Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Asking a Better Question

Demonstrators Calling for Inclusion at General Conference in 2012

The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”
Acts 10:45-47

The official United Methodist website has an article written by Heather Hahn on the 2016 General Conference titled, “How should General Conference discuss sexuality?”

A better question might be, “Why are we still talking about this?”

Seriously. If you have not been convinced by the witness of the Scriptures, from the Torah to the Prophets to the Gospels and the Letters, that the great arc of the biblical message calls us toward liberation and love and grace, and if the science is not enough, then maybe you might at least pay attention to the commonplace of public opinion.

As the great abolitionist hymn writer and poet, James Russell Lowell wrote:

New occasions teach new duties,
Time makes ancient good uncouth;
They must upward still and onward,
Who would keep abreast of truth.

We need to move on.

The article comments on a meeting held recently at First United Methodist Church in Portland, Oregon, on how the next General Conference might avoid the divisive rancor of precious gatherings. Denominational leaders brought together leaders of The Confessing Movement within the United Methodist Church, Good News, Love Prevails, the Methodist Federation for Social Action and the Reconciling Ministries Network. The Confessing Movement and Good News want to maintain the current stance against homosexuality and to increase the penalties for clergy who violate those standards. Love Prevails, the Methodist Federation for Social Action, and Reconciling Ministries want the church to be fully inclusive of LGBTQ persons.

After the meeting, Rob Renfroe, President of Good News, said, “The consensus was that we all know General Conference is an emotional and hurtful process.”

“I think there is consensus that we all want to find a way to minimize the hurt and to allow everyone be heard and at the same time … to allow people to vote their conscience and keep to their principles. We happen to see some important issues in different ways,” he said.

I give him credit for his gracious manner. Clearly, he wants to be kind. He is right, we do “happen to see some important issues in different ways.” And there is pain on both sides.

But let’s be clear. The pain is not equally divided. The pain of being excluded and told that you are “less than” is not the same as the pain of being told that you have excluded and hurt people, or that you shouldn’t do any more hurting and excluding. Neither side is without fault. But again, the fault is not equal.

One of the groups working hard to keep the old exclusionary language in place calls themselves “The Confessing Movement.” One assumes that this is a conscious reference to the Confessing Church which rose up in Germany in the 1930’s in opposition to Hitler. Do they really want to compare those working for inclusion in the UMC to Nazis? And can they really believe that leaders of the Confessing Church, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth, would actually be on their side today? And if they are not trying to make those claims, then they need to change the name.

We need to move on. We have inflicted way too much pain on our LGBTQ sisters and brothers. And we have done great damage to the credibility of the church. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “I like your Christ; I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

Which brings us to another question: How many people have never gotten to know who Jesus is because we are so unlike him?

Friday, April 10, 2015

What Does It Mean to Say We Believe in God?

Paul Tillich

Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’”
Exodus 3:13-14

It happens more often than you might think. I am at a party or some casual event, and someone finds out that I am a pastor. After a short explanation of what it is about churches which keeps this person away, he (most of the time it is a guy) says awkwardly, “Well, anyway, could you put in a good word for me with ‘The Man Upstairs’?” At which point I am tempted to say, “As a pastor, I think it is my duty to tell you that ‘The Man Upstairs’ is a figment of your imagination.”

To get a sense of what an absurd image of God that is, picture Moses at the burning bush. And remember, this story dates back more than three thousand years. This is a primitive story told by primitive people. Here is Moses, tending the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, in Midian. He sees a burning bush. At this point, we modern people want to interrupt and point out that bushes don’t burn like that, but let the story go. [If you are fixed on the question of how the bush could burn like that, I will refer you to my wife, the geologist. Elaine says that there are natural gas vents in that area which could have produced approximately the phenomena recorded in the story.]

Moses stops to look at the bush and hears the voice of God, calling him to go back to Egypt and lead his people to freedom. Moses says no. He can’t do it. It is impossible. “Who am I,” he asks, “that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” They argue. God persists and finally Moses agrees. But he wants a name for this presence which has confronted him. God has already declared, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham and Sarah, of Isaac and Rebecca, of Jacob and Rachel.” Moses wants more than that. “What shall I say,” he demands, “when they ask who sent me?” And God says, “I AM WHO I AM.” And finally, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”

It is a magnificent scene, and it reveals in this primitive people, a depth of theological understanding which we moderns are hard pressed to match. Could you possibly imagine that story ending with God declaring to Moses, “Tell them ‘The Man Upstairs’ has sent me to you”?

The cosmic “I AM,” the Creator of heaven and earth, is not to be confused with something as small as “The Man Upstairs.”

The great theologian, Paul Tillich, speaks of God as “the Ground of Being” or “Being itself.” “The Man Upstairs” is too small, too tame, too limited to be anything more than a figment of our imaginations.

Where does that leave us? As thoughtful Christians, what do we mean when we speak of God?

1. We begin with experience. The Bible was not written to convince us that God is real, nor was it written as an affirmation of faith. It is the story of the people of God, a record of their (our) experiences. In the Bible, faithful men and women are telling us how they have experienced God. The writers don’t start with their beliefs, they start with their experiences.

What fundamentally differentiates Christians and Jews (and Muslims, in many respects) from other members of our culture, is not in the first instance our belief. What makes us different is our experience.

On January 1, 2000, Elaine and Carolyn and I spent the first day of the New Millennium in Georgetown, Maine. We got up before sunrise and drove to Five Islands, and went down on the dock, and watched the sun come up out of the water where the Sheepscott River runs into the Atlantic Ocean. Then we drove to Reid State Park and walked out on Griffith’s Head. It was spectacular. It was almost perfect. The water was beautiful. The sky was clear blue. The sun, coming up out of the ocean, was so dramatic. There were perhaps a dozen people walking on the beach or sitting on the rocks. There was a family cooking breakfast on a camp stove. Even the little dog with the red bow was magnificent. If the family with the little dog, cooking breakfast on the top of Griffith’s Head had invited us to join them, it would have been absolutely perfect. It was so close.

As I stood there, taking in the incredible beauty and majesty of that scene, I was overwhelmed. And I thought, if I could just take everybody there; if you could see it as I saw it, I wouldn’t need to preach a sermon. Ever again.

One of the best known verses from both Psalms and Proverbs is usually translated as, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” But a better understanding of that verse is not “fear,” but “awe.” Awe of the Lord, wonder, amazement, this is the beginning of wisdom.

We begin with wonder and amazement, at sunrise and sunset, at the change of the seasons, at birth and death. The starry night and the bright sunlight both speak to us of wonder.

2. The order of the universe is amazing. There are some who say, “I would believe in God if there were some sign, some miracle, some supernatural occurrence.” They are looking for something which contradicts the natural order. I have to confess, I am just the opposite. For me, the ordinary is extraordinary. The order of the universe is a miracle of cosmic proportions.

I had a high school physics teacher by the name of Harry Drew. Mr. Drew was a wonderful teacher. On a fairly regular basis, he would ask us, “Did you ever think what would happen if ice were heavier than water? If ice formed at the bottom of the pond, do you know what would happen?” My classmates and I were not nearly as amazed by this as he thought we should be. He would glare at us, clearly appalled at our adolescent indifference, but with a twinkle in his eye as if he were enjoying some intergalactic joke which we didn’t get. Then he would lean forward and say softly, “Everything in the pond would die.”

The order of the universe is amazing. We often think of miracles as events which contradict the natural order. But the greatest miracle is the order itself. And miracles may best be understood as ordinary events through which we see the eternal presence of God. A miracle is an ordinary event which is transparent to the eternal.

3. Life has meaning. When we say that we believe in God, we are saying that we believe life has meaning. There is depth. It isn’t all shallow.

Elaine used to say of my Grandfather Gibbs, that it was wonderful to tell him stories because when you told him a story it seemed to take on greater importance. In the telling, it became more than it otherwise would have been. Events had meaning because we could tell him about them. He enjoyed the stories. He cared about us. It mattered to him, and because it mattered to him, it became more important to us. I suspect that you may have people in your own life who are like that for you.

Ultimately, God is the one to whom we tell our stories. God is the one before whom our lives are acted out. Our lives have deeper meaning because they matter to God, just as my stories took on a deeper meaning because they mattered to my grandfather. When we say we believe in God, we are affirming that life matters, ultimately and eternally. Our living makes a difference.

4. We are finite. I will not say this well, but I will try. For me, the greatest significance of living my life before God is that I believe it gives me a real perspective on who I am.

To believe in God is to live with a sense of finitude, a sense of limits. One of our junior high teachers liked to tell her kids in Sunday School, “It’s not always about you.” Believing in God is reminding myself, it’s not always about me. There is more in life than us. We are limited and God is unlimited. We are finite and God is infinite.

Paul Tillich asserts that to comprehend this, to stand before the universe and recognize one’s finitude, is an act of courage. It takes courage to claim one’s place before God.

We can make believe that we are the center of the universe, but believing will not make it so. It is comforting to think that the world revolves around us, but it doesn’t.

To take upon one’s self the limited nature of human life in this vast and uncertain universe, is an act of existential courage. Tillich calls it, the courage to be.” It is facing life honestly, as it really is.

What does it mean for thoughtful Christians to speak of belief in God in the twenty-first century? To me, means awe, and order, and meaning, and the courage to face life as it really is.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Why Did Jesus Die and What Does It Mean? (a short reflection)

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?”
Mark 8:34-37

The most common (most frequent and crudest) explanation of Jesus' death on the cross is that God sent him to die for our sins. Someone had to pay for the sins of humanity. Jesus suffered so that I didn't have to. He was perfectly sinless and it was a perfect sacrifice.

That is a caricature of what is called the theory of "substitutionary atonement." I have deliberately used the caricature to make a larger point. In spite of the fact that it's the theology I grew up with, and it's still the most common theological understanding of Good Friday, I am convinced it is wrong. It is wrong biblically, historically, morally, and theologically.

On Good Friday, Jesus was tried, and convicted, and tortured, and killed. It was a triumph for the powers of darkness, and there was nothing good about that Friday. Or so it seemed.

But in his death he exposed the moral bankruptcy of the Empire and the shallow religiosity of the chief priests and elders who collaborated with the oppressors. Good Friday is the story of a collision between the goodness of God in Jesus, and the evil of a violent empire.

Before we go any further, we need to clear up two major misunderstandings:
The Jews did not kill Jesus; the Romans did.
He was not executed for blasphemy; he was executed for treason.

The Jews did not kill Jesus. We know this as an absolute fact because they did not have the authority to carry out capital punishment. We also know this because if he had been sentenced to death by a Jewish court, he would have been stoned to death. The Romans were the only ones with the authority to kill him, and they did.

We know that the Romans executed Jesus for sedition because they crucified him. Crucifixion was a death reserved for those who committed treason against the empire. It was a form of state terrorism designed to torture its victims and terrify the populace. The Romans did it often so that the people were kept constantly aware of the consequences of defying the empire.

So why did Jesus die? And what does it mean?

I don’t believe that God sent Jesus to die. I don’t believe that it was God’s plan.

That’s partly because I think that speaking of God’s plan is too anthropomorphic. It imagines God as some sort of supernatural version of a human being. But it’s also morally suspect. It suggests that somehow God was sending Jesus on a suicide mission.

Jesus died because he was completely faithful to God and his faithfulness collided with the sinfulness of humanity in the form of the Roman Empire. He died because he proclaimed the Kingdom of God as an alternative vision of how the world could be. Against the normalcy of violence, he proclaimed nonviolence. Against the normalcy of self-interest, he proclaimed self-sacrifice.

The commandment to love our enemies is about as subversive of what passes for normal as anything could possibly be. And two thousand years later, even those of us who claim to be his followers have a very hard time even imagining what that path looks like, let alone following it.

When he invited his followers to take up the cross, he invited them to follow the path of self-sacrificial love. And he promised that the way of self-sacrifice is also the way that leads to life.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Indiana and the Right to a Dominant Worldview

Indiana Protest Against the Religious Freedom Restoration Act

The time is surely coming, says the Lord God, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord.
Amos 8:11

Amos observes the injustice of his people and proclaims that there will be a famine. But this famine will not be about a shortage of food or water. This will be a famine “of hearing the words of the LORD.” If you do not act justly, says Amos, then you will not be able to hear what God is saying to you.

In Indiana there is a famine among some of their political and religious leaders, “not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord.”

They are so unaware of the injustice of a worldview that takes for granted the lesser status of LGBTQ citizens, that they cannot hear the words of the Lord in this context. When injustice looks like normal, it is very difficult to see anything else.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said that a prophet is someone who knows what time it is.

He did not mean time as measured by the clock. And he didn’t mean the sense of timing that we associate with successfully telling a joke or making a political calculation. The role of the prophet is to reflect on the sacred story of what God has done, and what God has called us to do in the world to work for justice, and then by reading the signs of the times, to proclaim what God requires in the present moment.

The prophet Micah asked rhetorically, “What does the LORD require of you?” And then declared the answer, “To do justice and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

In response to Governor Mike Pence’s recent signing of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, United Methodist Bishop Mike Coyner issued a pastoral letter about “Faith and Fear.”

He rightly notes that the measure is not founded on faith or on religion, but on fear. People fear that that their faith is under attack, even though it isn’t. But he wrongly argues that there is an equally misplaced fear on the other side of the issue; that those who fear the law will lead to discrimination are overreacting. In the end, his desire to be fair to both sides gives legitimacy to those who want religious cover for their prejudice.

The law is designed to enable discrimination. It is not unreasonable to fear that the law might do what it is designed to do.

In one sense, the bishop is probably right when he says that it will all turn out to be “much ado about nothing.” It is unlikely that very many vendors will turn away business. It is not the most important thing in the world.

But that is not the point.

The law will do at least two things.

The first and most important result of the law is to reassert the dominance of a worldview that discriminates against LGBT people. Every time they enter into a business transaction, or look for an apartment, or apply for a loan, or apply for a job, they will know that the law says that they can be denied simply because of who they are. That is no small thing.

The second result of this law is that it reinforces the perception that Christians are bigots.

It is time (long past time) for Christians to speak up. This isn’t about sincerely held beliefs on both sides. It is about right and wrong. It is about justice. It is about knowing what time it is.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Arc of the Moral Universe

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer with violence. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also."

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you."

Matthew 5:38-39, 43-44

Today marks the 50th anniversary of a brilliant speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the end of the march from Selma to Montgomery.

This is the speech that contains his famous affirmation that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” And that section alone would make the speech a classic.

I often think that our Bible should be a continuing canon, and we should add new sacred texts over the years. This is one that belongs in my personal collection of the unfolding witness of our faith. King speaks at times like one of the great Hebrew prophets and at other times he sounds like a modern Apostle Paul writing to Christians in new times of struggle and growth.

As you read the speech, note his economic and political analysis of the enactment of Jim Crow laws and the rise of racism as a means of pitting poor whites and blacks against each other.

In 1965 King was facing enormous pressure from those within the black community who believed that violence was the only way to defeat racism. In this speech he patiently and passionately makes the case for non-violence as both effective and morally right. In the end, King believed, right would triumph.

The speech is transcribed from an audio tape, so the shouts of the crowd are also recorded. In the interchanges we can sense the cadences of black preaching and the spirit of the black church, which was the foundation of the movement.

Our God Is Marching On!

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

March 25, 1965. Montgomery, Ala.

My dear and abiding friends, Ralph Abernathy, and to all of the distinguished Americans seated here on the rostrum, my friends and co-workers of the state of Alabama, and to all of the freedom-loving people who have assembled here this afternoon from all over our nation and from all over the world: Last Sunday, more than eight thousand of us started on a mighty walk from Selma, Alabama. We have walked through desolate valleys and across the trying hills. We have walked on meandering highways and rested our bodies on rocky byways. Some of our faces are burned from the outpourings of the sweltering sun. Some have literally slept in the mud. We have been drenched by the rains. [Audience:] (Speak) Our bodies are tired and our feet are somewhat sore.

But today as I stand before you and think back over that great march, I can say, as Sister Pollard said—a seventy-year-old Negro woman who lived in this community during the bus boycott—and one day, she was asked while walking if she didn’t want to ride. And when she answered, "No," the person said, "Well, aren’t you tired?" And with her ungrammatical profundity, she said, "My feets is tired, but my soul is rested." (Yes, sir. All right) And in a real sense this afternoon, we can say that our feet are tired, (Yes, sir) but our souls are rested.

They told us we wouldn’t get here. And there were those who said that we would get here only over their dead bodies, (Well. Yes, sir. Talk) but all the world today knows that we are here and we are standing before the forces of power in the state of Alabama saying, "We ain’t goin’ let nobody turn us around." (Yes, sir. Speak) [Applause]

Now it is not an accident that one of the great marches of American history should terminate in Montgomery, Alabama. (Yes, sir) Just ten years ago, in this very city, a new philosophy was born of the Negro struggle. Montgomery was the first city in the South in which the entire Negro community united and squarely faced its age-old oppressors. (Yes, sir. Well) Out of this struggle, more than bus [de]segregation was won; a new idea, more powerful than guns or clubs was born. Negroes took it and carried it across the South in epic battles (Yes, sir. Speak) that electrified the nation (Well) and the world.

Yet, strangely, the climactic conflicts always were fought and won on Alabama soil. After Montgomery’s, heroic confrontations loomed up in Mississippi, Arkansas, Georgia, and elsewhere. But not until the colossus of segregation was challenged in Birmingham did the conscience of America begin to bleed. White America was profoundly aroused by Birmingham because it witnessed the whole community of Negroes facing terror and brutality with majestic calm and heroic courage. And from the wells of this democratic spirit, the nation finally forced Congress (Well) to write legislation (Yes, sir) in the hope that it would eradicate the stain of Birmingham. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 gave Negroes some part of their rightful dignity, (Speak, sir) but without the vote it was dignity without strength. (Yes, sir)

Once more the method of nonviolent resistance (Yes) was unsheathed from its scabbard, and once again an entire community was mobilized to confront the adversary. (Yes, sir) And again the brutality of a dying order shrieks across the land. Yet, Selma, Alabama, became a shining moment in the conscience of man. If the worst in American life lurked in its dark streets, the best of American instincts arose passionately from across the nation to overcome it. (Yes, sir. Speak) There never was a moment in American history (Yes, sir) more honorable and more inspiring than the pilgrimage of clergymen and laymen of every race and faith pouring into Selma to face danger (Yes) at the side of its embattled Negroes.

The confrontation of good and evil compressed in the tiny community of Selma (Speak, speak) generated the massive power (Yes, sir. Yes, sir) to turn the whole nation to a new course. A president born in the South (Well) had the sensitivity to feel the will of the country, (Speak, sir) and in an address that will live in history as one of the most passionate pleas for human rights ever made by a president of our nation, he pledged the might of the federal government to cast off the centuries-old blight. President Johnson rightly praised the courage of the Negro for awakening the conscience of the nation. (Yes, sir)

On our part we must pay our profound respects to the white Americans who cherish their democratic traditions over the ugly customs and privileges of generations and come forth boldly to join hands with us. (Yes, sir) From Montgomery to Birmingham, (Yes, sir) from Birmingham to Selma, (Yes, sir) from Selma back to Montgomery, (Yes) a trail wound in a circle long and often bloody, yet it has become a highway up from darkness. (Yes, sir) Alabama has tried to nurture and defend evil, but evil is choking to death in the dusty roads and streets of this state. (Yes, sir. Speak, sir) So I stand before you this afternoon (Speak, sir. Well) with the conviction that segregation is on its deathbed in Alabama, and the only thing uncertain about it is how costly the segregationists and Wallace will make the funeral. (Go ahead. Yes, sir) [Applause]

Our whole campaign in Alabama has been centered around the right to vote. In focusing the attention of the nation and the world today on the flagrant denial of the right to vote, we are exposing the very origin, the root cause, of racial segregation in the Southland. Racial segregation as a way of life did not come about as a natural result of hatred between the races immediately after the Civil War. There were no laws segregating the races then. And as the noted historian, C. Vann Woodward, in his book, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, clearly points out, the segregation of the races was really a political stratagem employed by the emerging Bourbon interests in the South to keep the southern masses divided and southern labor the cheapest in the land. You see, it was a simple thing to keep the poor white masses working for near-starvation wages in the years that followed the Civil War. Why, if the poor white plantation or mill worker became dissatisfied with his low wages, the plantation or mill owner would merely threaten to fire him and hire former Negro slaves and pay him even less. Thus, the southern wage level was kept almost unbearably low.

Toward the end of the Reconstruction era, something very significant happened. (Listen to him) That is what was known as the Populist Movement. (Speak, sir) The leaders of this movement began awakening the poor white masses (Yes, sir) and the former Negro slaves to the fact that they were being fleeced by the emerging Bourbon interests. Not only that, but they began uniting the Negro and white masses (Yeah) into a voting bloc that threatened to drive the Bourbon interests from the command posts of political power in the South.

To meet this threat, the southern aristocracy began immediately to engineer this development of a segregated society. (Right) I want you to follow me through here because this is very important to see the roots of racism and the denial of the right to vote. Through their control of mass media, they revised the doctrine of white supremacy. They saturated the thinking of the poor white masses with it, (Yes) thus clouding their minds to the real issue involved in the Populist Movement. They then directed the placement on the books of the South of laws that made it a crime for Negroes and whites to come together as equals at any level. (Yes, sir) And that did it. That crippled and eventually destroyed the Populist Movement of the nineteenth century.

If it may be said of the slavery era that the white man took the world and gave the Negro Jesus, then it may be said of the Reconstruction era that the southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow. (Yes, sir) He gave him Jim Crow. (Uh huh) And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, (Yes, sir) he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the black man. (Right sir) And he ate Jim Crow. (Uh huh) And when his undernourished children cried out for the necessities that his low wages could not provide, he showed them the Jim Crow signs on the buses and in the stores, on the streets and in the public buildings. (Yes, sir) And his children, too, learned to feed upon Jim Crow, (Speak) their last outpost of psychological oblivion. (Yes, sir)

Thus, the threat of the free exercise of the ballot by the Negro and the white masses alike (Uh huh) resulted in the establishment of a segregated society. They segregated southern money from the poor whites; they segregated southern mores from the rich whites; (Yes, sir) they segregated southern churches from Christianity (Yes, sir); they segregated southern minds from honest thinking; (Yes, sir) and they segregated the Negro from everything. (Yes, sir) That’s what happened when the Negro and white masses of the South threatened to unite and build a great society: a society of justice where none would pray upon the weakness of others; a society of plenty where greed and poverty would be done away; a society of brotherhood where every man would respect the dignity and worth of human personality. (Yes, sir)

We’ve come a long way since that travesty of justice was perpetrated upon the American mind. James Weldon Johnson put it eloquently. He said:

We have come over a wayThat with tears hath been watered. (Yes, sir)
We have come treading our pathsThrough the blood of the slaughtered. (Yes, sir)
Out of the gloomy past, (Yes, sir)
Till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam
Of our bright star is cast. (Speak, sir)

Today I want to tell the city of Selma, (Tell them, Doctor) today I want to say to the state of Alabama, (Yes, sir) today I want to say to the people of America and the nations of the world, that we are not about to turn around. (Yes, sir) We are on the move now. (Yes, sir)

Yes, we are on the move and no wave of racism can stop us. (Yes, sir) We are on the move now. The burning of our churches will not deter us. (Yes, sir) The bombing of our homes will not dissuade us. (Yes, sir) We are on the move now. (Yes, sir) The beating and killing of our clergymen and young people will not divert us. We are on the move now. (Yes, sir) The wanton release of their known murderers would not discourage us. We are on the move now. (Yes, sir) Like an idea whose time has come, (Yes, sir) not even the marching of mighty armies can halt us. (Yes, sir) We are moving to the land of freedom. (Yes, sir)

Let us therefore continue our triumphant march (Uh huh) to the realization of the American dream. (Yes, sir) Let us march on segregated housing (Yes, sir) until every ghetto or social and economic depression dissolves, and Negroes and whites live side by side in decent, safe, and sanitary housing. (Yes, sir) Let us march on segregated schools (Let us march, Tell it) until every vestige of segregated and inferior education becomes a thing of the past, and Negroes and whites study side-by-side in the socially-healing context of the classroom.

Let us march on poverty (Let us march) until no American parent has to skip a meal so that their children may eat. (Yes, sir) March on poverty (Let us march) until no starved man walks the streets of our cities and towns (Yes, sir) in search of jobs that do not exist. (Yes, sir) Let us march on poverty (Let us march) until wrinkled stomachs in Mississippi are filled, (That's right) and the idle industries of Appalachia are realized and revitalized, and broken lives in sweltering ghettos are mended and remolded.

Let us march on ballot boxes, (Let’s march) march on ballot boxes until race-baiters disappear from the political arena.

Let us march on ballot boxes until the salient misdeeds of bloodthirsty mobs (Yes, sir) will be transformed into the calculated good deeds of orderly citizens. (Speak, Doctor)

Let us march on ballot boxes (Let us march) until the Wallaces of our nation tremble away in silence.

Let us march on ballot boxes (Let us march) until we send to our city councils (Yes, sir), state legislatures, (Yes, sir) and the United States Congress, (Yes, sir) men who will not fear to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God.

Let us march on ballot boxes (Let us march. March) until brotherhood becomes more than a meaningless word in an opening prayer, but the order of the day on every legislative agenda.

Let us march on ballot boxes (Yes) until all over Alabama God’s children will be able to walk the earth in decency and honor.

There is nothing wrong with marching in this sense. (Yes, sir) The Bible tells us that the mighty men of Joshua merely walked about the walled city of Jericho (Yes) and the barriers to freedom came tumbling down. (Yes, sir) I like that old Negro spiritual, (Yes, sir) "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho." In its simple, yet colorful, depiction (Yes, sir) of that great moment in biblical history, it tells us that:

Joshua fit the battle of Jericho, (Tell it)
Joshua fit the battle of Jericho, (Yes, sir)
And the walls come tumbling down. (Yes, sir. Tell it)
Up to the walls of Jericho they marched, spear in hand. (Yes, sir)
"Go blow them ramhorns," Joshua cried,
"‘Cause the battle am in my hand." (Yes, sir)

These words I have given you just as they were given us by the unknown, long-dead, dark-skinned originator. (Yes, sir) Some now long-gone black bard bequeathed to posterity these words in ungrammatical form, (Yes, sir) yet with emphatic pertinence for all of us today. (Uh huh)

The battle is in our hands. And we can answer with creative nonviolence the call to higher ground to which the new directions of our struggle summons us. (Yes, sir) The road ahead is not altogether a smooth one. (No) There are no broad highways that lead us easily and inevitably to quick solutions. But we must keep going.

In the glow of the lamplight on my desk a few nights ago, I gazed again upon the wondrous sign of our times, full of hope and promise of the future. (Uh huh) And I smiled to see in the newspaper photographs of many a decade ago, the faces so bright, so solemn, of our valiant heroes, the people of Montgomery. To this list may be added the names of all those (Yes) who have fought and, yes, died in the nonviolent army of our day: Medgar Evers, (Speak) three civil rights workers in Mississippi last summer, (Uh huh) William Moore, as has already been mentioned, (Yes, sir) the Reverend James Reeb, (Yes, sir) Jimmy Lee Jackson, (Yes, sir) and four little girls in the church of God in Birmingham on Sunday morning. (Yes, sir) But in spite of this, we must go on and be sure that they did not die in vain. (Yes, sir) The pattern of their feet as they walked through Jim Crow barriers in the great stride toward freedom is the thunder of the marching men of Joshua, (Yes, sir) and the world rocks beneath their tread. (Yes, sir)

My people, my people, listen. (Yes, sir) The battle is in our hands. (Yes, sir) The battle is in our hands in Mississippi and Alabama and all over the United States. (Yes, sir) I know there is a cry today in Alabama, (Uh huh) we see it in numerous editorials: "When will Martin Luther King, SCLC, SNCC, and all of these civil rights agitators and all of the white clergymen and labor leaders and students and others get out of our community and let Alabama return to normalcy?"

But I have a message that I would like to leave with Alabama this evening. (Tell it) That is exactly what we don’t want, and we will not allow it to happen, (Yes, sir) for we know that it was normalcy in Marion (Yes, sir) that led to the brutal murder of Jimmy Lee Jackson. (Speak) It was normalcy in Birmingham (Yes) that led to the murder on Sunday morning of four beautiful, unoffending, innocent girls. It was normalcy on Highway 80 (Yes, sir) that led state troopers to use tear gas and horses and billy clubs against unarmed human beings who were simply marching for justice. (Speak, sir) It was normalcy by a cafe in Selma, Alabama, that led to the brutal beating of Reverend James Reeb.

It is normalcy all over our country (Yes, sir) which leaves the Negro perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of vast ocean of material prosperity. It is normalcy all over Alabama (Yeah) that prevents the Negro from becoming a registered voter. (Yes) No, we will not allow Alabama (Go ahead) to return to normalcy. [Applause]

The only normalcy that we will settle for (Yes, sir) is the normalcy that recognizes the dignity and worth of all of God’s children. The only normalcy that we will settle for is the normalcy that allows judgment to run down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream. (Yes, sir) The only normalcy that we will settle for is the normalcy of brotherhood, the normalcy of true peace, the normalcy of justice.

And so as we go away this afternoon, let us go away more than ever before committed to this struggle and committed to nonviolence. I must admit to you that there are still some difficult days ahead. We are still in for a season of suffering in many of the black belt counties of Alabama, many areas of Mississippi, many areas of Louisiana. I must admit to you that there are still jail cells waiting for us, and dark and difficult moments. But if we will go on with the faith that nonviolence and its power can transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows, we will be able to change all of these conditions.

And so I plead with you this afternoon as we go ahead: remain committed to nonviolence. Our aim must never be to defeat or humiliate the white man, but to win his friendship and understanding. We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience. And that will be a day not of the white man, not of the black man. That will be the day of man as man. (Yes)

I know you are asking today, "How long will it take?" (Speak, sir) Somebody’s asking, "How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her sacred throne?" Somebody’s asking, "When will wounded justice, lying prostrate on the streets of Selma and Birmingham and communities all over the South, be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men?" Somebody’s asking, "When will the radiant star of hope be plunged against the nocturnal bosom of this lonely night, (Speak, speak, speak) plucked from weary souls with chains of fear and the manacles of death? How long will justice be crucified, (Speak) and truth bear it?" (Yes, sir)

I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, (Yes, sir) however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, (No sir) because "truth crushed to earth will rise again." (Yes, sir)

How long? Not long, (Yes, sir) because "no lie can live forever." (Yes, sir)
How long? Not long, (All right. How long) because "you shall reap what you sow." (Yes, sir)
How long? (How long?) Not long: (Not long)
Truth forever on the scaffold, (Speak)
Wrong forever on the throne, (Yes, sir)
Yet that scaffold sways the future, (Yes, sir)
And, behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow,
Keeping watch above his own.

How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. (Yes, sir)

How long? Not long, (Not long) because:

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord; (Yes, sir)

He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored; (Yes)

He has loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword; (Yes, sir)

His truth is marching on. (Yes, sir)

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat; (Speak, sir)

He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment seat. (That’s right)

O, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! Be jubilant my feet!


Glory, hallelujah! (Yes, sir) Glory, hallelujah! (All right)

Glory, hallelujah! Glory, hallelujah!

His truth is marching on!

Monday, March 23, 2015

I Want Daffodils

When anyone is in Christ, that person is a new creation. The old has passed away. Everything has become new.

II Corinthians 5:17

One of the recurring themes of my life is that things seem to sneak up on me. Birthdays and anniversaries always arrive sooner than I expect them to. Events, meetings and reporting deadlines all seem to fly into my life without so much as a warning blip on my radar screen. It is not a calendar problem or a schedule problem. My planner is always up to date and I review it compulsively. But somehow, sometimes overnight it seems, events that were months away are suddenly piled up right in front of me.

This year, however, I find myself waiting impatiently for Easter. Let’s be honest, for me this year it’s more about spring than Easter. I want winter to be over. Technically, winter ended last weekend. But as I write this (Monday morning, March 23), the ground is still frozen and there are huge piles of snow.

I want flowers and sunshine and warm breezes. I want to see buds on the trees. I want daffodils. Aesthetically, it is wonderful to have the approach of Easter and the spring-time renewal of the earth running parallel to one another. But I need to remind myself that our celebration as Christians is quite different from the universal enjoyment of spring flowers and new leaves on the trees.

Heaven knows, it looks like a Good Friday world. And that appearance is never more evident than in the bleak days of late winter. The bare trees and the brown fields are appropriate reminders of a world in which there is often too much suffering and too little comfort. We know that personally, and we know that globally. From the strife in the Middle East to the soup kitchens around our state, the evidence of Good Friday is all around us.

We can tell ourselves that in a few weeks we will feel better. It will be less depressing when there are flowers and leaves and warm sunshine. But Easter is not about forgetting the world or feeling happier. It happens (impossibly and unbelievably) at the very center of our Good Friday world. Love overcomes hatred, reconciliation overcomes alienation, liberation overcomes oppression, joy overcomes pain, and life overcomes death-- even in the deepest winter of our souls.

I hope Easter will be an amazing gift for you this year. I hope it will stop you short and take your breath away. I know I need that, and I suspect that you do, too.

Easter is more than daffodils.

But if we only had the daffodils; it would be enough.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Ana Marie Cox and Fanny Crosby: Love and Mercy Found Me

Fanny Crosby in 1872

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
Mark 1:14-15

Longtime blogger and political commentator Ana Marie Cox recently wrote a column called, “Why I’m Coming Out as a Christian.” In her introduction she said that she was not worried that non-believers would want to disown her, she was worried about what Christians would say if she publicly embraced “the punk-rockness of being a progressive, feminist, tattooed, pro-choice, graduate-educated believer.”

Turns out she was worried about the wrong group.

The response from self-identified Christians was generally characterized by a warm acceptance. Many noted that the still disagreed with her views on public policy, but they were generally pleased to embrace her as a sister in Christ. On the other hand, the response from self-identified atheists was overwhelmingly judgmental and condemning. A short summary would be, “That’s just stupid.” Some hoped she would be happy with her imaginary friend.

Cox says that she has made her life over. She is happier, healthier and freer. And, she says, it shows:

“When people ask me, ‘What changed?’ or, ‘How did you do it?’ or, sometimes, with nervous humor, ‘Tell me your secret!’ I have a litany of concrete lifestyle changes I can give them—simply leaving Washington is near the top of the list—but the honest answer would be this: I try, every day, to give my will and my life over to God. I try to be like Christ. I get down on my knees and pray.”

Just to make sure we know she has not completely given up the persona we have come to know and love, she followed her testimony by recalling that the last time she gave that answer, “it stopped conversation as surely as a fart, and generated the same kind of throat-clearing discomfort.”

To be fair, self-righteousness and judgmentalism never seem to be in short supply on all sides of any Internet commentary. Sometimes it seems like no one has any filter at all. And they do all of their thinking out loud in CAPITAL LETTERS. It is also apparent that lots of folks comment on articles without actually reading them first.

One of the complaints about the column is that the reasons Cox gave for her new-found Christian faith were not really reasons at all. And they quoted the offending paragraph:

“Here is why I believe I am a Christian: I believe I have a personal relationship with my Lord and Savior. I believe in the grace offered by the Resurrection. I believe that whatever spiritual rewards I may reap come directly from trying to live the example set by Christ. Whether or not I succeed in living up to that example is primarily between Him and me.”

Of course, if you read it closely, you can see that she isn’t trying to give reasons for her faith. She is only explaining to those who might not think that she is a “real” Christian, why she believes she is. She is stating what she believes. She isn’t making an argument for it.

For the most part the article is a warm and inviting witness to her faith.

Two things bother me.

First, the theology seems fresh out of Fanny Crosby. And maybe that has a certain poetic logic to it, since Crosby was a fiercely committed abolitionist. Cox seems to espouse an essentially personal faith. It’s all about her connection to Jesus, and her personal salvation.

That’s not an uncommon view.

When I read that passage from Mark’s Gospel as a young person, I assumed that the “Gospel” or “good news” that Jesus announced was about himself. Even when I developed a much broader and deeper understanding of salvation as wholeness and healing and new life, I still thought that Jesus was announcing the good news about himself and the New Life we might have in and through him. In spite of my commitment to social justice (thank you, Dr. King!), I did not really connect that to the announcement Jesus was making.

When I read the passage more carefully and realized that the good news he was announcing was about the Kingdom of God on earth, I was initially baffled by it. It took me a long time to grow into an acceptance that maybe (in spite of what I had learned) Jesus meant exactly what he said.

And second, she seems to assume an implicit dissonance between progressive politics and Christianity. This reflects a very common historical misunderstanding.

Today most commentators in the media seem to assume that progressive Christianity is an oxymoron. At the very least, it is something that needs to be explained. But a century ago it was a tautology. Progressives were overwhelmingly Christian (and Protestant) and the strongest Christian voices were also progressives.

The word and the movement had a religious connotation. Of course, a century ago the Progressives were also mostly Republicans.