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 ( 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.


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.


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.