Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Teddy Roosevelt and the Heat Wave of 1896

Jesus said, "truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.”
Mark 9:41

My grandmother Gibbs had a fondness for the Roosevelts, Teddy and Franklin. She remembered them both as great presidents. Teddy was president while she was in her teens, and Franklin while she was a young mother struggling through the depression. She respected and admired the later Roosevelt for his leadership through the crises of the depression and World War II, but it was clear that Teddy was the one who had really captured her imagination. Teddy Roosevelt was to Gramma Gibbs what John Kennedy was to my generation.

My own appreciation of Teddy Roosevelt grew when I was researching the Social Gospel movement and read about his commitment to turn Christian concern for the neighbor into social policy. When Roosevelt ran for President in 1904, the Republican Party Platform contained a plank, written by Walter Rauschenbusch, calling for the establishment of Social Security. He was a champion of the underdog and a relentless foe of monopolies. Beyond that, he was deeply committed to the practical implications of Christian faith. It was not enough to believe the Gospel. The real test was in living it out.

In his book, Hot Time in the Old Town, Edward Kohn recounts an important episode in Teddy Roosevelt’s rise to national prominence. In August of 1896, a 10-day heat wave settled over New York City and killed nearly 1,500 people, most of them poor people crowded into tenements. Roosevelt, then a New York Police Commissioner, described it in a letter to his sister, Anna: "The heated term was the worst and most fatal we have ever known. The death-rate trebled until it approached the ratio of a cholera epidemic; the horses died by the hundreds, so that it was impossible to remove their carcasses, and they added a genuine flavor of pestilence, and we had to distribute hundred of tons of ice from the station-houses to the people of the poorer precincts."

The final statement, according to Kohn, is the critical one:

“we had to distribute hundred of tons of ice from the station-houses to the people of the poorer precincts."

The idea that the government should help the poor was not widely accepted at that time. Roosevelt, the Police Commissioner, did what no one else had thought to do. He had ice distributed to the poor. And he personally supervised the distribution. Then he went into the poorest districts to see how the ice was being used. He saw mothers and fathers chipping pieces of ice to wrap in scarves and handkerchiefs to hold on the heads of overheated children and infants. Few American presidents have had as much direct personal contact with the urban poor as Teddy Roosevelt.

Like the other Social Gospel reformers, Roosevelt believed that the true greatness of America should be moral, rather than economic or military.

Monday, August 23, 2010

More on the Mosque

As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.
Genesis 15:12

“We don’t need another mosque.”

“There are already enough mosques.”

“Anybody who wants a mosque can find one.”

Those statements did not come from random people on the street. They came in a panel discussion among supposedly well-educated and thoughtful people, professional commentators who are used to talking on television.

At first, I was shocked. What if someone said those things about churches: “No one needs to build another church because we already have enough of them and anyone who wants to go to church can find one”? And then I realized that I have actually heard those exact sentiments expressed about the proposal for a new church.

And this brought me to a new thought.

I think part of the opposition to the mosque is not just anti-Muslim; it is anti-religious. I have not done any research on this. My experience is limited and anecdotal. Just a few thoughts over a cup of coffee on a rainy day, but this is how it looks to me.

Our culture is an odd mix of secular and religious folk. And it includes all sorts of strange ideas about what is and is not acceptable in terms of religion. Someone once said that Americans are most comfortable with vague beliefs that are deeply cherished. Many Americans don’t really understand people of faith.

They think that we believe all sorts of weird things. And it makes them nervous. They do not have any context for understanding religious thought. It is like that "deep and terrifying darkness" that engulfed Abraham.

That was part of the problem with Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Not very many people understand Black Liberation Theology (or Liberation Theology in general). I heard one commentator describe it as “exotic.” People are scared by things they don’t understand. And in religious matters, they believe that things should be simple, and above all, nice.

The truth is that from a secular perspective, Christianity really is weird. But not for the reasons that secularists think it is.

The weirdness of Christianity, which makes it perpetually out of step with the culture, is not that we hold a non-scientific world view or believe in strange and supernatural disruptions of the natural order. The real weirdness of Christianity is that we believe (or try to believe) in loving our enemies, and turning the other cheek, and loving our neighbors as much as we love ourselves. We believe in lifting up the poor, and we believe that we really are supposed to be looking out for our sisters and brothers. We believe that we should live as if the Kingdom of God is among us.

Each of us, said Paul, must “work out our own salvation in fear and trembling.” This is not because we should fear God, but because it is costly and difficult to be a follower of Jesus.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

A Mosque at Ground Zero

Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you. As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.”
Genesis 21:9-13

Christianity, Judaism and Islam all trace their origins back to Abraham. Judaism and Christianity claim Isaac as their ancestor, and Islam was founded though Abraham’s first son, Ishmael.

This common ancestry has found expression more often in rivalry than in brotherhood, and some would claim that the animosity goes back to the time when Sarah was jealous of Ishmael and demanded that he and his mother be cast out.

The plan to build a mosque near the former site of the World Trade Center towers has given us a new chapter in this conflict. Although in this case (and many others) the conflict is more about politics than theology.

The theological issues, however, are worth at least a glance.

One of the reasons that people object to the mosque is that they see all of Islam as connected to terrorism. But that is no more accurate than blaming all Christians for the atrocities of the Serbs or the terrorism of the Irish Republican Army, or blaming all atheists for the atrocities of Hitler, or Stalin, or Pol Pot, or Mao. The terrorists are Fundamentalist extremists, they are not mainstream Muslims.

Many writers have characterized Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the leader of the Cordoba Initiative to build the Islamic Cultural Center as a “moderate.” The impression is that the terrorists are extremists and he is a moderate. But the difference is greater than that.

The Imam is a Sufi.

Sufism is a spiritualism that emphasizes the mystical connection between the individual and God. Sufism promotes egalitarianism, charity and friendliness. Those who have studied the Imam say he has more in common with New Age spiritualism than with Osama Bin Laden or Ayatollah Khomeini. In recent decades the Sufis have lost ground to more militant Fundamentalist branches of Islam, as the extremists have promoted themselves as best equipped to provide political resistance against Western Cultural dominance.

But the Sufis are the good guys. If we hope to forge an alliance with Islam to eventually beat our swords into plowshares, we need the Sufis.

Our opposition to the Sufis fits the narrative of the terrorists. They believe that the United States is opposed to all of Islam. This confirms their world-view.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Good News

Then Jesus went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath he went as usual to the synagogue. He stood up to read the Scriptures and was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it is written,

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has chosen me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim
liberty to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to set free the oppressed
and announce that the time has come
when the Lord will save his people.

Luke 4:16-19 (Good News Translation)

In 1966 the American Bible Society published a new translation of the New Testament called, “Good News for Modern Man.” It was widely and inexpensively available in paperback, which gave it a casual look. The cover was printed to look like a page from a newspaper. The impact and appeal then was similar to “The Message” today.

The man responsible for the Good News Bible, Robert Bratcher, died July 10 at a retirement community in Chapel Hill, North Carolina at the age of 90.

Bratcher used a theory of translation called “dynamic equivalence.” His goal was to translate the thoughts rather than the words. The translation attempted to be “thought for thought” rather than “word for word.”

Although the Good News Bible enjoyed widespread popularity among Evangelical Christians, Bratcher was highly critical of Biblical Literalism. At a seminar in Dallas in 1981, he declared:

“Only willful ignorance or intellectual dishonesty can account for the claim that the Bible is inerrant and infallible. No truth-loving, God-respecting, Christ-honoring believer should be guilty of such heresy. To invest the Bible with the qualities of inerrancy and infallibility it to idolatrize it, to transform it into a false god.”

His remarks were costly, personally and professionally. Many conservatives withdrew their support from the American Bible Society, and the Society asked Bratcher to resign. With support from overseas colleagues in the United Bible Societies, an international group to which ABS belongs, he was able to continue his work in a consultant status.

From the perspective of responsible Christian scholarship, theology, and faith, Bratcher was clearly right. But the temptation to literalism is strong, and the comfort of the supposed certainly it represents is hard to resist.

The controversy is not new. Jesus argued with the literalists of his day. It is hard for us to remember that the Bible is meant to be a living and breathing word, not a dead letter. As the Apostle Paul said to the church in Corinth, “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Aging and Faith

He could do no deed of power there, except that he laid hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their lack of faith.
Mark 6:5

With that cryptic description, the Gospel writer summarizes Jesus’ ministry in Nazareth.

There must have been people who turned to him for healing and were not made well. We don’t know what happened. There is not much in the Gospels that gives us any insight into those painful times. But there must have been some people who were not physically healed. And the verdict of the Gospel writers seems to be that if people were not healed, it was because they lacked faith. We should note in the passage above (and elsewhere) that the words are not attributed to Jesus. The judgment comes from Mark.

Modern biblical scholars and theologians focus on the healing and wholeness of the spirit, rather than on physical changes in the body. That perspective is evident in the many Christians who will testify, “I don’t know what will happen with the cancer, but I know that I am healed.” They may not be certain that they are cured, but they know that they are healed.

Unfortunately, for many people, the healing stories of the Bible leave us with a sense that physical healing and belief are connected. The popular belief in a causal connection between faith (or righteous living) and healing has devastatingly destructive consequences. Those who believe that they have been healed because of their faith are tempted toward a smug self-satisfaction, while those who have believe that their disease persists because they lack faith feel deep guilt on top of their physical illness.

The religious connection between healing and belief has many secular variations. One of these can be seen in our attitudes toward “aging successfully.” The phrase comes from Dr. Robert Butler, a psychiatrist, who died this July of Leukemia at age 83. Dr. Butler, according to his colleagues, did more to advance our attitudes toward aging than anyone. And he had a realistic and healthy attitude toward the aging process. For Dr. Butler, “aging successfully” was defined by each individual in his or her circumstances.

But others have taken the phrase and the concept in a different direction.

As more older people remain active into their 70’s and 80’s, there is an implicit judgment on those who are not able to be as active.

In a New York Times article on aging, Dr. Thomas R. Cole, from the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston says, “We’re going to make it look like if you’re sick, it’s your own fault; if you’re not having orgasms or running marathons, there’s something wrong with you. We need to think carefully about how to take care of people who are frail. We need to allow people to not feel like failures when they can’t do the things they used to do.”

Dr. Cole, who has written a cultural history of aging, sees the origins of this “splitting apart” of the reality of old age into success and failure, good aging and bad aging, to the mid-1800’s, when people in the United States first began to think about what he calls “the legitimization of longevity.”

“People first began to say, ‘I’m here to live a long life, and if I work hard and am a good person and am middle class, I will die a good death,’ ” Dr. Cole said in the Times article, “ ‘and if I don’t do these things, I deserve a short life and a painful death.’ ”

And then Cole gets to the heart of the problem: “It assumes you can control these things through willpower.”

In the religious context, it is faith or righteousness rather than willpower, but the bottom line in both cases is control. We want to believe that through willpower or faith (or exercise and diet) we can control our lives. And we can’t. Not ultimately. That is a biblical lesson that we should not forget. As Jesus asked, “Can any of you . . . add even a single hour to your span of life?”

Monday, August 9, 2010

Keeping Sabbath

Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it. Exodus 20:8-11

I am a great believer in the Sabbath. I believe we need Sabbath.

There is an old story which says that in ancient times when someone asked a rabbi, “Why do we have this mighty poem of Creation?” the rabbi answered, “To teach you to keep Sabbath.”

Sabbath reminds us that the world does not depend on us. The point of Sabbath is not that work is prohibited, but that rest is permitted. And in our rest we are able to reflect on deeper things, renew our spirits, and experience the presence of God.

One of the best days of my life was a Sabbath in Jerusalem. No one was working. No machines were running. There were no cars or trucks or buses. The sun was shining and people were walking in the streets. We went to Synagogue. Abraham Joshua Heschel called Sabbath, “a palace in time.” The time is sacred, not because of how much is accomplished, but because of how deeply life is experienced.

But as much as I believe in Sabbath, I do not keep it. Not often. Not regularly.

According to a recent article in the New York Times, that’s not my fault. At least it’s not completely my fault. Congregations are more demanding and clergy find it harder to take time off. Consequently, clergy as a group are becoming less healthy. We are more obese, more depressed, and less satisfied with our lives than we used to be.

(According to the article, the United Methodist Church has led the way in counteracting this tendency. In 2006 the church issued a directive suggesting strongly that clergy take all of the vacation they are entitled to. I did not know that.)

But for clergy, the problem is not just working too much and resting too little. In a related Times article, published on Saturday, a United Church of Christ Pastor, the Rev. G. Jeffrey MacDonald, puts it this way, “there’s a more fundamental problem that no amount of rest and relaxation can help solve: congregational pressure to forsake one’s highest calling.”

“The pastoral vocation,” he observes, “is to help people grow spiritually, resist their lowest impulses and adopt higher, more compassionate ways. But churchgoers increasingly want pastors to soothe and entertain them.”

People always want to be soothed and comforted, and this has always been in conflict with the Pastoral responsibility to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.” But as MacDonald points out, the problem is greater in our consumer culture, where people shop for churches that will give them what they want. If the pastor focuses too much on uncomfortable issues, comfort is always just around the corner. And if the comfort comes with entertainment, that is even better.

The reality, of course, is that working non-stop (no one works non-stop, but with a little effort we can worry enough so that it seems life we are working non-stop) will not solve the problem. Work and worry are no substitute for spiritual integrity. Vision requires reflection.

I don’t really have a solution, for myself or for anyone else. The only way to keep Sabbath is to keep Sabbath.

This is more of a confession. It is a work in progress. (Note the ironic word choice.) I’ll let you know how it goes.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Mourning the Taliban

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.

"For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?"
Matthew 5:43-47

In his, “Worst Persons in the World” segment on Monday, Keith Olbermann gave the bronze medal to Tom Shales, TV critic at the Washington Post, for his critique of Christiane Amanpour’s debut on “This Week” on ABC. Amanpour had introduced a part of the program called “In Memoriam” by inviting veiwers to mourn “all of those who died in war.” And Shales had asked, "Did she mean to suggest that our mourning extend to members of the Taliban?"

Olbermann thought the question was absurd, and as evidence, he played the video following Amanpour’s invitation, which scrolled through the names of eleven U.S. service members who had been killed in Afghanistan. No one outside the U.S. was listed or even referenced.

Comments on a Huffington Post article on this fit neatly into two categories. There were those who thought Shales was an idiot for thinking that Amanpour (or anyone else) would suggest that we should mourn the death of our enemies. And there were those who thought that Amanpour was asking us to mourn for the Taliban, because she "hates America." Apparently only an idiot, or someone who hated America, would think that our mourning should extend to members of the Taliban.

According to that line of thought, Jesus was an idiot.

For Christians, the answer to Tom Shales’ question is, “Yes, our mourning should extend to members of the Taliban.” And to the 911 hijackers. And to the troubled man who shot eight people in Manchester and then killed himself. They are all children of God.

One wonders what Shales and Olbermann would have thought about Abraham Lincoln’s speech at Gettysburg. “Does he really mean to suggest that our mourning should extend to Confederate traitors?” Some would argue that the Civil War was a special case. But for Christians, all wars are civil wars. It is always “brother against brother.”