Thursday, May 28, 2009

Judge Sotomayor and the Racism Charge

Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.
Matthew 7:3-5

There has been a great deal of controversy over a statement made by Judge Sonia Sotomayor regarding the role that life experience has in shaping our perceptions. She ahs said that “our experiences as women and people of color affect our decisions.” In 2001, in a lecture on this topic, she said, “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”

Actually, she went on to say that sometimes her background was a good thing, and other times she had to broaden her perspective and see things from other angles. She called this broadening and searching for other perspectives part of becoming a better judge.

Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh called her remarks racist. Not surprisningly, when Samuel Alito made similar remarks about his background in an immigrant family, prior to his confirmation in 2006, they were silent. Judge Sotomayor is not a racist, nor is she displaying racial prejudice. But she is saying something important about the perspectives we bring to life situations.

The truth is that Jesus was right.

We all have logs and specks in our eyes. We get so accustomed to our own logs that we no longer see them. For centuries in the United States and in Western Civilization, white males have claimed the default position: our logs don’t count. We are objective.

We should try, as Jesus suggests, to remove the logs in our eyes. At our best we can do that from time to time. But they don’t stay removed. And even if we can permanently remove one, there is another to take its place!

Is Judge Sontamayor right when she claims (or at least appears to claim) that the log in her eye is less of a problem than the log in the eye of a white male judge? Maybe. Jesus makes a strong argument for seeing life from the perspective of those who are most oppressed and cast down. But even if her log is no better, it is at least different. There is no one else on the current Supreme Court who has her life experience and sees the world as she does. A diversity of logs is a good thing. With a diversity of logs we are better able to help each other remove the logs and specks that prevent us from seeing clearly.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Message and the Creed

In our online Bible Study this week we have been talking about belief. In an earlier post, I published Keith Sanzen's statement of belief, which he had shared with that group.

As I thought about Keith’s creed, I found myself coming back to The Apostle’s Creed. I went looking on line to find it so that I could paste it into this email, rather than copying it from the hymnal. There may be a United Methodist link out there somewhere that leads to our hymnal version of the creed, but I couldn’t find it. On the other hand, the Lutherans and the Calvinists had web-sites with obvious and easy links. Searching in vain on the United Methodist sites reminded me again that we really are NOT a creedal church.

Eventually I went to the Lutheran web site and copied their version. It was not quite what I remembered, so I checked with our hymnal. The version they use is the Ecumenical version in our hymnal. I edited it to conform to our “Traditional” version. The Ecumenical version replaces the phrase “descended into hell,” with “descended to the dead.” Our Traditional version omits it altogether. Again, a small reminder of our theological heritage.

This is the Traditional version from our United Methodist Hymnal:

I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.

And in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried; the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.

One of the things that is difficult for us to understand is that the creed was intended as a liturgical retelling of the Gospel Story. It was part of the worship life of the early church. More like a hymn than a theological statement, and certainly not intended to be read as history.

In the spirit of Eugene Peterson’s “The Message,” this is my paraphrase of the Apostle’s Creed:

I believe in God, the Ground of our Being and the Source of all that is.

And in Jesus Christ, the fullest and best revelation of God, who was born into a human family, suffered under the violence of the Empire, was executed for treason and died a human death. He went to God, even as he came from God, and then appeared again to his disciples. By his life and death all things are judged, and in his love the whole world is reconciled to God.

I believe in the Living Spirit of God in the world, and in the Church as Christ’s living presence among us. I believe God accepts us in spite of our brokenness and loves us beyond our imagining, now and forever. Amen.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Keithonian Creed

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.”
Mark 8:34

When Jesus called the first disciples, he never asked them about what they believed. He invited them to follow him. He was very clear that this following was dangerous business. It involved the denial of self, and the carrying of the cross.

The first Christians were called followers of the way. He had taught them a way of living and they were trying to follow it.

Eventually they were also called believers, because they believed that he was the Christ, and therefore were committed to follow in his way. As Marcus Borg points out, to believe, in the biblical sense, is to give one’s heart. It is not an intellectual exercise, it is an existential commitment.

Now, two thousand years later, modern Christians have too often reduced Christianity to a belief system. In his book, “Saving Jesus from the Church,” Robin Meyers notes that the Sermon on the Mount was all about what we should do and how we should live. It said nothing about what we should believe. But three hundred years later, the Nicene Creed was all about belief, and it said nothing about what we should do.

We need to restore the balance. We are called to be followers first and believers second.

But the belief question is still important.

If we really do give our hearts, then our bodies will follow.

My friend Keith Sanzen, who leads our on line Bible Study and teaches our Junior High Class and has become our resident biblical scholar, has drafted a creed that serves as a great starting point for examining our faith.

My Creed – draft

I believe in God; the ground of being, creator, redeemer and sustainer of life.

I believe in Jesus as the Christ, the one in whom the Word of God was uniquely revealed.

I believe Christian life is a response to grace found in the revelation of the cross and the teachings of Jesus.

I believe that different people understand the revelation of Christ in different ways.

I believe that any understanding of Christ that is grounded in sincere love and acceptance of others is a valid expression of Christian discipleship.

I believe that love and compassion are more important than religious doctrine, traditions and creeds.

I believe that Jesus taught, with authority of God, that we should love both our neighbor and our enemy.

I believe we should seek justice, mercy and dignity for all people; for all people are children of God regardless of gender, race, creed, religion, sexual orientation, national origin, loyalty or past deeds.

I believe that some actions bring negative consequences but no one deserves to have pain or suffering inflicted upon them.

I believe we all share in the breath of God.

In sharing this common breath I believe that medical care, shelter, food and water should be readily available to all regardless of their income or nationality.

I believe in living simply so that I have more to share with others in need.

I believe this world and this life is a gift of God and not a place from which we need to escape.

We need to show that we are thankful for what we have received by not destroying ourselves or the world we live in.

I believe in a God who loves us and constantly calls us home.

I believe that, upon death, we enter fully into the presence of God.

I believe that, regardless of gender, race, creed, religion, sexual orientation, national origin, loyalty or past deeds, God will act with justice, mercy and love.

I believe that everyone is compatible with God.

I believe that the world can look dark, horrible and bleak but I believe a light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.

I will strive to order my life so there might be less suffering than there was the day before.

I will walk humbly with my God and be forgiving of others for I know I fall short in the ideals of God and all that is required of me.

Though I will always strive for understanding and truth, there is much I do not understand and, in time, my understanding will change.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Death and the Office of Behavioral Health

The Eternal God is our dwelling place
and underneath are the everlasting arms.
Deuteronomy 33:27
The Lord heals the broken hearted and binds up their wounds.
Psalm 147:3

Yesterday I received the following email from Michael S. Roth, President of Wesleyan University, regarding the tragic death of a student there:

It is with deep sorrow that I write to inform you that Johanna Justin-Jinich '10 was killed by a gunman this afternoon at her job at the Red and Black Café on the corner of William Street and Broad Street.

This is a devastating loss for Johanna's family, friends, and for the entire Wesleyan Community. Our hearts go out to all those who grieve for Johanna, and we hope all can find comfort in the support of friends, teachers and classmates.

Staff from the Office of Behavioral Health can be reached in their offices until 9:30PM tonight and are always available via the 24 hour on-call system by calling: 860-685-2910.

We mourn together the loss of Johanna.

Michael S. Roth,
President Wesleyan University

Wesleyan is my alma mater. I still treasure the memories of long conversations in the middle of the night, teachers who challenged me to think more deeply and care more passionately. Wesleyan is part of who I am. Some of the parts of me I value most grew out of my time there.

But I was taken aback by the email.

The comfort offered to grieving students and faculty is that the Office of Behavioral Health is working late.

I am not against the clinical response, but I would not start there. Death is demonic and messy. It rips apart the soul and the spirit. The violent death of a young person, the loss of a life filled with promise, is not a clinical problem. It is deeper than that.

Wesleyan has been a fairly secular place for a long time. The Wesleyan Logo is still the design that belonged to John and Charles. You can still see the cross and the shells that symbolize baptism, but it no longer proclaims the Wesleyan (the original, not the university) motto that “God Is Love.” Ties with the Methodist Church were severed over seventy years ago. But I am still surprised there is not more sense of the spirit.

One does not have to be a Christian, or a Jew, or a religious person in any traditional sense to have an understanding of human life that transcends “Behavioral Health.” The human spirit, without any theological guidance or nurture, is still more than chemistry and physics and biology. Those who grieve need to know at the deepest level that there was more to Johanna Justin-Jinich.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Tortured Faith

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.
I John 4:7-8

The hymn says, “They will know we are Christians by our love,” but according to a recent survey, maybe not so much.

"Do you think the use of torture against suspected terrorists in order to gain important information can often be justified, sometimes be justified, rarely be justified, or never be justified?"

My friend Bill Flug sent me a CNN report on a survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life which asks that question. It shows that about half of all Americans believe that torture is often or sometimes justified. About twenty-five percent said that it is never justified.

As we listen to the national debate, those numbers are not surprising. But within the numbers there is a more troubling finding. Church goers are more likely to support the use of torture than their more secular neighbors. Fifty-four percent of those who attend services at least once a week say torture is often or sometimes justified, compared with only forty-two percent of those who seldom or never attend services.

White Evangelical Protestants support torture with a more than 60% majority.

And this is the group that prides itself on believing in the authority of the Bible?

One wonders how it is possible to have such a radical disconnection between the biblical witness and the attitudes of those who claim to believe that witness. What part of the Bible do these people actually believe? What sort of tortured logic is required to make believe that Jesus would condone this?

Remember the choices for the use of torture on terror suspects:

We’re talking about people who went with often or sometimes. This doesn’t include the people who believe that torture is morally repugnant but would consider using it if they thought it was the only way to protect the country from catastrophe.

According to the poll, Mainline Protestants (Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, etc.) were less likely than other religious groups to support torture. Thirty percent of us said torture is never acceptable. I don’t think Jesus would count that one in the win column.

I was going to start this blog with an imaginary conversation in which a pastor asks a parishioner if he or she believes in torture, and the parishioner replies, “I listen to your sermons, don’t I?”
But this isn’t funny.
It reminds us once again that Christians need to reclaim a sense of who we are and to whom we belong. As the writer of I John encourages us, "Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action." (I John 3:18).