Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Mike Huckabee and the Fallacy of Unchanging Convictions

We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.
Ephesians 4:14-16

At a Republican presidential debate in 2007 on CNN, the candidates were asked whether or not they believed the Bible. Actually, the questioner held up a Bible and asked them, “Do you believe in this book?”

As a pastor and as a Christian, I find questions like that uncomfortable and unhelpful. That’s a question that deserves a thoughtful and nuanced answer. After all, what does the questioner mean by “believe in?” Do you want to know whether or not someone is a biblical literalist, or do you want to know whether or not a person thinks the Bible is a sacred book? It is not suited to a sound bite or a short answer in a debate.

The only response I remember was delivered by former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who is also an ordained Baptist minister. He said that the Bible is a complicated book and that there are many parts that we might argue about, “But,” he said, “the Bible has some messages that nobody really can confuse and really are not left to interpretation. 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' 'In as much as you've done to the least of these brethren, you've done unto me.' Until we get those simple, real easy things right I am not so sure that we should be fighting over those other parts that are a little bit complicated.”

All things considered, that was a pretty good answer.

Huckabee’s answer gave me hope that he would be a thoughtful conservative Christian voice among the cacophony of self-righteous and mean spirited religiosity that masquerades as Christianity in our political debates. Heaven knows we need that.

Unfortunately, he has gone off the rails just about as often as anyone else. Sometimes it’s been funny, like when he assured an NRA audience that he was a stalwart supporter of the second amendment and illustrated his commitment by saying that he was an avid hunter. In a creative combination of his theology and politics, he told them he believed there would be duck hunting in heaven and emphasized the point by saying, “I can’t wait!” Jon Stewart observed that from the duck’s perspective this would mean that heaven would be duck hell.

Who can forget his remarks on abortion, birth control, and a woman’s libido?

In a recent interview on Fox News, Laura Ingraham asked him if Republicans were being unfairly labeled as “anti-gay.” Governor Huckabee responded by redirecting the question toward President Obama. He pointed out that in 2008, then candidate Obama took the same view of gay marriage that he did. And then he talked about how the President’s views had shifted.

"He said it was because of his Christian convictions," Huckabee observed. "Does he have them or does he not? If one has them, they don't change depending on what the culture does. You don't take an opinion poll to come up with a new point of view."

The Governor is right that we don’t do Christian ethics by taking an opinion poll. And he’s right that we can’t depend on the culture to define right and wrong. Greed isn’t good, no matter how much the popular culture may affirm it. But that doesn’t mean that our convictions don’t change over time.

For many years, The Christian Century ran a series called, “How My Mind Has Changed,” and they would ask prominent scholars and theologians to reflect on how their beliefs and convictions had changed over the years. Our faith is supposed to grow. And growth means change.

As James Russell Lowell wrote in his great abolitionist hymn, “Once to Every Man and Nation,”

New occasions teach new duties,
Time makes ancient good uncouth;
They must upward still and onward,
Who would keep abreast of truth.

In Governor Huckabee’s home state of Arkansas, there must be tens of thousands (maybe hundreds of thousands) of Christians who grew up in the time when Governor Faubus was standing against the integration of the schools in Little Rock. As children or young adults, many of them believed in segregation and held that belief as a Christian conviction. But now, as adults, those same people are convinced that segregation and racism are wrong. Thankfully, their convictions have changed.

Similarly, there may well be millions of Protestant Christians now living who believed as children and young adults that women could not be ordained as pastors. A high percentage of those same people now believe that women can and should be ordained. Many now have female pastors whom they love dearly. Thankfully, their convictions have changed.

My own views have changed on a number of theological and biblical issues. I read the Bible differently, particularly in terms of its historical context. And my understanding of the atonement has changed dramatically.

We say that faith is a journey because it is. We don’t just make endless circles on the same track. We travel. We learn and we grow. And we change.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Fast that I Choose

Is not this the fast that I choose?
Isaiah 58:6

I know that many people may find it hard to believe that Isaiah, writing so many centuries ago, could be talking about my Mustang.

Amazing, right?

Actually, Isaiah is proclaiming a message from God. He isn’t claiming to have come up with this on his own. Still, it’s amazing.

But I don’t think there is a better fast than my Mustang. It is the best kind of fast there is.

I have been thinking about this because the Mustang turned fifty last week. Not my Mustang. Mine is a 2012. But the first Mustang was introduced fifty years ago last week. You may recall that last week was called “Holy Week.” I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

The golden anniversary has been the occasion for much nostalgic reflection.

In her Sunday column in the New York Times, Maureen Dowd wrote, “It’s weird to be jealous of your car. But I am. Men look at my car with such naked lust, their eyes devouring the curves and chrome, that I often feel as though I’m intruding on an intimate moment. Women like it, too. . . . But the icon evokes a special feeling in men. It’s the Proustian madeleine of cars, stirring old dreams and new. Guys sometimes follow in the American beauty’s dreamy wake, by car or by bike, and leave mash notes on the windshield with their numbers, pleading for me to sell it.”

But Dowd has no intention of selling her 1965 convertible. When the first Mustangs were introduced, they were called 1964 and a half’s, but officially they were 1965’s. They looked good then and they look good now.

I have been a car guy since I was a small child and I was interested in the original Mustang, but in those years my car lust was directed toward MG’s and Austin Healey’s. I loved the Mustang Steve McQueen drove in “Bullitt,” but I was more taken with Dustin Hoffman’s Alfa Romeo in “The Graduate.”

When I told Elaine I was writing a blog about the fiftieth anniversary of the Mustang, she asked what that had to do with “Thinking Faith.” I was momentarily speechless, and she asked if my text would be, “I came that they might have acceleration and have it abundantly.” I did not laugh. In the first place, acceleration is a good thing. In the second place, I thought that really would be a good text. The original, not the edited version. Wasn’t the Mustang an illustration of “abundant life?” And finally, I could not understand how once again something that seemed so obvious to me was not obvious to everyone else.

It’s about nostalgia dressed up as a theology. It’s about how we always think the past is better than the present. Like the people of Israel, in the wilderness, wanting to go back to Egypt. But faith is always about being called into the future. Like the angel telling the women at the tomb that “he is going ahead of you to Galilee.”

One of the underlying themes in the Mustang anniversary is our longing for the past. This comment from the Mustang facebook page is a good illustration:

“Apparently, the Ford Mustang today celebrates it's 50th birthday. While the current models aren't nearly as well-designed and iconic as the ones built in the 60's and early 70's, this is still an impressive milestone. . . . They sure don't make them like that anymore… Happy Birthday!”

The current models aren't as well designed as those from the 60's and early 70's? Seriously? Does he know anything about new Mustangs?

I can appreciate the skepticism. I could not believe it when I saw the first advertisement for the new 3.7 liter V6 Mustang. They claimed 305 horsepower and 31 miles per gallon. It seemed impossible. But it’s true, at least the MPG part is true. On trips I always get on the high side of 30. The record number for me was a little over 34 mpg on a trip from Rhode Island to Maine. I have no way to measure the horsepower. I can tell you that it’s not just fast, it’s scary fast. It is, with a nod to Isaiah, the very best kind of fast. And did I mention the 6 speed transmission?

In 1964 the original base Mustang came with an inline six that produced about 85 horsepower (by today’s measurement methods), and the basic V8 delivered about 150 horsepower. Don’t even ask about the gas mileage. If you want a V8 today, you can get 400 horsepower and 25 mpg or 500 hp and mpg in the low 20’s on the highway.

Make no mistake, the old muscle cars were fast. A Steve McQueen type Mustang with a 390 inch V8 (6.4 L) would do zero to 60 mph in 5.7 seconds and run the quarter mile in 14.1 seconds. That’s very fast. According to the road test people, that would make it just a few ticks slower than a new V6.

In his letter to the church in Philippi, Paul speaks of “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead.” There’s a new 2.3 liter turbocharged four cylinder available on the 2015. It’s supposed to have over 300 horsepower. It will be lighter and should get both better gas mileage and better performance. They really don’t make them like they used to.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Anti-Semitism and the Gospel

The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well. Therefore the Jews started persecuting Jesus, because he was doing such things on the Sabbath.
But Jesus answered them, “My Father is still working, and I also am working.” For this reason the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the Sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God.

John 5:15-18

I can still see Mr. Abbott, my high school principal, standing with his hands on his hips, glaring at me, demanding an explanation for something I had done or not done. “I want a reason,” he shouted, “Not an excuse!” And I can remember pausing as I thought to myself, “Actually, what you want is an excuse. I’ve got a reason, but you won’t think it’s an excuse.” Wisely, I did not try to correct him. I mumbled something and he threatened dire consequences if it happened again.

There are reasons for the anti-Semitism in the fourth Gospel, but they are not an excuse.

John frequently uses “the Jews” the same way that Matthew, Mark and Luke use “the Scribes and the Pharisees.” He is talking about the religious authorities who oppose Jesus. (We pause briefly to note first that the Scribes and the Pharisees are the same people. Second, the Pharisees were reformers. Third, that Jesus was almost certainly a Pharisee. And Fourth, that the Pharisaic reform movement gave birth to Christianity and rabbinic Judaism.) The reference to Pharisees as a synonym for self-righteous hypocrites is historically inaccurate and implicitly anti-Semitic.

John was writing at a time when the church and the synagogue were separating. Christianity began as a Jewish sect. The synoptic Gospels portray an internal conflict within the synagogue between the Pharisees and the followers of Jesus. John characterizes the conflict as one between the followers of Jesus and “the Jews” who remain loyal to Judaism. Of course, the followers of Jesus were also Jewish. It was a sibling rivalry.

As a potential source of anti-Semitism, the verses from the fifth chapter are far from the worst passage in John’s Gospel, but they are bad enough. John says that “the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him” for breaking the Sabbath and for blasphemy.

I was in college when I first met someone who had been called a “Christ killer,” by the (so called) “Christians” in his Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn. I was appalled, but also perplexed.

The very simple version of atonement theology I grew up with said that Jesus had died for my sins. He had also died for the sins of the world. But the personal part was where we put the emphasis. The historical roles of Pilate, Herod, the Sanhedrin, and the crowds, were all incidental accidents. The only theologically valid answer to the question, “Who killed Jesus?” was, “I did.”

Over the years I have grown into a very different theological understanding. Jesus died because his absolute faithfulness collided with the sinful violence of the empire. He died because he proclaimed the Kingdom of God as a just and non-violent alternative to the Roman Empire and to every empire. The Romans didn’t crucify people for religious crimes.

Holy Week is always an appropriate time to reflect on the issues of anti-Semitism, and Christians should choose their texts wisely for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. The Passion story is John’s Gospel should not be used without careful explanation of its historical context. But on this particular Holy Week, those reflections take on a special urgency because of the killings this past weekend in a Jewish Community Center in Overland Park, Kansas, by a white supremacist.

As it turns out, the three people killed were all Christians. One Roman Catholic and two United Methodists. You can read more about this by clicking here.

The FBI keeps statistics on hate crimes. In his column in the New York Times, Frank Bruni wrote that in 2012 there were 6,573 incidents reported. Most of the hate crimes were racially motivated. About twenty percent were motivated by the supposed religion of the victim, approximately equal to the percentage motivated by the victim’s sexual orientation.

Within the category of hate crimes related to religion, I would have expected that the majority would have been perpetrated against Muslims, but that would be wrong. Anti-Semitism is still the big winner. Sixty-five percent of all religious hate crimes were directed against Jews. Eleven percent were aimed at Muslims.

In this Holy Week and Passover, we need to unite in opposition to all forms of hate crime. And we need to remember the things that bind us together.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Lyndon Johnson and the Civil Rights Act

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.
Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

Isaiah 1.16-20

“Come, let us reason together,” was one of President Lyndon Johnson’s favorite Bible verses. He quoted it often and it was indicative of how he thought government was supposed to work.

Fifty years ago today, congress passed the Civil Rights Act. It stands as testimony to the greatness of his political skill and moral leadership.

As a young person living through Johnson’s presidency, I gave him little credit for the Civil Rights Act, or the War on Poverty, or the Voting Rights Act, or Medicare, or Medicaid. And I gave him almost all of the blame for the war in Vietnam. Looking back, I am amazed by his accomplishments.

For many people today, the Civil Rights Act seems like ancient history. And for a significant number of people, it seems like something that has outlived its usefulness. We no longer have segregated businesses, there are no laws about who sits at the back of the bus, we don’t have “colored” bathrooms or water fountains, our schools are integrated, and there are no (legally) segregated neighborhoods. Listening to the Diane Rehm show on NPR yesterday morning, I heard a caller delineate his own impeccable personal history of Civil Rights awareness, explaining that he had been brought up with an integrated circle of family friends and acquaintances, so that he never thought about race. Then he asked earnestly if perhaps the pendulum had swung too far. One of the panelists thanked him for his profession of racial acceptance and then gently recounted the racial disparities in employment, income, wealth, education, and incarceration.

We have come a long way.

But we have a long way to go. One of the benefits of being white is that we don’t have to think about race. That is a significant part of the meaning of “white privilege.” The inability to recognize white privilege is one of the major reasons that further progress in combating racism is so difficult.

Fifty years ago, the issues were more black and white.

But that should not blind us to the enormous courage required for President Johnson and others to support the Civil Rights Act fifty years ago. And without taking away from Johnson’s heroism, we should also remember that he didn’t do it alone. He was supported by an army of civil rights works, congressional staffers, and government bureaucrats who worked tirelessly and selflessly to do the right thing.

And then there was the bipartisan support, which is almost unimaginable today. When the bill was filibustered by Senate Democrats Richard Russell and Robert Byrd, Republican leader Everett Dirksen led 27 northern Republicans to vote with 45 northern Democrats and one southern Democrat (Ralph Yarborough of Texas) to end the filibuster and pass the bill.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Let Us Not Talk Falsely Now: Good News and Bob Dylan

Then Jesus said to those who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
John 8:31-32

“’So let us not talk falsely now for the hour is getting late.’ That line was written by Bob Dylan in the late 60’s. But it is appropriate for The United Methodist Church in 2014. The hour is getting late. And it’s time to speak the truth.”

Those sentences comprise the opening paragraph for an editorial by Good News president Rob Renfroe. The Dylan quotation fits well with Renfroe’s appearance. With his (relatively) long hair and a beard, he looks like a refugee from the late 60’s. But appearances can be deceiving.

Good News describes itself as a reform movement. They say they are “a voice for repentance, an agent for reform, and a catalyst for change within the United Methodist Church. They say that they are Christ centered, faithful to the scriptures, and committed to the Kingdom. In fact, they are committed to a judgmental and legalistic interpretation of the scriptures that is at odds with the teachings of Jesus. They are, sadly, bad news. And they have been bad news for a long time.

The truth, according to Renfroe, is that unless our bishops act swiftly and decisively to punish the clergy who are defying church law and violating their ordination vows by performing “homosexual marriages,” our church will face schism.

Renfroe says that a bishop once told him that there was nothing that a bishop could do about pastors celebrating gay marriages. It was, the bishop claimed, an issue for the Board of Ministry and for a jury of the pastor’s peers. Renfroe then asked, “Bishop, if you were to discover that I was cheating on my wife and I told you I had no intention of stopping, would I be leading worship in my church next Sunday?” When the bishop said that he would remove such a pastor, Renfroe responded, “Then, Bishop, you can do something about pastors who perform gay marriages.”

Of course, that would be a very good point if cheating on one’s spouse had anything in common with officiating at a same sex wedding, other than the fact that both are forbidden by the Book of Discipline.

Our church is declining, Renfroe says, because “many of our people cannot abide to stay in a local church or an Annual Conference where the Gospel is not preached, the Bible is not respected, and the Book of Discipline is disregarded.”

This, too, would be an excellent point, except that we are talking about less than one tenth of one percent of what is in the Bible and the Book of Discipline and zero percent of what is in the Gospel. This assumes that we ignore the fact that there are legitimate arguments to be made over those small fractions, and one can make the case that the Gospel and the Bible taken as a whole are on the opposite side from the Discipline.

The issue is not that complicated. The basic problem is that the Book of Discipline is simply wrong. It is wrong in calling “the practice of homosexuality incompatible with Christian teaching,” wrong in prohibiting equal marriage, and wrong in calling for sanctions against clergy who perform such marriages. This should not be surprising. One of the reasons we amend the Discipline every four years is that we expect to have things that need to be changed. We expect it to be an evolving document.

The question is, what do we do in the meantime? What do we do in the time when we know that the Discipline is wrong, but before it is amended? The answer is that when the Discipline is in conflict with the Gospel, we obey the Gospel.

The truth is that the few passages condemning same sex relationships are no more valid for us today than the passages telling us that women should not speak in church, or those that assume it is alright to have slaves as long as we treat our slaves according to the rules.

For Good News and for Rob Renfroe it is all about following the rules and punishing those who stray. The times are not changing. Moreover, our task is to keep things from changing.

And he says all of this in the name of Bob Dylan. He starts the editorial with Dylan and he comes back to Dylan at the end. The Alpha and the Omega.

He concludes, “The hour is getting late. So, let us not talk falsely. The truth is our bishops can act. The truth is our church needs them to act. The truth is, if they do, there is hope for the UM Church. If they do not, we are standing at the beginning of the end. I pray such is not the case.”

For forty years Good News has been trying to claim Jesus as their own personal property. Now they want to steal Bob Dylan.

It's easy to see without looking too far
That not much
Is really sacred.

                It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleedin’