Friday, July 30, 2010

The Parable of the Secular Literalists

Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet: “I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.”
Matthew 13:34-35

Literalism is a problem for the Christian Church.

Biblical literalism is a problem because it has led to a method of Bible study which is fundamentally un-Biblical. As Paul said, “The letter kills, but this Spirit gives life.” The Bible is dynamic and literalism is static. Religious language is symbolic. Its full meaning cannot be understood if we approach it literally.

In an odd way, the problem of literalism extends beyond biblical interpretation. It extends beyond the church. In fact, it may be a greater problem outside of the church. And the Shirley Sherrod debacle is a case in point.

The video that Andrew Breitbart circulated was carefully edited to portray Shirley Sherrod as a “racist” who did not want to help a farm couple because they were white. After that first short video appeared the public commentary was unanimous in condemning her as a “racist.”

I mentioned to my daughter, Carolyn, that I thought this unanimous condemnation was strange because, to me, it was clear even from the edited video that Shirley Sherrod was telling a story about a change in her own life. I could tell where the narrative was going even without seeing and hearing it. I wondered why the commentators just didn’t get it. Carolyn interrupted me to say, “Of course, anyone who goes to church would know what she’s doing. It’s a SERMON ILLUSTRATION!”

She was telling a parable. She was confessing her temptation to sin and giving thanks for how God’s grace had saved her. “Sometimes,” she said, “God shows you another way.”

Half a century ago, Paul Tillich argued that many of our most treasured religious words, sin, grace, faith, salvation, were no longer understandable in the modern world. They needed to be redefined or they would lose all meaning. My friend Scott Campbell said that today large numbers of people “do not understand the idiom of the church.”

So Shirley Sherrod’s parable, which was deep and textured and full of meaning, comes out flat and two-dimensional. The nuance is utterly lost.

Inside the church we have a problem with biblical literalism. But outside the church, we have a (bigger) problem with a kind of secular literalism which simply cannot (or will not) understand religious language.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Shirley, Shirley, Shirley!

“If sister or brother sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the brother or sister listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the sister or brother refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
Matthew 18:15-17

In a speech this spring to the Georgia NAACP, Shirley Sherrod told a story of her own growth in the area of race relations. She said that after her father’s death she had vowed that she would continue to live in the South and that she would dedicate herself to changing the culture and the conditions. Then she admitted that as a young person her commitment was really to changing the South for Black people. But sometimes, she said reflectively, “God shows you another way.”

She told about a time, twenty-four years ago, when she was working for a non-profit agency helping people keep their family farms, and a white couple came to her. Her initial reaction, she said, was to hold back and to refer them to a white lawyer and let them work with “one of their own kind.” But in the course of working with the couple, she realized that her first reaction had been wrong; that the issue wasn’t about race, it was about poverty, and that she needed to be concerned about everyone.

Andrew Breitbart, a conservative blogger, put a short, carefully edited video of her speech on his web site. He showed only the part where she said that she did not want to help the couple because they were white. Mistakenly or intentionally, he claimed that she had done this as an employee of the US Department of Agriculture, and he implied that she had done it recently. He took the story which she had told as an example of how all of us need to grow beyond our narrow views and made it appear to make the very opposite point, that discrimination is okay if you are Black and the discrimination is against white people.

Almost instantly, the video went viral. The right wing reaction was that this proves the racism of the Obama administration. And the reaction from the Obama administration was to immediately ask for Shirley Sherrod’s resignation from the Department of Agriculture. Eventually, after seeing the full video of her forty-five minute speech, she was offered a new job with the Agriculture Department.

Three brief observations:

First, there is way too much “gotcha!” is our culture. We do not listen in order to understand, we listen in order to condemn. We look for the wrong word, or the wrong gesture, or the wrong body language. We are bored with substance and analysis. We don’t want to reflect and learn.

Second, the Secretary of the Department of Agriculture, and by extension, the administration of President Obama, reacted shamefully. Andrew Breitbart is not a credible news source. He is an advocate and not a journalist. He put out the video as a counter-attack on the NAACP which had recently condemned the racism of the Tea Party. Ms. Sherrod reported that when she was asked to resign she repeatedly asked that they look first at her whole speech. The response was that there was no time, the story would be on Glenn Beck that evening and they needed her resignation before the video was shown on the air. There was no fact checking, and there was no due process.

The third and most important point is that racism is alive and well in America. And most Americans (apparently) do not understand institutional racism. Racial discrimination, though wrong, is not the same as racism. Even if Ms. Sherrod had actually given that couple less than her best, that would not be morally equivalent to the structural, institutional and cultural racism that is still part of the fabric of our society. Someone said that slavery and the racism that has followed it is America’s original sin, and it is. Most white Americans are unwilling to invest the necessary time and effort to understand institutional racism.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Cost of Being Jewish (or Christian)

Will anyone rob God? Yet you are robbing me! But you say, “How are we robbing you?” In your tithes and offerings! . . . .
Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house, and thus put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing.
Malachi 3:8, 10

In the July 19 issue of Newsweek, Lisa Miller has an article titled, “The Cost of Being Jewish.” You might think it would be about the cultural pressure not to keep the Sabbath or the difficulty of following the prophets on issues of social justice, about how faithfulness to God may put one at odds with the surrounding culture, but you would be wrong. She is not speaking metaphorically. She means dollars.

According to a 2005 study, the average yearly cost for membership in a Synagogue is $1,100. And it is often much higher in big cities.

Part of the problem is the way that Synagogues approach the cost of membership. The money comes first. You pay before you become part of the community. It is an entry fee.

Jay Sanderson, president of the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles, acknowledges that Christian churches also ask for money, but they begin with an invitation to worship; they ask for money later. “The Jewish community’s first instinct is ‘give us money.’ Instead of ‘come in.’”

It is never easy for religious organizations to talk about money. And yet without adequate funding nothing else can happen. Ms. Miller speaks of the membership fees at Synagogues as “onerous.” But our church could not operate on an average contribution of $1,100, and I think we are fairly typical in that regard. Of course, for us, contributions are voluntary. No one has to give anything in order to attend worship, or even to be a member of the church. But the average annual contribution is about $2,500 per family.

Our $2,500 average should probably have an asterisk next to it. The average is based on families that contribute. Some give nothing. And among those who contribute, some give at minimal levels.

Jesus talked repeatedly about the “cost of discipleship.” Often he was talking specifically about “the cross.” But he also talked about money, about giving all that we have to do God’s work in the world. How curious it is that in spite of his emphasis many modern Christians are astonished to find that the church cannot exist without financial support.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Fear and Loathing Among the Boomers

And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Luke 12:29-34

I always thought that the greatest fear for Baby Boomers was getting old.

It was the one thing that we were determined NOT to do.

For the longest time, we did not trust anyone over thirty. It got a little weird as we moved past that milestone and entered into an extended period of denial. Decades went by. Eventually, fifty became “the new thirty” and sixty became “the new forty,” and still we acted as if nothing had changed.

As a coping strategy, I think denial is underrated. This was, I thought, the Boomer way of dealing with the fear of getting old. Just make believe it doesn’t exist. To be honest, I was okay with that.

But according to a recent AOL “news” story by Sarah Gilbert, the greatest fear of Baby Boomers is running out of money. Apparently I missed the memo. Everything changed when I wasn’t paying attention. Allianz Life Insurance Company surveyed over 3,000 Americans, aged 44 to 75 (Boomers plus a few on either side) and found that 61% said their greatest fear was running out of money. The remaining 39% said their greatest fear was death. Conveniently, those percentages account for everyone, so one assumes there were only two choices. And there was no option for “undecided.”

One suspects that Allianz Life Insurance Company designed the survey to show that people are afraid of running out of money because they sell investment vehicles. And life insurance, of course.

But this comment particularly caught my attention:

So why is the financial crisis, and our greatly diminishing faith in financial institutions, such a big deal? Even in the golden age of lifetime employment and secure pension funds, we never placed so much of our hopes and dreams in corporations and the government. Instead, we found our emotional security through religion or family or both. We might be wise to return to such comforts.

Once, she observes, "we found our emotional security through religion or family or both." What has changed? What has made the prospect of running out of money our greatest fear?

In recent decades we have increasingly come to worship The Market. Because we have made The Market our god, running out of money is not just a practical problem, it is a “religious” issue. If we had been more faithful in our worship, more devoted in our sacrifices, then this would not have happened. But we have made our god (The Market) angry and he has taken vengeance on us.

Jesus knows that our fears and worries are often the result of idolatry. We worship false gods. We put our treasure in the wrong place and it does not bring us security, only more worry and more fear.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Decision

On that day, says the Lord of hosts, I will take you, O Zerubbabel my servant, son of Shealtiel, says the Lord, and make you like a signet ring; for I have chosen you, says the Lord of hosts.
Haggai 2:23

LeBron James has a tattoo on his back that says, “Chosen 1.”

And LeBron has chosen Miami.

We are on vacation and away from the TV, but he apparently announced his choice in a television special on ESPN called, “The Decision.” No one can accuse LeBron of lacking a sense of his own importance.

“I wanted to do what was best, you know, for LeBron James, what LeBron James was going to do to make him happy,” he explained. One might think that getting paid a bazillion dollars to play basketball and being widely acclaimed as a superstar would be enough to make anyone “happy,” but apparently not.

When Victor Martinez learned that he was traded from the struggling Cleveland Indians to the Boston Red Sox, and would be on a team contending for the World Series, the reports are that he cried. He did not want to leave his team mates. Cleveland had been his home and his team mates had been like family. King James had no such sentiments.

Sadly, at the professional level, sports is a business. The Cavaliers wanted to keep LeBron James because he is a spectacular athlete, not because they felt some deep loyalty to him as a person. I don’t begrudge LeBron the chance to win a championship. But there is something fundamentally wrong in all of this.

Bad enough that athletes are paid annual salaries at rates that could support third world countries; we give them a status that transcends sports.

Charles Barkley (and, for all his well publicized faults, I love Sir Charles) once famously declared that athletes are not role models. Moms and dads are role models, he said, athletes are just athletes. He was only part right. Athletes are highly visible public figures, and to a certain extent that necessarily makes them examples for the children (and adults) who watch them, and they need to accept that responsibility. But we have given them a status beyond athletics. That is our fault and not theirs. Except, that there are instances like the LeBron James “Decision,” where the athletes actively claim that exalted status.