Saturday, February 28, 2009

Pray on it

“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him."
Matthew 6:5-8

One morning a few weeks ago I was driving somewhere and listening to the Glenn Beck program on the radio. (Why was I doing that?) I did not listen for long, but I heard him do an ad for gold coins. He said very earnestly that he was not an investment advisor and told his listeners not to rely on him for investment advice, but he wanted to be clear that gold was going up in value and many advisors were recommending it. “But don’t take my advice,” he cautioned, “I will say to you what I would say to my own family, ‘pray on it.’” And then he repeated the advice, “Pray on it.”

I went back to country music. But I was haunted by the commercial. The program is nationally syndicated. I wondered how many people heard that message and ended up thinking this is how Christians pray. This is what they pray about. This is what they believe. Christians, one might conclude, are people who use prayer to sell gold coins. Those are scary thoughts.

It is not easy to be a Christian today in the United States. We are not persecuted, and we should never confuse our frustrations with real oppression. But it is hard to live out a real faith in a time when there is so much posturing.

In the verses preceding the passage above, Jesus said to “beware of practicing your piety before others, to be seen by them.” His concern was pride. And rightly so.

But in our time, the piety that is practiced in public is often a caricature of real faith. I’m guessing there are many people whose understanding of Christianity is shaped only by those caricatures. That’s not a happy thought.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Thank God for Giving Us Harvey Milk

I didn’t watch the Academy Awards last night, but I did read some of the reports this morning. And one of the acceptance speeches caught my eye. Dustin Lance Black won the Oscar for best screenplay, for the movie “Milk,” a story about Harvey Milk, California’s first openly Gay elected official. This is part of his speech:

“When I was 13 years old, my beautiful mother and my father moved me from a conservative Mormon home in San Antonio, Texas to California and I heard the story of Harvey Milk. And it gave me hope. It gave me the hope to live my life, it gave me the hope to one day live my life openly as who I am and that maybe even I could fall in love and one day get married.”

(He chokes up, audience begins to applaud.)

“I want to thank my mom who has always loved me for who I am, even when there was pressure not to. But most of all, if Harvey had not been taken from us 30 years ago, I think he’d want me to say to all of the gay and lesbian kids out there tonight who have been told that they are less than by their churches or by the government or by their families that you are beautiful, wonderful creatures of value and that no matter what anyone tells you, God does love you and that very soon, I promise you, you will have equal rights, federally, across this great nation of ours. (Wild applause from the audience.) Thank you, thank you, and thank you God for giving us Harvey Milk.”

He speaks of those “gay and lesbian kids . . . who have been told that they are less than by their churches.”

A few weeks ago I received an email from a woman who wanted to know whether her gay son would be accepted in our church. She knew that many churches would tolerate him, and some would maybe even love him, in spite of believing that he should not be who he was. Would we in Dustin Lance Black's words, be telling him that he was "less than?" Or would we really accept him as a whole person? It is sad and even shameful that she would feel that she had to ask the question. But the truth is that this is an issue on which the churches have failed miserably.

At our best, the church has been at the forefront of the great social movements in the United States and across the world. This leadership has never been unanimous. We have always had people who wanted the church to go backwards. But in spite of our internal conflicts, we have moved forward. We led on abolition. We led on labor reform. We led on women’s suffrage. We can’t even imagine the Civil Rights Movement without the Black Church. But on homosexual rights, we have been captives of our culture.

Our kids deserve better. Whether they are gay or straight, they deserve better. Years from now, we will look back and be ashamed.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Mortgages and Morality

In his New York Times column this morning, David Brooks begins his attack on the proposed government program to slow the foreclosure rate by observing:

"Our moral and economic system is based on individual responsibility. It’s based on the idea that people have to live with the consequences of their decisions. This makes them more careful deciders. This means that society tends toward justice — people get what they deserve as much as possible."

What he means is that the market determines what people deserve. And that (believe it or not) is what he calls justice. So the people losing their homes are getting what they deserve, and the people who got rich on hedge funds got what they deserve. And CEO’s deserve to be paid 300 times as much as their workers. And the Wall Street folks who got $18 Million in bonuses (partly subsidized by the bailout) got what they deserved. If we upset all this fairness by helping people who are about to lose their homes, then the sky will fall. And we will all be poorer (morally) for it.

My first reaction was to wonder whether Mr. Brooks is as familiar with Reinhold Niebuhr as he claims to be. That’s about as anti-Niebuhrian (can that be a word?) as a statement could possibly be. Unfortunately, as Niebuhr pointed out, people tend to get what they can, unless they are restrained by countervailing social (including moral and religious) or political forces.

Once when Ohio State was way ahead of their arch rival, Michigan, Woody Hayes had his team go for a two point conversion after another touchdown. When reporters asked why he would go for two points when he was already so far ahead, Woody said, “Because I couldn’t go for three!” Why did the Wall Street traders get $18 Million? Because they couldn’t get nineteen.

In football, it may be amusing and add to the rivalry. But in economics, it is unjust. That’s not the biblical vision of Amos and Micah and Isaiah. And it’s not the vision of Jesus. When the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, that’s not a biblical vision of justice. When those who have more than enough won’t share with those who don’t have enough, that’s not justice.

In the mortgage bailout, some undeserving people will be helped. And inevitably, some deserving people will be left out. But if we can slow the losses and keep a significant number of families in their homes, that will be a very good thing.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Darwin and the Work of God

Darwin, plus one.

Yesterday was the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, whose theory of evolution revolutionized our understanding of biology, and changed how we think about the world.

Among Christians, there have been objections from the beginning, from those who see Darwin’s theory as a contradiction of the Genesis account of creation. On that point, I always want to give a shout out to the people who put together the Elohim narrative in Genesis one, that has the basic evolutionary order correct a few thousand years before Darwin. But Darwin contradicts Genesis two, which has human beings created first, and his theory contradicts the literal “days” of Genesis one. Oddly, the folks who are upset by Darwin are untroubled by the contradictions between the first and second accounts, which come from the Elohim and Yahweh narratives, respectively.

But among Christian theologians and biblical scholars, the reaction was largely positive from the beginning. When they heard Darwin’s theory, their reaction was, “We knew that God created the world. Now we know how.” And the on-going nature of evolutionary change reminded them that God was still at work.

When they saw the biological world evolving, it reminded them that social relationships also needed to evolve. Progress, seen in nature, must be replicated in society. For the Social Gospel preachers, theologians, and activists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, progress was not just natural, it was divine. This did not mean it was inevitable; it meant that working toward a more just and humane world was what God was calling them to do.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Hedging Our Faith

For those of us who don’t gamble, it is more than a little odd to find out that we lost anyway. For a long time, a small number of people were getting rich by trading something called “derivatives,” which involves (I think) gambling on the future value of past debt. The benefits (for the most part) were channeled to a lucky few, but the risks were spread broadly. When the bubble burst, the whole economy was sucked into the vacuum. And now it will take a trillion dollars to get us out of this hole.

We talk about the housing bubble. But we have had housing bubbles before and the world did not come to an end. The derivative trading leveraged the potential gains (for a few investors) while also multiplying the risks to our economic system as a whole.


On Wall Street where we spent hundreds of billions of dollars on a bail-out, they gave out bonuses totally 18 million dollars, the sixth largest total ever. Congratulations on a great year, you didn’t just wreck Wall Street, you brought the country to its knees!

From a faith perspective it brings two things to mind. First, we have worshipped the market for too long. The prophets of Israel could have told us that when you worship false gods, eventually there are consequences. It’s not that God is angry. It’s just how the world works. We reap what we sow.

But second, it is so hard to get over the anger. We don’t want them to get away with it. Someone, we think, has to pay for this. (Actually, we, the American people are going to pay for it, whether we like it or not.) The search for villains, though emotionally satisfying in the short term, is ultimately a path to spiritual bankruptcy. When anger and frustration define who we are, then we cannot live faithfully. And our anger prevents us, as a nation, from moving toward a solution.

So the hedge fund managers gambled away our money, and we need to repent. Ironic, but true.