated until his death the lynching of black people who tried to vote. Back then, he was known for his outspokenness and his ‘less than courteous’ manner of debating in the Senate. Alerted to Pitchfork Ben’s comments, an incensed McLaurin ‘dashed into the Senate chamber and denounced Tillman's statement as “a willful, malicious, and deliberate lie,’” according to a Senate history of the incident. Tillman responded by physically attacking McLaurin ‘with a series of stinging blows,’ the historians wrote, and efforts to separate the brawling Southerners ‘resulted in misdirected punches landing on other members.’”
The problem is not that Attorney General Sessions engaged in racist acts thirty years ago. The problem is that he has not apologized, nor has he clearly stated a present understanding that what he did then was wrong. But it does not end there. He has continued to oppose Civil Rights from that time until now.

The unintentional connection to “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman through the invocation of Rule XIX is worth a closer look.

In an article published in the Washington Post, Sarah Larimer cites an Associated Press report that up until his death in 1918, Tillman was an unapologetic defender of his “post-Reconstruction tactics to restore white rule in the then-majority-black state by killing any black who tried to vote.”
“The purpose of our visit was to strike terror,” he said in the Senate in 1900 about the so-called Hamburg Massacre of 1876, where his militia killed black Republicans. “And the next morning when the Negroes who had fled to the swamp returned to the town the ghastly sight which met their gaze of seven dead Negroes lying stark and stiff certainly had its effect.”
So a rule first voted into effect to civilize the behavior of a man who once practiced the most extreme form of voter suppression was used to suppress the witness of Coretta Scott King  and silence the dissent of Elizabeth Warren. And this was done in order to support the nomination of a man who continues to oppose the civil rights of minorities.


She persisted.

Sometimes it feels like we have gone through the looking glass.

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

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Truth Matters

Then Jesus said to those who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
John 8:31-32

One shouldn’t have to say this, but given Donald Trump’s statements during his first few weeks in office, it is a claim that needs to be stated: Truth matters.

The Bible makes many claims, but it is hard to find something more fundamental than this. Truth matters. It makes a difference. Falsehood leads to ruin and truth leads to life. 

In John’s narrative of the crucifixion, he describes the encounter between Jesus and Pilate centering on the nature and meaning of truth as it relates to Jesus’ ministry and mission. Before sentencing Jesus to death, Pilate interrogates him about the claim that he is the king of the Jews. He asks him a question in the form of a statement. “So,” says Pilate, “You are a king?” 

Jesus throws it back at him with a blend of irony and sarcasm, “You say that I am a king.” 

And then he explains his mission: “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” 

Although John does not say anything about how quickly Pilate responded, one imagines a pause. Possibly a very long pause.

And finally Pilate asks Jesus, “What is truth?”

Or in our present context, “What is a lie?”

Each of our previous four presidents has been accused of lying. George H. W. Bush “lied” that there would be “no new taxes.” Bill Clinton “lied” when he said he “did not have sex with that woman.” George W. Bush “lied” when he said that Saddam Hussein has “weapons of mass destruction.” And Barack Obama “lied” when he promised that under the Affordable Care Act, “you can keep your doctor.”

The first and fourth are political promises made based on assumptions about the future. Calling them “lies” is a stretch. When the meteorologist on TV tells me that I won’t need an umbrella, and then it rains, that’s not a lie. It’s a mistake, maybe, but it’s not a lie.

According to Web MD, 80% of young adults don’t count oral sex as having sex. From their perspective Clinton was not lying. If George Bush knew that there were no weapons of mass destruction and intentionally deceived the country, then he lied. But are we sure that he knew?

The situation with Donald Trump is very different. He seems to lie all the time about matters great and small. 

We could start with Barack Obama’s birth certificate and end with his comments earlier this week at the headquarters of the U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida. Addressing the troops at MacDill, Mr. Trump explained his concern about the danger of terrorist attacks, first by citing a series of recent events and then by criticizing the media coverage of terrorism:
"It's gotten to a point where it's not even reported, and in many cases the very, very dishonest press doesn't even want to report it."
From Mr. Trump’s perspective, journalists are not just mistaken or even lazy or indifferent to national security. They are not just dishonest or even very dishonest. They are “very, very dishonest.”

And then, with a sinister ambiguity, he told the troops that the media "have their reasons, and you understand that.”

It is impossible to imagine any previous president standing in front of his troops at the Central Command headquarters and telling them that the United States press is universally and intentionally dishonest. 

The truth matters. And it matters even more when you are the Commander in Chief.

There is deep irony in choosing Steve Bannon, a major architect of Breitbart news, as a senior adviser and even including him in the National Security Council, and then complaining about bias in the media. 

That irony would be much more entertaining if there were not so much at stake. We are in dangerous territory. We cannot have a free country without a free press. Delegitimizing the press threatens the foundations of our democracy.

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

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Jesus without Content

Dear Lord Jesus,
I know that I am a sinner and need Your forgiveness. I believe that You died on the cross for my sins and rose from the grave to give me life. I know You are the only way to God. So now I want to quit disobeying You and start living for You. Please forgive me, change my life and show me how to know You. In Jesus' name. Amen.

It is commonly known as “The Sinner’s Prayer.” That particular version comes from the Christian Broadcasting Network.

I visited their website in search of an interview they did with Donald Trump.

If you click on a link labeled “Know Jesus” you will find yourself on a page called “Peace with God.” They have a very simple four step process ending with the Sinner’s Prayer.

Step one is recognizing that God loves you.

Step two is realizing that we are separated from God by our sin which, if unforgiven, will lead to death. But God’s gift is eternal life through Jesus Christ.

Step three is understanding that Jesus Christ paid the penalty for our sin and bridged the gap between God and people.

Step four is receiving Christ as your personal savior. You must do that in order to be saved. Jesus is the only way to God and the only way to escape the punishment we deserve. But (lucky for you!) you can give your life over to Christ right now. All you need to do is to pray the prayer.

As near as I can tell, you don’t even need to be sincere, although that is not clearly spelled out.

G.K. Chesterton famously observed that “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.” But the CBN version of Christianity is not difficult at all.

Never mind taking up the cross, or loving your enemies, or turning the other cheek, or going the extra mile, or selling all that you have and giving it to the poor, or any of those other teachings of Jesus that seemed so difficult. You don’t need to worry about clothing the naked or feeding the hungry. 

Just say a prayer.

And just to be clear, you don't need to say a prayer for those who are poor or sick or oppressed. You just need to pray for Jesus to save you.

Don’t worry about doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God. Don’t worry about letting justice roll down like a mighty river. Don’t worry about what Jesus taught or how Jesus lived, or what he actually asked of those who follow him.

What does it mean “to quit disobeying You and start living for You”? If we were looking at the teachings of Jesus, that could be a very challenging endeavor, but in terms of the Sinner’s Prayer, one suspects it is a vague reference to conventional morality.

If we reduce Christian faith to such meaningless jargon, it is no wonder that people can call themselves Christians and still embrace racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and other forms of oppression. Jesus without his teachings is just an empty shell. You can fill it with whatever suits your fancy.

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

Thursday, January 26, 2017

The ACA Has Achieved Something Significant

Five Year Old James Cook of Cleveland, Ohio

When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

“I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”

Mark 2:1-5, 11-12

Modern readers tend to focus first on the miracle.

They may believe it literally, or they may see it as a metaphor. They may rationalize it, or they may see it pointing toward larger truths about healing and wholeness and forgiveness, they may focus on sin and guilt in relation to physical health.

But there is something else, central to the story, which is easily missed. What impresses Jesus is the four friends carrying the paralytic. “When he saw their faith” he offered the forgiveness that led to healing.

They picked him up and carried him.

When Jesus saw them carrying the man, he called that “faith.”

Over the past eight years of our national debate about the Affordable Care Act, one of the most contentious questions has been about whether or not healthy people have a responsibility to carry those who are ill.

And the good news is that we have made progress.

In September of 2011 CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer was moderating a Republican Presidential Candidates debate in Tampa Florida. He posed a hypothetical question to Dr. Ron Paul. If a healthy thirty year old man with a good income chose not to buy health insurance and then became catastrophically ill, what should happen? Paul tried to dodge the question by recalling (incorrectly) that years ago the churches took care of people who had no insurance, but a significant portion of the audience could be heard chanting, “Let him die! Let him die!”

Not our finest moment, though the Ayn Rand crowd must have rejoiced in the triumph of “the virtue of selfishness.”

No one is really happy with the individual mandate requirement of the Affordable Care Act. But without some means of requiring everyone to buy coverage it is impossible to pay for the very popular provisions protecting those with pre-existing conditions and eliminating the lifetime limits on coverage.

The ACA is far from perfect. But it has achieved something significant. It has shifted the terms of the debate.

When we first began discussing the ACA, one of the primary objections was that “we can’t afford it.” In other words, we won’t carry sick people. If people need to be carried they will have to pay for it on their own.

In the initial debates and in subsequent attempts at repeal, those against the ACA did not mention the folks without health insurance. And they did not seem worried that repeal would take away insurance from twenty million people who were previously uninsured and now have health insurance through the ACA.

But now that has shifted.

President Trump’s official position is that the ACA should be repealed and replaced with Health Savings Accounts, which is not really a viable alternative to insurance. But in his public statements he has repeatedly said that we can’t have twenty million people losing health insurance. And other opponents of the ACA have said the same thing.

In the long run we need some version of single payer health insurance like almost all of the developed world. And we could do this using the present Medicare model.

But for now at least we seem to have taken a small step toward.

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

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Monica Crowley and the Perils of Plagiarism

Remind them of this, and warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. 
II Timothy 2:14-15

It is quaint, really.

A reminder of a bygone era, a time when even the whiff of a scandal was enough to derail one’s candidacy for public office. Like Tom Daschle withdrawing from a proposed cabinet position in the Obama administration because he got a free ride (literally, the use of a limousine and chauffeur) which he did not declare on his income tax. 

Monica Crowley’s withdrawal as a candidate for the position of senior director of strategic communications for the National Security Council in (soon to be) President Trump's administration because of alleged plagiarism seemed oddly out of synch with everything else going on in the new administration.

She would have been working for a man who apparently believes strange conspiracy theories and tweets fake news without apology. And that man, of course, would be working for a president who once bragged that he could shoot someone in broad daylight on Fifth Avenue without losing any of his supporters. 

All the fuss over plagiarism seems strange.

In a comprehensive analysis for CNN Money, Andrew Kaczynski, Chris Massie and Nathan McDermott reported that a CNN KFile review found that Crowley had plagiarized thousands of words in her Ph.D. dissertation.
“In her dissertation on America's China policy under Truman and Nixon, entitled ‘Clearer Than Truth,’ Crowley, whose Ph.D. is in international relations, lifted multiple passages from Eric Larson's 1996 book, ‘Casualties and Consensus: The Historical Role of Casualties in Domestic Support for U.S. Military Operations.’ She also repeatedly plagiarized James Chace's 1998 book, ‘Acheson: The Secretary of State Who Created the American World,’ as well as a 1982 book by Yale's John Lewis Gaddis called ‘Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of American National Security Policy during the Cold War.’ Crowley's dissertation also contains passages taken from a 1996 book by Thomas Christensen of Princeton, ‘Useful Adversaries: Grand Strategy, Domestic Mobilization, and Sino-American Conflict, 1947-1958.’”
Plagiarism covers a wide variety of academic misdemeanors and felonies from the high school student who turns in a paper written by someone else to the researcher who does some sloppy work on the footnotes or leaves out quotation marks. Most of the time it is more about sloppiness and laziness than what we traditionally think of as cheating.

But the Crowley case belies that generalization.

One is struck by the sheer volume of the sections in question. The CNN Money article lays out her text beside the original. The individual passages are long. We are not talking about a sentence here and a sentence there. And they are word for word. And they go on for pages.

One guesses that the readers who signed off on her dissertation are not feeling very good about themselves right now.

And. There’s more.

Her 2012 book, “What the (Bleep) Just Happened,” published by Harper Collins, also contains significant material lifted from other sources.

But that’s not all. As Kaczynski, Massie and McDermott report:

“Crowley's first plagiarism scandal came in 1999, the year before she submitted her dissertation. After The New York Times reported a reader found that a column she wrote in the Wall Street Journal strongly resembled a 1988 article in the neoconservative magazine Commentary, a Journal editor said that the paper would not have published her piece if it had known of the parallels. Crowley denied the charge but acknowledged that the language is similar.”

So this wasn’t just a footnote missing here or there, or even a stray sentence or two, this was extensive and comprehensive. This was industrial strength plagiarism. 

Even so, I bet Donald Trump could have gotten away with it.

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