Friday, November 27, 2009

Congressman Kennedy and Bishop Tobin

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 --and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Matthew 28:19-20

The dispute between Providence Bishop Thomas Tobin and Congressman Patrick Kennedy has gone national. And viral. Don’t you love (or hate) that phrase?

On the day after Thanksgiving, let’s begin with the charge (I did not hear it from the Bishop himself, but it’s in the air) that Mr. Kennedy is a “Cafeteria Catholic.” He helps himself to the church teachings with which he agrees, and ignores the rest. The Bishop said that the Congressman cannot call himself a real Catholic unless he supports the Church’s teachings on abortion.

And that’s where Mr. Kennedy’s original point was lost.

The Congressman criticized the Catholic Church for opposing the health care reform bill. He was disappointed that in their single-minded opposition to abortion, they had focused on some very minor issues within the bill and dismissed the fact that the bill is overwhelmingly in line with Catholic Social teaching.

If we are honest, we recognize that there are a lot of Cafeteria Catholics (and Cafeteria Christians) out there. And abortion is not the only issue where people pick and choose. There are many conservative Catholics who reject the Catholic teachings on torture, war, social justice, capital punishment, and other issues.

Everyone picks and chooses his or her way through Christian (not just Roman Catholic) Social Teachings. And the field of Christian Social Ethics is dedicated to sifting through the biblical witness and the historical teachings of the Christian Church (again, not just RC) to focus on issues that matter most and help us live as faithful disciples. Yesterday’s absolute teachings become tomorrow’s cafeteria. The menu must be re-written for each new generation. The goal for faithful Christians is not to avoid decision making, but to make wise and faithful decisions. We can’t just look for the ideas and positions that appeal to our personal preferences. We need to look at the larger issues. We need to return over and over to Jesus’ teachings. We need to look hard at what we have learned in the past and ask how it applies to the future.

The implicit and very important question Mr. Kennedy put to the leaders of his church was:

Does the abortion issue always trump everything else? Is that the only absolute issue?

It is a valid question within the context of the Roman Catholic Church, and it would have been interesting to hear a real response from the Bishop.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Thanksgiving and the Wrath of God

Psalm 100

Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth.
Worship the LORD with gladness;
come into his presence with singing.

Know that the LORD is God.
It is he that made us, and not we ourselves
we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
and his courts with praise.
Give thanks to him, bless his name.

For the LORD is good;
his steadfast love endures forever,
and his faithfulness to all generations.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. As a child, of course, I liked Christmas better because of the presents. But that changed even before I became an adult. Thanksgiving has all of the enjoyment of the family get together without the added pressure of finding the right gifts.

As a child, I also loved Thanksgiving for the Pilgrims. Growing up just a few miles from Plimoth Plantation, I took special pride in their sacrifice and resolve and faith. When I learned that Thanksgiving had been made a national holiday by Abraham Lincoln, who was (and is) my favorite president, it only added to my reverence for the day.

Over the years, the revisionists have done their best to spoil my reverie, but they have not succeeded. I know that the Pilgrims and Native Americans did not have the idyllic relationship of the Thanksgiving portraits. And I know that the Pilgrims were not without fault, but I am still inspired.

When I opened up the New York Times on line this morning, I went immediately to the op-ed page, as I always do. And I found an article on Thanksgiving, by Elyssa East. The teaser looked promising: “The Thanksgiving holiday has come to mirror our transformation into a nation of gross over-consumption, but it wasn’t intended to be a day of gluttony.” Sadly, I was disappointed. The article does make the basic point advanced in the promotional sentence. She does write about the original meaning of the day and the connection between Thanksgiving and fasting. But she clearly looks down on the primitive beliefs of our Pilgrim ancestors.

East writes, To the Pilgrims and Puritans, the community-wide fast, or “day of public humiliation and prayer,” and the thanksgiving feast, or day of “public thanksgiving and praise,” were equal halves of the same ritual. But the fast was not merely a justification for a community-wide gorging. Both customs were important components of a religious rite that served to pacify an angry God who was believed to punish entire communities for the sins of the few with starvation, “excessive rains from the bottles of heaven,” epidemics, crop infestations, the Indian wars and other hardships.

The fast and the thanksgiving were primitive religious rites to “pacify an angry God.” In her view, they believed this God would starve a whole community in order to punish a few sinners.

Ouch. Perhaps I am overly sensitive, but I take this explicit critique of Pilgrim theology as an implicit critique of modern Christianity. And if I am being overly sensitive in the case of this particular essay, that critique is used repeatedly by the new secularists, like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.

So I want to give at least a partial response.

First, we wouldn’t base a critique of modern medicine on what seventeenth century physicians were doing. The basic goals of health and wholeness have not changed, but we no longer use the same methods to achieve those goals. Our understanding evolves over time. This is true in theology as well as in medicine or science, or history or mathematics.

Second, we should not underestimate the Pilgrims. Thanksgiving for them, as for the Psalmist before them, started with the fundamental understanding that “it is God who made us, and not we ourselves.” Everything comes from God. To recognize this gift, was a source of awe and wonder, which led to thanksgiving. This sense of Providence was not transactional. It did not depend on what they had done, but simply on who God is.

Finally, we need to be careful in our interpretation of the Pilgrims’ apparent belief in “an angry God.” They did believe in what they would have called “the wrath of God.” But we have a hard time understanding that as they did. Like us, they spoke symbolically. The words point beyond themselves. They believed in God, the Creator. But I don’t think they believed that created the world the same way that you and I might build a house, nor do I think they thought that God gets angry the way that you and I get angry. Their understanding of the wrath of God, like the prophets of Israel before them, was that when our behavior runs counter to the purposes of Creation, there are consequences. This is not because “God loses his temper,” (as if God were a big angry man!) it is because of the way the world is.

Abraham Lincoln was very much in tune with this understanding of God’s wrath when he gave his Second Inaugural Address. In that remarkable speech, he began by admitting what no politician would ever admit today, that there was no point in a long address because so much had already been said about the great Civil War which was consuming the nation. But in a few words, he reflected deeply on the topic, and suggested that the war was the inevitable consequence of the sin of slavery. They problem was not God’s anger, but God’s justice. The consequences were built into the universe. He writes:

If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

Lincoln understood our civil religion better than anyone. At the time of our greatest crisis, he brought us back to our foundation.

Beyond the turkey and trimmings, we can give thanks for Lincoln and for the Pilgrims. And with them we can join the Psalmist to “Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness endures forever.”

Friday, November 20, 2009

Thinking about Reinhold Niebuhr

The experience of Jesus upon the cross is not one of a dreamy pantheist who imagines God in easy and magical control of every process of the universe. It was the experience of a spiritual adventurer who saw life as a struggle between love and chaos but who also discovered the love at the center of things which guarantees the victory in every apparent defeat.
Reinhold Niebuhr

That quotation is from an essay that Niebuhr wrote for the Christian Century in 1927. According to an article by Editor John Buchanan, it is attached to a poster sized picture of Niebuhr that hangs in the entry to the Century offices.

It is striking on so many different levels.

I cannot help thinking that we do not spend enough time in quiet contemplation. And that Niebuhr, for all of his famous activism, was much more in tune with a quiet center than most of us are today. Maybe it is just me, but it seems that we are impatient with our questions. We cannot sit with them and wait for answers. We want to know. And we want to know now.

Our world seems sharply divided between those who believe that God really is “in easy and magical control,” and those who believe that God simply is not real. Niebuhr’s vision does not fit into neat categories. God is real, but there is no magic.

He speaks of a struggle between love and chaos. It’s not a struggle between love and hate, or order and chaos, or good and evil. Love and chaos are not normally understood as opposites. But again, Niebuhr does not give us neat categories or easy answers.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Arc of the Moral Universe

All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, the Kingdom of God. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.
Hebrews 11:13-16

Last Tuesday we found out, sadly, that Maine will discriminate against gay and lesbian persons. Around the country, the cumulative result of all the votes on gay marriage is now thirty-one to nothing. For those of us who care about justice, it is disheartening.

But I am reminded of Reinhold Niebuhr's wise observation that, "Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime." What that means, said Niebuhr, is that "we must be saved by hope."

At the end of the Civil Rights march from Selma to Montgomery, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a speech in which he talked about the frustration of the long struggle. His title was, “Our God Is Marching On!” and in spite of the many set backs and the bitter opposition they faced, he spoke with the hope of the prophets. At the conclusion of his address, he asks, “How long?” And this is his answer:

I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, (No sir) because "truth crushed to earth will rise again."
How long? Not long, because "no lie can live forever."
How long? Not long, because "you shall reap what you sow."
How long? Not long:
Truth forever on the scaffold,
Wrong forever on the throne,
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
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.
How long? Not long, because:
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He has loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword;
His truth is marching on.
He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment seat.
O, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! Be jubilant my feet!
Our God is marching on.
Glory, hallelujah! (Yes, sir) Glory, hallelujah!
Glory, hallelujah! Glory, hallelujah!
His truth is marching on.

At the center of his wonderfully poetic blend of Bible verses with James Russell Lowell and Julia Ward Howe, is his powerful affirmation of faith, that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

King adapted that line from the 19th century Abolitionist preacher Theodore Parker; although most people think it was original with King. In times of frustration, when it seems that we will forever be strangers and exiles, it is a promise worth remembering.