Tuesday, November 25, 2014
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
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
No one has greater love than this,
to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
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
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.
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.