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 na├»ve 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.