Monday, December 29, 2014

The Work of Christmas

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Luke 2:15-20

Like Mary, we should treasure the words of the story and ponder their meaning.

Unfortunately, if we do that, our peaceful holiday cheer will soon be displaced by a deep discomfort at the huge disconnect between the biblical message and our superficial celebration of the holiday. Even before Jesus is born, in the proclamation brought by the angels to Zechariah and to Mary, Luke tells us that the baby will bring a challenging message about transforming our lives and the world around us.

This year on Christmas Eve, our Christmas Pageant closed with a wonderful poem by Howard Thurman, an African American preacher and theologian, who was Dean of the Chapel at Boston University from 1953 to 1964. The poem is about what it means to take the Christmas message seriously. It is titled, “The Work of Christmas.”

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry
To release the prisoners,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Torture Is Not about Our Enemies; It's about Us

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you."

Matthew 5:38-39,43-44

Now that I am reasonably certain I will not grow up to play third base for the Boston Red Sox, I have a new life dream. I want to be a writer for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

And in my imagination I can see the opening for a show this week. Stewart sits at his desk, welcomes viewers, and tells them, “We’ve got a great show for you tonight . . .”

Then he introduces a segment on the Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA interrogation methods. “The report,” he says, “has encountered fierce opposition from those who insist that in the wake of 9/11 the use of torture was essential to protecting our national interests, but at least one group has spoken out in strong support of the report. Christian conservatives, who have been adamant in their belief that the literal interpretation of a few Bible verses makes it impossible for them to support the rights of gay people, have rushed to support the committee’s opposition to torture. Citing Jesus’ commitment to non-violence . . .”

Stewart pauses and puts his finger to his ear so that he can hear something in his earphone. He looks confused. “No?” he says. “They’re not saying that?” He pauses. “Not one of them . . .”

In fairness, I’m sure there are some Christians, evangelicals and Roman Catholics, who oppose both gay marriage and torture. My imaginary segment wouldn’t really be fair to them. But there are many who are literalists when it comes to a few verses that allegedly speak about homosexuality, and yet seem to have no problem dismissing fundamental aspects of Jesus’ ethical vision as if he didn’t really mean it.

Senator John McCain has made it consistently clear that he is not a biblical literalist. And he is generally hawkish on military issues, but he is adamantly opposed to torture.

McCain carries in his body the permanent injuries inflicted by his torture at the hands of the North Vietnamese. He walks with a limp. He cannot raise his arms high enough to comb his hair. In a recent speech on the floor of the Senate, he spoke in favor of the conclusions reached in the Intelligence Committee report:

“I know from personal experience that the abuse of prisoners will produce more bad than good intelligence,” he said. “I know that victims of torture will offer intentionally misleading information if they think their captors will believe it. I know they will say whatever they think their torturers want them to say if they believe it will stop their suffering. Most of all, I know the use of torture compromises that which most distinguishes us from our enemies, our belief that all people, even captured enemies, possess basic human rights, which are protected by international conventions the U.S. not only joined, but for the most part authored.”

He went on to argue that in addition to being morally wrong, torture was also ineffective.

“What might come as a surprise, not just to our enemies, but to many Americans,” he declared, “is how little these practices did to aid our efforts to bring 9/11 culprits to justice and to find and prevent terrorist attacks today and tomorrow. That could be a real surprise, since it contradicts the many assurances provided by intelligence officials on the record and in private that enhanced interrogation techniques were indispensable in the war against terrorism. And I suspect the objection of those same officials to the release of this report is really focused on that disclosure – torture’s ineffectiveness – because we gave up much in the expectation that torture would make us safer. Too much.”

It would not be surprising if a person who had suffered as much as John McCain has would easily embrace the morality of “an eye for an eye.” and that he would argue, as others have, that the committee report takes a naïve view of our enemies; that it is not realistic to think that we can uphold the United Nations Convention Against Torture (signed by President Reagan), when our enemies clearly do not. But McCain maintains that “this question isn’t about our enemies; it’s about us."

This is the conclusion of his speech:

“. . . in the end, torture’s failure to serve its intended purpose isn’t the main reason to oppose its use. I have often said, and will always maintain, that this question isn’t about our enemies; it’s about us. It’s about who we were, who we are and who we aspire to be. It’s about how we represent ourselves to the world.

“We have made our way in this often dangerous and cruel world, not by just strictly pursuing our geopolitical interests, but by exemplifying our political values, and influencing other nations to embrace them. When we fight to defend our security we fight also for an idea, not for a tribe or a twisted interpretation of an ancient religion or for a king, but for an idea that all men are endowed by the Creator with inalienable rights. How much safer the world would be if all nations believed the same. How much more dangerous it can become when we forget it ourselves even momentarily.

“Our enemies act without conscience. We must not. This executive summary of the Committee’s report makes clear that acting without conscience isn’t necessary, it isn’t even helpful, in winning this strange and long war we’re fighting. We should be grateful to have that truth affirmed.

“Now, let us reassert the contrary proposition: that is it essential to our success in this war that we ask those who fight it for us to remember at all times that they are defending a sacred ideal of how nations should be governed and conduct their relations with others – even our enemies.

“Those of us who give them this duty are obliged by history, by our nation’s highest ideals and the many terrible sacrifices made to protect them, by our respect for human dignity to make clear we need not risk our national honor to prevail in this or any war. We need only remember in the worst of times, through the chaos and terror of war, when facing cruelty, suffering and loss, that we are always Americans, and different, stronger, and better than those who would destroy us.”

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Do Not Be Afraid

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.

But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among all people!”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”

Luke 2:5-15

Do not be afraid. Or in the King James translation, “Fear not.”

That is a good summary of the biblical message.

In Matthew’s Gospel those words are spoken by an angel in a dream as Joseph contemplates the coming birth, and at the end of the story the same words are spoken by an angel to the women at the empty tomb, and then finally by the risen Christ.

Luke’s birth narrative repeats that phrase over and over to Zechariah, to Mary, and to the shepherds.

It is hard to be faithful when we are afraid.

There is so much that is wrong with American politics that it is hard to find anything that we might understand to be a root cause. But fear is one of the leading candidates.

Fear is not new. The biblical record makes that clear. But it has grasped us in new ways since the destruction of the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001. A new Freedom Tower has been built on the site of the original twin towers, a symbolic declaration of national resilience and pride, but the fear has changed us.

The tanks that rolled out onto the streets of Ferguson, Missouri in response to the protests after the killing of Michael Brown were available to the Ferguson police department as part of a Homeland Security program in response to the 9/11 attacks. Ironically, we responded to the terrorism of 9/11 by terrorizing our own people.

In a recent piece in the New York Times, columnist Thomas Friedman talks about a new book by David Rothkopf, the editor of Foreign Policy journal called, “National Insecurity: American Leadership in an Age of Fear.” In an email, he asked Rothkopf how long this fear will continue to haunt us, “Will it ever go away or will bin Laden be forever that gift that keeps on giving?”

“The post-9/11 era will not be seen as a golden age in U.S. foreign policy,” Rothkopf responded. “Largely, this is because 9/11 was such an emotional blow to the U.S. that it, in an instant, changed our worldview, creating a heightened sense of vulnerability.” Friedman reports that he went on to say, “not only did we overstate the threat, we reordered our thinking to make it the central organizing principle in shaping our foreign policy.”

We spend vast sums of emotional, political, and financial capital preventing events which could theoretically be devastating, but in reality are highly unlikely. As comedian John Oliver observed, after one failed attempt by the “shoe bomber” everyone has to take off their shoes to get by airport security. We invest heavily in preventing another terrorist attack, and neglect the strength we could build by investing in infrastructure or education or medical research or climate change.

In real and measureable ways, our fear has made us less secure. And consequently we are more fearful.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Violence in Ferguson

Why then has this people turned away
in perpetual backsliding?
They have held fast to deceit,
they have refused to return.
I have given heed and listened,
but they do not speak honestly;
no one repents of wickedness,
saying, “What have I done!”
All of them turn to their own course,
like a horse plunging headlong into battle.
How can you say, “We are wise,
and the law of the Lord is with us,”
when, in fact, the false pen of the scribes
has made it into a lie?
The wise shall be put to shame,
they shall be dismayed and taken;
since they have rejected the word of the Lord,
what wisdom is in them?
They have treated the wound of my people carelessly,
saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace.

Jeremiah 8:5-6, 8-9, 11

Before the grand jury verdict was announced, and in his speech after the announcement, President Obama called for calm and said that there was “no excuse for violence.”

It is an ironic statement. When he said it, he meant it to apply to those protesting the death of Michael Brown. The protesters, on the other hand, were protesting precisely because they believed that there was no excuse for the deadly violence done to him.

How we see violence is determined in large part by our point of view. Whites see it differently from people of color. The powerful see it differently than the powerless.

The images of the violence in Ferguson are deeply troubling.

I chose the picture above because I hoped it would illustrate how differently we look at things. That picture is not from Ferguson; it’s from the pumpkin festival riots in Keene, New Hampshire last month. For videos of the Keene riots, click here. For images of other riots by largely white groups, you can look at Jon Stewart’s report on the riots at UCONN after the men’s basketball team won the NCAA championship in 2004. For the record, they won again last year, but had a smaller riot. And also, for the record, they don’t have riots when the women win.

For more serious reflection on violence and protest, it’s useful to look back to the Civil Rights movement and the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

By the mid 1960’s, the disciplined non-violence of the Civil Rights movement broke under the weight of the violence and death they had absorbed and a new generation of leaders in the black community increasingly called for the use of force to achieve freedom and equality “by any means necessary.” In a television interview, Mike Wallace asked Dr. King if he was still committed to non-violence.

He played a tape of Dr. King speaking in those deep resonant cadences so familiar to his preaching style, “Now what I'm saying is this: I would like for all of us to believe in non-violence, but I'm here to say tonight that if every Negro in the United States turns against non-violence, I'm going to stand up as a lone voice and say, ‘This is the wrong way!’”

King’s radical critics would say (and frequently did say) that he had mis-stated the issue. The problem was not that “Negroes” had turned against non-violence, but that the white power structure had never embraced non-violence in the first place. But Dr. King understood that, and while affirming his continuing commitment to non-violence, he went on to say:

I contend that the cry of "black power" is, at bottom, a reaction to the reluctance of white power to make the kind of changes necessary to make justice a reality for the Negro. I think that we've got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard.

A riot is the language of the unheard.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Reinhold Niebuhr and the Irony of the Jonathan Gruber Story

The children of this world are wiser in this generation than the children of light.

Luke 16:8

Once upon a time everyone who was serious about politics was reading Reinhold Niebuhr. Today it is hard to find anyone who knows who he is. That is too bad, because his insights are at least as relevant now as they were when he was alive and at the height of his popularity in the early 1960’s.

Niebuhr was one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century, but his greatest contributions were in the area of political philosophy. He took the deepest insights of Christian theology and applied them to the practice of politics.

The people who worry about “mixing religion and politics” need to go read Niebuhr. And the people who want to impose their own (highly selective) literal reading of the Bible also need to go read Niebuhr.

Niebuhr’s best book on politics, “The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness” ought to be required reading for anyone who aspires to public service. The book is inspired by that verse from Luke's Gospel. His basic insight was simple and undeniably true: the “children of light” do more harm through their naïve ineptitude than the “children of darkness” do on purpose.

“It must be understood,” Niebuhr wrote, “that the children of light are foolish not merely because they underestimate the power of self-interest among the children of darkness. They underestimate this power among themselves.” The children of light have a naïve understanding of the world around them and are unrealistic in their assessment of the human capacity for evil. But they are also naïve about their own mixed motives.

The strange case of MIT economist Jonathan Gruber is just the latest evidence of the truth of Niebuhr’s insights. He was so taken with his own cleverness, and had such a great need to talk about that cleverness with other clever people that he had no sense of the harm he might do.

When he was first confronted with a video of himself talking about “the stupidity of the American people” and how that figured into the marketing of the Affordable Care Act, he said that it was just an “off the cuff” remark at an informal conference. But it turns out there are many video recordings of him making approximately the same statements at many conferences over several years.

The irony, to use one of Niebuhr’s favorite concepts, is astonishing. How is it possible for anyone, let alone an economist at MIT, to be that stupid?

In this instance there is plenty of irony to go around.

Bill O’Reilly spoke piously about Gruber insulting the American people, but his program has a regular segment in which a young staffer is sent out to cities and college campuses to ask people questions they can’t answer and then make fun of their stupidity. And after the last presidential election there were many references to the stupidity of the American voters who did not understand the issues.

Seriously, the stupidity of the American people is one of the few things on which commentators from both ends of the political spectrum seem to agree. Of course one side thought the 2012 voters were stupid, while the other side thought the 2014 voters were the stupid ones.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The World Is Broken, But It Will Be Healed in the End

No one has greater love than this,
to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

John 15:13

While waiting for my bagel at Panera I was absentmindedly checking my email when I came across this note from my friend and colleague Bill Flug:

I watched the Kassigs yesterday offer their statement about their son's death and said to myself, "They're Methodists." I was right, as you may know by now. Epworth UMC Indianapolis.

Bill concluded by saying that it made him proud to be a Methodist.

Later, in my office, I watched a CNN recording of their statement, which the reporter characterized as coming “from a church in Indianapolis.”

Peter’s dad, Ed Kassig began by quoting that verse from John’s Gospel. Peter Kassig gave his life in service of the people Syria, bringing humanitarian aid to the victims of the civil war there. He was captured in 2013 while delivering relief supplies.

His mother, Paula, began with a simple affirmation of their faith, "Our hearts are battered,” she said, “but they will mend. The world is broken, but it will be healed in the end. And good will prevail as the one God of many names will prevail.”

The world is broken, but it will be healed in the end.

It is not hard to see that the world is broken. The evidence is all around us. It is harder to believe that it will be healed in the end. But that is our faith and our vision. That hope was born with Israel’s vision in the Exile, and it endures today.

In a letter to his parents from captivity, he wrote, “I hope that this all has a happy ending but it may very well be coming down to the wire here, and if in fact that is the case then I figured it was time to say a few things that need saying before I have to go.” There was no happy ending, but hope endures.

Peter Kassig converted to Islam while in captivity and took the name Abdul-Rahman Kassig. “In terms of my faith,” he wrote, “I pray everyday and I am not angry about my situation in that sense. I am in a dogmatically complicated situation here, but I am at peace with my belief.”

“I am obviously pretty scared to die,” he wrote, “but the hardest part is not knowing, wondering, hoping, and wondering if I should even hope at all. I am very sad that all this has happened and for what all of you back home are going through. If I do die, I figure that at least you and I can seek refuge and comfort in knowing that I went out as a result of trying to alleviate suffering and helping those in need.”

“Good will prevail,” said Paula Kassig, “as the One God of many names will prevail.” It is hard to know what to make of Peter Kassig’s conversion to Islam. His reference to a “dogmatically complicated situation” is open to multiple interpretations. He could have “converted” in hopes of finding favor with his captors, and he could have entered into a profound shift in world view. But it is also possible that he saw faith, as many Methodists do, as a seamless garment. Or maybe a patchwork quilt. The differences are real, but we are still all connected.

Ed Kassig concluded their statement with a call to prayer. "Please pray for Abdul-Rahman, or Pete if that's how you know him, at sunset this evening," He said. "Pray also for all people in Syria, in Iraq, and around the world that are held against their will. And lastly, please allow our small family the time and privacy to mourn, cry -- and yes, forgive -- and begin to heal,"

Monday, November 10, 2014

Pope Francis and Evolution

The heavens are telling the glory of God; 
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.

Psalm 19:1-4

In an editorial today, The Providence Journal notes that “Pope Francis, unlike many of his predecessors, is more than willing to share his personal opinions on a wide variety of controversial issues.” According to the Journal, the most recent example of his willingness to speak out on controversial issues came at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in Vatican City, where he spoke out a few days ago on “the evolution-versus-creation debate.”

Essentially, what he said was that there was no inherent conflict between evolution and Christian faith.

One assumes this must have come as a great relief to the biology professors teaching evolution at Catholic Universities around the world, as well as to the thousands of teachers in Catholic high schools.

This is not news.

To be fair, the editorial acknowledges that Pope Francis is not the first pope to positively about evolution. The Journal quotes Josephine McKenna of Religion News Service as observing that “In 1950, Pope Pius XII proclaimed there was no opposition between evolution and Catholic doctrine. [And] In 1996, St. John Paul II endorsed Pius’ statement.”

According to the Journal, “it was the direct and remarkably straightforward manner of the pope’s response that caught more than a few observers off guard. He strongly defended the long-held position of the Roman Catholic Church and, most importantly, established a modern link between evolution and creation.”

The only reason anyone could have been caught off guard is because over the last several decades the news media have focused on the most anti-scientific members of the Christian community and made it seem like they spoke for everyone. Over the last five hundred years, faith and science have had few quarrels until these last few decades. And even now, the conflict does not exist for mainline Protestants or Roman Catholics. And it does not exist for many evangelicals.

I appreciate the willingness of Pope Francis to say things that need to be said. “When we read about Creation in Genesis,” he said, “we run the risk of imagining God was a magician, with a magic wand able to do everything. But that is not so. He created human beings and let them develop according to the internal laws that he gave to each one so they would reach their fulfillment.”

True enough. The book of Genesis is not a scientific treatise. And it is not a history book. It is symbolic language. It is about meaning and relationships. It is about who we are and whose we are.

Friday, October 31, 2014

A Life Lost and the Problem of Heteronormativity

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

Julie Wood, a United Methodist from North Carolina made a touching video about her son Ben, who grew up in the United Methodist Church and was active in his youth group until he told the group that he was gay. Not long after that, the youth pastor told him that he would go to hell and yelled at Julie and her husband for raising him. The youth pastor encouraged members of the group to stay away from him. Ben never went back to church after that, and he committed suicide in 2013.

When I was ordained a Deacon in 1973 the major issue at our Annual Conference centered on the charges brought against a clergy colleague for marrying two gay men who were students at Harvard Divinity School.

We have been debating the place (or lack of place) of LGBTQ persons for a long time. We have been discussing and debating since before anyone used the terms LGBTQ or LGBT or even gay.

Back then, “they” were “homosexuals,” and “we” were . . . normal. And we did not realize how much pain we inflicted simply by casting the debate in that context. I did not realize the harm done even by those of us on the “right” side of that issue.

This fall, in the course of a panel discussion on diversity, there was a controversy at Duke Divinity School when a student asked a question about how the school was combating the problem of heteronormativity. The dean of the school responded (accounts vary about the exact sequence of events) by reading a passage from the United Methodist Discipline which asserts that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”

We will pause for a moment to consider the irony of the dean’s response.

In the debate following that incident, one of the recurring themes was that those supporting a “traditional” view and upholding the Discipline were being bullied by those who categorized such views as hateful and bigoted. The traditionalists lamented the fact that the discussion could not be more respectful and civilized. The problem, of course, is that what the traditionalists call respectful and civilized actually inflicts great pain on LGBTQ persons.

The video made by Julie Wood is a painful reminder of what real bullying looks like, and of the harm it inflicts.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Second Best Time to Change Your Mind

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

There is a Chinese proverb that says, “The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time is now.”

David Gushee, a leading evangelical ethicist, has chosen the second best time to change his mind. Jonathan Merritt, in a column for the Religious News Service, writes that Gushee recently announced that he has changed his mind on issues relating to homosexuality and Christian faith and he is now an advocate for the full inclusion of LGBT Christians within the life of the church.

In an address planned for a training event to be hosted by The Reformation Project on November 6-8, Gushee will declare his change of heart. “I do join your crusade tonight,” According to a draft of the speech obtained by RNS, Gushee will declare that, “I will henceforth oppose any form of discrimination against you. I will seek to stand in solidarity with you who have suffered the lash of countless Christian rejections. I will be your ally in every way I know how to be.”

Gushee is clear that he should have changed his mind sooner, “It took me two decades of service as a married, straight evangelical Christian minister and ethicist to finally get here,” he told the group. And then he apologized for that long delay, saying, “I am truly sorry that it took me so long to come into full solidarity with the Church’s own most oppressed group.”

He identifies four factors that led to his change of heart.

His work on environmental ethics and torture brought him into contact with many gay evangelical Christians who were working on those same issues. Their witness led him to reconsider what he thought the Bible said about homosexuality, and that Bible study convinced him that the Bible did not say what he had thought it said. (For a review of the biblical issues, see my post on Sexual Orientation and the Bible.) Gushee recognized, as many others have, that the Bible has been misused to justify oppression and injustice in the past, on issues like slavery, women’s rights, segregation, anti-Semitism, and torture.

In addition to the witness of gay Christians and his reconsideration of the biblical basis for his position, he had an experience much closer to home. Merritt writes that “in 2008, his younger sister, Katey, came out as a lesbian. She is a Christian, single mother, and had been periodically hospitalized for depression and a suicide attempt.” This convinced Gushee that “traditionalist Christian teaching produces despair in just about every gay or lesbian person who must endure it.”

And finally, he was influenced by the overwhelming body of scientific research which says that sexual orientation is not a choice, it is a natural form of human diversity. All of this led him to begin his theological and ethical reflection from a new starting point: the suffering of LGBT Christians.

Gushee’s defection is important. He is a leading evangelical ethicist. His book, “Kingdom Ethics,” written with the late Glen Stassen, is a staple of courses on evangelical ethics. Gushee has written a book about his journey called “Changing Our Mind: A Call from America’s Leading Evangelical Ethics Scholar for Full Acceptance of LGBT Christians in the Church,” which will be released by David Crumm Media prior to the speech. He hopes that his new book, like his previous work, will become a basic resource for evangelical Christians and that it will provide an opportunity for other Christians to reexamine their views on this issue.

The book, and Gushee’s affirmation of solidarity with LGBT Christians, mark one more step in a long journey. He is not the first evangelical Christian to change his mind on this issue, and he will not be the last. One hopes that United Methodists who continue to exclude and condemn their gay sisters and brothers will pay attention.

Gushee knows that former friends and colleagues will be swift to condemn his epiphany, but he maintains that he does not worry. “I still love Jesus and read the Bible and pray every morning, and I don’t really care what they say,” he said, according to Merritt. “I’m willing to let God and history be my judge.”

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Thank God for Janet Yellen

Moses said, “This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Gather as much of the manna as each of you needs, an omer to a person according to the number of persons, all providing for those in their own tents.’” The Israelites did so, some gathering more, some less. But when they measured it with an omer, those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed.
Exodus 16:16-18

In biblical economics, a core principle is that there should not be a great gulf between those who have the most and those who have the least. The Bible is deeply suspicious of wealth. Jesus told his disciples that it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God. But Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were all rich by ancient standards, and the New Testament tells of disciples who used their resources to help others and support the early church. The biblical ideal is not economic equality, but an economy in which those with the least have enough and those with the most do not have too much.

We can (and should) debate the meaning of “enough” and “too much,” but there can be little doubt that the current widening gap between rich and poor does not fall within acceptable biblical parameters.

Last week, in an historic address at the Conference on Economic Opportunity and Inequality hosted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen spoke about the widening gap between rich and poor.

She began her remarks by noting that “The distribution of income and wealth in the United States has been widening more or less steadily for several decades, to a greater extent than in most advanced countries.” She went on to make an important declaration followed by several significant observations:

“The extent of and continuing increase in inequality in the United States greatly concern me. The past several decades have seen the most sustained rise in inequality since the 19th century after more than 40 years of narrowing inequality following the Great Depression. By some estimates, income and wealth inequality are near their highest levels in the past hundred years, much higher than the average during that time span and probably higher than for much of American history before then. It is no secret that the past few decades of widening inequality can be summed up as significant income and wealth gains for those at the very top and stagnant living standards for the majority. I think it is appropriate to ask whether this trend is compatible with values rooted in our nation's history, among them the high value Americans have traditionally placed on equality of opportunity.”

When the Chair of the Federal Reserve Board says that something (anything) “greatly concern(s) me,” that is important. And the widening gap should concern all of us.

Her suggested solutions are neither radical nor particularly biblical. She is not about to sing with Mary about casting down the mighty and lifting up the lowly. She does not suggest that the hungry be filled with good things or that the rich be sent away empty. But she does offer a place to start.

One of her most important insights is that the widening gap between rich and poor is incompatible “with values rooted in our nation's history, among them the high value Americans have traditionally placed on equality of opportunity.” Technically, she doesn’t make that as a statement, she poses it as a question, but I’m guessing that is what she thinks.

Her proposed building blocks of opportunity are hardly groundbreaking: early childhood education and support, access to higher education, business ownership, and inheritance. She talks about how budget cuts have decimated the funds available for education and weakened the safety net, but she does not propose a graduated tax to offset the losses and fund those programs. And she does not address the ways in which reductions in the marginal tax rate and other government policies have exacerbated the problem. But it is a beginning.

Naming our demons is an important first step in confronting and defeating them. When Janet Yellen names the demon of increasing inequality, it makes a difference. She is by no means the first person to say that the widening gap in income and wealth inevitably leads to inequality of opportunity and undermines a core common value for us as Americans, but when the Chair of the Federal Reserve Board speaks, people listen.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Problem with Prayer

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
Romans 8:26-27

A few weeks ago a friend posted a link to an article titled “Why I Hate Prayer,” by Jim Mulholland, a former pastor who now maintains a web site called “Leaving Your Religion,” which offers “guidance for becoming non-religious.”

I was not surprised that someone hated prayer. The idea is common in both the Hebrew and Greek scriptures. The prophet Amos proclaimed God’s hatred of prayer and worship without justice. And Jesus had harsh words for those who made a show of their prayers.

But I was surprised by the idea that anyone needed help in “leaving your religion.” In my experience, folks seem to make that transition without any help at all. As witness the joke told in one variation or another in every denomination. It begins with the question of how to rid the church of mice and ends with the punchline: “We just confirm (or baptize) them and they never come back again.”

Mulholland hates prayer first because he grieves for those who pray desperately in horrific circumstances and face the pain of unanswered prayers. But his second reason is that the celebration of “answered” prayers can inflict even more pain on those whose prayers have not been answered.

He writes, “Perhaps the more graphic examples of this cruelty happened in one of my last years of ministry. One Sunday, a woman stood to announce that – after several months – her prayers had been answered and she was pregnant. Everyone was excited and happy for her, except for me and one other. As I looked out on the congregation I saw the crestfallen face of a woman who had recently shared with me her long depression over her infertility. It wasn’t enough that she would never have children. Now she had to struggle with why her prayers went unanswered.”

When Christians celebrate “answered prayers” as a sign of faithfulness, they imply that the reason why the prayers of their sisters and brothers have not yielded similar results is because they lacked faith. If we add in the folks who, often innocently, celebrate answers to trivial prayers, for a parking space, or a trip without traffic, or sunshine on a picnic, or the victory of their favorite sports team, it becomes even worse.

So Mulholland declares emphatically, “If there is a god who answers the prayers of some men, women and children, but ignores the prayers of others, I have no interest in such a god. That god would be source of inequity and not a god of justice. I would hate a god who answered trivial requests while ignoring the pleas of the parents of starving children.”

In a radio sermon preached in 1952, Reinhold Niebuhr said that for many people, believing in God means “that that we have found a way to the ultimate source and end of life that gives us, against all the chances and changes of life, some special security and some special favor.” As an example, he speaks of the prayers “that many a mother with a boy in Korea must pray, ‘A thousand at thy side and 10,000 at thy right hand, let no evil come to my boy.’”

For the mother or father with a child in danger, that is the most natural prayer in the world and it is the deepest desire of our hearts. Yet in the end it is impossible. As Niebuhr explains, “The Christian faith believes that beyond, within and beyond, the tragedies and the contradictions of history we have laid hold upon a loving heart, and the proof of whose love, on the one hand, is the impartiality toward all of his children and, secondly, a mercy which transcends good and evil.”

In a FaithLink article called “Prayer in a Postmodern World,” Alex Joyner begins with a reference to the movie “Gravity.” He describes poignant scenes of the astronauts “floating in space talking into the void in the hope that they will be heard.” The lead characters, played by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, are set adrift when flying debris strikes the space shuttle on which they are working. They do not know whether or not anyone can hear them, but hoping that ground control might somehow pick up their transmissions, they tell their story in great detail.

“Later,” writes Joyner, “Bullock’s character intercepts a radio signal from Earth, and though she can’t understand all that is being said, she pleads with the staticky voice to pray for her.” She feels compelled to explain, “I’d pray for myself, but I’ve never prayed. Nobody ever taught me how.”

In Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, he tells us that the astronaut is not alone. No one knows how to pray. We don’t know what to say and we don’t know how to say it. Prayer would be impossible if it were not for the intervention of the Spirit of God within us, which prays through us.

In a sermon on this passage, Paul Tillich writes, “This may help us also to understand the most mysterious part of Paul’s description of prayer, namely, that the Spirit "intercedes with sighs too deep for words." Just because every prayer is humanly impossible, just because it brings deeper levels of our being before God than the level of consciousness, something happens in it that cannot be expressed in words. Words, created by and used in our conscious life, are not the essence of prayer. The essence of prayer is the act of God who is working in us and raises our whole being to Himself. The way in which this happens is called by Paul "sighing." Sighing is an expression of the weakness of our creaturely existence. Only in terms of wordless sighs can we approach God, and even these sighs are His work in us.”

Karl Barth said that “To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the the disorder of the world.” It is a rebellion against the chaos and an affirmation of the Spirit. The promise of Christian faith is not that God will grant us a special exemption from life’s hardships, or give us a special reward for our virtue, but that at the center of life there is a loving heart, which will be with us now and forever. The gift of prayer is that we open ourselves to that loving heart.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Something Worth Remembering

“You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
Exodus 20:4-6

Everyone knows the saying about the “sins of the parents being visited upon their children,” and not just children, but grandchildren and great grandchildren.

It’s one of those biblical ideas that has faithful people scratching their heads, and the more secular among us pointing to it as one more place where religion gets it wrong. It seems wrong in spite of the fact that we know it to be true. We know that the bad choices of one generation often affect succeeding generations. We have studied the ways in which the treaties imposed at the end of World War I set in motion the forces that led to World War II. We know about the legacy of slavery.

But the second part of that passage is often overlooked. Righteousness endures to the thousandth generation. In other words, forever.

It is a remarkable concept. When we bend the arc of history away from justice, it is serious, and it makes a difference that may last generations. But when we bend the arc toward justice, that act is never lost. Human beings may forget, but the moral universe is changed forever.

George Shuba died last week in his hometown of Youngstown, Ohio, at the age of 89. Shuba played seven seasons for the Brooklyn Dodgers. He had a smooth stroke at the plate and was called Shotgun because of his ability to spray line drives around the outfield. He played in three World Series, including Brooklyn’s only World Championship in 1955.

I knew who George Shuba was from reading about the glory years of the old Dodgers, but I did not know what Paul Harvey liked to call “the rest of the story,” until I read Richard Goldstein’s obituary in the New York Times.

What he accomplished in the Major Leagues was minor, compared to the legacy of one game in the Minor Leagues in 1946. On April 18 of that year Shuba was playing left field for the Montreal Royals. He hit three home runs in that opening game of the season, but that wasn’t what makes the game memorable. In the third inning, Jackie Robinson, playing in his first game organized baseball, hit a three run homer. When he crossed home plate, Shuba, who was waiting on deck as the next hitter, stepped up and shook his hand.

The handshake would have been nothing special if Robinson had been white, but in the hyper sensitive context of Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier, it was a huge moment. And it was captured forever in that iconic Associated Press photo at the top of this post.

After retiring from baseball, George Shuba returned to Youngstown, raised a family, and worked as a postal clerk. When he went to schools in the Youngstown area to talk about racial tolerance, he always carried a copy of that photo with him. His son Michael remembers that when he came home from school with a report of racial bullying, his rather would point to the old photograph and tell him: “Look up at that photo. I want you to remember what that stands for. You treat all people equally.”

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Bigotry and the Bible

We are not competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.

II Corinthians 3:5-6; 4:7

Monday night, while I was waiting for the start of the Patriots game, I watched part of the debate among the candidates for Governor of Massachusetts, and I found myself meditating on those verses from Paul’s letter.

When I first encountered those verses it was in the old Revised Standard Version. In that translation, it says that “we have this treasure in earthen vessels.” To me that sounded rather elegant. I did not know what an “earthen vessel” was, but it sounded ancient and sacred. The New Revised Standard Version put my reverie to rest with the more accurate, “clay jars.” Nothing special. Completely ordinary. Maybe less than ordinary. Like tin cans, or plastic bottles.

Paul’s insight was that Christian faith grew not because of the competence of its proponents, but in spite of them. In an earlier letter, he pushed the Christians in Corinth to think about this in terms of their own lives. “Consider your own call,” he wrote. “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.” (I Corinthians 1:26-28)

As a pastor and a church leader, I have always found Paul’s insight comforting. And obviously true. I am sometimes amazed by the church’s ability to survive inept leadership.

But as I listened to the gubernatorial debate, I found myself wondering how far Paul’s insight might stretch. We can (and have) survived incompetence. But can we survive mean?

I tuned in as independent candidate Scott Lively was answering a question about the state’s spending to repair its decaying infrastructure.

It took me a few seconds to remember why his name was familiar to me. He is a pastor. And a well-known activist against gay rights. He played a role in helping Uganda to frame its now infamous anti-gay legislation. And he wrote a book called, “The Pink Swastika.” That fact alone tells you almost everything you need to know.

Pastor Lively turned the question about roads and bridges into a question of what he called the declining “moral infrastructure” in the state and went on to speak of the state’s commitment to teaching tolerance as part of children’s education as the promotion of “sexual perversion to children in the public schools.”

The next speaker, Republican Charlie Baker, quickly affirmed the need to repair the state’s roadways and then said he wanted to use the remainder of his time to respond to Lively’s comments, which he called “a veiled reference” to gay people. "As the brother of a gay man who lives and is married in Massachusetts,” Baker declared, “I want you to know that I found that kind of offensive, and I would appreciate you not saying things like that from this point forward.”

Lively responded quickly, "I believe in the Bible, Charlie. I'm sorry that you don't.”

Martha Coakley, the Democratic candidate, seconded Baker’s comment and then cited her own record in support of gay rights before addressing the question of infrastructure.

No one addressed Lively’s invocation of the Bible in defense of his bigotry. And that was entirely appropriate. It wasn’t supposed to be a theological debate.

But it worries me that statements like Lively’s so often go unchallenged. This isn’t unchecked righteousness; it is, to use the biblical word, unrighteousness.

In previous generations, Lively’s retort has been employed by supporters of slavery and segregation, and opponents of women’s rights, among others. But in those previous generations, the other side of the debate had a larger proportion of biblically literate Christians who were motivated by the great biblical themes of justice and egalitarianism, rather than focusing on what Paul called “the letter” of the law.

The truth is that Scott Lively believes six biblical passages at the expense of almost everything else. Nobody said that. In fairness, it would not have been appropriate and it would have opened the door to even more outrageous statements from Scott Lively. But it left his statement unchallenged. And for many viewers that statement will sum up what they have heard about Christian faith.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

When the Season Ends

“It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops. Today, October 2, a Sunday of rain and broken branches and leaf-clogged drains and slick streets, it stopped and summer was gone.”

Those words were written by A. Bartlett Giamatti in 1977, before he was President of Yale, or the Commissioner of Major League Baseball. He was a lifelong Red Sox fan and he died before seeing a season that ended in anything but heartbreak. Long time Red Sox announcer Joe Castiglione traditionally reads those words at the close of every season.

There will be no October baseball in Boston this year. The amazing team that went from last place in 2012 to winning the World Series in 2013 has sunk back to last place. And so I find myself looking back to years past. The 1946 World Series produced one of my favorite Red Sox stories.

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

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

The real story, however, is more complicated than the legend and it tells us more about the character of Johnny Pesky than it does about his baseball skills.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 25, 2014

An Alternative Community

Once Jesus was asked when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”
Luke 17:20-21

This coming Sunday, September 28, will be the Fifth Sunday in Kingdomtide; at least that’s what it would have been when I was growing up. In the old United Methodist liturgical calendar the Sundays from the end of August to the beginning of Advent were known as the season of “Kingdomtide.” It was a time to reflect on the biblical promise of the Kingdom of God and to ask ourselves what the world would look like if we were serious about building the Kingdom of God on earth.

Jesus preached the “good news of the Kingdom of God.” He announced that God was already at work in the world, and we were invited to live in the new reality that God was creating. The idea of the Kingdom of God begins with Jesus, but it grows out of the experience of the people of Israel. And a primary theological component is the liberation of the Israelites in the Exodus.

For Jesus, this alternative community was a place where the poor were lifted up, where everyone had a place at the table, where love governed both individuals and institutions. It was a place of radical hospitality, egalitarianism, inclusion, mutual concern, self-sacrifice, peace, and social justice. In this biblical vision, everyone has enough and no one has too much.

“Against the data,” as Walter Brueggeman would say, Jesus declared that this “Kingdom of God” was already among them. In spite of the Roman occupation. The world did not belong to the emperor, it belonged to God. And God was at work in the world. The disciples were invited to live into the new reality; this alternative community.

Although Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of God occupies the overwhelming majority of his teaching, it has been largely ignored by modern Christians. The popular misinterpretation is that when he talked about Gods’ Kingdom, he was talking about heaven. But he wasn’t. He was talking about happens (and doesn’t happen, but ought to happen) on this earth.

Like the Jesus’ teachings on the Kingdom of God, the liturgical season of Kingdomtide just never caught on. Initially, it seemed to have a lot going for it, not the least of which is that stretching out Pentecost, and counting the Sundays after Pentecost, is pretty boring. It also made sense because the fall lectionary texts emphasize building up the Kingdom of God. But it was doomed by the combined weight of liturgical purity and the concern (which I share) for looking beyond exclusively masculine terms for God. God is not a King.

But whatever we call it, we need to do it.

Kingdomtide reminds us who we are supposed to be as the church. We are supposed to be transforming lives and making disciples. But the goal is not just to make disciples; the goal is to make disciples who will transform the world.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Spanking and Christian Parenting

Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline? If you do not have that discipline in which all children share, then you are illegitimate and not his children. Moreover, we had human parents to discipline us, and we respected them. Should we not be even more willing to be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share his holiness. Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
Hebrews 12:7-11

My fifth grade teacher was new to our school. And we thought he was pretty cool. This may have been partly because he was a guy, but more because he was young. He seemed to be much more “with it.” One day, in the course of a discussion of something I can’t remember, he asked us if our parents spanked us. He asked for a show of hands. The class was small. I think there were twelve of us. And of the twelve, only two of us were not routinely spanked for our various misdeeds. I was one and Faith Small was the other. My parents did not believe in spanking. I’m not sure about Faith’s parents because as far as I know she never did anything wrong.

The point of the teacher’s inquiry was to tell us he thought that spanking was good for us and that Faith and I would someday suffer from this woeful lack of punishment. I think it was the only time I was ever publicly chastised for my parents’ failings. It was embarrassing.

In an article on CNN’s Belief Blog, Matthew Paul Turner makes an important connection, obvious to many of us, but not much discussed in the cable and network commentary. Adrian Peterson’s child abuse grew out of his understanding of the duty of Christian parents to physically discipline their children. (For the record, it’s worth pointing out that my parents’ objection to spanking was also directly connected to their faith.)

“Today,” writes Turner, “the most notable proponents of spanking are American evangelicals. They not only preach the gospel of corporal punishment, they also impart messages that lay the foundations for abuses against children and the protection of such abuse by our legal system.”

He argues that, “For decades, American evangelicals have fiercely fought any legal or cultural limits on parents’ ‘rights’ to discipline their children. We hear the echoes of this line of thought in the argument that what Adrian Peterson did to his son is a private matter. His lawyer spoke of it as the act of a “loving father.”

Chip Ingram offers a guide to biblical spanking on the Focus on the Family web site. To be fair, Ingram makes clear that the point of spanking is “to sting, to provide a painful deterrent to misbe­havior, not to injure.” Then he gives specific instructions:

“When you spank, use a wooden spoon or some other appropri­ately sized paddle and flick your wrist. That's all the force you need. It ought to hurt — an especially difficult goal for mothers to accept — and it's okay if it produces a few tears and sniffles. If it doesn't hurt, it isn't really discipline, and ultimately it isn't very loving because it will not be effective in modifying the child's behavior.

“Have the child lean over his bed and make sure you apply the discipline with a quick flick of the wrist to the fatty tissue of the buttocks, where a sting can occur without doing any damage to the body. You want to be calm, in control, and focused as you firmly spank your child, being very careful to respect his body.”

Ingram is not advocating the sort of beating that Peterson allegedly inflicted on his four year-old son. He cautions that, “A parent who reaches back and swings hard is acting out of anger and frustration, not out of love and desire for the child's welfare. That's unbiblical by anyone's definition.”

Even with Ingram’s cautionary language, I find his description chilling. “Have the child lean over his bed.” (Of course, it’s “his” bed because Focus on the Family makes no attempt to use inclusive language—not because they think little girls shouldn’t be spanked.) And direct the blow “to the fatty tissue of the buttocks, where a sting can occur without doing any damage.”

So the intention is to inflict pain without leaving any marks or “doing any damage.” That doesn’t sound like a loving way to parent a child.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Sam Harris and the Sacred Journey

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.

Psalm 19:1-4

In a recent column in the New York Times, Frank Bruni comments on Sam Harris’s new book, “Waking Up,” which will be published this month by Simon and Schuster.

He focuses on a passage in the middle of the book, where Harris describes an experience that might surprise those who know him as “the country’s most prominent and articulate atheist.”

Harris was in Israel, by the Sea of Galilee, walking where Jesus had walked, and he had what many Christians would describe as a religious experience. Harris writes: “If I were a Christian, I would undoubtedly have interpreted this experience in Christian terms. I might believe that I had glimpsed the oneness of God or been touched by the Holy Spirit.”

It was “an afternoon on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee, atop the mount where Jesus is believed to have preached his most famous sermon,” Harris writes. “As I gazed at the surrounding hills, a feeling of peace came over me. It soon grew to a blissful stillness that silenced my thoughts. In an instant, the sense of being a separate self — an ‘I’ or a ‘me’ — vanished.”

Bruni asks, “Had Harris at last found God? And is ‘Waking Up’ a stop-the-presses admission — an epiphany — that he slumbered and lumbered through the darkness for too long?”

No, Bruni explains, Harris is asking a profound question which is seldom considered, “The question is this: Which comes first, the faith or the feeling of transcendence? Is the former really a rococo attempt to explain and romanticize the latter, rather than a bridge to it? Mightn’t religion be piggybacking on the pre-existing condition of spirituality, a lexicon grafted onto it, a narrative constructed to explain states of consciousness that have nothing to do with any covenant or creed?”

My question for Bruni and Harris is, “Is this a trick question?”

Of course, the experience precedes the description of the experience. How could it be otherwise? And yes, religion is precisely the language we use to describe our experiences of transcendence and wonder. To speak in Christian terms, when we read the Bible, we are reading about how our spiritual ancestors experienced transcendence.

Explaining his position in a phone call with Bruni, Harris said, “You can have spiritual experience and understand the most thrilling changes in human consciousness in a context that’s secular and universal and not freighted with dogma.” Commenting on the conversation, Bruni writes, “It was a kind of discussion that I wish I heard more of, and that people should be able to have with less fear of being looked upon as heathens.”

Harris is right; you can have those conversations outside of a religious frame of reference. But it is also true that the church is a place where those conversations are encouraged and nurtured. We don’t think of our context as secular, of course, but we do reflect on spiritual experience and “the most thrilling changes in human consciousness in a context that’s universal . . . and not freighted with dogma.” At least that’s what we try to do.

The subtitle for Harris’s book is “A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion.” Many Americans, Bruni observes, “are looking for a different kind of scripture, for prophets purged of doctrine, for guides across the vast landscape between faithlessness and piety . . . .”

Isn’t that the task of the church, to guide people across the vast landscape between faithlessness and piety? Our goal is not to move people from a place called “faithlessness” to a place called “piety,” but to help each other recognize that the journey itself is sacred. This is true, not only in those high moments, beside the Sea of Galilee, when we walk where Jesus walked, but in everyday life when, as the Psalmist observed, The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Labor Day and the Parable of Market Basket

Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.
I Corinthians 15:58

Paul it taking the long view. In the end, everything matters. Nothing is lost. What we do makes a difference, and it makes a difference forever.

But in the short run, for many workers, their labor does seem to be in vain.

Things have improved. It is not as bad this Labor Day as it was a year ago, but that’s not saying much. A New York Times editorial points out that a year ago economists were estimating that it would take until 2021 to replace the jobs lost or never created since the recession of 2008. At the current rate of job growth the new date would be 2018.

The economy as a whole is growing. But labor is not sharing in that growth. In 2013 the after-tax profits of American corporations, measured as share of the total economy, equaled the record year of 1965. Wages, on the other hand, were at their lowest level since 1948. Productivity has increased dramatically, but wages have remained stagnant, resulting in large gains for corporations, and the wealthiest among us, while low and middle income workers have not benefitted, and have actually seen their wages decline over the past year, when we adjust for inflation.

At the very bottom of the workforce, there is an exception to the overall trend. The lowest 10 percent of workers made a small gain as a result of increases in the minimum wage enacted in thirteen states this year. That modest gain gives us hope that lifting the federal minimum wage might result in broader benefits.

There is no mystery in this. As Elise Gould points out in a research paper written for the Economic Policy Institute, the issue is our economic policy. And we can change it.

We can build our policy around labor, rather than around corporations. And we can change the tone of the national conversation.

Modern corporations do not treat workers as an asset. They are treated as a liability.

This is not only a problem for low wage workers. As an example, consider the widespread strategy of classifying employees as independent contractors, and workers as supervisors, in order to avoid in order to avoid paying the wages and benefits that would otherwise be required. The Times editorial observes that in California and appellate court recently ruled that Fed-Ex drivers are employees, not independent contractors, and therefore eligible for employee benefits. And the Times points out that “Decades of outsourcing government jobs to the private sector has undercut public employment, once a mainstay of middle-class life, even as evidence has mounted that outsourcing often does not save money or improve services.”

It is not a good story, but there is a counter-narrative.

The story of Market Basket might be a modern parable. The family owned chain has been immensely successful over the decades, expanding from a single store to their present total of 71 located in northern Massachusetts, southern Maine and south eastern New Hampshire. Earlier this summer, Arthur S. Demoulas engineered the ouster of his cousin, Arthur T. Demoulas, the long time CEO because he and other family members believed that Arthur T’s pro-worker, pro-consumer approach was limiting their dividends.

Arthur T, as he is known, built the business with his sharp business acumen and an intentional long term investment in his employees. They have generous wages and benefits, including profit sharing even at the lower end of the work ladder. They are also committed to promoting from within. The result is that they have many employees who have been with the company for decades, are very skilled at what they do and very committed to Market Basket and to Arthur T.

After the firing of Arthur T, there was an uprising. The non-union workforce basically went on strike in support of the man they believed had always supported them. As worker after worker repeated, “Arthur T. has always been there for us.” E. J. Dionne described the story in the Washington Post: “. . . eight senior managers organized an employee protest. They were quickly fired. Then all hell broke loose. The lion’s share of the employees at the chain’s 71 stores joined the protest, fully aware that they had no job protection. Market Basket’s customers (there is great affection for the chain) were drawn to the workers’ side.”

Dionne continues, “This worker-consumer alliance bore fruit last week when a $1.5 billion deal was arranged under which Arthur T. assumed control of the company, which has annual revenue of $4.6 billion. That is not the end of the story, of course. The new deal requires a ton of capital and that will affect the chain’s bottom line. It will be a challenge, but Arthur T. and his loyal employees believe they are up to it.

In his address to employees and supporters at a victory rally, Arthur T. told the group, “In this organization, here at Market Basket, everyone is special.” He went on to explain, “You have demonstrated that everyone here has a purpose. You have demonstrated that everyone has meaning. And no one person is better or more important than another. And no one person holds a position of privilege. Whether it’s a full-timer or a part-timer, whether it’s a sacker or a cashier, or a grocery clerk, or a truck driver, or a warehouse selector, a store manager, a supervisor, a customer, a vendor or a CEO, we are all equal. We are all equal and by working together, and only together, do we succeed.”

It is a victory for workers, for consumers, for fair working conditions, for community values, and for a compassionate capitalism that is committed to doing good while doing well. But it is not a universal solution to the problems of laborers and corporations in America. The Market Basket victory was possible only because Arthur T. was able to raise what the Boston Globe called “a boatload of cash” to buy out Arthur S. But even with all the caveats, it is still a ray of hope.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Fierce Urgency of Now

In a sense we have come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds." But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.

Rev. Dr. Marin Luther King, Jr. August 28, 1963

On this day in 1963, Dr. King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and delivered what we now call the “I Have a Dream Speech” to 200,000 peaceful advocates for racial justice.

They were marching, he said, to “demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice,” and to remind the nation of what he called “the fierce urgency of now.”

He talked about pursuing this struggle with discipline and dignity and he talked about solidarity with white people who would share in that struggle. The militancy of the struggle, he argued, “must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.”

The tragic shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, in Ferguson, Missouri, and the reactions to it, provide a sad reminder that the dream is not yet a reality.

We have come a long way. The idea of a black man as President of the United States was hard to imagine when Dr. King addressed the crowd in Washington. Our society is more integrated, more open, and less overtly racist. These improvements are real and they are dramatic. The need now is less about new laws, although the gains made by the voting rights laws need to be protected. We cannot minimize our needs in job creation, education, and health care, but in many ways, our greatest need is for new attitudes and new understandings

And we have a long way to go.

If you don’t believe that racism is alive and well, just go on almost any internet site that hosts commentary on the shooting in Ferguson. A web site set up to receive donations to help pay the defense costs for the police officer who shot Michael Brown received so many racist comments, they had to shut it down and start again. For a glimpse of what it looked like before the shutdown, click here. Columnist and Fox News contributor Linda Chavez wrote a column for the New York Post complaining that it was biased to call Michael Brown “an unarmed black teenager.”After all, he was over six feet tall and weighed three hundred pounds. As if large teenagers were no longer teenagers or unarmed.

Racism is the air we breathe. It infects all of us. In a New York Times column titled, “Is Everyone a Little Bit Racist?” Nicholas Kristof reminds us of our latent racism. There are many people, he points out, who are enlightened, who are intellectually opposed to racism, and yet harbor racist stereotypes and prejudices.

Studies have shown that when doctors treat people for a broken leg, they prescribe pain medication more often for white patients than they do for blacks and Hispanics. Black students are suspended by school administrators at a rate that is three times the rate of white students. Although blacks and whites use marijuana at approximately the same rates, blacks are arrested 3.7 times as often.

Kristof cites another study in which scholars responded to nearly 5,000 help-wanted ads. They sent half of their resumes with stereotypically black sounding names and the other half with white sounding names. It took 50% more mailings to get a response for a black name as for a white name, and a white name gained the applicant an advantage equal to eight years of experience.

In yet another study, scholars found that we unconsciously connect “American” with “white.” In 2008 they questioned a group of California college students and found that they treated then presidential candidate Barack Obama as if he were more foreign than Tony Blair, former British Prime Minister, in spite of the fact that many of the students were supporting Obama for president. The tests also showed that although Americans knew that Lucy Liu is an American actor and Kate Winslet is British, they still thought Liu was more foreign.

Not only do we have a hard time recognizing the reality of our own racism, many of us believe that America is more prejudiced against white people than against black people.

That fact is so bizarre, I was tempted to call this column, “White People Are Crazy.”

According to a study by scholars at Tufts and Harvard, both whites and blacks agree that anti-black racism has decreased over the last sixty years. But the study also shows that whites believe that anti-white racism has increased over that same time period and now is a bigger problem than anti-black racism.

Participants were asked to rate the anti-black racism and the anti-white racism in society on a 10-point scale, with 10 as maximum bias. On average, whites rated anti-white bias as the greater problem by more than a full point. And 11 percent of whites rated anti-white bias as a 10, the maximum rating.

“It’s a pretty surprising finding,” says Tufts Associate Professor Samuel Sommers, Ph.D., “when you think of the wide range of disparities that still exist in society, most of which show black Americans with worse outcomes than whites in areas such as income, home ownership, health, and employment.”

Apparently, even our perceptions of racism are colored by racism.

In his commentary about what he seemed to perceive as an anti-white bias in the coverage of the events in Ferguson, Bill O’Reilly complained, “to the race hustlers, Officer Wilson is already guilty. They have convicted him. Their slogan is ‘no justice, no peace’. I guess that's lynch mob justice because those people will never accept anything other than a conviction of murder in this case. They don't really care what happened. They want Officer Wilson punished.”

No one should be in favor of “lynch mob justice,” but it is useful to put that in historical perspective. On this day in 1955 a 14 year old black teenager by the name of Emmett Till was lynched for allegedly flirting with a white woman. Not figuratively lynched. Brutally tortured and lynched.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Fear and Racism in America

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”
Luke 13:34-37

After Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed by a white police officer, students at Howard University posed for a group picture with their hands raised in surrender, just as Michael Brown had reportedly done as the officer shot him to death.

When I saw the pictures of the armored vehicles and heavily armed policemen in Ferguson, Missouri in the days following the shooting, I thought of Jesus mourning over Jerusalem. Is this the best we can do? Not surprisingly, heavily militarized police presence served only to increase the tensions.

Meanwhile, according to CBS news affiliate KMOV , gun shops around the St. Louis area are reporting that gun sales are up as white suburbanites arm themselves in self-defense. "They're just afraid of whats going on and they're coming in to purchase either additional firearms or their first firearm," said Steven King, owner of Metro Shooting in Bridgeton, Mo.”They're buying AR-15s, home defense shotguns, handguns, personal defense handguns something for conceal carry."

So, to review: an unarmed black teenager was shot and white people are buying guns to protect themselves.

Okay, I know that’s unfair. There were riots in Ferguson after the shooting and the folks shopping for guns were afraid because of the riots.

But think about it. Don’t those two basic facts tell us something very important about racism in America? If you are a parent of black children, what do you tell them about trusting police officers? What do you tell them about white people in general?

I am sure that there are lots of people in and near Ferguson who are working across racial lines to bring something good out of this. Governor Jay Nixon acted wisely in assigning a State Police unit to reduce tensions among the protesters, and that effort was successful. The images of white people buying guns are not a fair way to judge all white people (or even those particular white people). Just as the pictures of black people rioting are fair to all those who were peacefully protesting.

We can’t capture something as complicated as race relations in America in such a simple snapshot. But, still. Those two facts, the killing of the unarmed teenager and the buying of guns, say something significant.

When an unarmed black teenager is killed by a policeman, the first reaction of some (many) white people is to be concerned for their own safety. The first reaction is fear.

Think about it. Ponder it in your heart. A white police officer shoots an unarmed black teenager and white people react with fear. We have to do better. We have to work toward real solutions. But first, we have to stop pretending that racism does not exist.

[Note: Shortly after I posted this blog, news reports surfaced claiming that Michael Brown was a suspect in a robbery at a convenience store. In some ways, this makes the story more complicated, and it reminds us that few incidents divide as neatly as we might wish. But this new information does not fundamentally change the issue. It’s still about an unarmed black teenager shot by a white policeman. It’s still about fear and racism. It just reinforces how complicated those issues are.]