Friday, August 31, 2018

Ayn Rand, Jesus, and Donald Trump

Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out to the field.” And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him.
Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” And the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!”
Genesis 4:8-10

Cain assumes that he is asking a rhetorical question.

But he is mistaken.

The question is real and it will be fundamental to the long biblical narrative that follows through the Hebrew Scriptures to the end of the New Testament. Cain poses the question for God, but it is quickly turned back as the question God asks of us. 

And Jesus will tell his followers that it is the question by which their lives will be judged.

Ayn Rand, on the other hand, sides with Cain.

I first encountered Ayn Rand (her first name, she said, rhymes with swine) late one night in the fall of my freshman year in college. I was quite entranced for at least half an hour. 

My brief enthusiasm for her philosophy was, I thought, a sort of “rite of passage;” something everybody did at least once. But it was not anything to be taken seriously.

In the movie “Dirty Dancing” one of the major sub-plots is that Baby is trying to help Johnny’s dance partner get an abortion. She confronts the college kid who got Johnny’s partner pregnant and asks him to pay for the abortion. The young man, who is also romancing Baby’s sister, refuses. 

Then he pulls out a dog-eared copy of Rand's “The Fountainhead” and tells her she should read it, that she’ll like it, but that when she finishes it, he wants it back because he has notes in the margins.

He tells her that she needs to understand, “Some people count, and some people don’t.”

“You make me sick,” she tells him. And then she pours a pitcher of water down the front of his shirt and pants.

The philosophy of Ayn Rand should make us sick.

Her basic position is that selfishness is a virtue and altruism is a sin, though as a staunch atheist, she would not call it a sin. It is not just that we are not obligated to help others; we ought not to do it.

In Rand's view, our responsibility is to take care of ourselves. Period. 

In a report in the Washington Post, detailing connections between Rand's philosophy and key players in the Trump administration, James Hohmann describes Rand as “perhaps the leading literary voice in 20th century America for the notion that, in society, there are makers and takers, and that the takers are parasitic moochers who get in the way of the morally-superior innovators.”
“Her books portray the federal government as an evil force, trying to stop hard-working men from accumulating the wealth that she believes they deserve. The author was also an outspoken atheist, something that oozes through in her writing. Rand explained that the essence of ‘objectivism,’ as she called her ideology, is that ‘man exists for his own sake, that the pursuit of his own happiness is his highest moral purpose, that he must not sacrifice himself to others, nor sacrifice others to himself.’”
In an interview with Kirsten Powers, Donald Trump described himself as a Rand fan and said that he identifies most with Howard Roark, the hero of “The Fountainhead,” an architect who blows up a housing project he designed because his blueprints were not exactly followed by the builders. He told Powers, “It relates to business, beauty, life and inner emotions. That book relates to ... everything.”

It is ironic that the evangelical embrace of Donald Trump has not been hindered by his admiration for one of the most famous atheists of the twentieth century. 

But for serious Christians, her atheism is not the most important issue. 

Unlike the theoretical atheism of those who reject the idea of God as unnecessary or unscientific, Rand’s rejection is primarily a moral one. 

Many atheists reject Christian theology while expressing an admiration for the ethics of Jesus. Rand rejects the core of Christian ethics as “immoral.”

Onkar Ghate, a Senior Fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute, posted an essay titled, “Does America Need Ayn Rand or Jesus?” 

Ghate argues that for Rand, “morality is not about subordination or service to others or to some ‘higher power’; it is not about self-sacrifice. Hers is a morality that upholds egoism and individualism: it seeks to teach you the difficult task of pursuing the values that achieve your own individual self-interest and happiness.”

In the ethics of Ayn Rand, pursuing your own self-interest and happiness is a “difficult task.” And she believed it was “immoral” to love others more than you love yourself.

Hers is a curiously non-ethical ethics. Historically, the task of ethics has been to balance the self-interest of the individual against the needs and interests of the community. Ethics restrains our natural selfishness. In Rand’s system selfishness is a virtue. 

Ghate is to be commended for his honesty in clearly stating that Rand's philosophy is opposed to the central core of Jesus’ teaching. 

And he is right. We have to choose Ayn Rand or Jesus. We can’t have both.

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

Thursday, August 16, 2018

The Pennsylvania Grand Jury: First, Do No Harm

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. But if any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.”
Matthew 18:1-6

Several times each year I use a portion of a prayer by Harry Emerson Fosdick that asks God to “Remind us of Jesus’ tender compassion for children and of his burning indignation against those who do them wrong. Remind us of his deep and overflowing love, drawing all children near to him.”

According to Matthew’s account, burning indignation would be an understatement. 

I have been thinking about the stories of clergy sex abuse and the cover ups by the Roman Catholic Church in Pennsylvania. You can read an overview here, but I will not retell any of the painful testimonies offered by victims or the damning descriptions offered by investigators.

They are just too painful and too disgusting.

If you read the stories you will soon be in tears and then you will want to beat your head against a wall. The suffering of the victims is immeasurable. 

And there is no reason to believe that Pennsylvania is unique. Then beyond the pain inflicted directly on the victims, there is the pain done to the faith of so many others.

It would be bad enough if the problem were confined to the Catholic Church, but it isn’t.

And, of course, it isn’t confined to clergy.

But the clergy cases are uniquely troubling. Like teachers and coaches and physicians, we clergy are given roles of trust and responsibility in the lives of the people we serve. But the role of a clergyperson is sacred in a way that the other professions are not.

When someone comes to my office they need to feel safe and they need to be safe. They need to know that they will be listened to and respected and cared for. They need to know that whatever they share will be held in sacred trust. And they need to be both physically and emotionally safe.

In church, the pastor’s study and the worship space should each be a place of sanctuary.

Like many other congregations we have a “safe sanctuaries” program that provides guidelines to prevent opportunities for abusive relationships. Our offices and classrooms have windows. We don’t meet alone with children or youth. Those precautions ought not to be necessary, but the Pennsylvania cases remind us that they are.

In 1739 Methodist founder John Wesley provided three simple rules for the clergy and lay persons who were part of the Methodist movement. First, do no harm. Second, do good insofar as possible to all persons. And third, attend the public ordinances of God.

They all matter.

But the first one is first for a reason.

Do no harm. 

If we cannot keep that first rule, nothing else matters.

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

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Traditionalism: Hardened Hearts and Dull Ears

Millennial Panel at Uniting Methodists Conference- photo by IRD
"For the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God. You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said:
‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’”

Matthew 15:6-9

Jesus is hard on traditionalists. It is a point that seems lost on today’s traditionalists, who wear that label proudly. And yes, they do wear it "proudly" in spite of the fact that Jesus is also critical of religious pride.

And few things are more traditional in response to those who are different, and marginalized for their differences, than a hard heart.

As Jesus says:

This people’s heart has grown dull,
and their ears are hard of hearing,
and they have shut their eyes;
so that they might not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and understand with their heart and turn—
and I would heal them.”

Matthew 13:15

The hardened heart of traditionalism was on full display in an article posted in the Juicy Ecumenism blog of The Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD).

In a post titled, “Uniting MethodistsPanelists: the Bible Is Wrong,” Dan Moran reports on a conference sponsored by the “Uniting Methodists” caucus and focusing on the “One Church Plan” endorsed by the Council of Bishops as a “Way Forward” for the United Methodist Church.

The article is almost entirely devoted to commentary on a panel discussion led by the Rev. Mike Baughman who is the lead pastor for Union, a new church start in Dallas, Texas. The participants were four young milennials who are leaders of the worship planning tea at Union. Moran voices disappointment that all of the panelists “were fully LBBTQ-affirming,” and then concludes that, “The unorthodox beliefs shared by these ‘Uniting Methodists’ panelists appear to speak clearly to the heart and future aspirations of this caucus and its preferred plan.”

Moran centers his analysis of the discussion on a comment by Lauren Manza, “who identifies as lesbian.” She was, in Moran’s words, “unabashed in criticizing the Bible itself.”

He writes that when she was speaking about same sex marriage and commenting on “the verses that traditionalists use to argue against it,” Moran reports that she said:

“I believe if I sat down with Paul today, Paul would say ‘I’m not down for that,’ but I think the Bible’s wrong.”

The emphasis is Moran’s.

That’s the issue. She thinks the Bible is wrong.

Clearly, for the traditionalists, that was was a “gotcha” moment.

And to make matters worse, Rev. Baughman did not correct her.

“Instead of providing a counterpoint to her attack on Biblical authority, Baughman continued Manza’s train of thought.” He recalled that there were times when a member of the worship planning team would ask, “Can we just say the Bible’s wrong?”

“One of the things that’s been interesting,” said Baughman, “is I think there is this sense among a lot of millennials that just because the Bible says something, that doesn’t mean it has any authority whatsoever.”

He is talking about the saying, not the Bible. The saying does not have authority just because it is in the Bible. Which is not the same as saying that the whole Bible has no authority.

Not surprisingly, the assertion that the Bible doesn’t have “any authority whatsoever” caught the attention of the traditionalists.

At last, the progressive agenda has been exposed!

One typical comment asks, “If the Bible is wrong, why do we even have it anymore? Just throw it out with the rest of our morals and “do our thing”. And then he adds, “Satan is alive and well in the Methodist Church – I know he is in ours.”

Moran summarizes it this way:

“Baughman and the panel ultimately presented an approach of disregarding the fundamental concept of the Bible as the ultimate source of religious truth and authority. They commended this approach to their audience on the grounds that some young Americans at this particular moment in cultural history find it acceptable. . . . If there was any doubt that the agenda of the ‘One Church Plan’ and its most enthusiastic supporters is liberalizing the UMC, this panel made it clear.”
The Uniting Methodists have a very different vision for the future of the UMC than the traditionalists do. And the biggest difference is that the Uniting Methodists want to preserve a place for the traditionalists, while the traditionalists have no place for the progressives. In the traditionalist plan, the progressives, like their LGBTQ siblings, are welcome to stay only if they cease to be progressive or gay.

Which leads me to three observations, a question, and a final comment:

First, the panelists were not talking about the Bible as a whole. They were talking about a few verses. And those verses are far from the center of the biblical message.

Second, the authority of Scripture is not verse by verse. The authority of the Bible is found in its great overarching themes of grace and justice and building the Kingdom of God on earth. Individual verses or passages can never be decisive.

Third, we all know that the Bible is “wrong” at many points. Even the most devoted hard line traditionalists don’t believe in executing people for having same sex relations. And that’s just the handiest example. One of the most important tasks of biblical interpretation is separating those things which are time-bound and reflect the limits of ancient culture from those truths which are eternal.

Fourth, a question: When did United Methodists become biblical inerrantists? Or biblical literalists, for that matter? There is nothing even remotely Wesleyan or Methodist about biblical inerrantism.

And finally, just for the record, I’m confident that if Lauren Manza could sit down with the Apostle Paul today, he would agree with her.

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

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

CAFE Standards, Global Warming, and the Wonder of the Automobile

1952 Volkswagen Beetle
The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,
the world, and those who live in it;
for he has founded it on the seas,
and established it on the rivers.
Psalm 24:1-2

I am a car guy.

I have always been a car guy.

Cars are part of my earliest memories. The first car I remember in our family was a Renault 4CV. That was followed by a string of Volkswagens, a Volvo 544, a Falcon, and a series of 2-stroke Saabs.

When I need to figure out when something happened, I date it by recalling what car we owned, or what car I was driving or what car someone else was driving or maybe remembering some car I saw on the way.

When I show people the historic photographs of our old church building on Main Street. I always ask, “Do you know the best thing about this picture?” Of course, they just stare blankly because it is a very ordinary photograph of our old and architecturally unremarkable education building, Colby Hall. 

Then I point to the very small image of a car parked in the street. “That,” I say in the way that I imagine anyone would speak of something miraculous, “is an XK 120.” And then I launch into an enthusiastic explanation of the Jaguar  XK 120, completely undeterred by the fact that almost no one ever matches my enthusiasm. Or reverence.

Given my history, you might think that I would be happy about the Trump administration deciding to roll back the Obama CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards, but I’m not.

That’s because although I have been a car guy since I was a little boy, as an adult I am now also an environmentalist (it’s that pesky Christian ethics thing about caring for creation and environmental stewardship) and the environment trumps the car stuff.

Especially now, when the world is literally burning up.

I am on vacation in Georgetown, Maine right now. It’s late afternoon. We are less than two miles from the Atlantic Ocean and it’s 90 degrees here. And it seems like it’s been 90 degrees forever. 

And this is not normal.

And it’s lots warmer almost everywhere else in the United States. And there’s a heat wave in Scandinavia. And a drought in Australia. And California is actually on fire.

A hot few days in the summer does not prove that global warming is real any more than a snowstorm in the spring proves that it’s not. But the global trends look suspicious. 

Then there’s the lobsters. They are migrating north toward the colder water. As Elaine says, “You can’t argue with a crustacean.”

Those who defend the relaxed CAFE standards argue that automobile emissions in the United States are a very small fraction of the global carbon footprint. But they are still one of the largest single things we can regulate. And this does not seem like the time to move in the wrong direction.

But there’s more.

The relaxed standards will cost more money, because the savings in manufacturing costs will be more than offset by increased fuel costs over the life of the vehicle. It will result in job losses and it will cause us to lose a competitive edge in the global marketplace.

The big thing is the environment. And the second thing is the economy. But it’s also about the cars.
The first cars produced in response to the energy crisis and the new emissions and safety standards of the 1970’s were truly terrible cars. They were slow, ugly, and not very fuel efficient. Since then we have been on a remarkable trajectory. Today’s cars are better in every way, and much of that improvement has been in response to government mandates in the United States and around the world.

Our 1952 VW Beetle was adorable. And on a good day it could get 25 mpg. Compared to the average of all cars at the time, that was pretty impressive. But the top speed was less than 70 mph, and that was downhill. With a tailwind. And it’s best not to think about crash safety.

By contrast, the 2012 V6 Mustang that sits in my driveway consistently gets better than 30 mpg on the highway (more than 34 mpg on one memorable trip to Maine). It has airbags and crumple zones. And it’s very fast

For comparison, the 1969 Mustang that Steve McQueen drove in “Bullitt” had a 390 cubic inch V8. It would do zero to 60 mph in just 5.7 seconds and could run the quarter mile in 14.1 seconds.

That's very fast.

According to the road test people, that would make it just a few ticks slower (s-l-o-w-e-r) than a 2012 V6.

And Steve never got 30 mpg.

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

Monday, August 6, 2018

Hiroshima and the Prophetic Vision of Harry Emerson Fosdick

“Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.”
Matthew 5:9

“War is essentially the denial of everything Christ stood for.”
Harry Emerson Fosdick

One of our summer traditions is going to the Patten Library book sale. The books sale is part of “Bath Heritage Days,” a festive occasion of craft fares, displays and sales. A few years ago I found a wonderful little book of sermons by Harry Emerson Fosdick called, “A Great Time to Be Alive.”

Fosdick looks better and better to me as the years go by. When I was in seminary, I thought he was a theological and intellectual lightweight. In my estimation, opposing Fundamentalism was obvious. And didn’t he spend his whole career at Riverside Church, bought and paid for by Rockefeller money? But now, when I re-read “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” I am struck by its relevance for our time.

Fosdick’s liberal theology, which seemed so pale and lifeless when I was in seminary, now looks both profound and prophetic. Truthfully, I held those negative opinions based almost entirely on what other people had said or written. My opinion changed as I began to read Fosdick for myself.

Still, I was put off by the title of the book. I assumed that “A Great Time to Be Alive” would be a sugary recitation of happy insights from the 1950’s. Optimism pretending to be faith. A mid-twentieth century version of Joel Osteen. I bought it because I have a small collection of Fosdick books, but I did not expect much.

I was surprised to find a prophetic and remarkably hopeful collection of sermons written and preached during the Second World War. Fosdick’s hope takes account of the stark reality of war, but also looks ahead to the possibilities beyond the war.

The book was published in the summer of 1944, shortly after the Normandy invasion, when the outcome of the war was not yet certain. He believed it was “A Great Time to Be Alive” because so much was at stake for the future of humanity and every decision mattered existentially and spiritually.

Fosdick had the courage, in that perilous time, to declare that war is always at odds with Christian teaching. It may be necessary, but it is never good. 
“Whether one thinks of what our enemies have done to us—of Warsaw, Lidice, Rotterdam, Coventry—or what we have done to them—‘We literally drop liquid fire on these cities,’ says one expert in air warfare, ‘and literally roast the populations to death.’”
He assumes that we will win the war. Hitler will be defeated and Imperial Japan will be
vanquished, but the real challenge will be to win the peace, to create a world which is worthy of the human lives lost in war. “Many Americans,” he writes, “would love to save the world if only they could save it without changing their isolationism, without changing their ideas of absolute national sovereignty, without changing their racial prejudices and their economic ideas to fit the new interdependent world.” Sadly, those words are still relevant. We still want to save the world without giving up anything.

In many ways, we did “win the peace.” The Marshall Plan was an incredible effort to rebuild the nations we had defeated, and it led to decades of post-war prosperity. Although we still have a long way to go, we have made great strides in race relations. And the United Nations, for all its shortcomings, is still at the center of maintaining peace in the world. In other ways, we are still struggling to recognize the ties that bind us together and embrace the interdependence of God’s world.

Today, on the anniversary of dropping the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, as we contemplate a chaotic foreign policy and as American Christianity seems to be in increasing danger of losing its soul, Fosdick’s vision is particularly relevant.

In 2009 the Boston Globe described the Hiroshima bombing this way:
Targeted for military reasons and for its terrain (flat for easier assessment of the aftermath), Hiroshima was home to approximately 250,000 people at the time of the bombing. The U.S. B-29 Superfortress bomber "Enola Gay" took off from Tinian Island very early on the morning of August 6th, carrying a single 4,000 kg (8,900 lb) uranium bomb codenamed "Little Boy". At 8:15 am, Little Boy was dropped from 9,400 m (31,000 ft) above the city, freefalling for 57 seconds while a complicated series of fuse triggers looked for a target height of 600 m (2,000 ft) above the ground. At the moment of detonation, a small explosive initiated a super-critical mass in 64 kg (141 lbs) of uranium. Of that 64 kg, only .7 kg (1.5 lbs) underwent fission, and of that mass, only 600 milligrams was converted into energy - an explosive energy that seared everything within a few miles, flattened the city below with a massive shockwave, set off a raging firestorm and bathed every living thing in deadly radiation. Nearly 70,000 people are believed to have been killed immediately, with possibly another 70,000 survivors dying of injuries and radiation exposure by 1950. Today, Hiroshima houses a Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum near ground zero, promoting a hope to end the existence of all nuclear weapons.
It is sobering to remember that the United States remains the first and only country ever to have used an atomic bomb.

The Daily Mail published a stark pictorial of the immediate aftermath of the attack showing horrifically injured survivors wandering through the desolation, picking their way among the corpses just hours after the bomb was dropped. It is particularly chilling to realize that every person pictured would have died of radiation exposure in the weeks and months following the attack.

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

*I have published a variation of this post on each August 6 for several years.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

The Scopes Trial and the Problem of Fundamentalism

Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan during the trial.

When I look at your heavens, 
the work of your fingers, 
the moon and the stars 
that you have established;
what are human beings 
that you are mindful of them, 
mortals that you care for them?
Yet you have made them 
a little lower than God, 
and crowned them 
with glory and honor.
Psalm 8:3-5

On July 21, 1925, ninety-three years ago today,  John Thomas Scopes was found guilty of teaching evolution to a high school biology class in Dayton, Tennessee and fined $100 (about $1300 in today’s dollars). 

The trial was something of a circus.

And it was a circus, at least in part, because the participants wanted it that way. It was not clear that Scopes, who was a substitute teacher, had actually violated the Butler Act, the state law which made it illegal to teach human evolution in a state funded school. But the trial was seen as a way to bring publicity to the small town of Dayton, Tennessee, and both sides were quite willing to participate in the spectacle.

The prosecution recruited three time Democratic presidential candidate and former Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, and the defense lined up Clarence Darrow, who was famous for defending Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, and sparing them the death penalty.

In his summation, which was printed for reporters but not actually presented to the jury, Bryan was clear about his understanding of the role of science in society. But his view is more nuanced than the caricatures would have predicted. And in his advocacy for a Christian worldview, he says nothing about Jesus dying to redeem a sinful humanity. 

Echoing a theme more often associated with the Social Gospel than Fundamentalism, he asserts that it is the moral teachings of Jesus that have saving power for the world:
"Science is a magnificent force, but it is not a teacher of morals. It can perfect machinery, but it adds no moral restraints to protect society from the misuse of the machine. It can also build gigantic intellectual ships, but it constructs no moral rudders for the control of storm-tossed human vessel. It not only fails to supply the spiritual element needed but some of its unproven hypotheses rob the ship of its compass and thus endanger its cargo. In war, science has proven itself an evil genius; it has made war more terrible than it ever was before. Man used to be content to slaughter his fellowmen on a single plane, the earth's surface. Science has taught him to go down into the water and shoot up from below and to go up into the clouds and shoot down from above, thus making the battlefield three times as bloody as it was before; but science does not teach brotherly love. Science has made war so hellish that civilization was about to commit suicide; and now we are told that newly discovered instruments of destruction will make the cruelties of the late war seem trivial in comparison with the cruelties of wars that may come in the future. If civilization is to be saved from the wreckage threatened by intelligence not consecrated by love, it must be saved by the moral code of the meek and lowly Nazarene. His teachings, and His teachings alone, can solve the problems that vex the heart and perplex the world."
Although Bryan was a devout Christian and Darrow was an agnostic, the trial was not about religion versus secularism as much as it was about two competing Christian theologies. 

It pitted the Fundamentalism enshrined in the Butler Act against theological Modernism. 

The Fundamentalists believed that every word in the Bible was literally true and that only by interpreting the Bible literally could Christians be faithful. The Modernists believed that in order to understand the meaning of the Bible, modern Christians needed to use all the gifts that God had given them, including science, reason, and historical criticism. 

The Fundamentalists believed that evolution was incompatible with Christianity. The Modernists believed that understanding how life evolved was not a threat to the meaning of life which they saw in God’s creative spirit. 

The trial was not about theology versus science. It was about one brand of theology against another. Although Fundamentalism won in the courtroom, it suffered severely in the court of public opinion. 

In recent years it has become fashionable to ask candidates for President of the United States to renounce the theory of evolution as evidence that they were “real” Christians and truly believed in the creative power of God. 

But in the many decades after the Scopes ruling, that question would not have been asked because most Christians outside of a small circle of Fundamentalists did not believe that there was any inherent conflict between science and religion.

The verdict was overturned by the Tennessee State Supreme Court, which called the case bizarre and encouraged the Attorney General to avoid pursuing similar cases in the future. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Grafton Green made an interesting observation about the relationship of evolutionary science and religious belief:
“We are not able to see how the prohibition of teaching the theory that man has descended from a lower order of animals gives preference to any religious establishment or mode of worship. So far as we know, there is no religious establishment or organized body that has in its creed or confession of faith any article denying or affirming such a theory. So far as we know, the denial or affirmation of such a theory does not enter into any recognized mode of worship. Since this cause has been pending in this court, we have been favored, in addition to briefs of counsel and various amici curiae, with a multitude of resolutions, addresses, and communications from scientific bodies, religious factions, and individuals giving us the benefit of their views upon the theory of evolution. 
“Examination of these contributions indicates that Protestants, Catholics, and Jews are divided among themselves in their beliefs, and that there is no unanimity among the members of any religious establishment as to this subject. Belief or unbelief in the theory of evolution is no more a characteristic of any religious establishment or mode of worship than is belief or unbelief in the wisdom of the prohibition laws. It would appear that members of the same churches quite generally disagree as to these things.”

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

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The Complaint Against Jeff Sessions

"If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
Matthew 18:15-17

Jesus outlines a three step process for confronting sinners.

First, go to the person in private. Second, visit with the person again and bring other church folks with you. And then if steps one and two don’t work, bring your complaint to the church.

Lately we Methodists have been pretty much skipping steps one and two. Although, given the nature of recent complaints, I don’t think that matters much.

I am not really a fan of the complaint process, at least not as it has been most frequently used in recent years. Those complaints have all been about gay clergy or clergy officiating at same sex marriages. And the complaints have often been filed by folks at a distance with no real connection to the supposed offenses. 

The good thing about the complaint brought against Attorney General Jeff Sessions is that it moves us from the imaginary sins of same sex relationships to the real sins of oppression and marginalization. Mr. Sessions is a member of the Ashland Place United Methodist Church in Mobile, Alabama and regularly attends the Clarendon UMC in Alexandria, Virginia. The complaint is addressed to the pastors of those churches.

The letter of complaint was organized by the Rev. David Wright, an elder in the Pacific Northwest Conference of the United Methodist Church and chaplain at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington. It has been signed by over six hundred clergy and laity of the church.

There is no doubt that these are very serious issues. And by every standard of Christian faith and ethics, the policy of separating children from their parents at the border is misguided at best. Our vilification of immigrants should be of deep concern to every Christian, and to every American. It is wrong and it is not a small matter.

But is it a good idea for us to point fingers at one another within the context of the church?

The answer, I think, is complicated.

It’s not a good idea to point fingers. And in our United Methodist context there is the very real possibility that the Sessions complaint will be seen as morally equivalent to the many complaints related to LGBTQ inclusion or exclusion. But that is a false equivalence. Our government has inflicted real harm on folks at our southern border. That is in no way equivalent to a clergy person officiating at a same sex wedding.

It is bizarre to think it might even be necessary to make that statement!

And the complaint against the Attorney General is largely symbolic. He will not lose his membership in the church or be asked not to attend. There will be no real consequences. This is only about raising consciousness and stimulating discussion. 

It is important to remember that at its core this is a moral issue. It is an issue of faith and practice. It is about our vision of the Kingdom of God. We in the church need to address the issue of immigration and the arguments surrounding it as a fundamental part of who we are. The Sessions complaint reminds us that though we must always "speak the truth in love," we must nevertheless speak the truth.

And that’s a good thing.

This is the complaint:

Pursuant to Paragraph 2702.3 of the 2016 United Methodist Book of Discipline, we hereby charge Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, Attorney General of the United States, a professing member and/or active participant of Ashland Place United Methodist Church (Mobile, Alabama) and Clarendon United Methodist Church (Alexandria, Virginia), with the chargeable offenses of:

• Child Abuse (examples: advocacy for and implementation of documented practices that indefinitely separate thousands of young children from their parents; holding thousands of children in mass incarceration facilities with little to no structured educational or socio-emotional support)

• Immorality (examples: the use of violence against children to deter immigration; advocating and supporting the separation of children from their families; refusal of refugee/asylee status to those fleeing gang or sexual violence; oppression of those seeking asylum or attempting to enter the United States with refugee status; directing employees and staff members to kidnap children from their parents)

• Racial discrimination (examples: stopping investigations of police departments charged with racial discrimination; attempting to criminalize Black Lives Matter and other racial justice activist groups; targeting incarceration for those engaged in undocumented border crossings as well as those who present with requests for asylum, with a particular focus on those perceived as Muslim or LatinX)

• Dissemination of doctrines contrary to the standards of doctrine of the United Methodist Church (examples: the misuse of Romans 13 to indicate the necessity of obedience to secular law, which is in stark contrast to Disciplinary commitments to supporting freedom of conscience and resistance to unjust laws)

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