Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Numbers Tell the Story


Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.
Matthew 5:9

Yesterday in the waiting room at a doctor’s office, I was leafing through an old news magazine and listening to the conversation around me. A woman was speaking to a man on the opposite side of the room. “How old do you think I am?” she asked. The gentleman demurred, wisely saying that he was not very good with ages. “I’m eighty-one,” she said proudly. “Do I look it?” The gentleman told her that she looked very good.

After a few minutes of silence, she asked again, “How old do you think I am?” Her son, sitting next to her, said, “Ma, you just told him how old you are.” But she was undeterred, “I’m eighty-two,” she said. Before anyone could point out that less than five minutes ago she had told the man that she was eighty-one, she explained, “I just turned eighty-two.”

Apparently, I thought to myself, I really have been here for a long time. But the son chimed in, “You’re right, Ma, you turned eighty-two last Sunday.”

As the conversation was going on, I was looking at a section in the magazine called, “Numbers,” and half-way down the page I saw this:

104,295The number of Vietnamese
killed by abandoned landmines
or explosive devices since
the end of the Vietnam War.


I scribbled down the number just before I was called to see the doctor.

It seemed impossible. I had heard of the dangers of landmines. Remember Princess Diana? But I could not imagine that scale. By contrast, there have been about 4,500 United States Military deaths in Iraq since the war there began in March of 2003. How could civilian deaths in Vietnam since the end of the war possibly be more than twenty times the (U.S.) military deaths in the Iraq war?

So I checked. And I received a brief but shocking education.

104,295 is not the number of deaths; it is the number of casualties. Right now, the casualty number is actually a few hundred higher than that.

The number of landmine related deaths in Vietnam since the end of the war is a little less than 40,000.

Still, it is a staggering number. And we hear very little about it. When one of our soldiers is killed in Iraq or Afghanistan by an I.E.D. (Improvised Explosive Device) we hear about it. But when a child is blown up by an abandoned landmine in Vietnam, or Cambodia, or Angola, or Rwanda, or a host of other countries, it does not make the news.

A recent UNICEF report explains the geography of this destruction: “Afghanistan, Angola and Cambodia have suffered 85 per cent of the world's land-mine casualties. Overall, African children live on the most mine-plagued continent, with an estimated 37 million mines embedded in the soil of at least 19 countries. Angola alone has an estimated 10 million land-mines and an amputee population of 70,000, of whom 8,000 are children. Since May 1995 children have made up about half the victims of the 50,000-100,000 anti-personnel mines laid in Rwanda.”

And the report goes on to say that “Children are particularly vulnerable to land-mines in a number of ways. If they are too young to read or are illiterate, signs posted to warn them of the presence of mines are useless. Also, children are far more likely to die from their mine injuries than are adults. Of those maimed children who survive, few will receive prostheses that keep up with the continued growth of their stunted limbs.”

The UNICEF report speaks of landmines as “contamination” and “pollution.” But isn’t it more accurately called a form of terrorism?

Landmines are widely used because they are incredibly cost-effective. They can be produced for as little as $3, and they can be dispersed at a rate of up to 1,000 per minute. They are always on duty. They never sleep. And they never give up. Actually that last one is an exaggeration, apparently they typically remain active for up to fifty years. That’s not really forever, but it is a long time.

Getting rid of them, on the other hand, is extremely expensive and time consuming.

Jesus tells a series of parables about the cost of discipleship. In one of them, he talks about a king’s rash decision to go to war without counting the cost and gauging the strength of his enemy. But as the great Christian pacifist A. J. Muste said, our real enemy is not another king, our real enemy is war itself. In a pamphlet titled, “War Is the Enemy,” Muste argues that we believe that non-violence is too costly, but we never really consider making the same investments in peace that we make in war.

And, we might add, when we consider the cost of war we seldom account for the collateral damage that may occur decades after the fighting is over.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Cost of Christmas




He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
Luke 1:51-53
Last year Americans spent about $450 billion on Christmas presents. In round numbers, that comes to $1,500 for every man, woman and child. In a reversal of Mary’s song of praise, with few exceptions, that money has been spent to fill the rich with good things.

I’m guessing that when Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “The Cost of Discipleship,” this isn’t what he had in mind. We spend a lot more on Christmas than we do on discipleship.

What does that say about us as Christians?

In the fourth verse of her Christmas Carol, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” Christina Rossetti writes,

What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
if I were a wise man, I would do my part;
yet what can I give him; give my heart.
But the reality is that the vast majority of the people singing that carol are not poor. And we are capable of giving much more than a lamb. When we sing about giving him our hearts, it touches us deeply, but we are not really serious about it. If we were serious about it, then we would live differently.

We will never close the gap between our lives as they are, and our lives as we know they ought to be. And there will always be a disconnect between the message of Christmas and the way we live that out. But we can make a start.

Howard Thurman, who was Dean of the Chapel at Boston University for many years, wrote a wonderful poem about what it means to take the Christmas message seriously. It is titled, “The Work of Christmas.”

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry
To release the prisoners,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Boogaard's Brain



Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.I Corinthians 9:24-27Derek Boogaard was known to hockey fans as one of the fiercest fighters ever to play in the NHL.

He died last May at the age of 28. He killed himself. We don’t know whether he did it on purpose or by mistake, but he died of a drug and alcohol overdose.

His brain was examined by researchers from Boston University. The results came in a conference call to the family in October. Derek Boogaard had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, commonly known as C.T.E., a disease related to Alzheimer’s. Positive diagnosis can only be made posthumously, but researchers say the symptoms include memory loss, impulsiveness, mood swings, and addiction.

More than 20 former professional football players have been posthumously diagnosed with C.T.E., as well as many boxers. What makes the Boogaard case different, and very troubling, is that he was still in his 20’s, in what should have been the prime of his career. The researchers told Derek’s family that they were shocked to see such advanced disease in someone so young.

The results set off a flurry of investigations, hand-wringing, and well-intentioned pronouncements from people in the hockey world. Almost everyone agrees that something must be done. What is surprising to me is the almost unanimous agreement that whatever is done must not change “the character of the game.” What they mean by that is that fighting is and will remain integral to NHL hockey.

Fighting is not permitted in youth or high school or college. It is not permitted in European hockey or in the Olympics. And everyone loves Olympic hockey. But it belongs in the NHL.

Which causes me to wonder if Derek Boogaard isn’t the only guy who took too many shots to the head.

Fighting is not the only cause of head injuries in hockey. It may not even be the major cause. Players are bigger and faster, and the collisions are more damaging.

And all of this is part of a larger pattern in sports.

More than ever, players talk about intimidation. It’s not about checking, it’s about “hitting.” And in football, no one tackles anymore; they “hit” the guy with the ball. If one player hits another with enough force, it is referred to as “blowing him up.” Even basketball coaches and analysts talk about one team intimidating another.

Football helmets, which were introduced to prevent injuries, and began life as leather padded caps, are now used as weapons. The highlights shown over and over are not of tackles, they are of flying bodies and huge collisions. It’s exciting and it sells.

Do you remember Ted Johnson? He played linebacker for the Patriots and he was once a Super Bowl champion. But repeated concussions turned him into a shell of his former self. He lost his career, his wife, and his whole life collapsed.

The NHL and the NFL are both concerned about concussions. And they should be. They are looking at rule changes, and they should look at rule changes.

But in a broader perspective, this is about our vision and our values as a culture. Why do we find the violence so appealing? How many Derek Boogaards or Ted Johnsons will it take before we decide that we have had enough?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Tim Tebow's Very Public Faith

Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers;
but their delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law they meditate day and night.
They are like trees planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.
Psalm 1:1-3
The most hated man in the National Football League right now is Tim Tebow, quarterback of the Denver Broncos, who has led his team to seven improbable, almost miraculous victories, in the last eight games.

It seems like every other caller on the sports talk shows is phoning in to say how much they despise him. Hating Tim Tebow has become a national pastime.

Callers are irate that Tebow seems to begin every interview by saying, “First, I’d like to thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” And they hate it that almost every success is quickly followed by dropping to one knee in prayer. This act of spontaneous prayer has been labeled, “Tebowing.” The Global Language Monitor, a website which monitors global language trends, has announced that “Tebowing” has officially entered the English language. One definition says that Tebowing is getting down on one knee and praying even if everyone around you is doing something completely different.

I don’t share Tim Tebow’s theology, and we would disagree on a wide variety of social issues, but as a football player, he is fun to watch, and I think the world could use at least a little more “Tebowing.” Wouldn’t it be great if more people would get down on one knee and pray when everyone around them was doing something completely different?

Given the variety of unpleasant things professional athletes have said in post-game interviews and the number of unpleasant gestures we see at football games, it is hard to see how Tebow’s public profession of faith can generate so much hostility. Praying on one knee is way better than a lot of the touchdown celebrations we see.

But the irate callers insist that it is simply not appropriate at football games. They don’t go to football games to see people pray. And they don’t need a football player telling them what to believe.

For his part, Tebow seems unfazed by the furor. When a reporter asked him how he felt about so many people saying they hated him, he said simply, “I’m living my dream. I’ve dreamed of playing professional football since I was seven years old. I don’t care what they say.” He is cheerful and respectful and polite.

Tebow’s pastor, Wayne Hanson, who pastors the Summit Church in Suburban Denver, says that the Broncos are winning because of their quarterback’s faith. “It’s not luck,” Hanson said. “Luck isn’t winning six games in a row. It’s favor. God’s favor.” He believes that the Broncos would not be winning if God had not decided to reward Tebow for his faithfulness.

Tebow himself seems to have a more mature theological understanding than his pastor, and he has consistently rejected those sorts of pronouncements. He is happy and he clearly delights in his faith. But he does not claim divine favor in his successes. He talks about a team that believes in itself and teammates who believe in each other. He talks about the strength of the Denver defense and about how he is just trying to do his part.

In the strange world of talk radio, callers at one end of the dial were calling the sports show to say how much they despised Tim Tebow’s religion on the football field, while at the other end of the dial callers were phoning the public affairs show to say how much they despised Lincoln Chafee for keeping religion out of the tree lighting at the State House.

How weird is that?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Gay Rights Are Human Rights



In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.
Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
Genesis 1:1-5
One of the most fundamental biblical observations is that words matter.

God speaks and things happen. The heavens and the earth are created by the Word of God.

The Bible is clear that there is a difference between divine speech and human speech. Our words are limited and finite. We cannot speak the world into being. But human speech carries within it echoes of the divine.

On Tuesday, in Geneva, Switzerland, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a remarkable and important speech in recognition of International Human Rights Day.

She noted that the Declaration was enacted when the world was still reeling from the horrors and atrocities of World War II. The document was drafted over a two year period, culminating in one last long night of debate with the final approval coming at three o’clock in the morning on December 10, 1948. Forty-eight nations voted in favor of the Declaration; eight abstained, but no nation voted against it. The Declaration proclaims a basic truth, that all human beings are born with basic rights. These rights are not conferred by governments, they are inherent in our common humanity.

Over the years since that declaration, the world has made great progress. Barriers to liberty and equality have been dismantled. Racist laws have been repealed. Laws relegating women to second class citizenship have been abolished. Religious minorities have been protected.

After looking back, Secretary Clinton looked ahead. “Today,” she announced forcefully, “I want to talk about the work we have left to do to protect one group of people whose human rights are still denied in too many parts of the world today. In many ways, they are an invisible minority. They are arrested, beaten, terrorized, even executed. Many are treated with contempt and violence by their fellow citizens while authorities empowered to protect them look the other way or, too often, even join in the abuse. They are denied opportunities to work and learn, driven from their homes and countries, and forced to suppress or deny who they are to protect themselves from harm.”

The human rights challenge to which she called the delegates was for “gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people.” The Secretary was quick to confess that “I speak about this subject knowing that my own country's record on human rights for gay people is far from perfect. Until 2003, it was still a crime in parts of our country. Many LGBT Americans have endured violence and harassment in their own lives, and for some, including many young people, bullying and exclusion are daily experiences. So we, like all nations, have more work to do to protect human rights at home.”

It was an historic speech.

Secretary Clinton acknowledged that sixty years ago when the original Declaration was adopted, no one thought of the rights of LGBT people. And she acknowledged deeply held beliefs and traditions that opposed those rights.

Hillary Clinton is a United Methodist Christian, and she has on many occasions spoken of how her Methodist upbringing and the teachings of John Wesley have influenced her life. In calling for change she used a classically Wesleyan argument. She observed that our understanding evolves. Once we believed that slavery was ordained by God. Once we believed that women ought to be second class citizens. Experience changes us. We learn and grow.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. popularized the insight of the Rev. Theodore Parker, used first in the debates about slavery, that the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice. John Wesley never used that language, but he understood that insight. Secretary Clinton did not speak of a moral arc, but she did talk about being on the right side of history.

And Secretary Clinton also announced that the rights of LGBT people will be a factor in decisions about United States foreign aid.

One speech, even an historic speech, will not change the world. But it is an important first step. And eventually, the world will change.


To read the full address, use this link: http://www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2011/12/178368.htm

The Real Meaning of Christmas

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.Luke 2:1-7
After Governor Lincoln Chafee issued an invitation to the annual tree lighting ceremony at the State House, his office received about 3,500 calls in protest. Seven hundred were from Rhode Islanders, and the rest were from out of state. The callers were upset that the Governor called it a “Holiday Tree” rather than a “Christmas Tree.”

As far as we know, when Governor Don Carcieri issued the same announcement in 2009, and called it a “Holiday Tree” no one said anything. The same for Lincoln Almond many years earlier.

But this year our Holiday Tree was in the news from coast to coast.

Yesterday, protestors crashed the Holiday Tree lighting ceremony in the State House Rotunda. One man carried a large sign that announced, “Saving Christmas, One Tree at a Time.” And a few dozen “Christmas Carolers” interrupted a Children’s Chorus to sing “O Christmas Tree.” I’m sure the children will remember that as a wonderful witness to the true meaning of Christmas.

As Tiny Tim said, “God bless us, everyone!”

(And just for the record, “O Christmas Tree” is not really about the birth of Jesus, it’s about the evergreen tree.)

Further down Smith Street, Bishop Thomas Tobin led a Christmas tree lighting at a Roman Catholic Church. He compared Governor Chafee to the innkeeper in Bethlehem who turned away Mary and Joseph.

That seems a little harsh. At the least, it’s unfair to the innkeeper, who didn’t turn them away at all. He did the best he could. Because there was no more room in the house, he invited them to stay in the stable beneath the house.

A Cranston man, who came to the State House to protest calling it a Holiday Tree, said of the Governor, "He's trying to put our religion down. It's a Christmas tree. It always has been and it always will be, no matter what that buffoon says it is."

For his part, the governor stood by his decision. "If it's in my house it's a Christmas tree, but when I'm representing all of Rhode Island I have to be respectful of everyone," he explained after the tree lighting. "Now we can get back to next year's budget ... with pleasure."

The ironies in the story are wonderfully amusing. And it’s all mostly harmless fun. But I do wonder about the children, whose performance was interrupted. What did they learn about Christians and about Christmas?

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Governor Chafee and the "Holiday Tree"



“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’”Matthew 7:21-23
The important thing, according to Jesus, is not that we call him “Lord,” but that we follow his teachings and do the will of God.

He was strangely silent on the importance of saying, “Merry Christmas,” or making sure that the evergreen tree with the lights and ornaments is called a “Christmas Tree.”

Governor Lincoln Chafee found himself at the center of a national news story when critics took him to task for issuing a press release announcing that, “Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee and First Lady Stephanie Chafee will host the annual State House holiday tree lighting in the State House Rotunda on Tuesday, December 6, 2011 at 5:30 p.m. All Rhode Islanders are invited to attend and see the 17-foot Colorado Blue Spruce lit for the first time.”

Last January Representative Doreen Costa of North Kingstown sponsored a “symbolic resolution” declaring that the tree customarily erected in the State House at this time of year be referred to "as a `Christmas tree' and not as a `holiday tree' or other non-traditional terms." In his press release, the Governor ignored the non-binding resolution and called it a “Holiday” tree.

Roman Catholic Thomas Tobin called Chafee’s failure to use the word Christmas “most disheartening and divisive.” He said it was “an affront to the faith of many citizens." He went on to say, "For the sake of peace and harmony in our state at this special time of the year, I respectfully encourage the Governor to reconsider his decision to use the word Christmas in the state observance.”

Former Governors Carcieri and Almond had issued similar press releases in the past, so the designation of “Holiday” tree lighting is not new. But critics reacted as if it were a sign of the apocalypse. The Governor responded by pointing out that he was following past precedent, and honoring Rhode Island’s heritage of religious tolerance. He went on to say, “I would encourage all those engaged in this discussion – whatever their opinion on the matter – to use their energy and enthusiasm to make a positive difference in the lives of their fellow Rhode Islanders.” He suggested that an initiative to feed the hungry might be a good place to start.

When it comes to traditions, we tend to have short memories.

The Governor’s critics could not remember what previous governors had said or done. But in a larger sense, we tend to think of Christmas as something Christians have celebrated since the days of the early church. In fact, it is a relatively recent tradition.

Biblical scholars have known for centuries that Jesus was almost certainly not born anywhere near December 25, but the church originally focused on that date as a way to combat the pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. The blending of pagan and Christian themes was problematic from the start.

In the Puritan colonies, there were prohibitions against any but the most solemn observances. They banned wreaths and trees and other “pagan symbols.” Christmas first became a national holiday under President Ulysses Grant in 1870, but up until that time the public schools in Boston held classes on December 25.

Yesterday I was at a meeting focused on how the United Methodist churches in Rhode Island could come together to support the work of feeding the hungry and housing the homeless in Providence and Woonsocket. I could not help thinking that if all the people who are so concerned about the Governor’s omission of the word Christmas were busy doing what Jesus clearly told us to do, the problem would be solved.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Governor Kitzhaber and Jesus



“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not use violence to resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”Matthew 5:38-39
On Tuesday, Governor John Kitzhaber of Oregan announced that Gary Haugen, convicted of two separate murders, one in 1981 and another in 2003, would not be executed. “It is time for Oregon to consider a different approach,” he said. “I refuse to be a part of this compromised and inequitable system any longer; and I will not allow further executions while I am governor.”

Oregon has executed two inmates since voters reestablished the death penalty in 1984. In announcing his decision, Governor Kitzhaber noted that both of those previous executions were carried out while he was serving two terms as governor from 1995 to 2003. “They were the most agonizing and difficult decisions I have made as governor and I have revisited and questioned them over and over again during the past 14 years,” Governor Kitzhaber said. “I do not believe that those executions made us safer; certainly I don’t believe they made us more noble as a society. And I simply cannot participate once again in something I believe to be morally wrong.”

The governor could have commuted Mr. Haugen’s sentence, but he chose not to do that. Nor did he commute the sentences of any of the other inmates on death row in Oregon. The reprieve will last only as long as he is governor. In the meantime, he called on the legislature and the people of Oregon to “engage in the long overdue debate that this important issue deserves.”

Public opinion across the country is shifting against the death penalty and recent polls show that support for the death penalty is now at the lowest level in four decades. More than six in ten Americans still support it, but that is down from eight in ten two decades ago. Only 27 states have executed someone in the last ten years. Over that time, the number of executions has declined by about fifty percent. Governor George Ryan of Illinois stopped all executions in that state in 2000, and as he was leaving office he commuted the sentences of all death row inmates. The Illinois legislature banned the death penalty this year. New Mexico abolished the death penalty in 2009, and New Jersey ended the death penalty in 2007.

In his announcement on Tuesday, Governor Kitzhaber, a physician, noted the oath he had taken to “never do harm.” When asked whom he had consulted before making his decisioin, the governor answered, “Mostly myself.”

As I read his statement, I did not see a reference to any moral authority beyond his conscience and his oath as a physician. I don’t know whether he belongs to a community of faith, and I don’t know whether he would call himself a Christian.

But on this point, his actions and his statement, identify him as a follower of Jesus.

In the verses from the Sermon on the Mount quoted above, verse 39 is often translated as, “Do not resist evil,” or “Do not resist an evildoer.” And it appears that Jesus is calling for “passivism” as well as “pacifism.” The translation I used is probably closer to the original meaning of the text. Jesus is against revenge, but he is also against indifference or passivity. He is inviting his followers to oppose evil with creative non-violence.

It is not easy to think creatively about resisting evil without participating in the cycle of violence. Jesus did not oppose violence and revenge because he thought that “evildoers” were not really evil. He believed that ultimately we could not establish peace by violence.

As the great Christian pacifist A. J. Muste said, “There is no way to peace – peace is the way.”

Monday, November 21, 2011

Occupy the Bible



The LORD rises to argue his case; he stands to judge the peoples.
The LORD enters into judgment with the elders and princes of his people:
It is you who have devoured the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses.
What do you mean by crushing my people,
by grinding the face of the poor?
says the Lord GOD of hosts.
Isaiah 3:13-15

There are lots of things wrong with “Occupy Wall Street.” As a social vision, Anarchism, even Pacifist Anarchism (even Christian Pacifist Anarchism) has its limits.

Phil Wogaman describes the oddly naïve combination of pessimism and optimism found in anarchistic movements as “utter pessimism about any redeeming possibilities withn the present forms of social organization combined with stupendous optimssm about the goodness that will simply blossom forth, unaided, after the present social organization is smashed.” The OWS message seems to be that if we can get rid of the oppressive collusion of business and government, then “the people” can create a society ruled by consensus and everyone can live in peace and harmony.

On the other hand, the Occupy movement has done some important things. In his Sunday column, called “Occupy the Agenda,” Nicholas Kristof reports that use of the words “income inequality” quintupled in news reports after the protests began. That is no small achievement. For more than three decades, the rich have been getting richer and the poor have been getting poorer (relatively), and no one has seemed to care. Now, at least people are talking about it.

The top one percent of Americans have more net wealth than the bottom ninety percent. That doesn’t seem possible, but it is true. We have been redistributing wealth from the bottom to the top at an alarming rate.

I think this is what Isaiah meant when he said that “the spoil of the poor is in your houses.” And this is what he called, “grinding the face of the poor.”

Kristof reports on a new study by Michael Norton of the Harvard Business School and Dan Ariely of Duke University. In their study they asked Americans how they believed wealth should be distributed across income groups. Respondents thought that the richest 20% should control about one third of the wealth, and the poorest 20% should have about one-tenth.

Most people are surprised to learn that the richest 20% of Americans actually possess more than 80% of the nation’s wealth, and the poorest 20% own one-tenth of a percent. Again, the real numbers are hard to believe.

Wealth is power. The concentration of wealth has led to a concentration of power, and those who have wealth use their influence to keep on the government on their side. In a recent speech the former chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, James M. Stone, said that before the economic collapse of 2008, congressional leaders knew that the banks needed to be more closely controlled. And he asked rhetorically, “So why was this not done?” One obvious part of the answer, he said, is that “both political parties rely heavily on campaign contributions from the financial sector.”

The Bible is relentless in opposing oppression and zealous in advocating for the poor. It sees an implicit injustice in a growing gap between rich and poor. But it does not give us a political program. That is up to us.

The Occupy movement has brought critical biblical issues into mainstream conversation, and for that we can be grateful.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Specks and Logs and the Illusion of Moral Superiority



“Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”Matthew 7:3-5
I think I was in Junior High School when I first encountered Jesus’ teaching about the speck and the log. I had probably heard it when I was younger, but it was in the early teen years that it first made an impression.

I loved it immediately because it was the clearest and best description I had ever seen of what was the matter with my parents. They were trying to correct me. All the time, it seemed. And yet they were blind to their own faults.

I did not take it to them and confront them with the biblical explanation for their poor parenting because I knew it wouldn’t work. They had logs in their eyes. And I knew that they would not be able to see the truth even if I could show them that it came from Jesus.

It was only years later that it dawned on me that Jesus was not speaking to my parents, he was speaking to me.

One of the perverse truths of human nature is that we are always much more adept at seeing the specks in the eyes of our neighbors than we are in seeing the logs in our own eyes.

In a recent column in the New York Times, David Brooks commented in the Penn State scandal, the news of the atrocity of the (alleged) sexual assaults was quickly followed by the what he called, “the vanity.” He explains:

“The vanity is the outraged reaction of a zillion commentators over the past week, whose indignation is based on the assumption that if they had been in Joe Paterno’s shoes, or assistant coach Mike McQueary’s shoes, they would have behaved better. They would have taken action and stopped any sexual assaults.”

According to Brooks, research suggests that is a fiction. Ironically, some of the research was done at Penn State, where students were asked if they would speak up if someone made a sexist remark in their presence. Half of those surveyed said that they would. When researchers arranged for that same group to actually hear someone make a sexist remark, only 16% said anything. At another college 68% of students said that they would refuse to answer offensive questions during a job interview. But when they encountered a (seemingly) real stiatuion, none of them objected.

We are very good at self-deception.

We judge Mike McQueary and Joe Paterno, and the Penn State administrators by their actions, but we judge ourselves by our good intentions.

Moral outrage feels like virtue, but we deceive ourselves.

We can see the speck in the eye of another, but we simply cannot see the log in our own eye.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Choosing Sides



Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort in love, any sharing in the Spirit, any sympathy, complete my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, being united and agreeing with each other. Don’t do anything for selfish purposes but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus.Philippians 2:1-5
The Council of Bishops of the United Methodist Church released a letter to “members of the whole church” following at their November meeting. In the letter they urge their sisters and brothers in Christ to give witness to “a more excellent way” as we confront the issues that divide us as a church.

Then they write:

“One of the deep disagreements and divisions within the church is over the practice of homosexuality, recently heightened by a group of clergy who have declared that they will perform holy unions in opposition to the Book of Discipline. This has caused different experiences of deep pain throughout the church.”
The words are carefully chosen. The Bishops want to insist that the issue is “the practice of homosexuality.” It is about behavior, they say, not about sexual orientation. They concede that sexual orientation may not be a choice, but behavior is a choice. This, in their minds, removes it from civil rights.

And on the other hand, they do not speak of clergy being in defiance of the Discipline, but of “opposition.” It is a more conciliatory phrasing. Citing the Book of Discipline, they "implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons" (par. 161F). And they promise to “continue to offer grace upon grace to all in the name of Christ.”

Then they go on to say that they will be faithful to the covenant they have made as Bishops to uphold the Book of Discipline. In other words, clergy who officiate at same sex marriages or civil unions (or blessings of any kind) will be held accountable.

Clearly, they are trying to thread the needle. In their minds, there is pain on both sides of the issue and they want to be sensitive to both sides. I believe they are sincere. And I know that it is painful for them, and I know that they are trying to be faithful. I also know that within the Council of Bishops there is disagreement on the issue of how the church relates to gay and lesbian persons.

There is a group within the church which is outraged that any of us might oppose the Book of Discipline. But the reality is that pastors and lay people act contrary to the Book of Discipline all the time on issues as diverse as a woman’s right to an abortion, which the Discipline supports, to all forms of gambling, which the Discipline opposes. There are probably very few Methodists who do not disagree with the Discipline on something large or small. The Discipline is not a Methodist version of Papal Doctrine. It does not carry any sense of Divine authority. It is no more and no less than what a majority of the Church’s elected delegates believe at a point in history.

At one time the Discipline condoned slavery. And then later it condoned segregation. For a long time it prohibited the ordination of women. It is a human document. It has changed many times and it will change in the future. The exclusionary statements on homosexuality will be overturned. And we will all be embarrassed that it took so long.

The Bishops are attempting to speak pastorally. And I applaud them for that.

But I cannot see the moral equivalence in the pain that is felt on both sides. Gays and lesbians feel the pain of exclusion. Those on the other side of the issue feel the pain of potentially having gays and lesbians fully included in the life of the church.

One side is oppressed. The other side worries that the oppression will end.

I don’t think it’s hard to choose sides.




The full letter is printed below:
Letter from the Council of BishopsAs noted in the recent summary of the Council of Bishops November meeting, the Council of Bishops has released the following letter to members of the whole church:

November 10, 2011

Dear United Methodist Sisters and Brothers in Christ:

Grace and peace to you from Jesus Christ who calls us to faithfulness during a time of great and unsettling change around the world that God loves so deeply and also within the Body of Christ where Jesus is both head and redeemer.

We give thanks for each one of you as you seek to be faithful witnesses and fruitful disciples wherever God has called you to live and share the grace that offers salvation to the world. Your faithfulness brings encouragement, inspiration and hope to us and to all who live in the influence of your witness.

In a time when the world seems to be torn apart with division, inequality, injustice, hatred and violence, as Christians we bear responsibility to give witness to "a more excellent way" (1Corinthians 12:31). The church is not exempt from struggles. We are not the first to experience upheaval in culture and church and we are not the first to have serious and deep disagreements about issues of great importance.

One of the deep disagreements and divisions within the church is over the practice of homosexuality, recently heightened by a group of clergy who have declared that they will perform holy unions in opposition to the Book of Discipline. This has caused different experiences of deep pain throughout the church. As the bishops of the church, we commit ourselves to be in prayer for the whole church and for the brokenness our communities experience. Furthermore, we "implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons" (par. 161F). We will continue to offer grace upon grace to all in the name of Christ.

At times like these we call upon each other to remember and renew our covenant with God and with one another as United Methodist Christians. As bishops chosen, consecrated and assigned by the Church, we declare once again our commitment to be faithful to this covenant we have made. As the Council of Bishops we will uphold the Book of Discipline as established by General Conference.

Even in the midst of our differences, we believe that we can together be about our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We invite all United Methodists, lay and clergy, to join us in strengthening our congregations unto greater vitality for the sake of our mission.

To that end, may we continue to live together in the spirit of Philippians 2:1-5:

Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort in love, any sharing in the Spirit, any sympathy, complete my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, being united and agreeing with each other. Don’t do anything for selfish purposes but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 2:1-5).

Your brothers and sisters in Christ,
The Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Penn State and the Millstone



Jesus said to his disciples, “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble. Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.”
The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”
Luke 17:1-5

At the close of the ordination service at our United Methodist Annual Conference the Bishop invites anyone who is considering ordained ministry to come forward. We sing while they kneel in prayer. Pastors who are close to these potential candidates for ministry come forward to kneel with them. There are hugs and tears. And then the Bishop prays.

One year several young women made their way to the front of the sanctuary. There was a buzz as we realized that they were all from the same church. As their beloved pastor greeted them one by one, we were amazed that his ministry had so inspired them. The pastor was leaving that church to become a District Superintendent, and the young candidates for ordained ministry were the final signature of his effectiveness.

We were impressed.

Later that summer we received a new Bishop. And shortly after that, the new pastor who had replaced the beloved pastor went to the new Bishop with allegations of sexual misconduct by the beloved former pastor. If that same scenario played out today, I don’t think I would be surprised. But it happened thirty years ago, and I could not believe that the allegations were true. The pastor was known and loved. He was, we thought, a person of integrity and faithfulness.

To me, and to many of my colleagues, it looked like a rush to judgment. There were rumors that the new Bishop was reacting to a threatened lawsuit. We worried that he did not know this trusted pastor as well as we did. In the back channels of clergy communication, it was portrayed as a disgruntled parishioner with a grudge against his pastor. A friend and I went to see the Bishop on behalf of our colleagues. We asked about the process and we asked if this beloved pastor was being sacrificed to avoid legal complications.

Our new Bishop was open to our concerns, but firm in his resolve. He explained how the new pastor had begun asking questions when he noticed that none of the young people in the youth group wanted to be in his office. It did not take long to find someone who would tell him the story.

When he investigated the allegations brought by the new pastor, the Bishop found that they were not new. The previous Bishop had heard the complaints, but had tried to resolve them by making the beloved pastor a District Superintendent.

We spent at least an hour with the Bishop. It wasn’t about one disgruntled parent or the unsubstantiated allegations of one young woman. There were multiple victims. Without revealing confidences or compromising any of the potential legal issues, he walked us through the sequence of events. We were shocked. It was unbelievable and yet it was clearly true.

Later another colleague told me that he had suspicions decades earlier, but had no way to act on them, and he believed the beloved pastor’s explanation that it was all just a misunderstanding.

Today my office has a large glass window in the wall. Next to my office is a conference room, and it also has a large glass window. All of our classrooms have glass panels in the doors. We require every volunteer to have a criminal background check and we have strict guidelines about how adults and children can interact. And every pastor in the United Methodist Church undergoes a criminal background check every five years.

We call this program and process “Safe Sanctuaries.” It is built on the fundamental conviction that the church must be a safe place for our children. It is not enough to tell ourselves that we all know each other and we all trust each other. The kids have to come first.

As I think about the wreckage of the Penn State scandal, experience tells me how easy it is to be deceived by someone we think we know. Sadly, no one is above suspicion. I knew that before the Penn State story unfolded, but I still find it a very uncomfortable reality.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Hope for Some



For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. . . . Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.
I Corinthians 12:12-14, 27

Last week I received two mailings from a new church that is just starting in our community. They were identical except for the color scheme. In bold letters they announced their vision:


HOPE FOR EVERYONE


And on the other side of the postcard, they explained:

"There are many places in this world where we feel insignificant, used and even invisible. However, God says that each person is extremely valuable. What if there was a church that reflected that by welcoming others, being generous, serving the community and bringing hope to the hopeless?


"New Hope Christian Church is a brand new church that seeks to do just that. We are a church for people who may have given up on church, but haven’t given up on God. Come join us and give hope a try!"

I changed the name. They don't call themselves "New Hope." The actual name is non-biblical and generic, (and sounds very modern) and connects them to another church with a similar name in the northern part of the state.

Aside from the fact that they are new and they are meeting in a movie theater, their vision is the same as every other church. Don’t all churches try to provide hope for the hopeless and teach people that they are valued by God? And doesn’t every church wants to be a place “for people who have given up on church"?

We are, as Paul says, the Body of Christ. At least that is what we are trying to be.

When I looked more deeply to find out what this church actually believed, I found that the message wasn’t really for everyone. And it wasn't new. The paragraph describing what they believe “About Jesus Christ,” concludes with this sentence, “At the appointed time in the future, He will return to take those who belong to him to live with God for eternity in heaven.”

Those who “belong to him” will go to live with God for eternity in heaven. The others will be lost. Heaven for some and hell for others.

The section “About Man” says that human beings “are open to Satan’s influence, unable to please God, and are hopelessly condemned to spend an eternity without Him.”

“Hopelessly condemned.”

That doesn’t sound like “good news” to me. The best marketing in the world will not make that good or true or Christian.

So the new church “for people who may have given up on church” just repackages bad theology and markets it with new graphics and digital imagery. And the task of explaining the faith in the world gets a little harder.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

A Growing Chasm



“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’”Luke 16:19-26
Jesus was teaching about wealth and poverty and justice and the grace of God in a series of parables when he was interrupted by some hecklers who ridiculed him because, Luke says, they were lovers of money. So he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.” And then he went back to talking about the Kingdom of God, and he told the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.

In many ways, Jesus’ teachings on wealth and poverty are an extension of the witness of the Hebrew Prophets. He makes it more personal and his teaching is more emphatic, but the theme is consistent across the centuries of biblical witness. Explaining God’s judgment on Sodom, Ezekiel said, “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16.49). Jesus calls this “an abomination in the sight of God.”

Against this biblical background a new report from the Congressional Budget Office should raise serious concerns (http://cbo.gov/doc.cfm?index=12485). The CBO found that from 1979 to 2007 the average income of the top one percent of the population grew by 275% in inflation-adjusted dollars.

The rest of the top 20% grew at less than a quarter of that rate. In the middle quintile, the growth was only about one eighth of the top rate. And the lowest twenty percent grew at less than one fifteenth the rate of the top one percent. Those are rate differences. The actual dollar differences are enormous.

Yesterday in the Providence Journal they applied their “Truth-O-Meter” test to a sign held up by one of the “Occupy Providence” people claiming that a person working at minimum wage made $16,000 per year while the CEO of Goldman-Sachs made $16,000 per hour. Calling the claim “False,” the Journal pointed out that the minimum wage earner would have an annual income of closer to $15,000 and the Goldman-Sachs CEO actually earned less than $10,000 per hour.

Call me crazy, but I don’t see how that really makes a difference.

A little research reveals that the sign-maker had the wrong company. The company was Lehman Brothers. The CEO was Richard Fuld. He made $17,000 per hour in 2007 while driving his company and the whole economy over an economic cliff (see Nicholas Kristof, September 17, 2008 in the New York Times).

There are places where the Bible seems to advocate income equality (Acts 2:44-46, Matthew 20:1-16), but that is not a dominant theme. There are many examples throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, the Gospels, the letters of Paul, and the history of the early church, where people of wealth are held up as positive examples. Sometimes they are praised for how they use their money to help others. Other times they are praised for virtues that may be unrelated to their economic status.

And the Bible never holds up poverty as a virtue. There is no suggestion that the poor are better than the rich.

The problem is in the gap between rich and poor. Jesus does not give us hard numbers and he does not give us a formula for how much is too much. When the rich man dines sumptuously and the poor man begs for crumbs, the gap is too great.

Reasonable people may differ in how much we think is too much. And we may differ on what we believe is the best way to reverse course. But we are going in the wrong direction.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Faith is Not the Rejection of Reason (or Science)



After he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone.
Matthew 14:23

The first time I heard of the Nazarene Church, I was in grade school. A young man from that denomination who was studying for the ministry, was dating the daughter of the pastor at the Methodist Church where I grew up. I don’t remember very much about him, but the police were called once because he was praying too loudly.

He had gone out to a hill behind the parsonage to pray by himself, because that’s what Jesus did. We don’t know from the Gospel passage whether or not Jesus prayed aloud, but the young man did. The hill he climbed is a long way from the nearest house, so he must have been praying very loudly.

But in the end there was no arrest. Just a warning.

In the New York Times last week there was an essay by Karl W. Giberson and Randall J. Stephens titled, “The Evangelical Rejection of Reason.” The dateline was Quincy, Massachusetts.

Quincy?

One is a former professor and the other is a current professor at Eastern Nazarene College in Quincy, Massachusetts.

The article does not break new ground. They observe the obvious, that evangelical Christians have recently shown a disturbing trend toward anti-intellectualism and a broad rejection of scientific theory and research. Evangelical Christianity has always had its share of anti-intellectualism, but historically that has been balanced a strong and rigorous pursuit of knowledge. Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health, is an example of someone who blends traditional evangelical faith and rigorous scientific investigation. But scientists and intellectuals, like Dr. Collins, are now increasingly marginalized by the dominant anti-intellectualism of prominent evangelicals.

Giberson and Stephens argue that “evangelical Christianity need not be defined by the simplistic theology, cultural isolationism and stubborn anti-intellectualism.” It is possible to be an authentically evangelical Christian without rejecting science and reason.

I’ve heard that argument before. I’ve even made that argument before.

What struck me was that this was now being said by people from Eastern Nazarene College. The Nazarene denomination has roots in Wesleyanism, especially the Wesleyan holiness tradition, as well as in Pentecostalism. They are at the far end of the Wesleyan spectrum. And even from that vantage point, they think that things have gone too far.

They point to David Barton of “Wall Builders” and James Dobson of “Focus on the Family” as prime examples of evangelical anti-intellectualism. Barton has dedicated himself to the proposition that the founding fathers were evangelicals whose vision was of a Christian America. Dobson champions the idea that homosexuality can be cured and that gay people can “pray away” their sinful and unnatural desires.

As Giberson and Stephens observe, “Charismatic leaders like these project a winsome personal testimony as brothers in Christ. Their audiences number in the tens of millions. They pepper their presentations with so many Bible verses that their messages appear to be straight out of Scripture; to many, they seem like prophets, anointed by God.”

But their anti-intellectualism is toxic to the national discussion of such important issues, and it tends to discredit evangelicalism as a whole. And by extension, it tends to discredit Christianity.

Within the rich intellectual tradition of Christianity, there is an important place for evangelicalism. We need that deeply personal faith connection. But when “faith” calls for the rejection of reason, Christians need to speak up.

Friday, October 21, 2011

A Midrash on Creation



And God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.” So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.”
Genesis 1:20-22

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the greatest theologians of the 20th Century, once wisely observed that the Bible is a Midrash on creation.

Heschel’s wisdom came back to me as I read the weekly Midrash commentary from the Jewish Theological Seminary, by Rabbi Abigail Treu. One of the ways in which Jewish Bible Study differs from Christian Bible Study is that in Judaism there is a greater self-consciousness about the layering of commentary on commentary. Christian scholars tend to comment on previous work by referring back to the original biblical text. In Judaism (as I observe it) the layers build on top of each other with each insight leading to another new insight.

In commenting on a Midrash (commentary) on the creation story in Genesis, Rabbi Treu refers to a recent theological work by Rabbi Arthur Green, Radical Judaism: Rethinking God and Tradition. Green opens the book with the claim that, “the evolution of the species is the greatest sacred drama of all time.” He writes:

“There is a One that is ever revealing itself to us within and behind the great diversity of life. That One is Being itself, the constant in the endlessly changing evolutionary parade. Viewed from our end of the process, the search that leads to discovery of that One is our human quest for meaning. But turned around, seen from the perspective of the constantly evolving life energy, evolution can be seen as an ongoing process of revelation or self-manifestation. We discover; it reveals. It reveals; we discover.”

Life is a process of revelation and discovery.

Technically, Midrash is commentary on the Hebrew Bible. It has two parts: Midrash Halachah, which deals with interpreting the legal portions of the Torah, and Midrash Aggadah, which deals with the non-legal aspects and is filled with morals, legends, parables, and stories. When most people refer to Midrash, they are referring to the parables and the stories.

When Heschel speaks of the Bible as a Midrash on creation, he is not referring to the technical meaning, but to a broader understanding of commentary. In that same sense, one might say that the Gospel is a Midrash on Torah.

And if we wind our way down that road, then we could see Darwin’s theory of evolution as another layer of Midrash. It is both discovery and revelation.

And the evolutionary process, with all of its amazing and miraculous complexity, is the subject of more Midrash.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

God Bless Harry Bronkar

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice 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

In the Monday edition of The Providence Journal, on the opinion page, there is a letter from the Rev. Harry Bronkar, a retired American Baptist minister, who was pastor of the First Baptist Church in East Greenwich from 1981 to 1999.

The letter is gentle and kind and thoughtful, exactly what I would expect from Harry.

Harry wrote to say that his “heart goes out to Jessica Ahlquist,” the young woman who challenged the prayer displayed on the wall of the auditorium at Cranston West High School. He noted that what he has read about her indicates that she is “intelligent and thoughtful,” and that, “Apparently she holds deep values,” as illustrated by “her tearful reaction to slavery and the Holocaust.” And he comments that “Whether or not she is an atheist depends on your understanding about God.”

He concludes his letter by saying that “the deepest tragedy . . . lies in the reaction of ‘believers’ to her position.” She has been bullied and threatened and called a “stupid atheist” and a “witch.” “If this is the way they manifest their religion, then I say, ‘God bless you, Jessica.’ We all need more of your ‘God.’”

If you Google “Harry Bronkar,” you will get a link to the Providence Journal web site. There you will see the letter, as well as comments on the letter. I was shocked by the hatefulness of the responses. They attacked Harry for not being a real Christian; they questioned whether the holocaust really happened; they attacked evolution. It was bizarre. Looking carefully, I found that what initially looked like an avalanche of hatred was really only a handful of people writing over and over, attempting to silence the few sane voices. But it was still unsettling.

One lesson is: Don’t ever read the comments. It will just make you crazy. Apparently I am a slow learner because I have to learn this lesson over and over. A second lesson is related: There is a lot of anger out there. But beyond that, it is another incident that should give us pause as Christians. Hatred and bigotry in the name of God is still hatred and bigotry. And worse, it is a form of blasphemy. It is, quite literally, taking the Lord’s name in vain.

I am tempted to believe that once upon a time we were kinder and gentler. But that’s more about nostalgia than history.

I am grateful for Harry’s witness. It reminds us who we are and whose we are. It reminds us that Christians need to act like Christians. If we do not define ourselves, others will do it for us, and it won't be a pretty picture.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Something Is Broken



Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you.
James 5:4-6

All demonstrations share one constant. There are always crazy people.

Always.

So it’s not surprising that the Wall Street protests have attracted their share of strange folks.

Another constant in demonstrations is that they tell us something is broken. We may not agree with the cause or causes advocated by the demonstrators. And we may not agree with their definition of the problem or their proposed solution, but their very presence tells us that something is wrong. Not unlike the biblical prophets.

The Wall Street Protestors lack a coherent message, but they are generally upset about the economy. They claim to represent the 99% of Americans who (they claim) were left behind in the economic gains of recent decades, and have suffered most since the collapse of 2008.

We can argue about the details, but the basic picture is depressing. Poverty is increasing. Middle class wages have been stagnant for decades. Long term unemployment raises the specter of creating a permanent underclass of jobless people. The unemployment rate for college graduates under age 25 is 9.6%, and for young high school graduates, the average is 21.6%.

The numbers are appalling. And that doesn’t count the young people who have gone back to school in the hope that one more degree will help them get a job. Or those who have taken minimal jobs just to survive. As the New York Times observed in an editorial, “Such poor prospects in the early years of a career portend a lifetime of diminished prospects and lower earnings — the very definition of downward mobility.”

The problem is not that rich people are getting richer. The problem is that poor people are getting poorer. And the middle class is barely hanging on. Over the past decades we have been redistributing income from the bottom to the top at an alarming rate.

W. Edwards Deming, the late great guru of business systems theory, whose analysis was a major factor in developing the Japanese auto industry, famously observed that “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.” If our economic system is increasing economic inequality, it’s because it is designed to increase economic inequality. If it is increasing unemployment, then it is designed to increase unemployment.

This does not mean that business leaders and politicians intentionally conspired to favor the rich at the expense of the poor. But if that’s what the system has produced in recent decades, then that’s what the system is designed to produce. If we want different results, we will have to make changes in the system.

This is not impossible. This is not the first time that our nation has confronted great disparities of wealth and poverty. In the past, we have made corrections and moved on. We did this without confiscating wealth or nationalizing industries. We used sensible regulation and oversight to channel our creative and entrepreneurial genius. Our greatest economic gains were made during a time of shared prosperity and relative economic equality in the decades after World War II. In those years we all grew together. There is no reason to believe we cannot do that again.

In the meantime, New York City has already spent $1.9 million on security costs related to the demonstrations.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

most this amazing day

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun's birthday; this is the birth
day of life and love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any-lifted from the no
of all nothing-human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)
e.e. cummings

If we were assembling the Bible today, we would have to include some e.e. cummings. It is as sacred as anything ever written. The poem has an Easter theme, and it is probably intended for springtime rather than fall. But today is a most amazing day.

Faith begins with wonder. And cummings was a master at expressing wonder.

Today in Georgetown, Maine, we may have had the best October 8 in the history of the universe. The marsh grass was golden in the sunlight. The sky is deep blue. The ocean was blue green. The sun was bright. There was a gentle breeze and it was 75 degrees.

As they used to say on “Magnum P.I.”, “Just another day in paradise.”

It was almost too wonderful. Too amazing. It was a day to savor.

It was a day, on which we might ask, as cummings does,

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any-lifted from the no
of all nothing-human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?


As Paul Tillich articulated so brilliantly half a century ago, God is not “a supreme being,” God is Being Itself. This is not a new thought. When Moses demanded to know the name of the One who called him to lead Israel out of slavery, the response was, “I Am who I Am.”

The Bible begins with the story of Creation. It's not a scientific explanation of how the world began. The question is not, "How did this happen?" but "What does it mean?" What does it mean that there is something rather than nothing? When we say that Creation speaks of the Creator, we do not necessarily mean that we believe in a supernatural being outside of the universe, who created everything (although some may hold that belief). We mean that there is a Creative Spirit within the universe, in it and through it, that has created and is creating. We mean that there is purpose and meaning.

We who are “lifted from the no of all nothing,” are surprised and amazed by the gift of life. Especially on those “most amazing” days of “leaping greenly spirits of trees, and a blue true dream of sky.” And we are thankful “for everything which is natural which is infinite which is yes.”

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

October 5, 1947: A Moment of Greatness

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer;
you shall cry for help,
and he will say, Here I am.
Isaiah 58:6-9
On October 5, 1947, President Harry S. Truman delivered the first presidential address ever broadcast on live television.

And that first address may also be the greatest.

His address followed a presentation by the Citizens Food Committee concerning the starvation in Europe and the need for Americans to sacrifice in order to save their European sisters and brothers.

After the Second World War the United States embarked on one of the greatest achievements of world history, the rebuilding of Europe and Japan after the devastation. The Marshall Plan prevented economic collapse and led to a world-wide economic expansion and shared prosperity.

But when President Truman addressed the nation, the rebuilding of Europe was faltering. “The situation in Europe is grim and forbidding as winter approaches,” he said. “Despite the vigorous efforts of the European people, their crops have suffered so badly from droughts, floods, and cold that the tragedy of hunger is a stark reality. The nations of Western Europe will soon be scraping the bottom of the food barrel. They cannot get through the coming winter and spring without help--generous help-from the United States and from other countries which have food to spare.” If we do not act, said the President, all of the rebuilding efforts may be wasted. “I know every American feels in his heart that we must help to prevent starvation and distress among our fellow men in other countries.”

Truman called on the nation to give up meat on Tuesdays, to give up poultry and eggs on Thursdays, and to give up one slice of bread per day. He also called on distillers to save grain by stopping the production of alcoholic beverages for 60 days. And he called on the Commodities Exchange Commission to tighten regulations and reduce the “gambling” in grain futures which resulted in even higher prices.

He told the country that Mrs. Truman had directed the White House staff to follow the food conservation measures. And he said that the same policy would be followed in all government restaurants and cafeterias throughout the country. “As Commander in Chief,” he said, “I have ordered that the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force shall also comply with this program.”

This morning, as I read Harry Truman’s address, I reflected on the present state of the world, from the debt crisis in Europe to the unrest in the Middle East and the starvation in Somalia, as well as the painfully slow recovery of our own economy. It is hard to imagine any leader, here or abroad, calling for the level of shared sacrifice that President Truman called for after World War Two.

And we need to remember, that was after the great sacrifices required by the war itself.

The food measures did not last long. With increased American help, the European recovery soon made such radical conservation unnecessary. Europe and Japan were rebuilt and America entered a time of unprecedented prosperity.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Colbert Isn't Kidding

Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and his anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us.”
The one who sits in the heavens laughs; the LORD has them in derision.
Psalm 2:1-4

Reinhold Niebuhr held those verses from the Psalms among his favorites.

There is no shortage of leaders plotting and conspiring, and in the short run they can succeed. But in the end history will bend toward justice. In the present moment, we may doubt the truth of that fundamental biblical insight, but over the course of human history, we can see how the arc has bent.

Niebuhr, like the ancient Psalmist, imagined God’s amusement at the human foolishness of plotting against the inevitability of that great historical march.

My guess is that Niebuhr would love the humor of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. They see and expose the deep irony of those who set themselves up to take counsel together against what is just and right for the most vulnerable among us.

Recently, a Colbert quotation has been popping up repeatedly on Facebook. In a commentary some months ago about whether or not the United States is a “Christian Nation,” Colbert said,

"If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn't help the poor, either we've got to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we've got to acknowledge that he commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don't want to do it."

His point was not that we don’t help the poor, but that many who want to call America a Christian Nation also want to limit what we do for our poorest sisters and brothers.

It is worth noting, that though Colbert intended his remarks to be funny and amusing, he really isn’t kidding. He is a serious Christian who cares deeply about following Jesus.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Red Sox in September

“No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; for each tree is known by its own fruit. Figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks."
Luke 6:43-45

Yesterday afternoon, in my car, I was listening to sports talk on the radio. It was all about the collapse of the Red Sox this September.

The question, of course, is how this team, which entered the season with an embarrassment of talent, could possibly play this badly. Going into last night’s game, their September record was something like 1 and 19 in games where they scored less than 12 runs. And their pitching was the worst in all of Major League Baseball. It is epic stuff.

The program hosts repeated endless lists of statistical improbabilities and then narrowed the problem down to two causes: their “ace” pitchers, Jon Lester and Josh Beckett, “have not done the job,” and the team “has no ----- [crude reference to male body parts].” One host made the observation and then each of them repeated it. “That’s their problem! They have no -----!”

Yikes! Have we lost all ability for civil discourse? How have we come to the point where a radio host does not even pretend to maintain a polite tone? At that time of day there must have been some kids listening. Is this what we want to teach them? It’s not just about the language; it’s about respect for human beings.

(And can you imagine one of those guys saying that to Dustin Pedroia?)

To use an over-used phrase, I don’t get it.

Major League ball players are remarkable athletes. They are at the top of their profession. They reach that level because they have great talent and because they are incredibly disciplined.

Last summer, when Jacoby Ellsbury was hurt and couldn’t play, all of the talk show guys (and many ordinary fans) would have been glad to send him packing. The problem, they said, was that he lacked character. This year, he’s not hurt, and he is an American League MVP candidate.

Talk radio only works with negative energy. Sometimes the energy is all negative, from the callers and the hosts. Other times there is some tension. But there is always negative energy.

All of this left me wondering, “Is it possible to be a fan and not be a jerk?”

Is it healthy to believe, as most fans seem to believe, that success is only measured in championships? There is only one winner. Everyone else is a loser. I love sports, but I don’t love that attitude.

On WGBH this morning (I don’t always listen to sports shows) they had a story about the epic collapse of the Red Sox. And the basic explanation for their losing was that they lacked character.

Fans know that athletes have great ability, skill and talent. And fans know that they could never match the athletes at a skill level. But what they (we) want to believe is that if they had the same skill as John Lackey, their character and discipline would make them twenty game winners.

But the truth is that a baseball game is not a morality play. The winners and the losers both play hard. The margin between success and failure is razor thin. Through the month of August, the Red Sox had the best record in the American League. Take away their miserable April and this horrible September, and in the middle they were the best team in baseball.

They could still make the playoffs. And the boys of summer could suddenly reappear.

This September has been painful to watch. But if they do lose and the season ends, “not with a bang, but a whimper,” it won’t be because they lack character. It will be because the other team scored more runs.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

How Many More?

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”
Matthew 5:21-22

The Greek word translated as “hell” is “Gehenna.” It refers to a garbage dump outside of Jerusalem, a place where literally, the fires never went out. And those walking by could hear wild dogs gnashing their teeth as they fought over the scraps. If you insult a brother or sister, says Jesus, you deserve to be thrown into the garbage dump outside of the city.

He is speaking metaphorically, of course. He doesn’t really want people thrown into the garbage dump. But the point is that words matter and attitudes matter. We should not commit physical violence, and we should not commit verbal violence.

Some scholars argue that the obscure Greek word “raca,” typically translated as insult, is actually an ancient epithet equivallent to the “f” word as a derogatory reference to homosexuals.

Last May a young teen named Jamey Rodemeyer posted a video as part of the “It Gets Better” project, appealing to younger kids to recognize that life will get better. You will accept yourself and others will accept you, and life will get better. The project was launched by Dan Savage, in an attempt to convince GLBT youth, that suicide is not the answer. Though they may feel like outcasts now, life really will get better.

Somehow, between last May and last week, something went terribly wrong and Jamey Rodemeyer, who had spoken so eloquently of hope for the future, took his own life.

He had gone to his parents and he had spoken to teachers, and he was being helped by a therapist. But it wasn’t enough. The bullying which had seemed under control in the spring, increased over the summer through an internet outlet called Formspring. Among the messages he received, were these:

JAMIE IS STUPID, GAY, FAT ANND UGLY. HE MUST DIE!”

And, “I wouldn't care if you died. No one would. So just do it :) It would make everyone WAY more happier!”

We should be cautious in linking Jamey’s suicide directly to the bullying he received. Bullying, by itself, is usually not enough to “cause” a suicide. Ninety percent of all suicides are connected to mental health or substance issues, and those percentages are true for youth as well as adults.

But that does not change the fact that bullying is a major problem. And the bullying of young people thought to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender is a significant part of that larger problem. And it has to stop.

Last winter, when I testified in favor of marriage equality at the State House, it was painful to listen to the testimony of other professed Christians who talked about how they really loved everyone, but the lives of the gay and lesbian people in the room were “an abomination.” Some went on to say that they were sick. As I listened to those adults, I wondered what their children were saying. Isn’t that precisely the message that the cyber-bullies sent to Jamey Rodemeyer?

This summer I saw a car with a bumper sticker that said, “I BELIEVE IN THE SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND HATE.” So do I. But how sad it is that such a bumper sticker could be necessary.

How many deaths will it take 'till we know
That too many people have died?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Troy Davis and the Death Penalty in America

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not use violence to resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”
Matthew 5:38-42

Tomorrow evening Troy Davis will be executed in Georgia, for killing an off duty police officer over twenty years ago in a Burger King parking lot in Savannah. There is considerable doubt that he actually committed the crime. Witnesses have said that they were pressured by the police to implicate Davis, and there is no physical evidence tying him to the crime.

There is a huge world-wide movement for clemency. As the campaign says, there is “Too Much Doubt” to take his life. But honestly, I would be against the execution even if I were certain of his guilt.

In the late 19th century a mid-western preacher, educated at Brown University, preached a Sunday evening sermon series about a young man in tattered clothes coming into a church and confronting parishioners as Jesus confronted his listeners. Henry Sheldon's sermon series became a best-selling book called, “In His Steps,” and it launched the classic question, “What Would Jesus Do?”

As an ethical system, that question may often seem naïve and simplistic. But as a starting point, it is hard to improve on it. When it comes to the death penalty, we know the answer before we have even asked the question.

It is ironic that the United States, which claims to be a “Christian” nation, is one of the last countries still allowing executions. The undisputed world champion in executions is China. The statistics are a closely guarded secret, but they execute thousands per year. Over the past four years, Saudi Arabia is second in executions, followed by Iraq. We come in fourth, just ahead of Pakistan.

It’s hard to feel good about our place on that list.

In case you are wondering, we are number one in the rate of incarceration. We have 743 people in jail for every 100,000 in our population. Russia is number two, but at 577 they trail us by over 22%. In fairness, I don’t think the Chinese are on the list because, as with executions, they don’t make the data public. One of the reasons we have so many people in jail is that we keep them there longer than other countries do for the same offenses. Another reason is that we have more murders (mostly with guns) than other “civilized” nations.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus specifically rejected “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” but the next verse frequently leaves modern readers confused. It is often translated as, “Do not resist an evildoer,” which gives the impression that in the face of evil Christians should either passively accept the evil or run away. But the more correct translation is, “Do not use violence to resist an evildoer.” Disciples are called to reject passivity and indifference as well as violence. Instead, we are called to non-violent resistance. In his life, Jesus gave witness to the power of non-violence to confound the powerful and restore dignity to the poor and oppressed.

We need a system of justice that aims at restoration rather than retribution. In the meantime, there is "Too much doubt" to execute Troy Davis.