Wednesday, May 28, 2014

A Craven Madness

For God did not give us a craven spirit, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.
II Timothy 1:7

I was not surprised to see that a Facebook “friend” had posted a link to Richard Martinez’s impassioned plea for gun control in the aftermath of his son’s death in the multiple killings in Isla Vista, California last weekend. In a series of interviews, Martinez called out the “gutless politicians” whose unwillingness to implement any meaningful restrictions in the availability of firearms was a major factor in his son’s killing. "Why did Chris die?" he yelled in one interview. "Chris died because of craven, irresponsible politicians and the NRA. They talk about gun rights. What about Chris' right to live?"

But I was very surprised to see that someone else had posted a link to an article in The Onion. I love the satire in The Onion, but this seemed in very bad taste. Above a picture of grieving college students was the headline: “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.” The article is short and it isn’t funny at all:

ISLA VISTA, CA—In the days following a violent rampage in southern California in which a lone attacker killed seven individuals, including himself, and seriously injured over a dozen others, citizens living in the only country where this kind of mass killing routinely occurs reportedly concluded Tuesday that there was no way to prevent the massacre from taking place. “This was a terrible tragedy, but sometimes these things just happen and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop them,” said North Carolina resident Samuel Wipper, echoing sentiments expressed by tens of millions of individuals who reside in a nation where over half of the world’s deadliest mass shootings have occurred in the past 50 years and whose citizens are 20 times more likely to die of gun violence than those of other developed nations. “It’s a shame, but what can we do? There really wasn’t anything that was going to keep this guy from snapping and killing a lot of people if that’s what he really wanted.” At press time, residents of the only economically advanced nation in the world where roughly two mass shootings have occurred every month for the past five years were referring to themselves and their situation as “helpless.”

Not funny, but precisely to the point.

Why are we unable to do anything? Why are we so addicted to guns? And I know that three of the seven victims were killed with a knife, so we could also ask why we are so addicted to violence. But guns are the common denominator in mass killings over the years.

As comedian John Oliver once "One failed attempt at a shoe bomb and we all take off our shoes at the airport. Thirty-one school shootings since Columbine and no change in our regulation of guns."

After 9/11 we made drastic changes in airport security. Basically, we search everyone. We won’t allow anything more deadly than a paperclip carried on an airplane. We limit shampoo bottles to 3.4 ounces. We won’t let anyone park anywhere near the boarding areas. We tolerate restrictions that once would have seemed bizarre. And we do all of this to prevent another tragedy.

The total death toll on 9/11 was 2,996. The number still looks horrific. Even one death is too many.

But more than 30,000 people die each year in America from firearms. We have lost approximately 400,000 lives to firearms since 9/11. This is madness. To borrow the word shared by Mr. Martinez and the Apostle Paul, this is a craven madness.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Losers and Winners and Cancelling Honors Night at Cole Middle School

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
Philippians 4:8-9

In his weekly monologue on Prairie Home Companion, Garrison Keillor always closes his report on the news from the fictional Minnesota village of Lake Wobegon by describing it as a place “where the women are strong, the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”

In my little town of East Greenwich, you can argue about how strong the women are and whether the men are good looking, but you can’t argue about the kids, they really are above average.

That’s not just my opinion, it’s a fact. At least according to the standardized test scores. Students at the Archie R. Middle School, just a stone’s throw from my front door, scored twenty points higher than the state averages, in every grade, in math and reading and science. You can look it up.

So it was a little startling to see Cole singled out as a prime example of why American schools are failing. The problem in our schools can be traced to the “idiotic,” “ridiculous,” “socialist,” “stupid,” “progressive,” “pathetic,” decision by the folks at the Archie R. Cole Middle School to cancel their annual awards night.

Alexis Meyer and Dan Seger, the Principal and Assistant Principal at Cole, sent a letter to parents last Friday, explaining that the traditional “Honors Night” would be discontinued. They went on to say, “Members of the school community have long expressed concerns related to the exclusive nature of Honors Night. Therefore, we have made the collective decision to recognize students during team- based recognition ceremonies and graduation. This will afford us the opportunity to celebrate the individual and collective successes of all students and their effort, progress, and excellence.”

My initial reaction to the Cole decision was negative. Why should we have a problem with celebrating the best and the brightest? Shouldn’t we reward academic excellence?

But then social media and the blogosphere immediately lit up with a tsunami of negative commentary.

Reading the comments on a news story can often be disheartening and sometimes it is appalling. But it can also be wonderfully clarifying. One of the recurring themes in the commentary on the decision to cancel honors night was that teachers and administrators are people who could not succeed in “the real world.” They are, to put it bluntly, “losers.” Another theme was that in life there are winners and losers, and there is no such thing as collective excellence. Excellence is by its very nature exclusive and individual.

Oh. My. Goodness. Time to rethink my assumptions.

In the first place, anyone who calls someone else a “loser” is, by definition “a loser” (Matthew 5:22).

In the second place, didn’t Bill Belichick build a whole coaching philosophy around the concept of collective excellence? (Those of us with very long memories may want to give original credit to Red Auerbach or Vince Lombardi.)

But in a broader context, why are we so obsessed with winners and losers? Excellence is not necessarily exclusive. The quest for excellence is not a zero sum game.

And why do we have such a low view of educators?

I was pondering all of this when I discovered this morning that Cole will reinstate their honors night. Our long national nightmare is over. Sanity has been restored.

If you read the letter carefully, you will see that they still plan to make some changes. The celebration will be at night, as in the past, rather than during the school day. And it will be called “Honors Night.” But it looks like they will still introduce some team honors, as well. Sounds good to me!

Monday, May 19, 2014

Seriously, Check Your Privilege

Know that the Lord is God.
It is he that made us,
and not we ourselves;
we are his people,
and the sheep of his pasture.

Psalm 100:3

From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.
Luke 12:48

It would have been more appropriate if Tal Fortgang, a first year student at Princeton University, had published his essay on White Privilege on April 1st rather than April 2nd. And it would be easier to understand why the essay went viral on the internet.

Writing in The Princeton Tory, he detailed his objections to the phrase, “Check your privilege,” which admonishes the speaker to recognize that his or her opinions may be influenced by the privilege associated with his or her station in life. This, he argues, negates all the hard work he did to get where he is, and dismisses his opinions simply because he is a white male.

He accuses those who raise the issue of privilege of “diminishing everything I have personally accomplished, all the hard work I have done in my life, and for ascribing all the fruit I reap not to the seeds I sow but to some invisible patron saint of white maleness who places it out for me before I even arrive.”

With all due respect to the seeds he has sown, to speak seriously of “all the hard work I have done in my life” seems a bit over the top. Tal Fortgang is in his first year of college. High school may have seemed like an eternity, and for some young people it is really hard, but it’s difficult to see it as a lifetime achievement.

Fortgang says that he decided to “check his privilege” to see how his past had brought him to his present situation. “I decided to take their advice,” he writes. “I actually went and checked the origins of my privileged existence.”

Of course, we know that he didn’t go to check his origins because someone told him to check his privilege, but it does make an engaging introduction to his family story. And that story is compelling. His grandfather escaped from the Nazis only to spend years in a forced labor camp in Siberia. His grandmother weighed just eighty pounds when she was rescued from Bergen-Belsen at the end of the war. They came to America and succeeded through hard work and sacrifice. They lived out the American dream.

It’s a great family story. And I mean that quite seriously.

But the idea of privilege is not about whether our grandparents worked hard. It is about recognizing that the place we occupy in society is not (entirely) of our own making. For Tal Fortgang, part of what it means is that he owes a great debt to his grandparents.

He probably would not have gotten into Princeton without hard work, but for most young people, all the hard work in the world would not have gotten them admission to Princeton or any of another several dozen elite colleges. He was born with intellectual abilities that others simply do not have. His parents supported him and taught him to value education. They probably gave him an environment that stimulated his curiosity. He was helped by his teachers and his school, and his hometown. He benefitted from his socio-economic status. There are very few kids at prestigious colleges who come from economically disadvantaged homes, though many feel disadvantaged because they compare themselves to their even wealthier classmates.

Everyone at Princeton, regardless of race, gender, religion, or the economic status of his or her family, has been gifted with enormous privilege.

Questioning his privileged surroundings, he writes: “Perhaps it was my privilege that my own father worked hard enough in City College to earn a spot at a top graduate school, got a good job, and for 25 years got up well before the crack of dawn, sacrificing precious time he wanted to spend with those he valued most—his wife and kids—to earn that living. I can say with certainty there was no legacy involved in any of his accomplishments. The wicker business just isn’t that influential. Now would you say that we’ve been really privileged? That our success has been gift-wrapped?”

Yes, Mr. Fortgang, that was and is part of your privilege. Your father sounds like an exemplary individual, and he worked hard to give you the life you now enjoy.

The reminder to “check your privilege” is not meant to make us feel guilty. It is meant to remind us that race, gender, class, and a host of other factors beyond our control have helped us to become the people we are. And that where we are in the socio-economic landscape influences how we see the rest of the world.

We hope that we have been good stewards of the gifts we have been given. We hope that we will add to the cultural legacy we have inherited. And we hope that by being aware of the gifts we have received we will take a kinder view of those who have less than we do.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Biblical Literalism Isn't Biblical

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
II Timothy 3:14-17

Biblical scholars tell us that the letters labeled as having been written by the apostle Paul to his younger colleague Timothy were not written by Paul. And they were not written to the same Timothy we meet in Acts and in the letters authored by Paul. These letters were written later, by someone claiming Paul’s theological and spiritual legacy and addressing issues in the church from a Pauline perspective.

It is ironic that in these letters which Paul did not write and Timothy did not receive, some Christians find the proof text for the idea of biblical inerrancy: “All scripture is inspired by God.” If the letters had actually been written by Paul, the “scripture” referred to would have been the Hebrew Bible, since the New Testament had not yet been written.

Of course, if you believe in biblical inerrancy, then neither biblical scholarship nor historical context makes any difference.

In a recent editorial in “Good News” magazine, publisher and President Rob Renfroe argues that the current conflict over “the issue of homosexuality” is really a much deeper division rooted in our understanding of biblical authority. He writes:

“Those of us who embrace orthodoxy believe that the Bible is ‘God-breathed,’ fully inspired and authoritative in determining moral and spiritual truth. On the other hand, our progressive colleagues are becoming more open to publicly admit that at least parts of the Bible (the parts they disagree with) cannot be trusted to reveal the heart and mind of God and may be disregarded.”

Renfroe is right that the underlying conflict is really about how we understand the Bible. Those who believe in biblical literalism claim that they have a “higher” view of biblical authority. Those of us on the other side believe that view is not higher, but it is different. We believe our reading of scripture is more consistent with what we find in the Bible itself.

And almost everyone who reads the Bible believes that there are some passages that “cannot be trusted to reveal the heart and mind of God.” Rev. Renfroe does not oppose the ordination of women and apparently disregards these verses from Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth:

(As in all of the churches, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only ones it has reached?)
I Corinthians 14:34-36

The parentheses are found in many translations to reflect the view of most New Testament scholars that Paul did not write those verses. They were added later and contradict the radical egalitarianism Paul (like Jesus) envisions in the Kingdom of God.

Leviticus 20:13 is one of the passages cited by Renfroe and others as evidence that homosexuality should be condemned. But as Adam Hamilton has pointed out, even the literalists don’t take the whole passage literally. The verse reads, “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.” Renfroe and others believe it is an abomination, but they don’t believe that those who engage in such acts should be put to death.

Narrow appeals to literalism as the only authentic way to read the Bible are fundamentally at odds with the biblical witness and they reject one of the core concepts of Methodism. Our approach to biblical interpretation and to ethical decision making rests on what we have come to call the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral.” Ten years ago, shortly before his death at age 97, Dean Walter Muelder of Boston University School of Theology, one of the pioneers in the field of Christian Social Ethics, addressed his fellow retirees in the New England Conference on precisely this issue.

“We need to remind the whole church,” he said, “that Methodism has a fourfold basis for making authoritative positions, namely: scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. It is the coherence of these explorations that is authoritative. No literal appeal to isolated scripture passages is sufficient. We have to understand the historical nature of Scripture as a whole and relate any passage to the Bible as a whole, to the evolving tradition both within the Biblical period, to historical Methodism, to the best scientific reasoning, and to a comprehensive awareness of evolving experience. This fourfold coherence is essential for maintaining authoritative doctrine and practice.”

Let me repeat my favorite sentence, “It is the coherence of these explorations that is authoritative.”