Friday, March 29, 2013

Bill O'Reilly, Dan Savage, and Bible Thumpers

For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. 
Philemon 1:8-12 

Recently on “The O’Reilly Factor,” Bill O’Reilly commented that in the debate over marriage equality, the strong arguments were all on the side of same sex marriage. They just want to be treated like everyone else in American, he said. “That’s a strong argument.” By contrast, he noted that all the opponents can do is “thump their Bibles.” And that, he opined, is not a good argument.

Not that long ago, Bill O’Reilly was criticizing those who had shifted toward supporting equal marriage for what he termed “pandering” to public opinion. And he mocked those who said that their perspectives were “evolving.” His own shift, if that is what it is, has been much more abrupt. And it represents a seismic shift in the argument.

The public sentiment in favor of equal marriage is growing at an amazing rate. And that is a very good thing.

But what is not a good thing is that the Bible has been “thumped” from both sides.

Opponents misuse it, and supporters ignore it or denigrate it.

A friend posted a quotation from Dan Savage that is indicative of how the Bible has been dismissed in the debate. Addressing a high school group in Washington State, Savage declared:

“The shortest book in the New Testament is a letter from Paul to a Christian slave owner about owning his Christian slave. And Paul doesn't say, 'Christians don't own people.' Paul talks about how Christians own people.... the Bible got the easiest moral question that humanity has ever faced wrong: slavery. What are the odds that the Bible got something as complicated as human sexuality wrong? One hundred percent."

In spite of the fact that the Bible does not condemn slavery, at least not consistently, and there are many more verses condoning slavery than there are condemning it, we need to put that in historical perspective. Nearly two millennia after the last biblical writer wrote the last verse in the Bible, the framers of our constitution “got the easiest moral question that humanity has ever faced wrong.” If Jefferson and his colleagues were wrong two hundred years ago, it’s not surprising that Paul was wrong two thousand years ago. We should also note that the “slaves” in Paul’s time were more like indentured servants than the slaves kept by the Founders.

But wait, there’s more.

Paul, like Jesus, was a radical egalitarian. In his letter to Philemon, he is appealing for the release of Onesimus. He hopes that Philemon will do this, out of a sense of Christian faith, rather than under compulsion, because he feels Paul’s appeal as a command. But one way or the other, he wants Onesimus freed and embraced as “a brother.” Paul understand the early Christian church to be an egalitarian community, and a model for what the whole world will eventually become when the Kingdom of God is realized “on earth as it is in heaven.”

John Wesley, who was deeply committed to biblical Christianity, was a life-long opponent of slavery. Wesley knew the many verses that condoned slavery, but he also saw that the whole thrust of the Bible, from the Exodus to Paul’s letters, was toward freedom and liberation.

While the founders were enshrining slavery in the Constitution, Wesley was condemning it. In his last letter, written to William Wilberforce, he writes: “O be not weary of well doing! Go on, in the name of God and in the power of his might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it.”

Wesley did not oppose slavery in spite of his faith, but because of it. In the same way, we cannot develop an authentically Christian perspective on equal marriage by appealing to a few scattered verses of Scripture. We need to look for the broad themes and principles.

Friday, March 22, 2013

How Much Is Too Much?

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames. ’But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 
Luke 16:19-25

One of the things the Bible is very clear about is that a large gap between poor people and rich people is not a good thing. As Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, recalling the story of Manna in the desert, the goal is a society in which “the one who had more did not have too much, and the one who had less did not have too little.” In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus is telling a story that is not meant to be taken literally, but he places responsibility on the rich man to do something about the divide between those who have nothing and those who are able to dress well and feast “sumptuously every day.”

But the Bible does not give much guidance on what sort of income gap is acceptable.

Dan Ariely of Duke University and Michael Norton of the Harvard Business School recently published an interesting study, asking a random sample of 5,500 Americans which of three possible patterns of wealth distribution would be best for the country.

In one pattern, the wealth was divided equally. The bottom fifth had 20% of the wealth, as did the top fifth, and each of the three fifths in between.

Another pattern, represented the current situation in the United States, where the bottom fifth has just .1% of the wealth (one tenth of a percent), and the top fifth has 84%.

The third pattern showed the income distribution in Sweden, where the bottom fifth has 11% of the wealth, and the top fifth has 36%.

Of course, the participants were not told that two of the distributions represented real countries, and they were not told that one was the United States and the other was Sweden. Without knowing what the countries were, over 90% preferred the pattern in Sweden to the pattern in the United States. And this was true of Democrats and Republicans, Conservatives and Liberals. It was also true of people in every income group, from the bottom to the top. With small differences among the groups, almost everyone wanted to live in a country where the wealth is more evenly divided.

Ariely and Norton asked two more important questions.

They asked participants what they believed the wealth distribution in the United States was right now. On average, they believed that the top fifth had 59% of the wealth.

And they asked participants how much the top fifth should have, and on average they responded that the top fifth should have just 32% of the wealth. On average they believed that the poorest fifth should have 11% of the wealth.

In other words, the average American thinks that the richest Americans should have much less and the poorest Americans should have much more. And the average American would rather live in Sweden in terms of income distribution, but believes that even there the gap is too much.

The study also revealed (no big surprise) that Conservatives and Liberals have very different ideas about what we should do in order to move toward a more equitable distribution. But at least we agree on the goal. I count that as a win for the Jesus and Paul and the Hebrew prophets.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Dr. Koop: Like the Wise Man Who Built His House on Rock

“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock.” 
Matthew 7:24-25

In an opinion piece written earlier this week for the Washington Post, Michael Gerson wrote about the connection between a child in Mississippi, born with an HIV infection, who was apparently cured by early and aggressive treatment, and former surgeon general C. Everett Koop, who recently died at the age of 96. The old doctor would have been “as pleased as anyone,” he wrote, by “the news about a blessed child in Mississippi.

Dr. Koop was one of the first and most effective forces in the struggle to combat the AIDS epidemic that began in the early 1980’s. That battle will be Koop’s lasting legacy, but his endeavors came as a surprise to both the supporters and the opponents of his nomination as the nation’s physician.

His supporters were thrilled that President Reagan had nominated a deeply faithful pro-life Christian. And his detractors were, for the most part, opposed for the very same reasons.

In one of several editorials questioning the appointment, the New York Times stated flatly, “The nomination is a disservice not only to the Public Health Service and the public itself, but also to Dr. Koop. He is being honored for the most cynical of reasons–not for his medical skills but for his political compatibility.”

Gerson writes, “I was in high school when I first saw Koop, who was delivering a pro-life lecture. A combination of impressive facial hair and thundering moral certainty gave him the aspect of a Hebrew prophet. He was actually a committed evangelical Christian. His appointment by President Ronald Reagan occasioned a serious case of the vapors among liberals. Koop was attacked as scary, intolerant and unqualified.”

In the 1950s, Dr. Koop had been a pioneer in pediatric surgery. He specialized in the correction of congenital birth defects. And it was his dedicated commitment to the most fragile newborn infants that led him to take up the cause of the unborn. He was dedicated to caring for the most vulnerable and helpless.

Shortly after becoming the surgeon general, he launched public health campaigns against smoking, domestic violence and preventable violence. In the days of the HIV/AIDS crisis, when others in the Reagan administration were proposing mandatory testing, tattooing, and even internment camps, Dr. Koop became a voice of compassion and concern. In the “Surgeon General’s Report on Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome,” Koop provided a comprehensive and explicit description of exactly how the disease could be transmitted. He stated the case with moral and scientific clarity. In direct response to those who wanted to demonize the gay community, he declared, “We are fighting a disease, not people.”

Gerson notes that, when the document was distributed, “with its precise anatomical details and recommendations of condom use and early sex education — it was the turn of conservatives for the vapors. But Koop further conspired to have a brochure containing similar information distributed to the entire IRS mailing list of 107 million households.”

Those who believe that Dr. Koop’s moral views underwent a dramatic change after he took office, or that he chose the path he did in spite of his faith, are missing the central point of his life. It was all one piece. As he observed, “My whole career had been dedicated to prolonging lives, especially the lives of people who were weak and powerless, the disenfranchised who needed an advocate: newborns who needed surgery, handicapped children, unborn children . . .people with AIDS.”

Dr. Koop was one of those surprisingly wonderful people who heard Jesus’ teachings and internalized them and actually lived them out.