Saturday, May 29, 2010

Don't Ask, Don't Tell

“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your ‘Yes be Yes’ and your ‘No be No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”
Matthew 5:33-37

It is important to live honestly and authentically. We need to be who we are.

Thursday the House of Representatives passed a bill repealing the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding gays serving in the military. A similar bill was approved by a Senate Committee and may come to a vote soon. With the repeal of DADT, gay men and women will be able to serve honestly beside their straight sisters and brothers.

This will be one more step toward becoming a more inclusive and just society. It is progress and it is a good thing.

But before we move forward, it is useful to look back. DADT is an unjust policy. And it has always been an unjust policy. But when it was adopted, it represented progress. The idea was to end the witch hunts. Service men and women would never be asked whether they were gay, and as long as they did not announce their sexual orientation, there would be no problem. It was better than an outright ban on homosexuality in the armed forces.

There are at least two lessons here.

One is that is easy to forget history and context. With twenty-twenty hindsight, compromise seldom looks good. Activists today condemn DADT unequivocally. They say it is fundamentally unjust and from today’s perspective it looks like a bad idea from the start. Maybe. But at the time, it was a step forward. It moved us in the right direction.

In the old abolitionist hymn, “Once to Every Man and Nation,” James Russell Lowell wrote:

New occasions teach new duties,
Time makes ancient good uncouth

DADT is hardly ancient, but from our perspective it is uncouth. It is hard for us to remember that when it was adopted, it did embody at least a limited approximation of “good.”

At the end of that verse, Lowell brings us to the second point:

They must upward still and onward,
Who would keep abreast of truth.

We cannot let a limited achievement cause us to forget larger goals. The Kingdom of God is always in the future. We will never, on earth, embody perfect justice and righteousness. And we cannot rest where we are. One of the great challenges of living into our calling as the people of God, is that we are always called to be on the move. We cannot stay where we are. We follow One who always goes ahead of us.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Matthew 5:17-20

This week marked the 56th anniversary of Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, the landmark Civil Rights case in which the Supreme Court declared the racial segregation of public schools to be illegal. One of the primary architects of that case, Thurgood Marshall, would eventually become the first African American appointed to the Court.

As I think about that case, I find myself thinking about “letter” and “spirit” and Thurgood Marshall, and the interpretations of Law and Scripture. (And behind those thoughts, I am also thinking about how much we owe to Chief Justice Earl Warren, and to President Eisenhower for appointing him. But those reflections will wait for another day.)

Segregation was based on the principle of “separate but equal,” the notion that the equal protection clause of the fourteenth amendment could be satisfied by providing separate but equal schools (and other facilities) for Blacks and Whites. Segregationists argued that it was legal (and natural) for Blacks and Whites to be separated by law, as long as each had access to schools, etc. The Court decided that separate was not equal.

The ruling did not settle the matter. On the contrary, it set in motion an intense struggle for more than a decade as Civil Rights advocates worked to turn the legal decision into a practical reality. And it stirred a debate, which remains ongoing, about the role of “activist judges” in changing the way that laws are understood and implemented.

In 1987, as the country celebrated the the bicentennial of the Constitution, Justice Marshall gave a speech in which he talked about the "flaws" in our country at its founding and noted that it took a civil war and other struggles to move toward a more just society. But rather than dwell on "hopes not realized and promises not fulfilled," he would focus on celebrating the Constitution as "a living document" which pointed toward justice.

Thurgood Marshall’s view of the Constitution as “a living document” parallels Jesus’ view of the Torah. And on this anniversary of Brown v. Board of Ed., it is useful to ponder the role of interpretation. In that ruling, the Court did not "abolish" the Constitution, they "fulfilled" it. Scripture, like the Constitution, is a living Word. As Paul said, our covenant is “not of letter, but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (II Corinthians 3:6).

After his retirement from the Court in 1991, Marshall was replaced by Clarence Thomas, whose judicial philosophy was almost diametrically opposed to his own. One wonders, if Thomas had been on the Court in 1954, how he would have voted in the Brown case. And without that landmark ruling, Clarence Thomas would not now sit on the Supreme Court. Without Thurgood Marshall, and without "Brown," our country would be a very different place.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Richard Blumenthal: Lies and Misstatements

“Oh what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practice to deceive”
Sir Walter Scott

Depend on it: God keeps his word even when the whole world is lying through its teeth.
Romans 3:4 (The Message)

Richard Blumenthal, a candidate for the United States Senate, and the Attorney General of Connecticut since the first George Bush was President, gave a speech to a Veterans group in which he referenced the time when he was in Viet Nam. Which would not be memorable, except for the fact that he did not serve in Viet Nam (and the speech is preserved on You-tube).

Other times he spoke in ways that would lead one to believe he had been in Viet Nam, without actually saying it explicitly. He didn’t precisely lie on those occasions, but he made misleading statements.

In fact, he was in the Marine Corps Reserves. Those of us who lived through that era know how difficult that time was. We remember the bitter divisions. Some opposed the war and went anyway, others dodged the draft, and those with connections were able to get into the reserves and stay far from the dangers of war without actually dodging the draft. Some who supported the war in general, still did not want to serve, and others enlisted at the first opportunity.

On the fortieth anniversary of Kent State, and the Student Mobilization to End the War in Viet Nam (One Strike: Three Demands), the memories are still fresh. And I remember the draft lottery, which gave me a very high number and assured that I would not have to make a difficult decision.

Recently I have been reunited with a friend I had not seen in many years. Our paths diverged when I went off to college and graduate school, and he went into the Army. While I was in college, he was in Viet Nam jumping out of helicopters with a fifty pound pack on his back. The pounding crippled him so badly that now he can barely walk.

Blumenthal acknowledged his “misstatements.” In his mind, I guess that’s what happened. Maybe when he was giving that speech he had planned to say, “When I was in the Marine Corps, during the Viet Nam War,” or something similar. Maybe he did not know what he said. (I find that doubtful.) And maybe he knew as soon as the words were out of his mouth, but he did not know how to get them back. Then people began to thank him for his service, and the newspapers repeated the story, and service in Viet Nam became a part of his biography. And (apparently) he could not bring himself to take the painful step of correcting the record.

My guess is that the consequences will be big.

The story won’t die. You-tube is for eternity. And Viet Nam has marked us in so many ways. Allegedly, he also falsely claimed to have been captain of the swim team at Harvard. Not good. But probably forgivable. Harvard isn’t Viet Nam.

The good news is that God is faithful, even when the whole world is lying through its teeth.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Stuff We Didn't Earn

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.
Ephesians 2:8-9

We have a hard time with grace. We want to believe that we have earned our place with God. In Paul’s language, we want to boast.

Over the weekend, commentator Glenn Beck told the National Rifle Association what is wrong with America. You can guess he didn’t tell them that we have too many guns or too much gun violence. One of the problems is that we expect to get things without earning them. “The next time one of your kids gets a trophy for participating in softball, give it back! Tell them, ‘Our family doesn’t accept stuff we didn’t earn! This is a loser trophy.’”

Ironically, he said that not long after accepting an honorary doctorate from Liberty University.

Glenn Beck said what probably most people believe, that we shouldn’t take stuff that we haven’t earned. This does not trouble us as much as one might expect, because we have an almost unlimited capacity to believe that we have earned what we have. If we get something, then we must have earned it. The problem is that other people, lots of other people, get things they have not earned.

Grace is hard for us, not because we don’t like to accept things we have not earned, but because we find it hard (impossible) to give up our boasting. And we cannot keep ourselves from pointing out that other people have things that they have not earned.

Paul has a name for our problem. He calls it sin. On our own, we just can’t get out of it. Glenn Beck points at the softball team, and I point at Glenn Beck. And I tell myself that my pointing is not the same as Beck’s pointing because I am doing it to teach a lesson. And given half a chance, I will boast about my insight.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Oil Spill

Then God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
Exodus 20:1-6

The first commandment is first for a reason. Idolatry is truly and literally the root of all evil. It’s always about worshipping false gods.

When I first began to appreciate Jesus’ message of the Kingdom of God, and the biblical commitment to social and economic justice, I wanted to downplay the prophetic concerns about idolatry. To me it seemed like a narrowly and superficially religious issue of form more than substance, and I was frustrated to find it coming up so often. The ancients, I reasoned, were trying hard to establish monotheism in a pagan world, and they could not help themselves. Besides, they were after all ancient thinkers and we would have to excuse their primitive preoccupations.

But in my estimation, the first commandment did not paint a very flattering picture of God, who was apparently just as preoccupied with praise as the human beings he had created.

As it turns out (not surprisingly) I was wrong and the Bible was right. Trouble starts as soon as we forget that God is God, and we are not. It is, after all, he who made us and not we ourselves.

Which brings us to the oil spill.

“They bow down to the work of their hands, to what their own fingers have made” (Isaiah 2:8).

We worshipped energy and progress, and money and power and technology. We worshipped big oil and everything it gave us in mobility and comfort and lifestyle. We trusted the “experts” who told us that the technology would not fail.

In the New York Times this morning there is an Op-Ed column called, “Plan B.” In the essay several energy and environmental experts offer their advice on what to do about the oil spill and how to prevent another. There is some clean up advice. One suggests using natural fibers to soak of the oil, and another suggests doing nothing because nature can do the job better than we can. A third says to avoid using dispersants because that only makes it worse. Two weigh in on prevention. One says that another safety device would not have helped, and the other says that we should not allow so much outsourcing (BP was not running its own drilling operation) because it minimizes direct responsibility. But no one offers a suggestion on how to cap the well.

BP tells us that we are (literally) in uncharted waters.

Apparently the drilling was approved without anyone answering the question, “What will you do if you have a leak five thousand feet deep on the ocean floor?” The only answer was that the safety devices designed to prevent such a leak would not fail.

When someone began a question to Jesus by addressing him as “Good Teacher,” he said, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.”

And no one is perfect. And no plan is perfect. And apart from God, there is nothing which cannot fail. It is a lesson we forget at our peril. The effects of the Exxon Valdez spill are still felt in Alaska and the effects of this spill may dwarf that one. The commandment warns that the consequences will persist to the third and the fourth generation. Let’s hope that is just biblical hyperbole.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Mother's Day of Peace

they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
Isaiah 2:4

Julia Ward Howe is best known as the author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” She was an abolitionist and a suffragist, and she was also one of the founders of what we now call “Mother’s Day.” In response to the carnage she had seen in the Civil War, she called for a Mother’s Day of Peace, in which the women of the world would declare a common interest in nurturing and protecting life. Her Mother’s Day Proclamation of 1870, presents that bold vision:

Arise then ... women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts!
Whether your baptism be of water or of tears!
Say firmly:
"We will not have questions answered by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage,
For caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We, the women of one country,
Will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs."

When I was a little boy we had a tradition of going to the cemetery to put flowers on the graves of relatives. One time, we stopped for gas on the way home, and my dad went inside to talk with the guys who ran the station, while my sister and I waited in the car with my mother. I asked her about the flags we had seen at many of the graves and she told me that the flags marked the graves of veterans. I asked if they had all died in the Second World War, and she said, no, it just meant that they had served in the military.

Then we talked about those who had died in the war and she told me that when a family lost a son they would put a flag in the window (I know there is a tradition of stars, but I think she talked about flags). Mom had been in high school during the war, and she was visibly moved by the memory. “That must have been very sad for their mothers,” I said, seeing her emotion. “Yes,” she said, with tears in her eyes, “some families had more than one flag.”

“I wish I had been alive then,” I said. “I wish I had been in the war. I would have killed all those Japanese and Germans who made those mothers so sad!”

I was trying to cheer her up, and I could tell she knew that I meant well. She was quiet for a moment and they she said softly, “You know, Billy, Japanese and German soldiers had mothers, too.”

And I said, “Don’t say that. I don’t want to think about that!”

If we really think about it, it is almost unbearable. But as Christians, it is precisely what we ought to think about.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Faith of Jesus

But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
Romans 3:21-24

One of the reasons that the study of scripture is so rewarding is that it continues to speak to us in new ways. We are never done with a text. It isn’t a puzzle that we figure out once and for all. It is a living word.

Still it’s not often that I encounter a new interpretation that is radically at odds with how I have previously understood a passage. But that is exactly what happened as I was reading the Disciple Bible Study on Romans written by Dr. Pamela M. Eisenbaum.

Dr. Eisenbaum points out that in the NRSV translation there is a footnote to the familiar passage above, which radically changes how we understand it. The phrase, “faith in Jesus Christ,” might be more accurately translated as “the faith of Jesus Christ.”

Building on Martin Luther’s interpretation, the key to salvation has been understood as having faith in Jesus Christ. This new insight suggests that we are called, not to believe in Jesus, but to have the same faith that he had. In other words, to have the same faith in God that he had.

This would fit with Paul Tillich’s idea that Jesus always points beyond himself, and it also would make Paul’s theology much closer to what we see of Jesus in Matthew, Mark and Luke. It would support John Dominic Crossan’s idea that Paul and Jesus shared a basic commitment to the Kingdom of God which was at the heart of their preaching.

Something to think about.