Friday, August 31, 2012

Ayn Rand or Jesus: You Can't Have Both

17As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” 20He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 21Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
23Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”
Mark 10:17-23

I first encountered Ayn Rand (her first name, she said, rhymes with swine) late one night in the fall of my freshman year in college. I was quite entranced for nearly half an hour, but as Bill Clinton said of another youthful indiscretion, “I never inhaled.”

The Ayn Rand encounter was, I thought, a sort of “rite of passage;” something everybody did at least once. But it was not anything to be taken seriously.

In recent years that has changed. Ayn Rand has been rescued from obscurity and is being discussed as an important thinker.

For Christians, this presents a challenge that cannot be ignored. Rand was one of the most famous atheists of the twentieth century. But for Christians, her atheism is not the most important issue. Unlike the theoretical atheism of those who reject idea of God as unnecessary or unscientific, Rand’s rejection is primarily a moral one. Many atheists reject Christian theology while expressing an admiration for the ethics of Jesus. Rand rejects Christian ethics as “immoral.”

Onkar Ghate, a Senior Fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute, posted an essay last summer on the Fox News Website titled, “Does America Need Ayn Rand or Jesus?” His closing argument is that when it comes to foreign policy, Jesus’ admonition to “turn the other cheek” would be counter-productive at best, and is not an idea that we could or should embrace. This does not come as news to anyone who has read Reinhold Niebuhr (or Karl Barth, or Paul Tillich, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer) or even glanced at “Just War Theory.” For most Christians, “turning the other cheek” is not an all-purpose response.

But Ghate is to be commended for his honesty in clearly stating that Rand opposed the central core of Jesus’ teaching. If the rich young man described in Mark’s Gospel had come to Ayn Rand rather than to Jesus, she would have told him to keep his money and enjoy his possessions; that he has no responsibility beyond his own self-interest.

Hers is a curiously non-ethical ethics. Historically, the task of ethics has been to balance the self-interest of the individual against the needs and interests of the community. Ethics restrains our natural selfishness. In Rand’s system selfishness is a virtue. Ghate explains:

In Rand’s argument, morality is not about subordination or service to others or to some “higher power”; it is not about self-sacrifice. Hers is a morality that upholds egoism and individualism: it seeks to teach you the difficult task of pursuing the values that achieve your own individual self-interest and happiness.

In the ethics of Ayn Rand, pursuing your own self-interest and happiness is a “difficult task.” And she believed it was “immoral” to love others more than you love yourself.

Ghate is right. We have to choose Ayn Rand or Jesus. We can’t have both.

Jesus said that the greatest commandment was to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself” (combining Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18). For Ayn Rand there is no place for God or neighbor, your only responsibility is to love yourself.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Thank You, Bishop Talbert!

Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. 19I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
Isaiah 43:18-19

A group of United Methodist clergy and lay people have sent an open letter to the Council of Bishops asking that retired Bishop Melvin G. Talbert be publicly censured for encouraging disobedience to the church’s official position on homosexuality. The letter, signed by more than seventy prominent United Methodists (almost all of them men), expresses dismay at Bishop Talbert’s remarks at a gathering outside of General Conference, and repeated at the ordination service at the California Pacific Annual (regional) Conference ordination service.

In his remarks, Bishop Talbert declared that, “The derogatory rules and restrictions in the Book of Discipline are immoral and unjust and no longer deserve our loyalty and obedience.” He said, “the time has come for those of us who are faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ to do what is required of us… . The time has come to join in an act of biblical obedience.” He called on the 1,100 clergy who have declared their willingness to disobey church law and officiate at same sex marriages or civil unions to “stand firm.”

The letter writers express their “deep concern” that Bishop Talbert has threatened the discipline and order of the church, which he is charged with upholding, “by encouraging dissension, disunity and disobedience, and advocating anarchy and chaos in response to the actions of the 2012 General Conference, taken after focused prayer, study, and holy conferencing.”

It is worth noting that almost every United Methodist who has actually read the Discipline disagrees with some part of it. And many of the letter signers are actively engaged in trying to change portions of the Discipline with which they disagree. The Discipline is not an infallible document. And it is not eternal. It is re-written every four years. It simply represents what the majority of delegates to General Conference agreed to at a given point in time.

If the Discipline is changed every four years, then we can assume that those who advocate change believe that the previous version was “wrong” in some way. Historically, most of us would agree that the Discipline has been wrong in some significant ways. It took sixty years before the Discipline opposed slavery, and it took nearly two hundred years before the Discipline endorsed the ordination of women. It took more than a hundred years before the Discipline included a Social Creed.

Today is the 49th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. I find myself thinking of Dr. King on many issues these days, but on this issue what comes to mind is the speech he gave in Montgomery in the spring of 1965. Some remember it as the “Our God Is Marching On” speech, others remember it from the repeated call and answer: “How long? Not long.”

I know you are asking today, "How long will it take?" (Speak, sir) Somebody’s asking, "How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her sacred throne?" Somebody’s asking, "When will wounded justice, lying prostrate on the streets . . . be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men?" Somebody’s asking, "When will the radiant star of hope be plunged against the nocturnal bosom of this lonely night, (Speak, speak, speak) plucked from weary souls with chains of fear and the manacles of death? How long will justice be crucified, (Speak) and truth bear it?" (Yes, sir)

I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, (Yes, sir) however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, (No sir) because "truth crushed to earth will rise again." (Yes, sir)
How long? Not long, (Yes, sir) because "no lie can live forever." (Yes, sir) . . .
How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. (Yes, sir)

I don’t know how long it will be before the United Methodist Church rights this wrong, but it will not be long. And when we finally repent of our sin (what else can we call it?), Bishop Talbert will be one of the people we need to thank.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

A Lament for Lance

Your glory, O Israel, lies slain upon your high places!
How the mighty have fallen!
I Samuel 1:19

My best bicycle is a 1999 carbon fiber Trek, painted in the colors of the U.S. Postal team. The frame is basically identical to the one Lance Armstrong rode to victory in the 1999 Tour de France.

But now it turns out he didn’t really win that race, or any of the next six Tours. He didn’t give Jan Ullrich “the look” and then just ride away on Alpe de Huez. And I assume he also didn’t get third place in a thoroughly amazing comeback a couple of years ago.

The United States Anti-Doping Agency has witnesses who will testify that he took drugs, and Armstrong has decided not to fight those charges, so USADA has declared him guilty. And his incredible records will be erased.

I read an article by a non-cycling sportswriter about how fans might be willing to forgive Armstrong, but those who competed against him might not be as generous. Which sounds plausible, except that when you review the record of second and third place finishers in those seven Tours, you find that all but one has already been involved in some sort of doping allegation. Several of them have already served suspensions.

Word is that Tyler Hamilton and George Hincapie were both willing to testify that they saw Lance use banned substances. So the most tested athlete in the history of sports, who never failed a drug test, was doping. He is guilty. I don’t think there can be any real doubt about that now. But it’s also true that USADA’s pursuit of Armstrong has been a witch hunt from the beginning. Why were they still investigating him seven years after his last Tour victory?

When they begin reassigning the Tour victories from 1999 to 2005, will they investigate those “winners” as relentlessly as they have investigated Armstrong?

Zen question of the day: Who was the last Tour de France Champion to win without doping?

Contrary to the popular perception, I don’t believe that cycling is very different from other sports. The importance of endurance does lend itself to performance enhancing drugs, but one of the big reasons that more cyclists are caught is that the testing is more stringent. And for some reason folks seem to get more upset about PED’s in cycling and track, than in other sports. When he was playing for the Patriots, Rodney Harrison tested positive for human growth hormone, and no one cared. Nobody said, as writers have said of Armstrong, that his legacy was built on a lie.

I was amazed when Armstrong decided to come out of retirement and ride in the Tour again in 2009. Knowing how zealously the anti-doping agencies had pursued him, I thought they would surely find a way to catch him at something. And when they came up empty, I believed that he had to be clean.

Sports need to be monitored for drug use. It’s the only way to protect the athletes from themselves. And it’s important to try and keep a level playing field. But at some point it should be over. The athletes are tested. They pass or they fail, and the trophies are awarded. It’s over. Disqualifying someone thirteen years after the race is just crazy.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Remembering Johnny Pesky

We are not dismayed by our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
Romans 5:3-5

Johnny Pesky was the heart and soul of Red Sox Nation. More than Ted Williams or Carl Yastrzemski, he personified the team. He was the one constant over the decades. And like so much of Red Sox history, his story is centered in one play. For most sports fans, it is the story of a mistake, but for those who look more deeply, it is a parable.

In the bottom of the eighth inning of seventh game of the 1946 World Series, the Red Sox and Cardinals were tied 3-3. The game was played in St. Louis, and the Cardinals were at bat. Enos Slaughter was on first base and Harry Walker was at the plate. Walker hit one into the gap in left centerfield. Slaughter, who was known for his speed, was already running. When Red Sox shortstop Johnny Pesky took the throw from the outfield, Slaughter had already rounded third. Pesky turned toward the infield and threw to the plate, but it was too late. Slaughter had scored, the Cardinals had the lead, and the radio announcer screamed, “Pesky held the ball! He held the ball. Johnny Pesky held the ball!”

That one play sent Enos Slaughter to the Hall of Fame and kept Johnny Pesky out. The story was that Slaughter had scored from first base on a single, because Pesky held the ball. It was a career defining moment for both men. And that one play has followed John Pesky for the nearly sixty years since then. Years later, at a football game, after a running back had committed his second fumble, someone in the stands yelled, “Give the ball to Pesky, he’ll hold onto it!” It is part of the legacy of Red Sox Nation, like Bucky Dent’s home run and Bill Buckner’s error (another guy who, except for that one play, would probably be in the Hall of Fame).

In his book, “Teammates,” David Halberstam asked Dom DiMaggio and Bobby Doerr about that play. The real story is more complicated than the legend and it tells us more about the character of Johnny Pesky than it does about his baseball skills.

The Red Sox had been trailing 3-1 in the top of the inning, when Dom DiMaggio doubled to drive in two runs and tie the score. Unfortunately, Dom pulled a hamstring running to second and had to leave the game. He was replaced by a journeyman outfielder named Leon Culberson. The change was critical, because Dom DiMaggio was the best defensive centerfielder in the American League (yes, Yankee fans, he was better than his more famous brother, Joe). Culberson was a competent player, but not at the same level as DiMaggio, and he could not match Dom’s throwing arm, which was probably the strongest in the league.

When Walker came to bat, with Slaughter on first, DiMaggio motioned frantically to Culberson from the dugout, trying to move him toward left field. Eventually, he took a step or two, but not enough. When the ball was hit, Culberson was slow to react, and threw weakly to Pesky, who had come out into the outfield to take the throw. If you watch films of the game, you’ll see Pesky turn and throw without any hesitation. But since the dominant record of the game etched in the memory of fans came from the radio announcer, that was the image that stuck. And though most people think Slaughter scored from first on a single, Walker’s hit was actually a double.

Slaughter himself said that he never would have tried to score if DiMaggio had been playing center. And when Dom was asked whether he thought he could have thrown Slaughter out, he answered with certainty, “I would have thrown him out—at third!”

Over the years, when Pesky was asked about the play, he would smile and say, “Well, I guess I must have hesitated when I looked in to the infield.” He stuck with that explanation because the alternative would have violated one of Pesky’s core principles: you never blame your teammates. He would rather take the fault himself than blame Culberson for a bad throw.

People who knew him say that Johnny Pesky was a simple guy. He didn’t spend any time wondering what should have been or could have been, or why he had to be the one to carry the blame for the loss. He considered himself lucky to have been paid to play a game. And lucky to have been a part of some great teams.

In sports, coaches and commentators will often speak of character when their teams come from behind to win the game in the last minute or the last inning, as if athletic success had an intrinsic moral quality. But when I think of character, I’ll think of John Pesky, smiling at his critics.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

After the Flood

20Then Noah built an altar to the Lord, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered burnt offerings on the altar. 21And when the Lord smelled the pleasing odor, the Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done. 22As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.”

Genesis 8:20-22

After the flood, when the dry land appeared again and Noah gave thanks for a second chance for the world, God spoke to Noah and promised that he would never again bring such destruction.

In this summer of heat and drought, we would not wish for a flood, but a few days of rain would be welcome. In the United States, we experienced the hottest July on record, breaking the mark set in 1936, in the midst of the dustbowl. It also marked the warmest 12 month period on record. Sixty-three percent of the country is experiencing drought conditions. Unless something changes radically in the next two weeks, at the end of August we will have experienced 330 consecutive months in which the average global temperature exceeded the average for the twentieth century.

The numbers are scary.

The good news, if you can call it good news, is that more people are convinced that global warming is a reality. The bad news, apart from the drought itself, is that no one seems to be seriously proposing that we should try to do something about it.

In a recent article in the New York Times, Mark Bittman writes: “Here’s what American exceptionalism means now: on a per-capita basis, we either lead or come close to leading the world in consumption of resources, production of pollutants and a profound unwillingness to do anything about it.” We remain the only industrialized nation that has not signed the Kyoto Protocol for reducing greenhouse gases.

Global warming is not a "natural disaster" and it certainly is not an "act of God." On the contrary, this is the result of an act of humanity. The writers of Genesis recorded God's promise not to destroy the world, but they could hardly have imagined that we would do it to ourselves. 

For Christians, our failure to act in the face of global warming should be profoundly troubling in at least three different ways.

First, if we understand ourselves as stewards of the gifts that God has given us, then caring for creation must be a priority. If we believe that it all belongs to God, then we have a responsibility to take care of it.

Second, we need to trust the science. That may sound to some people like the very opposite of faith, but it grows directly out of our understanding of creation as a gift. We are supposed to think and search and experiment and understand the world. Science is a gift. We should embrace it. We will seldom find unanimity, but we need to look for the broad consensus.

Third, the consequences of global warming will fall most heavily on those who have the least and are the most vulnerable. Global ecology and global justice are directly related. As the effects of global warming increase, those who have the least will lose the most. 

Friday, August 3, 2012

Chick-Fil-A and Marriage Equality

Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. 2You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak. 3Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Let Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.
I Corinthians 12:1-3

When Dan Cathy, President of Chick-Fil-A, was asked about his biblical values, he said that he was “guilty as charged.” Then, speaking directly to the issue of marriage equality, he explained, "I think we are inviting God's judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say, 'We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage,' and I pray God's mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to try to redefine what marriage is about.”

Not surprisingly, this set off a major firestorm. In Boston, Chicago, and other cities and towns, mayors and other leaders were quick to say that they did not want a Chick-Fil-A franchise opening in their neighborhoods. On the other side, Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachman and Newt Gingrich all voiced support. And Mike Huckabee declared a national “Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day” that drew large crowds of customers across the country.

Fifteen years ago I would have filed Mr. Cathy’s remarks under the heading of “Things about which faithful Christians may disagree.” But that no longer works for me. It is no longer possible for serious and thoughtful people to believe, against all of the scientific evidence, that sexual orientation is a choice. When we actually study the six or seven biblical passages on which this intolerance is based, we find that they are all problematic in one way or another. And as the late Christian Social Ethicist Walter Muelder insisted (in an address he gave at the age of 97), we can’t create a coherent ethical position by choosing a few Bible verses that seem to support our view.

Today Mr. Cathy’s remarks just make me sad.

If we look at our nation through the eyes of Jesus and the prophets, there is a long list of things that invite “God’s judgment on our nation.” But marriage equality isn’t one of them.

I am saddened by Mr. Cathy’s remarks because I know that they will encourage the bullies and bigots to believe that in some twisted way they are actually doing God’s work. Words have consequences. People will be hurt, both physically and emotionally. And I am saddened because there are many people who will think that Dan Cathy speaks for all Christians.

He thinks working for marriage equality is evidence of a “prideful, arrogant attitude.” And I think that denying civil rights to a group of citizens based on a narrow and misguided interpretation of a few verses in the Bible, and expressing that view with absolute moral certainty is the very definition of “prideful” and “arrogant.” The struggle for marriage equality is not about shaking our fists at God; it’s about basic civil rights.

Finally, I am saddened because I believe that Dan Cathy is in so many important other ways, a very good and decent person who tries to be a faithful Christian. He teaches a senior high Sunday School class. He lives by four basic practices, of worship, Bible study, prayer, and tithing. His “life verse” is Deuteronomy 6:5, “Love the LORD you God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” It’s part of the Shema, and it’s also the first half of the Great Commandment to love God and neighbor.

For better or for worse, Dan Cathy lives out his faith. I’m hoping next time it’s for better.