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.