Thursday, December 19, 2013

Methodists Behaving Badly

A lawyer asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Matthew 22:35-40

When I logged on to AOL this evening, (I will pause now to wait for all of the tech-savvy folks to stop laughing at me for still using AOL. There, I hope that made you feel better.) across the top of the screen to the right of the “Unfolding Now” sign, it said “United Methodist Church.” Right next to “Prince William of Wales.”

I clicked on it and up popped the latest news in the ongoing story of the Rev. Frank Schaefer. He was tried and convicted in a church court for violating the Book of Discipline by officiating at the same sex wedding of his son several years ago. Today he was defrocked. Which sounds both painful and medieval. And it is. Painful and medieval.

The trial verdict had said that he would be suspended for thirty days and at the end of that time would have to declare to the Eastern Pennsylvania Board of Ordained Ministry that he would uphold the entire Discipline or else surrender his credentials.

Two quick notes on this:

First, they didn’t really mean that he had to uphold the entire Book of Discipline. They wanted him to say that he would not officiate at another same sex wedding. If he came back at the end of his thirty day suspension and confessed that he could uphold almost the whole Discipline, but he could not give up buying a lottery ticket for his elderly father on Father’s Day, I’m guessing that would have been overlooked. More seriously, if he had said that he did not agree with the Discipline’s support of unions and collective bargaining, that would not have been a deal breaker.

Second, no one supports the entire Book of Discipline. The Discipline is a big book and there is a lot in there. Universal healthcare, a woman’s right to choose abortion, gun control, just to name a few. And beyond the social issues, there are all sorts of directions about how we organize our churches, who can vote in church meetings and who can old office, which offices every local church “must” have and which ones are optional. And it changes every four years. Most of it stays the same, but some of it changes, and keeping up with the new rules is hard even for those who study it.

But Rev. Schaefer was clear in his response: “My conscience does not allow me to uphold the entire discipline because it contains discriminatory provisions and language that is hurtful and harmful to our homosexual brothers and sisters.”

So the Board of Ordained Ministry took his credentials.

Ironically, on that same AOL page that invited me to look at what was “Unfolding Now,” there was a link to the story about “Duck Dynasty” star Phil Robertson who has been suspended indefinitely by A&E for his statements condemning homosexuality in an interview with GQ. His language is sometimes crude, but basically he supports the United Methodist Discipline.


So if the United Methodist Church had a show on A&E, would we be on indefinite suspension right now?

One of our church leaders in East Greenwich is a senior executive in a national company. He spoke to me about the odd disconnect he felt knowing that at work “we are all about inclusion and diversity,” but our church is refusing to recognize the full humanity of our gay and lesbian sisters and brothers. “It just seems bizarre,” he said, “that’s a no-brainer. We’re a church, for heaven’s sake.”

We have to stop this. A year and a half ago Bishop Melvin Talbert issued what he described as a call to "Biblical Obedience" in response to the unjust and discriminatory provisions of the Book of Discipline. At each new injustice, there are Bishops and church leaders who claim that they are only “following the process,” or “upholding the Discipline.” It has to stop.

These are hurtful policies. We are hurting our LGBTQ sisters and brothers, especially our youth. We are hurting faithful Christians who are only trying to faithful. These policies undermine our witness. They hurt the church, not just the United Methodist Church, they hurt the whole church.

It is stupid. And it is unchristian.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Hope: A Passion for the Possible

So his brothers approached Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this instruction before he died, ‘Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.’ Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him. Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, “We are here as your slaves.” But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.
Genesis 50:16-21

In my childhood, the story of Joseph and his coat of many colors held a special place. The idea that his jealous brothers would throw him into a pit and then sell him into slavery was terrifying. But in the end, Joseph came out on top. He rose from slavery to be a trusted advisor to Pharaoh and a powerful leader in Egypt. He warned of a coming famine and insisted that the country should store up grain to get them through the shortfall. He saved Egypt from catastrophe, and because Egypt was able to help other nations, he basically saved the world.

Much later I learned that his “coat of many colors” was a mistranslation. What his parents really gave him was a coat “with sleeves.” The sleeves were a big deal, but a coat with sleeves is not nearly as evocative as a coat of many colors, which sounds like a rainbow flag made into a coat.

But it is still a great story. Even after we look closely and realize that Joseph did plenty to annoy his brothers, and make allowances for the unfairness of his parents’ favoritism.

The best part of the story is the ending, when his brothers come to Egypt in the midst of famine looking for food. They find out that Joseph, the brother they sold into slavery, is in charge of the disposition of the grain they need and they are terrified. They beg forgiveness and fear the worst, but Joseph is more than ready to forgive.

He has his own interpretation of what happened. His brothers intended to do him harm, but God intended that good should come out of it. “So have no fear,” says Joseph, “I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” It is a wonderful moment of grace.

I have been meditating on this story as I think about the church trial this week in Pennsylvania. Rev. Frank Schaefer’s clergy brothers and sisters did not sell him into slavery for celebrating the same sex wedding of his son, but they did throw him into a (metaphorical) pit. Bishop Peggy Johnson of Eastern Pennsylvania seemed intent on making sure the pit was a deep one with a letter which seemed to clearly indicate her intent to uphold the actions of the trial court.

But that was not the last word.

Joseph’s gracious declaration that by God’s grace an evil intent had led to a good result came back to me as I read a pastoral letter from Bishop Sally Dyck of Illinois. It is an impassioned plea for love and inclusion.

A colleague called it too little and too late, but I don’t think so.

The trial has been a public relations disaster. We don’t need secular critics to show the world that Christians (United Methodist Christians) can be petty, judgmental, and toxic, we are eager to do it ourselves. Our Wesleyan theology, which has always been more about grace than judgment, was turned upside down. And our claims of “Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors.”, look foolish and hypocritical.

But I see hope.

I see hope in the outrage of folks who were once silent and can no longer keep still about a policy that is self-destructive, anti-Christian and just plain hateful in its implementation. I see hope in the bishops who have been silent for so long, and are now speaking out.

At the end of his autobiography, William Sloane Coffin, Jr. writes:

"I am hopeful. By this, I mean that hope, as opposed to cynicism and despair, is the sole precondition for a new and better life. Realism demands pessimism. But hope demands that we take a dark view of the present only because we hold a bright view of the future, and hope arouses, as nothing else can arouse, a passion for the possible."

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Majoring in the Minors

So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.
Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

I John 4:16-21

As soon as we hear the words, “Church Trial,” we know we are in a strange place. It echoes of the Inquisition and the Salem Witch Trials. In a time when our culture is increasingly secular, this is one more piece of evidence that the church is irrelevant at best and toxic at worst.

As United Methodists, we tend to think of ourselves as fairly modern folk. We are practical and pragmatic and down to earth. We’re not strong on doctrine, but we are big on tolerance. The John Wesley theme verse is “God is love.” We believe in grace over judgment. We build hospitals and universities. Our slogan is “Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors.” We like to think that we are inclusive.

So the very idea of a church trial sounds wrong to us.

But here we are. The Rev. Frank Schaefer was convicted this week of officiating at the wedding of his gay son in Massachusetts in 2007. We are in the news all over the place. And that’s not a good thing.

I won’t go into the odd structure of church polity and unlikely coalitions that has led us to this sad spot, but this is where we are and we need to find a way out.

Few of us were surprised when the jury of thirteen clergy from Eastern Pennsylvania found Rev. Schaefer guilty of violating the Discipline by officiating at the wedding. But most of us were shocked by the penalty. He will be suspended for thirty days. That in itself is not a big deal. But this is how Bishop Peggy Johnson states what happens after the suspension:

“If at the end of 30 days, Rev. Schaefer has determined that he cannot uphold the Church’s Discipline in its entirety, he must surrender his credentials.”

If it were not so serious, it would really be quite amusing. If you have read even part of the Book of Discipline, then you already know that there is no one who “uphold(s) the Church’s Discipline it its entirety.” There is a lot in there. The Discipline supports gun control, unions and collective bargaining, a woman’s right to an abortion, and the United Nations. It is against war, gambling, torture, and the death penalty. Beyond the big and controversial issues, there are hundreds of rules about how we do our business. Most of us can find something in there that we do not want to “uphold.”

But of course they don’t care whether he supports the Discipline in its entirety. They only care about one thing. Will he promise not to celebrate another same sex wedding?

The great Methodist preacher of the mid-twentieth century Henry Hitt Crane used to call this “majoring in the minors.”

Do we really believe excluding gay people is the big issue of our time? Is this where Christian faith rises or falls?

I often get smiles and snickers when I explain the United Methodist position on gambling. And it is hard to see the connection between the social harm of gambling addictions and a church raffle. But at least we don’t conduct any church trials over raffles.

I used to think that maybe in the not too distant future we would look back on all of this foolishness and have a good laugh. But that’s not going to happen. When we look back we will be in tears. We will weep for the lives we have damaged, the people we have hurt, and the incalculable damage we have done to our Christian witness.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Equal Rights, Equal Marriage and the United Methodist Church

“And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
Luke 18:7-8

In October of 1960 Melvin Talbert was a seminary student in Atlanta, Georgia, and a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Atlanta to participate with the students in the first sit-in demonstrations in the city, and he was arrested with them. They spent three days and three nights together in a jail cell. Talbert said that event was one of the formative experiences of his life.

This past October, Bishop Talbert traveled from his home in Nashville to Center Point, Alabama, near Birmingham, to celebrate the wedding of Joe Openshaw and Bobby Prince. The two men were legally married in Washington, D.C., but they wanted a Christian wedding. And they asked Bishop Talbert to officiate because of his support for the rights of LGBT persons, especially within the United Methodist Church.

For Bishop Talbert, the sit-in and the wedding are related. In both cases it is about civil rights.

Before he went to Alabama to preside at the wedding, Bishop Talbert notified Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett, resident bishop of the North Alabama Conference, of his plans. She responded by requesting that he not perform the ceremony in the area where she serves. She consulted with Bishop Rosemarie Wenner, president of the Council of Bishops, and Bishop Wenner convened the Executive Committee of the Council of Bishops. The Executive Committee issued a statement requesting that Bishop Talbert not officiate at the wedding. They reminded Bishop Talbert that, “The bishops of the church are bound together in a covenant and all ordained elders are committed to uphold the Book of Discipline.” They also pointed out that, "Conducting ceremonies which celebrate homosexual unions; or performing same-sex wedding ceremonies" are chargeable offenses in the United Methodist Church (¶2702.1.b).

There are deep ironies in this.

It is not that long ago that this same Book of Discipline, to which Bishops Wenner and Wallace-Padgett give allegiance, prevented women from being ordained, let alone becoming bishops in the church.

The Discipline is an imperfect evolving document. It did not condemn slavery until 1844, when what was then the “Methodist Episcopal Church” split and the “Methodist Episcopal Church South” became a separate denomination, which tolerated the institution of slavery. When the two denominations reunited in 1939, provision was made for a separate “Central Conference,” where African-American churches were segregated from white churches. And that segregation was approved until 1968.

The Discipline is revised every four years at what we call a “General Conference” that brings together representatives from United Methodist conferences around the world. The language on homosexuality will change soon. Maybe in 2016. Probably no later than 2020.

As the Council of Bishops likes to remind us, we are a world wide church. On this issue the African bishops stand against any change because they fear that if they do not maintain a strong opposition to homosexuality it will put them at a disadvantage in their cultural struggles with Islam and Islamic fundamentalists. If the church is to hold together there will have to be some sort of compromise that allows for the different cultural realities in Africa and North America while still affirming basic human rights.

In the meantime, the Council of Bishops, after meeting this week, called on Bishops Wenner and Wallace-Padgett to file charges against Bishop Talbert.

In explaining their actions, the bishops said that, “The purpose of the Council of Bishops is to lead the church in its mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Did anyone laugh at the irony of that statement? How can we transform the world if we cannot transform the church? It would be more accurate to say that their purpose is to lead the church in maintaining the status quo. And let’s be honest, making disciples of Jesus Christ and maintaining the status quo are mutually exclusive.

The bishops did take a step forward by publicly acknowledging that the church is not of one mind on this issue, and that the Council of Bishops is not of one mind. They go on to note that “pain exists throughout the connection, including persons who support Bishop Talbert’s actions and persons who object to them.” What they fail to say is that the pain is not equal. The pain felt by those who are excluded is not the same as the pain felt by those who want to do the excluding and feel like their ability to exclude is being eroded.

After telling the parable of the widow who pleads for justice from an unjust judge, Jesus asks, “will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?” Bishop Talbert lived out that parable when he was arrested with Dr. King, and he has lived it out again more than fifty years later in confronting his colleagues on the Council of Bishops. The good news is that ultimately, he knows how the story will end.

The complete statement from the Council of Bishops is printed below:


On October 26, 2013, retired Bishop Melvin Talbert conducted a ceremony celebrating the marriage of a same-gender couple in Center Point, Alabama. Prior to October 26, 2013 Bishop Talbert advised Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett, resident bishop of the North Alabama Conference, of his intention. Bishop Wallace-Padgett requested that Bishop Talbert not perform the ceremony in the area in which she serves. After conversation with Bishop Wallace-Padgett, Bishop Rosemarie Wenner, president of the Council of Bishops, engaged the Executive Committee of the Council of Bishops in a discussion about the proposed action. On October 21, 2013, the Executive Committee issued a statement requesting Bishop Talbert not to perform the ceremony in Bishop Wallace-Padgett’s area.

They said, in part,

“The bishops of the church are bound together in a covenant and all ordained elders are committed to uphold the Book of Discipline. "Conducting ceremonies which celebrate homosexual unions; or performing same-sex wedding ceremonies" are chargeable offenses in the United Methodist Church (¶2702.1.b).

The actions of Bishop Talbert raise considerable concerns and have stimulated much conversation, reflection, and prayer among the members of the Council of Bishops. The Council recognizes the deep divisions and pain in our church over these issues. United Methodists are not of one mind, and followers of Christ and people of conscience hold conflicting views. These issues require continuing honest and respectful conversation as well as prayer throughout the church.

The purpose of the Council of Bishops is to lead the church in its mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. To that end, bishops are also required to “uphold the discipline and order of the Church…..and to share with other bishops in the oversight of the whole church.” (Para 403.1.f) When there are violations of the Book of Discipline, a response is required. However, the General Conference has given the Council of Bishops limited authority for the task of holding one another accountable. Such authority and accountability resides in the College of Bishops and the Jurisdiction or Central Conference Committees on Episcopacy. (Paragraph 413.and Paragraph 403.1.f)

Therefore, the Council of Bishops, after much prayer and conversation, takes the following actions:

We acknowledge that we, the Council of Bishops, and the Church are not of one mind in matters of human sexuality; pain exists throughout the connection, including persons who support Bishop Talbert’s actions and persons who object to them. We express our pastoral concern and care for all people.

We affirm the October 21, 2013 action of the Executive Committee which requested that Bishop Talbert not conduct a ceremony celebrating the marriage of a same gender couple in the North Alabama area.

We respectfully request that Bishop Wenner, President of the Council of Bishops, and Bishop Wallace-Padgett, Resident Bishop of the North Alabama Conference, address the action of Bishop Talbert and file a complaint under the provisions of Paragraph 413 for undermining the ministry of a colleague (Paragraph 2702.1f) and conducting a ceremony to celebrate the marriage of a same gender couple (Paragraph 2702.1b) within the bounds of the North Alabama Conference.

We recommend that the Executive Committee initiate a task force to lead honest and respectful conversations regarding human sexuality, race and gender in a world-wide perspective in our shared commitment to clear theological understanding of the mission and polity of the United Methodist Church.

As a Council of Bishops, we affirm the theological task articulated in the Book of Discipline (Paragraph 105, page 87). “United Methodists as a diverse people continue to strive for consensus in understanding the gospel. In our diversity, we are held together by a shared inheritance and a common desire to participate in the creative and redemptive activity of God. Our task is to articulate a vision in a way that will draw us together as a people in Mission….. We proceed with our theological task, trusting that the Spirit will grant us wisdom to continue our journey with the whole people of God.”

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

What Kind of a Church Are We?

“Woe to you hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” 
Matthew 23:27-28

Pastor Frank Schaefer of the Zion United Methodist Church in Iona, Pennsylvania will go on trial next month for officiating at his son’s same-sex wedding in Massachusetts six years ago. His actions almost slipped past the six year statute of limitations which the United Methodist Church has for such offenses, but a parishioner filed charges just before the clock ran out.

Our United Methodist Discipline (a book of by-laws) prohibits pastors from officiating at same sex marriages or blessing same sex relationships.

This isn’t the Inquisition. The worst case scenario for Pastor Frank is that he will lose his clergy credentials. But it’s bad enough.

Over the past few weeks, many of my colleagues have posted Facebook links to vigils for Pastor Frank or stories about the church trial. In response, someone asked, “What kind of a church puts people on trial?"

And that is the key question. What kind of a church are we? Or maybe more accurately, what kind of a church do we look like?

I could give a long explanation about United Methodist polity and the function of church trials in protecting the rights of clergy from overzealous bishops and district superintendents, but that really isn’t the point.

Pastor Frank’s son Tim came out in 2000, after contemplating suicide because his years of praying had not changed his sexuality, and he feared that he would be ostracized by his family and his faith community. Rev. Schaefer chose to affirm his son by officiating at his wedding, and now he is on trial for that.

As the political commentators like to say, the optics are not good.

Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, an outspoken opponent of equal marriage, told a reporter, “Sadly, our church is once again being led down the path of a costly and divisive trial by a pastor who chose to disregard the prayerful and consistent teaching of our church that Christian marriage is the holy union of one man and one woman. As a father, I share Rev. Schaefer’s desire to affirm his son, but there are ways of doing so that do not require a pastor to break the Discipline and the covenant that all United Methodist pastors agree to uphold.”

I can only imagine what a wonderful affirmation that would be.

Even if we don’t care about the civil rights issues, and even if we assume that Tim Schaefer would have gotten over his disappointment if his father had refused to officiate at his wedding, this would still be very bad.

I am a United Methodist for lots of very good reasons. I believe in John Wesley’s theology of grace and his emphasis on practical spirituality. But this is the church at its worst. It makes us look stupid or irrelevant, or both.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Crying Babies and the Government Shutdown

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might bless them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
Mark 10:13-16

One Sunday morning, in my first year out of seminary, my Sunday sermon was interrupted by a crying baby. I paused and waited for the noise to subside. Almost as soon as I began to speak, the crying started up again. I looked over in annoyance, hoping that look would convince the mom to take her little one to the nursery. After a third interruption, I stopped and looked over and said, politely I thought, that we had a nursery and maybe the little one would be better off there.

After worship Elaine and I went to lunch with Percy and Mary Patriquin. They took us to lunch every Sunday for the two years we were in Mansfield. Their son was a Methodist minister teaching at a college in the mid-west, and they felt a special need to care for young clergy. At those lunches we talked about all sorts of things, but they never ever talked about church business, except after the crying baby incident.

Mary leaned across the table and spoke softly. “I remember years ago when Mr. Jones was the minister, there was a baby crying in church and the mother was so embarrassed she got up to leave, and he said, ‘You don’t have to leave, I have four children at home. If I can’t preach over one baby, then I just can’t preach.’ And so she sat back down and he continued his sermon.” Mary sat back in her seat and smiled. “So,” she said, “what shall we have for dinner?”

I didn’t much care what the preacher with the four kids said, but Mary’s gentle reproach was compelling. At the age of eighty, she still empathized with the young mom. Mary passed away many years ago, but whenever a baby cries in worship, I think of her.

I thought of Mary Patriquin when I read a recent blog about crying babies in church. The writer told of attending a conference where the speaker interrupted his sermon to ask that a noisy infant be taken out of the sanctuary. The blogger was of the opinion that “the crying baby test” separated preachers from performers. Those who cannot tolerate the occasional crying infant are not really preachers; they are performers.

My own view is that preaching is always a performance. It is more than a performance, of course, but a good performance brings the message alive.

This morning I find myself reflecting on how odd it is that we should worry about babies crying in church, when they are tired, or bored, or hungry, or just want to be noticed.

Hungry babies in church are inconvenient. But this morning I am thinking about hungry babies who have no food. One of the casualties of the government shutdown is the program for Women, Infants and Children known as WIC. According to an article by Clare O’Connor, a staff writer for Forbes Magazine, 9 million moms and babies are at risk across the country.

She quotes Mary Saunders, who oversees the WIC program for Chicago and Cook County:

“America is not realizing how many low-income pregnant women and children we have in this country,” she said. “They have no safety net. These women are trying to have a healthy pregnancy, and they’re asking, ‘how am I going to feed my family?’ It’s a terrifying moment, and it’s beyond my control. At our agency, we have no cushion. If our funding stream stops we will temporarily suspend service.”

Judie Fedie, a staffer in Wisconsin, says that she is worried about many things, but at the top of the list is support for women who are breastfeeding. A can of formula costs $15 in her area and she worries that if women have trouble breastfeeding, they will have to make some painful choices. Fedie explains, “Small town America doesn’t have a lot of these resources,” she said. “Our WIC clinics are the first places women will go. We have hospital breast pumps here. We have support for babies with special needs. These aren’t available easily in some communities.”

“There are health consequences when mothers cannot provide food and nutrition for their kids,” said Rev. Douglas Greenaway of the National WIC Association, a non-profit. “There’ll be no infant formula and no breastfeeding support. If the baby doesn’t latch, that’s it.”

The blog I mentioned earlier argued that if one is a preacher rather than a performer, he or she should be able to preach in spite of the occasional crying baby. But there are other babies crying, beyond our sanctuaries, and their cries really should interrupt our preaching.

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Bible and the Problem of Literalism

God has made us ministers of a new covenant, 
not of letter but of spirit;
for the letter kills, but the spirit gives life.

II Corinthians 3:6

Recently, a woman from Georgia wrote a letter to United Methodist Insight, an online journal of news and commentary, to protest the promotion of literalism in United Methodist Churches. In the letter, she writes:

As Methodists, we vow to support the Methodist Church. Doesn't that support include teaching and preaching that which is in harmony with the Discipline and John Wesley's teaching? Why aren't preachers who call Holy Scriptures the Word of God and who dismiss reason brought before the Judicial Council? I can understand members being confused and mistakenly calling The Bible The Word of God and promoting the litany "The Word of God for the People of God. Praise be to God" after Bible readings. I can't understand why the clergy either remains silent or actively encourages those statements and ideas.

She contends that calling the Bible “the Word of God” and “dismissing reason is destroying the very core of Methodism.” Literalism, she argues, “leads to a deep pit of ignorance and radicalism.”

As any student of the Bible knows, from a biblical perspective, the biggest problem with literalism is not that it dismisses reason, (although that can be a huge problem) but that it is unbiblical. When the biblical writers speak of other passages in the Bible, they interpret them symbolically and theologically rather than literally. The Bible is about meaning; not history or science. The Bible is about deep things of the spirit, and literalism means swimming in the shallow end of the pool.

The woman from Georgia is clearly right in her basic points. Literalism is a menace. And reason is “the very core of Methodism.” The great Methodist preachers of the twentieth century, Henry Hitt Crane, Ernest Freemont Tittle, Harold Bosley, Halford Luccock, and a host of others, would be appalled to see the ways in which biblical literalism has displaced reason in many of our United Methodist churches, and in Protestantism generally.

Her letter also contains a mistake which is highly instructive; one which pastors and worship leaders should take seriously.

She assumes that preachers who call the Bible “the Word of God” are endorsing biblical literalism. But when we call the Bible the Word of God, we do not mean that it is literally “the words of God.” We mean that it is inspired.

Ironically, our letter writer takes the “Word of God” statement literally, when it is meant to be taken symbolically.

When the liturgist concludes the reading of scripture and says, “The Word of God for the people of God,” and the congregation responds by saying, “Thanks be to God,” that is not an affirmation of biblical literalism. But the problem is that to many of those in the congregation it sounds like an endorsement of biblical literalism.

For many years I did not believe this. I was sure that “everybody” knew that when we used that litany we were giving thanks for the inspiration of the Bible, not declaring it to be inerrant or meant as “literal” truth.

Eventually on a study retreat a colleague convinced of what my wife, Elaine, had been telling me for decades: “People don’t think that means what you think it means.”

Now, after the Bible is read, the leader says, “As we hear what the Spirit says to the church,” and the people respond, “May our hearts be open.”

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Lord, When Was It that You Were on Food Stamps?

“Then the Lord will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Matthew 25:41-46

Last night I was at an emergency meeting for Project Outreach, a community service organization based at The Open Table of Christ United Methodist Church in Providence. Project Outreach is the largest single food distribution program in Rhode Island. In a typical month they distribute over 20,000 pounds of food to 450 unduplicated families. This includes 1400 individuals and about 200 visits per week. In addition to food distribution, Project Outreach also works with partners to provide medical care, job training, life skills, and advocacy.

The meeting, like many of our meetings, was focused on money. Compared to the work that gets done and the people who are helped, the budget is tiny, less than $75,000 per year. But raising money is never easy and raising money to feed poor people is particularly challenging, and we are behind. Way behind. Reluctantly, we had to make reductions in our staffing. The reductions will not balance the budget, but they will slow the flow of red ink.

This morning, I received an urgent message from Bread for the World, alerting me to a plan now before congress to cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, SNAP, formerly known as Food Stamps, by $40 billion over the next decade.

According to Bread for the World, this will mean:
  • Across the country, 2 to 4 million adults without dependents would lose benefits. SNAP already has strict work requirements but this proposal would require individuals to find work at times when jobs are scarce. 
  • Nearly 2 million more people, primarily seniors and those in low-income working families, would lose benefits due to changes in eligibility rules. 
  • In 2011, private churches and charities provided approximately $4 billion in food assistance, compared to $98 billion provided by federal nutrition programs. Churches and charities would have to nearly double their current food assistance to make up the difference
Lately it seems that Congress seldom lacks for bad ideas, but this is one of the worst. Food Stamps are good for the country in at least three ways. First, they reduce hunger and provide a modest safety net in a time of economic uncertainty displacement. Second, they stimulate the economy. One of the reasons that the current recession has not been worse is that government subsidies like Food Stamps have helped to limit the drop in consumer demand, which stimulates the economy. And Food Stamps are a particularly effective stimulus, since we know that they will be spent and the money will go back into the economy. Some estimates show that every dollar spent on Food Stamps stimulates a boost to the economy of $1.73, far more than the estimated gain of $1.23 from tax cuts. Finally, Food Stamps help the country by helping children grow into healthier adults who will contribute to society.

Food Stamps are, almost literally, the best thing since sliced bread.

But beyond all of that, for Christians this is a no-brainer.

Matthew tells us that in one of his last public appearances before his crucifixion, Jesus told a parable of judgment. The message was simple. We will meet Christ in “the least of these,” the homeless, the hungry, the sick, and the imprisoned. And we will be judged by how we treat those who are suffering.

The House of Representatives will vote soon. If you want to influence that vote you can go to the Bread for the World website and use their convenient link to contact your representative.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Why Do We Hate Poor People?

My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?
James 2:1-7

Why do we hate poor people?

Seriously. Maybe hate is too strong a word, but it’s a visceral reaction.

A friend posted an article from The Atlantic by Eric Schnureraug titled, “Just How Wrong Is Conventional Wisdom About Government Fraud?” A summary at the top of the article said, “Entitlement programs, from food stamps to Medicare, don't see unusually high cheating rates -- and the culprits are usually managers and executives, not ‘welfare queens.’”

The article does not break new ground. Anyone who has been paying attention probably knows that the government has made great progress in reducing the fraud in food stamps and other benefits to poor people, and that the bigger fraud issues are at higher levels.

Schnureraug concludes:

“For the most part, fraud isn’t the product of scheming low-income beneficiaries … living high on the hog on your dime, but rather someone other than the beneficiary standing to make a buck off it. Medicare and Medicaid fraud is largely committed not by patients -- very few people are trying to rip off taxpayers to obtain unneeded spinal taps or root canals -- but by providers: unscrupulous (or sometimes just incompetent) doctors and hospitals billing for procedures the patient didn't need or didn't receive."

Again, not surprising.

If we know that most of the fraud is not at the bottom of the food chain, why has the government been working so hard to eliminate fraud at that level? Of course, fraud is wrong at every level, but that begs the question. Why are we so focused on fraud committed by poor people?

Years ago, before the advent of electronic transfers and debit cards, when Food Stamps were given out at coupons, it was very obvious when someone used them at the grocery store. I can remember standing in line behind someone using the coupons and looking at what was being purchased. Was she buying potato chips? If he needs Food Stamps, how can he afford cigarettes? I can also remember that when I would catch myself unconsciously judging the stranger in front of me and turn aside, I would quickly find that my eyes were not the only ones focused on a stranger’s purchases.

One of the key lessons of modern life is that when we read articles on line we should not read the comments. It makes no difference what the article is about. We should never read the comments. Never.

But of course I did read the comments on the Atlantic article. Although the article was nuanced and discussed many types of public and private fraud, and suggested several steps that could be taken to reduce fraud, the comments were almost all very narrowly focused on fraud committed by poor people.

Many of the comments shared a common theme. One writer declared:

“I object to giving money to people that WON'T work. I object to paying for their health care and their groceries. I object to politicians who buy votes by providing welfare for scumbag loafers.

“Here's an idea: when we wrote the constitution we screwed up. We give the vote to people that have no stake in making the system work. We should thus limit the vote to tax payers and veterans. Let the scumbag loafers starve.”

If pressed, I’m sure the writer would say that he does not hate poor people, he hates lazy people. According to the article, the best estimate is that fraud committed by Food Stamp beneficiaries amounts to about one percent of the total. It is amazing how much energy we invest in trying to reform that one percent.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Bigotry, Homophobia and the Olympics

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”
Matthew 7:12

Have you seen any of the videos of gay Russians being beaten and abused because they are gay? You might assume that the videos were posted by gay activists to expose the brutality, but you would be wrong. They were posted by Russian vigilantes trying to terrorize their gay sisters and brothers. It’s frightening stuff.

The videos and the anti-gay mobs that have gathered to suppress every demonstration of opposition to the new law against “propaganda” supporting “non-traditional sexual relations” provide clear evident that the critics are right when they say that the new law is basically government sanctioned homophobia.

The measure was signed into law by President Vladimir Putin in June with overwhelming support from the Russian legislature, the Russian Orthodox Church, and the Russian people. Not surprisingly, it has set off a wave of international criticism, particularly in relationship to the Winter Olympics, to be held in Sochi, next February.

The controversy has cast a long shadow over the world track and field championships, held this week. Some athletes have spoken out against the law. Nick Symonds, an American runner, dedicated his silver medal in the 800 meters to gay friends. Swedish high-jumper Emma Green Tegaro painted her fingernails in rainbow colors as a symbol of her opposition to the law and her support for LGBT rights.

But the spotlight shined brightest on a high profile Russian athlete who spoke out in support of the new law. Yelena Isinbayeva, who won her third world championship in the pole vault this week, declared her support for the law and appealed to athletes from other nations to respect her country’s views on homosexuality.

“It’s unrespectful to our country,” she said at a news conference. “It’s unrespectful to our citizens because we are Russians. Maybe we are different than European people, than other people from different lands. We have our law, which everyone has to respect.” The law, she said, reflects the culture of the Russian people. “It’s my opinion also,” she said. And then she went on to say, “You know, to do all this stuff on the street, we are very afraid about our nation, because we consider ourselves like normal, standard people. We just live boys with women, and women with boys.”

“When we arrive to different cultures, we try to follow their rules,” She explained. “We are not trying to set our rules over there. We just try to be respectable. And also we ask everyone to be respectful to our place, to our culture, to our people.”

It is an interesting argument: You respect the rules in my country and I will respect the rules in your country. Respect our culture just as you would want us to respect your culture.

There is a place for cultural relativism. But this isn’t it. The respect for diverse cultural customs and institutions does not extend to bigotry and persecution. When Jesus told us to treat others the way we would want them to treat us, he was not suggesting that we should have a mutual tolerance for each other’s bigotry.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

What the Pope Said, and What He Didn't Say

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. 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 7:1-5

The Protestant fascination with the Pope is not unlike the American fascination with the British Royal Family. We separated for good reasons, and we have no desire to go back, but we love to watch from a distance.

With the Pope, it is more than a celebrity fixation. Though he does not lead the whole church, he does lead a substantial part of it. We are part of the same family, and his leadership makes a difference in how the world experiences Christianity.

Pope Francis has been a breath of fresh air in so many wonderful ways. He has re-focused Roman Catholicism on critical issues of economic and social justice and away from a fixation on sexuality, contraception, abortion, and homosexuality.

Earlier this week he held an informal press conference on the papal plane as he flew from Rio de Janiero back to Rome. And he made a remarkable statement. Speaking of the possibility of having gay men in the priesthood, he said, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” . . . . “The tendency [to homosexuality] is not the problem … They’re our brothers.”

The statement itself did not really break new ground. He was talking about celibate priests, and he was separating homosexual tendencies from homosexual acts. Being gay is not the problem; the problem is homosexual acts.

Those of us in the United Methodist Church are painfully aware of this line of reasoning in which we are supposed to “hate the sin, but love the sinner.” In our denomination, there is no prohibition against gays and lesbians becoming pastors as long as they are celibate. If you agree with our Book of Discipline that the practice of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching,” and you believe that homosexual acts are intrinsically sinful, then this makes perfect sense. If you are in favor of the inclusion of gays and lesbians as whole persons, then that position is deeply offensive.

If the entirety of his position on homosexuality were really caught in the statement, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” it would have been an astonishing break with previous Roman Catholic teaching. Sadly, that was not the case.

But the most important thing was not what he said, it was the way that he said it. After delivering his conciliatory and inclusive remarks regarding the possibility of gay men in the priesthood, he did not immediately qualify those remarks so that no one could think he was making a broader statement. He spoke with openness and candor. He made a positive statement without adding a negative qualifier. And he did clearly and intentionally differentiate homosexuality and pedophilia. That is no small thing.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Stars May Lie, But the Numbers Never Do

Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress;
my eye wastes away from grief, my soul and body also.
For my life is spent with sorrow,
and my years with sighing;
my strength fails because of my misery,
and my bones waste away.

Psalm 31:9-10

I am not in mourning. In spite of what I have seen, my eyes are not wasting away from grief. But they should be. And we should all be grieving for our nation.

Over the past few days I have seen dozens of internet postings about Marissa Alexander, a Florida woman who was sentenced to twenty years in prison for firing what she called “warning shots” over her husband’s head. Her husband had a history of domestic violence and she fired the shots after a violent altercation. No one was killed. There were no injuries.

It took the jury less than 15 minutes to find her guilty.

Ms. Alexander is black. But you knew that already, didn’t you?

There are issues with Marissa Alexander’s case. But the broad outlines are hard to ignore. George Zimmerman is “not guilty.” Trayvon Martin is dead. And Marissa Alexander is in prison, while her husband with a history of domestic violence is alive and well.

Racism has been called America’s “original sin” and it is still with us.

We don’t need to argue the specifics of the Trayvon Martin case. On the face of it, it looks bad. But it is just one case. This one case is significant only because of the broader trends. If we look up rates of incarceration, sentencing, capital punishment, unemployment, income, education, or pretty much anything else, what we find is that black people are disproportionately on the disadvantaged side of the ledger every single time. We would like to believe that justice is blind but the statistics say otherwise.

To paraphrase Mary Chapin Carpenter, "The pundits and politicians may lie, but the numbers never do."

In the aftermath of George Zimmerman’s acquittal a white person commented that white people had not rioted after the O. J. Simpson verdict, when a black man was found “not guilty” in the murder of a white woman, and that black people should show similar restraint. And, of course, we should all show restraint. And, so far, things have been relatively calm.

But seriously, O J. Simpson? That’s a great first example. Now we will all wait patiently for the second example.

What the Simpson verdict proved is that money makes a difference. And that in some cases, class may matter more than race.

In the recent court rulings on affirmative action, someone cynically observed that colleges and universities were more comfortable with defining diversity in terms of race rather than class. Racial diversity could be achieved by focusing affirmative action on income. If a colleges and universities achieved economic diversity, they would also achieve racial diversity without ever considering race as a category. Lower income blacks and whites would all benefit. But the present focus on racial diversity allows the colleges to select students from families with higher incomes, regardless of race. And the big gain for the colleges is that such a selection costs less in terms of financial aid.

We know that racism is still a problem in America. We don’t know whether or not George Zimmerman is a racist. The evidence is mixed. We don’t know whether or not the judge, and the jurors and the police officers are racists. But we know that racism is a problem in America. And we know that we have work to do.

We also know one more thing with a reasonable certainty. If George Zimmerman had not had a gun, then no one would be dead. Without a gun he would not have followed Trayvon Martin and the altercation between them would never have taken place. And without a gun, Marissa Alexander would not be in prison. She was not in danger when she fired the warning shots.

Maybe we need to do something about the guns.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Wimbledon: Lessons in Parenting, Sexism, and Torment

Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah’s eyes were delicate, but Rachel was graceful and beautiful. Jacob loved Rachel; so he said, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.”
Genesis 29:16-18

In the NRSV, Leah’s eyes are called lovely, but the Hebrew is uncertain. In the Common English Bible they translate it as “delicate,” with a note that maybe she had poor eyesight. The New English Bible says that her eyes were “dull.” But there was no doubt about Rachel, she was beautiful and graceful.

Jacob fell in love with Rachel as soon as he saw her. He struck a deal with her father, Laban, and agreed to work for him for seven years in return for permission to marry her. But Laban, trying to be a good father, did not want his older daughter embarrassed by having her younger sister married first, so Laban tricked Jacob into marrying Leah. And he made Jacob work an additional seven years for Rachel. So Jacob had two wives and “he loved Rachel more than Leah.”

I thought about Rachel and Leah when I read the story of BBC radio announcer John Inverdale’s comments about Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli.

In the introduction to Bartoli’s final match against Sabine Lisicki, who was favored, Inverdale asked the audience, "Do you think Bartoli's dad told her when she was little 'You're never going to be a looker? You'll never be a Sharapova, so you have to be scrappy and fight'."

If I can speak for the dads out there, the answer is, “No, I don’t think Marion Bartoli’s dad told her when she was little that she was never going to be a looker.”

When she was asked about the remarks at a press briefing after the match, Bartoli seemed unfazed. "It doesn't matter, honestly. I am not blonde, yes. That is a fact," she said. Have I dreamt about having a model contract? No. I'm sorry. But have I dreamed about winning Wimbledon? Absolutely, yes."

The next day she took “being a good sport” to intergalactic levels when she suggested that Inverdale might revise his remarks if he saw her at the champions dinner. “I invite him to come to see me in my dress and high heels tonight at the tournament ball,” she said. “It could change his mind.”

But seriously. This is very bad.

There are at least two things going on here.

The first is sexism. Women are always judged by their appearance. Women are always judged by their appearance. It makes no difference if you are a Wimbledon champion or Secretary of State. And the comments can get ugly in a hurry. It is boorish at best, but it often descends into a form of bullying. On Twitter, the first reactions to Inverdale’s comments were critical, but there was soon another wave of vulgarity and sexual slurs.

The sexism is important and we should not dismiss it lightly, but there is something else going on here. The truth is that we find it very difficult to get beyond our fixation with appearances. It is worse with women, much worse, but it is true with men also.

When psychologists show us pictures of people we don’t know and ask us to imagine the characteristics of those people, we imagine that the attractive people are friendlier and have more integrity than those who are less attractive. We are more likely to vote for attractive candidates and hire attractive workers.

Our prejudice in this regard is never harmless and we will probably never get over it. But if we are aware of our tendency we may be able to mitigate it. And at a deeper level, there may be lessons we can learn.

In Stephen Vincent Benet’s epic poem about the Civil War, he portrays Abraham Lincoln in the telegraph office of the War Department waiting for word on the Battle of Antietam, reflecting on the will of God, the suffering of war, and freeing the slaves. In Benet’s telling, Lincoln sees his strength as the ability to wait patiently and to persevere as history unfolds.

That is my only virtue as I see it,
Ability to wait and hold my own
And keep my own resolves once they are made
In spite of what the smarter people say.
I can’t be smart the way that they are smart.
I’ve known that since I was an ugly child.
It teaches you–to be an ugly child.

Friday, June 28, 2013

What We Have Lost

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Luke 4:16-21

I am often struck by the distance between Jesus and the religion that bears his name. Our harmless, domesticated Jesus, committed to the normalcy of civilization, the preservation of privilege and the maintenance of the status quo has little in common with the radical prophet we meet in the Gospels. Christianity has marginalized and silenced him in ways that Pilate and Herod, and the Roman Empire could only dream about.

As we contemplate the fallout from the recent Supreme Court decision on same sex marriage, it is clear that one of the biggest losers is Christianity.

The problem is not the decision. As followers of Jesus, we might have hoped for a more sweeping affirmation of the rights of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, but the decision moved us in the right direction. The problem is that along the way, Christianity became identified with some of the ugliest and most bigoted arguments against the civil rights of gays and lesbians.

To be fair, identifying Christianity with the “anti-gay” side of this argument is largely a creation of the media. When the television folks look at this issue they often pair a gay activist (who may or may not be a person of faith) with an opponent of same sex marriage who self-identifies as a Christian. Ordinary mainstream Christians are generally ignored by the media. Opponents of same sex marriage almost always say they are against it because they are Christians. Supporters do not as often cite their faith as a reason for their support. But fairly or not, the perception is there.

When young people outside the church are asked what they think of when they think of Christianity, they come up with words like, “judgmental,” “hypocritical,” “narrow-minded,” “intolerant,” and “anti-scientific.”

How did we get so far from the Kingdom of God? Jesus called us to join with God in creating a place where “the hungry are filled with good things, and the rich are sent away empty,” “where the last shall be first and the first shall be last,” where the poor and marginalized have security and dignity, where we love our enemies and put the needs of others before our own. Instead, those who call themselves Christians seem determined to live in the cramped darkness of their own self-righteousness.

A century ago Walter Rauschenbusch called on the church to embrace the Social Gospel in response to the issues and concerns of that time. He called for the church to renew its emphasis on the Kingdom of God as the core message of the Gospel. He argued that the church must do this in order to be faithful to the call of Jesus, and he believed that this was what the world needed from the church. But he also argued forcefully that if the church failed to embrace the Social Gospel it would lose a whole generation of young people. The youth, he said, were already moving. Young people might not understand the theological nuances of biblical interpretation, but they could hear the call of Jesus and they have chosen to follow that call. The church, he argued, would lose its moral authority if it did not move with them.

Our young people today have grown up in a more secular environment. Most of them lack the biblical background that Rauschenbusch could take for granted even among youth who were not directly involved in any church. But today’s young people have followed their hearts and minds, and they have intuitively come out on the right side of this issue when too many of us in the church have come out on the wrong side.

Beyond the position they have taken, Christian opponents of same sex marriage have also done great damage by the way they got there. Almost invariably they are biblical literalists. Their arguments depend on a selective reading of Scripture which misses the great sweep of the biblical narrative. They have used the Bible as a weapon. In the process they have inflicted great harm on LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Queer or Questioning) persons, especially young people, and they have also convinced countless others that the Bible makes no sense.

The Supreme Court vote was a great victory, but it will take a long time to repair the damage done in the struggle.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Voting Rights and the Supreme Court

Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel,
“My way is hidden from the Lord,
and my right is disregarded by my God”?
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord
shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.

Isaiah 40:27-31

Yesterday the Supreme Court eviscerated the most important part of the Civil Rights Act of 1965. They eliminated the provision requiring states and counties with a history of discrimination to get pre-approval from the Justice Department before implementing changes in voting rights laws. Before the day was done, lawmakers in Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, and Texas rushed to implement laws that will make it harder for African Americans to vote.

In 2006 when Congress extended the Voting Rights Act, the Senate passed it unanimously and the House had only 33 dissenting votes. President Bush signed the measure and gave a speech reminding all Americans that this was one of the most important bulwarks of our democracy.

Without the requirement for pre-approval, states can pass and implement restrictive laws which can only be challenged after the fact. And those challenges would typically work their way through the court system after one or more election cycles had already gone by. If the court did not like the way that states and counties were identified, then it would be better to require pre-approval for every change to voting requirements in every state.

I find myself coming back to Dr. King’s famous declaration of hope, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” King adapted the phrase from the great 19th century abolitionist and preacher, Theodore Parker. King made that affirmation of faith in a speech given on March 25, 1965, in Montgomery, Alabama, at the conclusion of a march from Selma. The whole campaign was “centered around the right to vote.”

The Civil Rights movement was not aimed at achieving “equality” as an abstract concept; it was aimed at achieving equality as a practical reality. Achieving equality as a practical reality required laws. Voting was (and is) critical to changing laws.

In an impassioned dissent from the majority, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg declared, "The Voting Rights Act became one of the most consequential, efficacious, and amply justified exercises of federal legislative power in our Nation's history." She added, "Thanks to the Voting Rights Act, progress once the subject of a dream has been achieved and continues to be made."

Later this summer, when we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, we will hear a great deal about equality as an abstract intellectual concept. But Dr. King was not killed, or jailed, or reviled, because of an abstract concept. He was killed because he led a movement that was changing America.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Hypocrisy, Christians and Food Stamps

Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.
I Corinthians 1:26-29

The Corinthian church contained few people who were rich or successful in the ways that riches and success are usually measured. By worldly standards, they were embarrassing. But Paul took their lowly position in the world as evidence of God’s power. They were transforming the world, in spite of the fact that by the world’s standards that was quite impossible.

When Mahatma Gandhi said, "I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ," he was not talking about those who are “low and despised.” He was talking about people with the power to shape events and impose their will on others, who called themselves Christians but paid no attention to Christ’s teachings.

In the on-going debate in congress over the farm bill, Representative Stephen Fincher of Tennessee has been doing his best to confirm Gandhi’s judgment.

First, he has argued for cutting the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly referred to as Food Stamps, by quoting II Thessalonians 3:10: “For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” Never mind that Paul was talking about people who were not working for the common good because they were just waiting for the second coming of Christ, rather than folks who were unemployed because they could not find work. Or that Paul was recommending this drastic step as a last resort. And never mind that Paul was also preaching about establishing the Kingdom of God on earth, where everyone has a place at the table. However you look at it, it is a fundamentally unchristian thing not to help those who are poor and hungry.

But the second part is worse than the first.

The farm bill is about more than Food Stamps. It is also about farm subsidies. And it turns out that Representative Fincher is one of the largest recipients of farm subsidies in Tennessee history. Between 1999 and 2012, Mr. Fincher received $3.48 million in cash subsidies from American taxpayers. That averages about $250,000 per year. Do you think we can find a Bible verse (or maybe a thousand) about rich people oppressing poor people?

I have read the story of Representative Fincher and the farm bill in several places, and almost every time, the article has mentioned that he is a Christian. (I resisted the temptation to type that with quotation marks, “a Christian.”) I saw the story most recently in an essay by Mark Bittman in the New York Times.

In his essay, Bittman chastises Fincher for ignoring “the fact that Congress is a secular body that supposedly doesn’t base policy on an ancient religious text that contradicts itself more often than not.” I am well aware of the contradictions in the Bible, but “more often than not” would seem to be an enormous overreach. And although we can all agree that we shouldn’t be enacting public policy based on any religious text, I am very comfortable with using the Bible to inform our approach to the great issues of our time.

At another point in the essay, Bittman says that in order to keep up with legislative issues relating to hunger he routinely consults with David Beckham, president of Bread for the World, which Bittman describes as “a principled anti-hunger group.” In fact, Bread for the World is a Christian lobbying organization engaged in mobilizing individual Christians and churches to influence our lawmakers. If you go to their website today (, you will find a link for sending an email to Congress on the farm bill.

The vote will be this week. There is still time to send an email.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Leaders Need to Lead

So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.”The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel.
Exodus 17:4-6

In the wilderness, the people of Israel complained to Moses because they had no water. They cursed him for leading them out of Egypt so that they could die in the desert. Moses complained to God about the complaining of the people. God responded with a promise of water, but only if Moses would lead and “Go ahead of the people.” And when he went ahead, he would find God, “standing there in front of you.”

There are two messages here:
1. God is always leading us into the future.
2. Leaders need to lead.

A few days ago my friends (Facebook friends) at “Believe Out Loud” posted a picture of United Methodist Bishop Martin Mclee and commended him for speaking out against hate crimes. McLee said in part:

“The problem of bias crimes directed at members of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning Community continues. As Christians, we are called to respond. Let us begin by offering prayers for the victims and families of those harmed by hate crimes. I encourage pastors to provide anti-bias leadership by teaching and preaching about the harm of directing violence against anyone.”

In spite of the fact that opposition to hate crimes ought to be a no-brainer, statements condemning such violence are important and necessary. And pastors should give leadership by preaching and teaching about such issues.

I wish that Bishop McLee had shown similar leadership in his pastoral letter regarding the situation of the Rev. Thomas Ogletree who faces a church trial for officiating at the marriage of two gay men. In his letter to the New York Conference of the United Methodist Church, Bishop McLee wrote:

“Many of you may have read the recently published article in The New York Times that centered on same sex marriage and The United Methodist Church. The confidentiality requirements of the complaint process prevent me from discussing the case in detail. However, as is the case on many issues confronting the church today, there are multiple perspectives associated with human sexuality.”

That’s all he said about the issue. The letter went on for several paragraphs saying that the United Methodist Church is concerned about many important issues and that we are not a one issue denomination and we have work to do in the world. All of that is true and right and good. But he basically said nothing about the issue at hand.

Our denominational stance against full equality for our gay and lesbian sisters and brothers is not just a bureaucratic technicality. It has real world consequences. And it does emotional violence to innocent people. Emotional violence is not equivalent to physical violence, but it matters. And the emotional violence of telling people they are “less than” can encourage those who are inclined to be bullies.

Bishop McLee is constrained by the Discipline of the United Methodist Church. And he believes it is his duty to uphold that Discipline by letting the trial process unfold.

But while enforcing the Discipline, he could also say that on this issue it is simply wrong.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Guns in America: Looking at the Numbers

These are those who were enrolled, whom Moses and Aaron enrolled with the help of the leaders of Israel, twelve men, each representing his ancestral house. So the whole number of the Israelites, by their ancestral houses, from twenty years old and upward, everyone able to go to war in Israel—their whole number was six hundred three thousand five hundred fifty. 
Numbers 1:44-46

I love numbers.

From an early age, part of my love of baseball was a love of the numbers. Baseball, more than any other sport, is obsessed with numbers. We don’t just look at the big numbers like batting averages and winning percentages. We look at the numbers inside the numbers: batting average with men on base, or with two strikes, or on the first pitch. We don’t just count strikeouts, we count called strikes and swinging strikes. It’s endless and it’s wonderful.

As a Methodist minister I am required to submit a statistical report every year. We count everything: worship attendance, Sunday School enrollment, Sunday School teachers and Sunday School attendance, numbers of small groups, attendance at small groups, youth groups and youth group leaders, mission groups, Bible studies, and outreach ministries. I confess that I don’t love the statistical reports. The truth is, I hate them. But I still love numbers.

Recently, though, I have been looking at some other numbers that I don’t love at all. There are about 300,000,000 guns in the United States; almost one for every man, woman and child. And the numbers keep increasing. After the Newtown shootings, Americans bought more guns and more ammunition.

According to the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, about 5.5 million new firearms were manufactured in the United States and 95% of them were sold in the United State. In addition, approximately 3.3 million guns were imported. The National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) ran 16.5 million background checks for gun purchases and only about 78,000 were turned down. Because we have no federal (or state) gun registry, we have no idea whether or not the folks who were turned down already had guns at home. 

Looking at the number of guns and the number of gun sales, and listening to the anecdotes supplied by the NRA about young moms buying guns and taking lessons in how to use them, it seems like the number of Americans owning firearms is continuing to increase, but new polling data says that’s not the whole story. The National Rifle Association has bullied congress into passing laws that make it almost impossible to keep any records at all, so many of the numbers are estimates. 

According to the new polls, it looks like we have two trends going in opposite directions. For the last four decades the number of American households with guns has been steadily declining, while the total number of guns has gone up. In 1973 about 53% of American households had guns. Recently, that number has declined to about 33%. Among younger people, the decline in gun ownership is even more pronounced. 

There are more guns, but fewer gun owners. Fewer people have more guns. If the numbers are accurate, then the average gun owner had about ten weapons. 

We’ll pause for a moment to digest that last bit of data. 

The idea that a small number of people are buying more and more guns is a little scary, but the long term implications are positive. Eventually, we will be able to institute reasonable gun control laws and reduce the number of gun related deaths. If we can’t be like England, maybe we can be like Australia. 

In the meantime, I find myself pondering another number. There are about five million members in the NRA. I am amazed that such a small group can wield such incredible political power. And they are maintaining their influence while taking positions that are increasingly radical. Once they were in favor of universal background checks and now they are against them. They have even resisted preventing people on the terrorist watch list from buying guns. 
The NRA has fewer members than the United Methodist Church in the United States. Admittedly, the numbers are not directly comparable. In the UMC families often have more than one member. In the NRA it’s more likely to be one member per family. And of course, there is some overlap of people who belong to both the UMC and the NRA. But still. 

Everyone is afraid of the NRA. No one is afraid of the United Methodist Church. Part of that is because the NRA has one issue while we have many. And part of it is because the NRA is focused almost exclusively on public policy while we have a much broader range of concerns.

But still. Part of the problem is that we are not nearly as passionate about social justice, or economic inequality, or hungry children, or health care, as the NRA is about guns.

Monday, May 6, 2013

We Are Past the Tipping Point

“Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” 
Mark 16:6-7 

As I read the story about the Rev. Dr. Thomas Ogletree, a retired United Methodist clergy person and former dean of Yale Divinity School facing a church trial and possible censure for officiating at the wedding of his gay son, the sound in my head was of that Easter hymn that Christians have sung for more than 300 years., “The Strife Is O’er, the Battle Done.”

The strife is o’er, the battle done,
the victory of life is won;
the song of triumph has begun: 

The powers of death have done their worst,
but Christ their legions have dispersed;
let shouts of holy joy outburst: 

It’s over. We may still be fighting the battles on this one in the United Methodist Church. And the arguments will persist. But it’s over.

Last week Rhode Island voted for marriage equality. We are the last New England state to embrace same sex marriage, so it’s about time. But we are also the most heavily Roman Catholic state in the country. And the legislature voted overwhelmingly in favor of marriage equality in spite of strong opposition from Bishop Thomas Tobin and the Roman Catholic Diocese.

We are beyond the tipping point. It’s over.

For United Methodists, the more critical issue is how we will manage the inevitable change. We need an exit strategy from a position we should never have taken. Our problem is not just that we unwisely declared homosexuality to be “incompatible with Christian teaching” forty years ago, at the same time as the medical people were declaring that homosexuality was not a mental illness. We compounded a bad decision on ethics with an even worse decision on church policy.

In our United Methodist Discipline we declare ourselves to be in favor of lots of wonderful stuff, like environmental stewardship and gun control and economic justice. We are against war and against capital punishment. But in all of those other cases (and many more) there are no penalties for clergy or others who disagree and act on their disagreement. A United Methodist pastor can bless a nuclear submarine without fear of official censure, but he or she cannot celebrate a same sex wedding.

In the New York Times article it notes that the clergy persons who brought the complaint against Dr. Ogletree belong to the “Good News” movement, which the Times calls a “tranditionalist” United Methodist group. They are “tradionalists,” but traditionalism is not our United Methodist tradition. Our tradition is to be what is now called “progressive” Christians. Our tradition is to be forward thinking and forward looking and forward moving.

My guess is that at our next General Conference in 2016 the Discipline will be revised to remove the negative characterization of homosexuality and endorse full civil rights for our gay and lesbian sisters and brothers. My hope is that we will do better than that; that we will focus on the future rather than the past.

Christ is not to be found buried in the bitterness and bigotry of the past. He is risen as he said. And he goes ahead of us. He is always calling us into the future. Our task is just to follow.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Unemployment and the Economics of Jesus

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” 
Matthew 20:1-16

I’m guessing that the story of the Laborers and the Vineyard is not on anyone’s short list of favorite parables. More than likely, it is among those we most dislike. We can mumble out the familiar ending about the last being first and pretend that we like it because we think that we ought to like it, but the truth is that we don’t like it.

We believe that the folks who worked the longest and the hardest should get the most money. We value hard work and should value hard work.

In general, the Bible values hard work, but Jesus is making a very different counter-cultural point here. Note the conversation with the last group of workers, those still unemployed in the late afternoon:

“And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 7They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’”

The landowner asks the obvious question. “Why are you idle?” And by implication, “what’s the matter with you? Don’t you want to work? Are you lazy?” The answer given to the landowner and to us is a complete explanation of the situation: “We aren’t working because no one has hired us.” This is not a moral failing on the part of the unemployed. They aren’t lazy or stupid. They are idle because no one has hired them. It is just that simple. And at the end of the day, they get a day’s wage because that’s what they need to support their families.

In his commentary on this parable, William Barclay says that it sets forth two great truths:
1. Every man has [person] a right to a job
2. Every man [person] has a right to a living wage.

Writing in the middle of the last century, Barclay believed that those “two great truths” would be recognized by most thinking people. I am not sure that is true today.

In the middle of the last century, when William Barclay wrote his commentaries, the pain of a recession was absorbed in three ways: lost profits, lost productivity and lost jobs. Today we still have those three categories of impact, but approximately two-thirds of the losses are absorbed in unemployment.

Half a century ago, some workers were let go, and those who remained typically did less work, resulting in less productivity and lower profits. Today, the workers who remain find themselves doing more work to make up for those who were laid off. And workers have responded by “doing more with less” and increasing productivity. This increased productivity has not resulted in higher wages, but in higher profits.

Economists will tell us that corporations have learned to manage the downturns more efficiently. But at least part of it is because we no longer have a consensus that people have a right to work and a right to a living wage.

Today we have 12 million unemployed people who are actively looking for work. That does not count the people who have given up. Within those numbers is an even more troubling statistic: 4.6 million people have been unemployed for more than 6 months, and even worse, two-thirds of them have been out of work for more than a year.

We are creating a group of long-term unemployed people whose lack of employment renders them unemployable. They are unemployable, not because they lack skills or because they are unwilling. They are unemployable because employers do not want to hire them.

In a recent essay in the New York Times, Paul Krugman wrote about an experiment conducted by William Dickens and Rand Ghavad of Northeastern University. They sent out “résumés describing the qualifications and employment history of 4,800 fictitious workers. Who got called back? The answer was that workers who reported having been unemployed for six months or more got very few callbacks, even when all their other qualifications were better than those of workers who did attract employer interest.” Krugman’s conclusion is that we are creating a permanent class of jobless Americans.

In the economics of Jesus, everyone has a right to a job and a living wage. If we believe that, then we can begin to create a consensus to develop the policies and programs to achieve that end. This is not impossible. It is not the inevitable result of market cycles. It is a choice.