Friday, July 31, 2009

Gates, Crowley and Obama: Racism in America



For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
I Corinthians 13:12-13

"We hit it off right from the beginning. When he’s not arresting you, Sergeant Crowley is a really likable guy."
Professor Henry Lewis Gates, Jr.

One thing we have learned in the days since Sergeant James Crowley arrested Harvard University Professor Henry Lewis Gates, Jr. in his own home, is that racism is alive and well in America. But it has not played out in the way we might have expected.

The Golden Citizenship Award for racial tolerance and community concern goes to Lucia Whalen, the woman who made the 911 call that set the events in motion. Sadly, before the facts were fully known, Ms. Whalen had been widely vilified as a “racist neighbor,” who had assumed that if two black men were trying to get into a house, then they must be burglars. In fact she had been cautious in telling the 911 operator that she could not determine the race of the men (Professor Gates and his taxi driver), and adding that they had suitcases and they might live there. Ms Whalen is not a neighbor, but she does work nearby. And she is exactly the sort of conscientious person you would want in your neighborhood.

Both Professor Gates and Sergeant Crowley were culpable in the original incident. The professor should not have yelled at the sergeant, and the sergeant should not have arrested the professor after he determined that Dr. Gates was in his own home. But after the initial incident, both men acquitted themselves much better. And as he said, President Obama could have “calibrated his remarks” differently.

But the men gathered around the picnic table at the White House were not the ones feeding the racism.

This past Monday morning I tuned in to our local sports talk station, expecting to hear folks ranting on John Smoltz giving up 6 runs in five innings, and thinking to myself that the Red Sox needed better hitting, as well as pitching, but it’s a long season and (as Annie Savoy said in “Bull Durham”) you gotta trust. Instead I heard one of the hosts launch into a rant on Professor Gates. Basically, what he said was that Dr. Gates got exactly what he wanted.

In other words, “He was asking for it.”

Under this scenario, we are invited to imagine that some time on the flight back from China or maybe on the ride from the airport, the professor said to himself, “Maybe I can get myself arrested in my own home. I’m an internationally known scholar at one of the best universities in the world, but something is missing.” Call me crazy, but I find that hard to believe.

Other commentators labeled President Obama and Professor Gates “Black Militants” and Racists, which is pretty silly and makes you wonder if they have ever actually met a militant Black person.

What the attacks had in common was the assertion that racism is a Black problem rather than a white problem. What this proved once again, the commentators insisted, was that “They” (Black people) want to be victims. The pundits allow the theoretical possibility of racial profiling, but deny the specific instance. It’s not a new strategy. When non-violent demonstrators were attacked during the Civil Rights movement, they were blamed for inciting the violence. Again, they brought it on themselves.

Blaming the victim is classic racism. On the other hand, the fact that racism is a reality in America does not mean that Sergeant Crowley is a racist. The evidence is that he is a decent and honorable person. And he is clearly not willing to be the poster boy for anyone’s racist rant.

After the “Beer Summit” with President Obama, Sergeant Crowley gave a remarkable press conference. He was poised, articulate, friendly, charming, and clearly willing to let go of a grudge (if he ever held one). On a scale of 1 to 10, he scored at least a 12. He made it clear that he had been and would be listening to Professor Gates, and that he had something to learn from him. He also said that the professor had indicated a willingness and desire to reciprocate the listening and learning.

When Saint Paul said that we “see through a glass darkly,” he wasn’t talking about looking through a glass of Bud Light or Sam Adams, but he was talking about relationships. And he was right that being “face to face” helps us see things differently. Some day in American race relations we really will “know fully” and be “fully known.” In spite of their unlikely beginning, the sergeant and the professor gave us hope that that day will come.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Sam Harris Is Wrong on Francis Collins

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it.
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
Psalm 139:6-7


Sam Harris is unhappy with President Obama’s choice of Francis Collins to be the new director of the National Institutes of Health. The issue is religion. Harris is an ardent atheist, and Collins is an Evangelical Christian. In Harris’s view (New York Times, July 26, 2009); Dr. Collins’s faith is a cause for concern.

Harris admits that “Dr. Collins’s credentials are impeccable: he is a physical chemist, a medical geneticist and the former head of the Human Genome Project.” Harris is glad that Collins is not a Creationist, or even an advocate of Intelligent Design. In fact, Collins sees no conflict whatsoever between Christianity and Evolution. What troubles Harris is that Collins intertwines his scientific understanding of Evolution with his concept of God. In a lecture on science and belief given at Berkeley in 2008, one of Collins’s slides said:

“After evolution had prepared a sufficiently advanced ‘house’ (the human brain), God gifted humanity with the knowledge of good and evil (the moral law), with free will, and with an immortal soul.”

In explaining why this troubles him, Harris writes:

“There is an epidemic of scientific ignorance in the United States. This isn’t surprising, as very few scientific truths are self-evident, and many are counterintuitive. It is by no means obvious that empty space has structure or that we share a common ancestor with both the housefly and the banana. It can be difficult to think like a scientist. But few things make thinking like a scientist more difficult than religion.”

Let’s look at this verse by verse.

First, he’s right about the epidemic of scientific ignorance. That is a major issue on all sorts of public policy debates. Global warming and Creationism would be prime examples.

Second, the observation about the counter-intuitive nature of scientific truth is fascinating because that is true of the Gospel, as well. The Sermon on the Mount, for example, is totally counter-intuitive. Many of the most important truths of the Bible are not at all self-evident.

Third, the relationship between the housefly and the banana is, for Christians, a source of wonder. How amazing is this world? How incredible are the relationships? It reminds me of the angel’s declaration to Mary when he told her that Elizabeth in her old age would also bear a child, “nothing is too wonderful for our God” (Luke 1:37).

Fourth, it is difficult to think like a scientist, but I don’t believe that religion makes it more difficult, I believe it makes it easier. It opens us to a sense of wonder and possibility. Let’s not forget that Collins is not the first scientist to see himself as a Christian and see those world views as complementary. People of faith, in fact, ought to think like scientists in order to better understand their faith.

What Sam Harris really objects to, is biblical literalism and religious fundamentalism. And he should. There are plenty of religious people who hold those views and they really are anti-scientific. Unfortunately, what he apparently believes is that all of us who call ourselves Christians are really closet literalists and quasi-fundamentalists.

Harris is dismayed by Dr. Collins’s contention that “science offers no answers to the most pressing questions of human existence” and that “the claims of atheistic materialism must be steadfastly resisted.” And then he concludes:

“Francis Collins is an accomplished scientist and a man who is sincere in his beliefs. And that is precisely what makes me so uncomfortable about his nomination. Must we really entrust the future of biomedical research in the United States to a man who sincerely believes that a scientific understanding of human nature is impossible?”

But he misses the point by a wide margin. The idea that “science offers no answers to the most pressing questions of human existence” does not mean that “a scientific understanding of human nature is impossible.” It simply means that the truth of life is deeper than physical science. We can and we should do our best to achieve “a scientific understanding” of every aspect of our existence. But that will never tell the whole story.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Francis Collins: Science and Religion Together

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Psalm 19:1


I have found there is a wonderful harmony in the complementary truths of science and faith. The God of the Bible is also the God of the genome. God can be found in the cathedral or in the laboratory. By investigating God's majestic and awesome creation, science can actually be a means of worship.
Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D.


President Obama has chosen Francis Collins, a physician and a scientist, to be the next Director of the National Institutes of Health. There are many physicians and scientists who are also people of faith (we have a number of them in our congregation), but the selection of Dr. Collins is important in the current intellectual climate.

It is good news for Christians and for those who care about developing and maintaining a positive relationship between science and religion. He states his position with conviction, “I am a scientist and a believer, and I find no conflict between those world views.” The point is not simply that he is a Christian, but that he sees no conflict between the world views of science and religion.

The interface of science and religion is not nearly as comfortable today as it was in the middle of the last century. It is now more than eighty years since Harry Emerson Fosdick lifted up the cause of reason and science as a vital part of faithful living in his famous essay, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win.” In the closing decades of the twentieth century we saw a resurgence of Creationism and Biblical Literalism as conservative Christians pushed back against science and reason. Although they have not gained a large following among serious biblical scholars and theologians, they have redefined the popular perception of Christianity. They are the people who are quoted in the newspapers and featured on television as spokespersons for Christianity.

In the last decade a new group of atheists has launched their own initiative to label all Christians as literalists and then to discredit literalism as a rational impossibility. Religion, they say, is the enemy of science and of progress. In their definition of the conflict, the intellectuals and the scientists are on one side, and the irratonal "believers" are on the other side. The divide is real and it is growing.

Dr. Collins is willing to be outspoken about his faith in a way that others are not. Like many of us, he sees no conflict between science and religion. That is good for Christians and it will be good for our national conversation.

You can read Dr, Collins’ complete essay on this topic by using the link below:
http://www.cnn.com/2007/US/04/03/collins.commentary/index.html

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Jimmy Carter's Problem

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Matthew 5:11-12

Those verses come at the end of the Beatitudes, the first section of “The Sermon on the Mount.” Jesus makes it clear that if we want to follow him, and if we are truly faithful, we will encounter opposition. Our motives will be questioned. People will doubt our patriotism and our common sense. That was true for John Wesley, for Mahatma Gandhi (who followed the Sermon on the Mount, though he was not a Christian), for Nelson Mandela, and for Martin Luther King, Jr. And it has been true for Jimmy Carter.

Carter’s problem is that he was (and is) always a Christian. Not without mistakes and flaws, of course, but always a Christian.

In America we tend to value semi-Christians. We want people who will utter the pious words from time to time, and invoke God’s blessing, but have no real commitment to Christian values. Someone said that we are most comfortable with politicians who hold firmly to vague beliefs. (Lincoln was probably the greatest exception to the rule. He was our most profound theological thinker among our presidents. But Lincoln inhabits a wholly different category among political leaders. He was unique in so many ways.)

Jimmy Carter had the misfortune of taking his faith seriously and sharing it with the American people. That was evident thirty years ago last week when he gave the famous (infamous) “Malaise” speech. Of course, he never used that word, and he never said or even implied that “malaise” was our problem, but that is how the speech is remembered.

What he did say, was that we had to sacrifice. We could not consume or produce our way out of the energy problem. We needed to change in order to meet the challenge of limited resources in an unstable world.

Chris Matthews interviewed Hendrik Hertzberg, a journalist who had been a Carter speechwriter. Matthews observed that in many ways, “Carter was dead on, on the need for energy sufficiency and dealing with the energy conservation. Putting on a sweater, lowering the thermostat. All of those things made sense.” And Carter had also been right, he noted, on the related problems of nuclear proliferation.

“Well he was” right, Hertzberg responded, “he was in this particular speech, especially, which was really unlike anything that he had ever said, it was unlike anything any president had ever said. In this particular speech he was sort of a prophet. He spoke as a prophet. And, and I mean by that, not as someone who is predicting the future but as someone who is diagnosing, diagnosing the national soul.”

What Carter saw, he said, was a spiritual crisis in the soul of America. Unfortunately, “the result was not that we faced up to it but that we retreated into years and years of fantasy and of phony optimism and, and notion that we could just consume and consume and consume.”

I find that I appreciate Carter more as the years go by. (I do not agree with him on the conflict in the Gaza, but I don’t doubt his motives.) Carter was a Christian first, and a politician second. We have a hard time with that.

Friday, July 17, 2009

All or Nothing

Jesus said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.
Luke 11:5-8

When it comes to the Bible, literalism seems to be the default position. By that I mean that many people believe that the Bible ought to be taken literally, and they feel guilty when they can’t or don’t see it that way. They see literalism as a higher form of belief.

More than one person has said to Carol Reale, our Christian Education Director, that it’s all or nothing. Either they will believe it all, literally, or they won’t believe any of it. It is an on-going struggle to help people live into the biblical witness authentically without getting caught in the “all or nothing” trap of literalism.

The Bible calls us to explore a meaning that is deeper than the words on the page. Literalism is not a higher form of belief; it is a mistaken way of encountering the Bible. We don’t reject literalism because we are modern rational and scientific people who will not bend our minds to the ancient biblical world view. We want to read the Bible the way it was written, as a witness of faith, as a narrative of the experiences of faithful people. They were not trying to write a scientific textbook, or a history book in the way that we think of history. They were telling the story of their experience of God, so that we could live into that same experience.

The goal is not for us to believe that we are reading about something that REALLY HAPPENED to some ancient person or persons, but to let God speak to us through those experiences. The question is not whether I can believe that it really happened in just this way, but whether I can hear what God is saying to me.

After Jesus taught his disciples what we now call “The Lord’s Prayer,” in Luke’s account he told them a story about a friend arriving at midnight, and the host finding himself without anything to offer. The point, of course, is not that sometimes God is already in bed for the night, but that we should be persistent in prayer. It is a beautiful story because we can all see ourselves in each of the roles, as weary travelers, or unprepared hosts, or even as the reluctant neighbor asleep with his family. But what touches me in the story is the simple description of the host’s situation, “a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.”

“I have nothing.”

By ourselves we have nothing. (Back to the question of “all or nothing.”) All is not an option. Nothing is our human condition. We come before God with nothing. And we trust God to provide.

I have nothing.

And by the grace of God, that is enough.

Monday, July 13, 2009

John Calvin at 500

John Calvin (born July 10, 1509, died May 27, 1564) was born 500 years ago last Friday.

I missed it. My oversight, of course, was predestined from the beginning of the world. And yet, it’s still my fault! Ironically and appropriately, on Calvin's birthday I was writing about the limitless grace and compassion of God.

The Calvin Quincentenary was (and is) very big among those in the Reformed tradition. Not so much among Methodists. I share John Wesley’s disdain for the doctrines of Election and Predestination (and Wesley’s disdain for doctrines in general), but if you want to think deeply about the sovereignty of God, Calvin is your man. And the Reformed tradition, which starts with Calvin, brought us Karl Barth, and the Niebuhrs, H. Richard and Reinhold, as part of a vast theological legacy.

Calvin was the major theological influence for the Puritans who founded this country. His idea of covenant is imbedded in the Mayflower Compact, as well as in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber argued that Protestantism in general and Calvinism in particular was a necessary precondition for the rise of Capitalism.

Calvin’s understanding of vocation gave sacred meaning to all work. Building a factory was not just a job, or a way to earn money, it was a calling. And Calvinism led to a this worldly asceticism, in which the denial of self led naturally to the accumulation and reinvestment of capital (I can’t spend the profit on myself—at least not all of it—and I can’t just give it back to the workers, that would tempt them to all sorts of vices, so I will reinvest it in the business). Material success was not a guarantee of one’s Election, but it tended to be seen as an indicator of God’s blessing, adding another strong motivator for the capitalist.

It was not entirely Calvin’s fault that one of the results of his doctrine of Predestination and Election, as applied to the conditions of society, is that people who saw material blessings as a sign of God’s favor would also see poverty as a sign of God’s rejection. So in the popular mind, the rich deserved their wealth and the poor deserved their poverty. One’s outward material success, or lack of it, was a sign of one’s inner spirit. And this meant that helping the poor was actually working against the will of God. A little charity might be good for one’s conscience, but social reform was unthinkable.

John Wesley’s argument against Predestination and Election was both theological and practical. For God to choose who would be saved and who would be damned, apart from anything that the persons had done, was completely immoral. My sisters and brothers in the Reformed tradition will point out that Wesley did not understand the depth or nuance of Calvin’s position. But Wesley could see the practical results. And that was enough for him.

I am amazed by the towering achievement of Calvin’s theology. Really. On the sovereignty of God, he has no equal. And his contributions to our civic life are huge. Yet I could not even write my birthday greetings without spending more space on criticism than on praise. But then again, that was Predestined.

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Mercies of God



The Lord is good to all,
and his compassion is over all that he has made.
Psalm 145:8-9

For those of us who believe, as the hymn says, that there really is “a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea,” and trust that the “arc of the moral universe” really does “bend toward justice,” there have been some bright spots this spring.

Maine and New Hampshire both adopted laws approving Gay Marriage, leaving Rhode Island as the last defender of marriage inequality in New England. At the Methodist Church my daughter Carolyn attends in Philadelphia, at the prayer time one Sunday, she shared the celebrations that her cousin was in the balcony when the New Hampshire law was passed, and her parents had been at a rally for marriage equality in Providence. One man in the congregation responded audibly, “Thank God for New England!”

But yesterday the Portland Press Herald carried a front page story on the efforts of a group called “Stand for Marriage Maine” is gathering signatures to put it on the ballot in November and calling for a “people’s veto.” The group has collected more than the necessary 55,000 signatures and has until August to submit them to the Secretary of State for verification. The group is supported by the Roman Catholic Church and other conservative Christians. In her story, Susan M. Cover reports:

Bob Emrich, a Baptist pastor and a member of Stand for Marriage Maine, said in a written statement that he looks forward to a "vigorous defense of marriage" throughout the campaign.

"Traditional marriage has never lost on the ballot in any state," he said. "We expect it to prevail in Maine. The fact that we've gathered all these signatures in just a month to proceed with the people's veto suggests that the people of Maine, like those in 43 other states, want to restore marriage to its historical and time-honored definition as between a man and a woman."

The traditionalists rest their argument in part on the Bible. Although those of us who support marriage equality can stand on the great biblical themes of freedom and equality, which are woven into the narrative from beginning to end, opponents focus on a few negative verses.

In his Torah Commentary this week, Rabbi Daniel Nevins, Dean of the Rabbinical School at the Jewish Theological Seminary, offers a reflection which speaks directly to the issue of biblical interpretation in relation to equality.

This is how he frames the question:

“Is there ever a discernible gap between God's morality and the Torah, or is the Torah itself our only window into the realm of divine values? Put another way, is it permissible for a reverent Jew to challenge the morality of a law, and to base this challenge on his or her own understanding of justice and thus God's will?”

The passage he is interpreting is from Numbers 27:1-11. It is the story of the five daughters of Zelophehad, who are disenfranchised by the law as it was first given at Sinai. Only male heirs can inherit. The five daughters have no brother, so they are left out. Their family will disappear from the land and the memory of Israel. But they present their claim to Moses, and he prays about it and delivers a NEW WORD from God. This new word of God overturns the injustice and grants them an inheritance. The living Spirit of God proclaims a justice that transcends the written text.

Nevins cites an early Midrash found in Sifre BeMidbar (133):

The daughters of Zelophehad approached. When the daughters of Zelophehad heard that the Land was to be divided among the tribes, to males and not to females, they gathered together to take counsel in each other. They said, "Not like the mercies of people are the mercies of God. People have more mercy [i.e., preference] for males than females, but the One Who spoke and the World came to Be is not like this; rather, [God's] mercies are for both males and for females, and for all, as it says, "The Lord is good to all; His mercies are over all his creations." (Psalms 145:9)

Nevins point out the “blithe anachronism” of the midrash. The daughters of Zelophehad consult the Psalms, which will not be written for many more centuries. When we enter into dialog with the sacred texts of scripture, we take part in a conversation that transcends time and connects us to people of faith across the centuries.

The One Who spoke and the World came to be is not bound by narrow prejudice, but is filled with the widest compassion. “The Lord is good to all; His mercies are over all his creations.” God is a God of Justice. The “One Who spoke” created the world with a moral arc that bends toward justice.

It saddens me that other Christians choose to stand on the wrong side of history. I do not believe that in the end they will be able to unbend the arc, but they are trying. I am sad for Gay and Lesbian sisters and brothers who are being betrayed by the very people who should be shaped by the biblical story to stand with them. And I am troubled that narrow prejudice will once again be lifted up as if it were God’s word and will. Christians everywhere will be tarnished by their prejudice.

But as the ancient rabbis saw, the mercies of God are not like the mercies of human beings. God’s “mercies are for both males and for females, and for all, as it says, ‘The Lord is good to all; His mercies are over all his creations’." (Psalms 145:9)

The One Who spoke and the World came to be proclaims justice for all. And "all" means "all."

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Literalism and the Spirit



God has made us ministers of a new covenant,
not of letter but of spirit;
for the letter kills, but the spirit gives life.
II Corinthians 3:6


In a recent issue of “Context,” Martin Marty reports that since 1991, the percentage of Americans who believe in some form of Creationism has risen from 47 percent to 65.5 percent. My guess is that when I was growing up the percentage was much lower than in 1991.

Creationism is bad science, but it is worse theology. The point of the story is that God is the source of all that is, the Ground of our Being. When we try to make it into a scientific explanation of the way the world was made, it loses its cosmic significance. Ultimately, theology is rooted in truth. It is rooted in the conviction that all truth (scientific, historical, philosophical) belongs to God. That is part of our creation-faith. That is lost when we try to substitute the theological truths of Genesis for the on-going truth seeking of science.

The belief in Creationism is linked to biblical literalism. So biblical literalism is growing at a time when biblical literacy is declining. Fewer people know what the Bible actually says, but more people say that they believe it absolutely. At first that may seem contradictory, but it isn’t. When we live into the biblical word, we understand it in ways that transcend literalism. We look for meaning and purpose. We listen for the Spirit. As we live into it, the biblical story becomes our story. We are involved and committed. The meaning is deeper than the words on the page. Literalism reduces the meaning to the words on the page.

Atheism and biblical literalism are both growing, and that makes perfect sense. As far back as when I was in college, one of my professors reported with some amusement that the atheists and the fundamentalists (there weren’t very many at Wesleyan) shared a common belief that the Bible was meant to be taken literally. He found it amusing (and frustrating) that he could not budge either group.

St. Paul was right, “the letter kills.” The problem with literalism is that is reduces the Bible to a dead letter. It no longer speaks to our lives because the life has been taken out of it. “But the spirit gives life.” When we trust the spirit, the text comes alive, and the spirit gives life.