Friday, April 24, 2009

Religion in American Life

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Matthew 22:34-40

In a recent column in the Miami Herald, Leonard Pitts, Jr. observes that we are “losing our religion.” In a poll conducted by researchers at Trinity College in Hartford, CT, the fastest growing religious group is “none of the above.” That “non-religious” group has grown from 8% in 1990 to 15% today.

April is “Religion in American Life” month; at least that’s what it says in my pocket planner. But religion is apparently as endangered as the pocket planner.

“Some have suggested our loss of faith is due to increased diversity, mobility and immigration,” Pitts observes. “I'm sure there's something to that, but I tend to think the most important cause is simpler: Religion has become an ugly thing.”

To paraphrase Holden Caulfield’s famous commentary on Christmas, from J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, “If Christ could see Christianity, he’d puke.” We’ve lost our way. From sex scandals with priests, to the attacks on science, to TV preachers saying idiot things (Katrina and before that, the 9/11 attacks, were because of our tolerance for Gays and the absence of school prayer), we find Christianity often associated with very unChrist-like things: intolerance, bigotry, scapegoating, literalism, and the celebration of greed.

Pitts asks: “Who can be surprised if the sheer absurdity, fundamentalist cruelty and ungodly hypocrisy that have characterized so much ''religion'' in the last 30 years have driven people away? If all I knew of God was what I had seen in the headlines, I would not be eager to make His acquaintance. I am thankful I know more.”

The Fundamentalists and Literalists feed the atheists and vice-versa. The “New Atheism” ignores the last 2,000 years of theological insights and biblical interpretation, and focuses all of its critique on biblical literalism. And the literalists have managed to so captivate the public perception, that the critique seems to work for many Americans.

Those of us who are trying to follow Jesus in a serious and thoughtful way find ourselves in a kind of “no man’s land” between these two warring armies. We are asked to choose between reason and religion, and it’s hard for the popular culture to understand that when we choose both reason and religion we are actually part of a long tradition of theologians and philosophers. This is not a new idea. But it needs renewed emphasis.

We are called to the love of God and neighbor. Jesus combines the “Shema” from Deuteronomy (Hear O Israel the Lord your God is one, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and strength.) with Leviticus 19:18 (You shall love your neighbor) to form the great commandment.

And we are called to love God with our hearts and our minds. Faith has to make sense. The leap of faith is existential rather than intellectual (which only makes sense, since the phrase, "leap of faith," comes from the Danish philosopher and theologian, Soren Kierkegaard, the founder of Existentialism). It is about how we live. The test of Christian faith is not that we can believe strange doctrines or accept the literal meaning of some obscure passage of scripture, but that we live out the teachings of Jesus in love and compassion for our neighbors.

What the survey says to me is that it’s time for Christians to act like Christians.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Handshake

“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 5:43-44

President Obama has been widely criticized for shaking hands with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Newt Gingrich was on the Today Show yesterday morning, and on Fox News, calling it a sign of weakness, and a terrible signal to send to the world.

At a news conference, Obama brushed aside the criticism, saying, “It's unlikely that as a consequence of me shaking hands or having a polite conversation with Mr. Chavez that we are endangering the strategic interests of the United States.” He went on to observe to the reporters, “I don't think anybody can find any evidence that that would do so. Even within this imaginative crowd, I think you would be hard-pressed to paint a scenario in which U.S. interests would be damaged as a consequence of us having a more constructive relationship with Venezuela.”

In the election it seemed important to many voters that our President be a Christian. Much was made of the seemingly eternal myth that Obama was a Muslim. But apparently, for many Americans, being a Christian means something other than being a follower of Jesus.

In his criticism of Obama, Gingrich compared his actions to the “weakness” shown by Jimmy Carter. In the mind of the former Speaker, “weakness” was the foreign policy strategy of the Carter administration. I think historians will say that Carter did achieve enormous progress on peace in the Middle East, and he did advance the cause of human rights. But we should never let history get in the way of political rhetoric. Conservatives now refer to Carter in the same way that Liberals once referred to Hoover, as the prime example of political failure. But there is also an issue of how we understand the public practice of Jesus' teachings. President Carter was in many ways the most self-consciously Christian president in our history. (We need to be careful in that observation. Lincoln was our greatest theological thinker and Teddy Roosevelt was a Social Gospel preacher. Many other presidents leaned heavily on Christian theology. But Carter was publicly self-conscious about his faith in a way that others have not been.) Christianity, in practice, often appears to be weakness. Most people, even most people who call themselves Christians (it seems), believe in hating your enemies.

Why does hatred (and fear) so easily masquerade as strength, while love is often mistaken for weakness? In the First Letter of John, the writer says that “perfect love casts out fear.” If we are sufficiently committed to love one another, even our enemies, then we are no longer afraid of being thought weak.

Just so we’re clear, I am not holding up President Obama as the embodiment of Christian love or Jesus’ teaching. And I don’t think he was trying to make a Christian witness in extending his hand to Hugo Chavez, although that would have been wonderful. My guess is that he was just being polite, which is not a bad place to start.

But there is more at stake here than shaking hands.

If we cannot begin, even in the smallest and most innocuous way, to embody some faint shadow of Jesus’ teaching in world affairs, then what hope do we have? If we really do not believe, even in the smallest way, in the transforming power of love, then what hope is there for world peace?

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Janis Joplin and Easter

The Easter sermon title is "All My Tomorrows." The line is taken from Kris Kristofferson’s “Me & Bobby McGee.”

“I’d trade all my tomorrows for a single yesterday.”

Sometimes yesterday seems so much better than today. In my head, it is not Bobby McGee, but Janis Joplin, who is singing. And feeling good was easy then, when Janis sang the blues. “Me & Bobby McGee” is a dark vision, despair delivered with a driving beat that makes you want to sing along.

She was the lead singer for Big Brother and the Holding Company when they came to Wesleyan on March 9, 1968. A month before Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot. Three months before Bobby Kennedy.

But when I hear her singing in my head I don’t think about national events. I think about that great talent lost. The wrenching pain that drove her to greatness and ultimately pushed her over the edge.

When she was at the University of Texas, as a fraternity prank, some guys nominated her for “Ugliest Man on Campus.” The acne face. The tangled hair. When I hear Faith Hill sing her version of “Take Another Little Piece of My Heart,” I wonder if two people could ever be more different than Faith Hill and Janis Joplin.

Easter is about trading yesterday for tomorrow. Maybe not without regret, but certainly with hope. It’s about picking up and going on. Life rather than death.

The full lyrics are printed below.

Me & Bobby McGee

Busted flat in baton rouge, headin for the trains,
Feelin nearly faded as my jeans.
Bobby thumbed a diesel down just before it rained,
Took us all the way to new orleans.
Took my harpoon out of my dirty red bandana
And was blowin sad while bobby sang the blues,
With them windshield wipers slappin time and
Bobby clappin hands we finally sang up every song
That driver knew.

Freedoms just another word for nothin left to lose,
And nothin aint worth nothin but its free,
Feelin good was easy, lord, when bobby sang the blues,
And buddy, that was good enough for me,
Good enough for me and my bobby mcgee.

From the coalmines of kentucky to the california sun,
Bobby shared the secrets of my soul,
Standin right beside me through everythin I done,
And every night she kept me from the cold.
The somewhere near salinas, lord, I let her slip away,
She was lookin for the love I hope shell find,
Well Id trade all my tomorrows for a single yesterday,
Holdin bobbys body close to mine.

Freedoms just another word for nothin left to lose,
And nothin left was all she left to me,
Feelin good was easy, lord, when bobby sang the blues,
And buddy, that was good enough for me.
Good enough for me and bobby mcgee

Friday, April 3, 2009

The G 20 and the Common Wealth

All who believed were together and had all things in common;
they would sell their possessions and goods
and distribute the proceeds to all,
as any had need.
Acts 2:44-45

Tuesday night I was at a meeting with our Bishop, Peter Weaver. He was commenting on the current economic crisis, and reflecting on the witness of the early church, and he said, "We need to think deeply about what it would really mean to 'hold all things in common.'" Then he laughed and said, "Now I suppose someone's going to go home and say, ‘Our Bishop is a Communist’." He paused and then concluded, "I'm just trying to be a Christian.”

What would it mean to “hold all things in common,” when a recent United Nations calculation says that the 500 richest people in the world earn more money than the 416 million poorest people? The poorest people, who bear no responsibility for creating the current crisis, will suffer most acutely from it. In his column in the New York Times this Thursday, Nicholas Kristof wrote about what is at stake behind the concerns for banks and billion dollar corporate bailouts.

As world leaders gather in London for the Group of 20 summit meeting, the most wrenching statistic is this: According to World Bank estimates, the global economic crisis will cause an additional 22 children to die per hour, throughout all of 2009. And that’s the best-case scenario. The World Bank says it’s possible the toll will be twice that: an additional 400,000 child deaths, or an extra child dying every 79 seconds.

As usual, the greatest price for incompetence at the summit will be borne by the poorest people in the world — who aren’t represented there and who never approved any bad loans.

It is hard for us to think in global terms, when we are so concerned about the situation in our own country. In times of economic uncertainty people naturally pull back. Helping others becomes a luxury we believe that we cannot afford, economically or emotionally.

Kristof observes that, “One of the most preposterous ideas floating about is that the world’s poor feel ‘entitled’ to assistance.” He is right that it is preposterous. And he is right that it is in wide circulation. It is the rich, not the poor, who feel entitled.