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 na├»ve 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:


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.