Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Baltimore Is a Symptom of Racism in America

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 1.18-20

Before we go to Baltimore, let’s begin with some background.

Most people are not self-consciously or intentionally racist.

That is good news and bad news at the same time. It is good news because at least there is some understanding that we ought not to be racists. We know that racism is wrong.

An extension of this good news is that there are now people of color in every profession and at every level of government and business leadership. This was not true fifty years ago. This is progress and we should celebrate it.

The bad news is that most people do not seem to understand that in spite of the progress, racism persists. And in part because of the progress we have made, the issue is more difficult to address.

Unconscious racism is more difficult to address than conscious and intentional racism. It is very difficult to convince someone to stop doing what he or she does not believe they are doing in the first place. We are in a bizarre and strange place where the person who points out an instance of racism is labeled a “racist” for “playing the race card.”

Personal racism is still a problem, but institutional and structural racism are much greater problems.

Last week Jon Stewart did an amusing and interesting piece comparing the Atlanta educators sent to jail over a cheating scandal to the numerous Wall Street traders whose cheating drove the world off a fiscal cliff and who largely escaped unscathed. What struck me, as I looked at the news clips he used to tell the story, was that all five of the administrators pictured were black.

Further research revealed that there were actually eleven educators convicted, and yes, still 100% black. The judge was white. So the black educators, whose cheating netted them thousands of dollars in performance bonuses will go to jail and the white Wall Street traders, whose cheating earned them millions of dollars in bonuses and who caused trillions of dollars of damage to the world economy went free.

Make no mistake. The educators in Atlanta violated the trust of the community and of the children they were supposed to be teaching. But would they be going to jail if they were white? Statistics on incarceration tell us that black people are more likely to go to jail than white people, for the same crime. They are likely to get longer sentences, for the same crime.

Last week Alexandra Zayas and Kameel Stanley wrote a story for The Tampa Bay Times about traffic tickets issued to bicyclists. In the past three years, Tampa police have issued over 2,500 tickets to cyclists. That’s more than the number of tickets issued to cyclists in St. Petersburg, Jacksonville, Orlando, and Miami—combined.

But the most interesting and disturbing part of the story is that 80% of the tickets issued to cyclists in Tampa are issued to blacks, who make up only 25% of the population in the city.

This didn’t happen by accident. Zayas and Stanley found that it was intentional. “Officers use these minor violations as an excuse to stop, question and search almost anyone on wheels. The department doesn't just condone these stops, it encourages them, pushing officers who patrol high-crime neighborhoods to do as many as possible.”

They describe the case of a 56 year old man “who rode his bike through a stop sign while pulling a lawnmower. Police handcuffed him while verifying he had, indeed, borrowed the mower from a friend.” They tell of a woman walking her bike home after cooking for an elderly neighbor. She said she was balancing a plate of fish and grits in one hand when an officer flagged her down and issued her a $51 ticket for not having a light. With late fees, it has since ballooned to $90. She doesn't have the money to pay.” And then there was the 54 year old man who had his bike impounded because he was not carrying a receipt to prove that he owned it.

Which brings us to Baltimore.

No sane person would condone the violence. We cannot condone the violence perpetrated by the police against Mr. Gray. And we cannot condone the violence of the demonstrators.

But we will never be able to address these issues until we address the root problems of racism in America. First, we need to acknowledge that it is real and that it is pervasive. Only then will we be able to come together to look for solutions and for common ground.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Asking a Better Question

Demonstrators Calling for Inclusion at General Conference in 2012

The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”
Acts 10:45-47

The official United Methodist website has an article written by Heather Hahn on the 2016 General Conference titled, “How should General Conference discuss sexuality?”

A better question might be, “Why are we still talking about this?”

Seriously. If you have not been convinced by the witness of the Scriptures, from the Torah to the Prophets to the Gospels and the Letters, that the great arc of the biblical message calls us toward liberation and love and grace, and if the science is not enough, then maybe you might at least pay attention to the commonplace of public opinion.

As the great abolitionist hymn writer and poet, James Russell Lowell wrote:

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

We need to move on.

The article comments on a meeting held recently at First United Methodist Church in Portland, Oregon, on how the next General Conference might avoid the divisive rancor of precious gatherings. Denominational leaders brought together leaders of The Confessing Movement within the United Methodist Church, Good News, Love Prevails, the Methodist Federation for Social Action and the Reconciling Ministries Network. The Confessing Movement and Good News want to maintain the current stance against homosexuality and to increase the penalties for clergy who violate those standards. Love Prevails, the Methodist Federation for Social Action, and Reconciling Ministries want the church to be fully inclusive of LGBTQ persons.

After the meeting, Rob Renfroe, President of Good News, said, “The consensus was that we all know General Conference is an emotional and hurtful process.”

“I think there is consensus that we all want to find a way to minimize the hurt and to allow everyone be heard and at the same time … to allow people to vote their conscience and keep to their principles. We happen to see some important issues in different ways,” he said.

I give him credit for his gracious manner. Clearly, he wants to be kind. He is right, we do “happen to see some important issues in different ways.” And there is pain on both sides.

But let’s be clear. The pain is not equally divided. The pain of being excluded and told that you are “less than” is not the same as the pain of being told that you have excluded and hurt people, or that you shouldn’t do any more hurting and excluding. Neither side is without fault. But again, the fault is not equal.

One of the groups working hard to keep the old exclusionary language in place calls themselves “The Confessing Movement.” One assumes that this is a conscious reference to the Confessing Church which rose up in Germany in the 1930’s in opposition to Hitler. Do they really want to compare those working for inclusion in the UMC to Nazis? And can they really believe that leaders of the Confessing Church, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth, would actually be on their side today? And if they are not trying to make those claims, then they need to change the name.

We need to move on. We have inflicted way too much pain on our LGBTQ sisters and brothers. And we have done great damage to the credibility of the church. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “I like your Christ; I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

Which brings us to another question: How many people have never gotten to know who Jesus is because we are so unlike him?

Friday, April 10, 2015

What Does It Mean to Say We Believe in God?

Paul Tillich

Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’”
Exodus 3:13-14

It happens more often than you might think. I am at a party or some casual event, and someone finds out that I am a pastor. After a short explanation of what it is about churches which keeps this person away, he (most of the time it is a guy) says awkwardly, “Well, anyway, could you put in a good word for me with ‘The Man Upstairs’?” At which point I am tempted to say, “As a pastor, I think it is my duty to tell you that ‘The Man Upstairs’ is a figment of your imagination.”

To get a sense of what an absurd image of God that is, picture Moses at the burning bush. And remember, this story dates back more than three thousand years. This is a primitive story told by primitive people. Here is Moses, tending the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, in Midian. He sees a burning bush. At this point, we modern people want to interrupt and point out that bushes don’t burn like that, but let the story go. [If you are fixed on the question of how the bush could burn like that, I will refer you to my wife, the geologist. Elaine says that there are natural gas vents in that area which could have produced approximately the phenomena recorded in the story.]

Moses stops to look at the bush and hears the voice of God, calling him to go back to Egypt and lead his people to freedom. Moses says no. He can’t do it. It is impossible. “Who am I,” he asks, “that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” They argue. God persists and finally Moses agrees. But he wants a name for this presence which has confronted him. God has already declared, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham and Sarah, of Isaac and Rebecca, of Jacob and Rachel.” Moses wants more than that. “What shall I say,” he demands, “when they ask who sent me?” And God says, “I AM WHO I AM.” And finally, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”

It is a magnificent scene, and it reveals in this primitive people, a depth of theological understanding which we moderns are hard pressed to match. Could you possibly imagine that story ending with God declaring to Moses, “Tell them ‘The Man Upstairs’ has sent me to you”?

The cosmic “I AM,” the Creator of heaven and earth, is not to be confused with something as small as “The Man Upstairs.”

The great theologian, Paul Tillich, speaks of God as “the Ground of Being” or “Being itself.” “The Man Upstairs” is too small, too tame, too limited to be anything more than a figment of our imaginations.

Where does that leave us? As thoughtful Christians, what do we mean when we speak of God?

1. We begin with experience. The Bible was not written to convince us that God is real, nor was it written as an affirmation of faith. It is the story of the people of God, a record of their (our) experiences. In the Bible, faithful men and women are telling us how they have experienced God. The writers don’t start with their beliefs, they start with their experiences.

What fundamentally differentiates Christians and Jews (and Muslims, in many respects) from other members of our culture, is not in the first instance our belief. What makes us different is our experience.

On January 1, 2000, Elaine and Carolyn and I spent the first day of the New Millennium in Georgetown, Maine. We got up before sunrise and drove to Five Islands, and went down on the dock, and watched the sun come up out of the water where the Sheepscott River runs into the Atlantic Ocean. Then we drove to Reid State Park and walked out on Griffith’s Head. It was spectacular. It was almost perfect. The water was beautiful. The sky was clear blue. The sun, coming up out of the ocean, was so dramatic. There were perhaps a dozen people walking on the beach or sitting on the rocks. There was a family cooking breakfast on a camp stove. Even the little dog with the red bow was magnificent. If the family with the little dog, cooking breakfast on the top of Griffith’s Head had invited us to join them, it would have been absolutely perfect. It was so close.

As I stood there, taking in the incredible beauty and majesty of that scene, I was overwhelmed. And I thought, if I could just take everybody there; if you could see it as I saw it, I wouldn’t need to preach a sermon. Ever again.

One of the best known verses from both Psalms and Proverbs is usually translated as, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” But a better understanding of that verse is not “fear,” but “awe.” Awe of the Lord, wonder, amazement, this is the beginning of wisdom.

We begin with wonder and amazement, at sunrise and sunset, at the change of the seasons, at birth and death. The starry night and the bright sunlight both speak to us of wonder.

2. The order of the universe is amazing. There are some who say, “I would believe in God if there were some sign, some miracle, some supernatural occurrence.” They are looking for something which contradicts the natural order. I have to confess, I am just the opposite. For me, the ordinary is extraordinary. The order of the universe is a miracle of cosmic proportions.

I had a high school physics teacher by the name of Harry Drew. Mr. Drew was a wonderful teacher. On a fairly regular basis, he would ask us, “Did you ever think what would happen if ice were heavier than water? If ice formed at the bottom of the pond, do you know what would happen?” My classmates and I were not nearly as amazed by this as he thought we should be. He would glare at us, clearly appalled at our adolescent indifference, but with a twinkle in his eye as if he were enjoying some intergalactic joke which we didn’t get. Then he would lean forward and say softly, “Everything in the pond would die.”

The order of the universe is amazing. We often think of miracles as events which contradict the natural order. But the greatest miracle is the order itself. And miracles may best be understood as ordinary events through which we see the eternal presence of God. A miracle is an ordinary event which is transparent to the eternal.

3. Life has meaning. When we say that we believe in God, we are saying that we believe life has meaning. There is depth. It isn’t all shallow.

Elaine used to say of my Grandfather Gibbs, that it was wonderful to tell him stories because when you told him a story it seemed to take on greater importance. In the telling, it became more than it otherwise would have been. Events had meaning because we could tell him about them. He enjoyed the stories. He cared about us. It mattered to him, and because it mattered to him, it became more important to us. I suspect that you may have people in your own life who are like that for you.

Ultimately, God is the one to whom we tell our stories. God is the one before whom our lives are acted out. Our lives have deeper meaning because they matter to God, just as my stories took on a deeper meaning because they mattered to my grandfather. When we say we believe in God, we are affirming that life matters, ultimately and eternally. Our living makes a difference.

4. We are finite. I will not say this well, but I will try. For me, the greatest significance of living my life before God is that I believe it gives me a real perspective on who I am.

To believe in God is to live with a sense of finitude, a sense of limits. One of our junior high teachers liked to tell her kids in Sunday School, “It’s not always about you.” Believing in God is reminding myself, it’s not always about me. There is more in life than us. We are limited and God is unlimited. We are finite and God is infinite.

Paul Tillich asserts that to comprehend this, to stand before the universe and recognize one’s finitude, is an act of courage. It takes courage to claim one’s place before God.

We can make believe that we are the center of the universe, but believing will not make it so. It is comforting to think that the world revolves around us, but it doesn’t.

To take upon one’s self the limited nature of human life in this vast and uncertain universe, is an act of existential courage. Tillich calls it, the courage to be.” It is facing life honestly, as it really is.

What does it mean for thoughtful Christians to speak of belief in God in the twenty-first century? To me, means awe, and order, and meaning, and the courage to face life as it really is.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Why Did Jesus Die and What Does It Mean? (a short reflection)

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?”
Mark 8:34-37

The most common (most frequent and crudest) explanation of Jesus' death on the cross is that God sent him to die for our sins. Someone had to pay for the sins of humanity. Jesus suffered so that I didn't have to. He was perfectly sinless and it was a perfect sacrifice.

That is a caricature of what is called the theory of "substitutionary atonement." I have deliberately used the caricature to make a larger point. In spite of the fact that it's the theology I grew up with, and it's still the most common theological understanding of Good Friday, I am convinced it is wrong. It is wrong biblically, historically, morally, and theologically.

On Good Friday, Jesus was tried, and convicted, and tortured, and killed. It was a triumph for the powers of darkness, and there was nothing good about that Friday. Or so it seemed.

But in his death he exposed the moral bankruptcy of the Empire and the shallow religiosity of the chief priests and elders who collaborated with the oppressors. Good Friday is the story of a collision between the goodness of God in Jesus, and the evil of a violent empire.

Before we go any further, we need to clear up two major misunderstandings:
The Jews did not kill Jesus; the Romans did.
He was not executed for blasphemy; he was executed for treason.

The Jews did not kill Jesus. We know this as an absolute fact because they did not have the authority to carry out capital punishment. We also know this because if he had been sentenced to death by a Jewish court, he would have been stoned to death. The Romans were the only ones with the authority to kill him, and they did.

We know that the Romans executed Jesus for sedition because they crucified him. Crucifixion was a death reserved for those who committed treason against the empire. It was a form of state terrorism designed to torture its victims and terrify the populace. The Romans did it often so that the people were kept constantly aware of the consequences of defying the empire.

So why did Jesus die? And what does it mean?

I don’t believe that God sent Jesus to die. I don’t believe that it was God’s plan.

That’s partly because I think that speaking of God’s plan is too anthropomorphic. It imagines God as some sort of supernatural version of a human being. But it’s also morally suspect. It suggests that somehow God was sending Jesus on a suicide mission.

Jesus died because he was completely faithful to God and his faithfulness collided with the sinfulness of humanity in the form of the Roman Empire. He died because he proclaimed the Kingdom of God as an alternative vision of how the world could be. Against the normalcy of violence, he proclaimed nonviolence. Against the normalcy of self-interest, he proclaimed self-sacrifice.

The commandment to love our enemies is about as subversive of what passes for normal as anything could possibly be. And two thousand years later, even those of us who claim to be his followers have a very hard time even imagining what that path looks like, let alone following it.

When he invited his followers to take up the cross, he invited them to follow the path of self-sacrificial love. And he promised that the way of self-sacrifice is also the way that leads to life.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Indiana and the Right to a Dominant Worldview

Indiana Protest Against the Religious Freedom Restoration Act

The time is surely coming, says the Lord God, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord.
Amos 8:11

Amos observes the injustice of his people and proclaims that there will be a famine. But this famine will not be about a shortage of food or water. This will be a famine “of hearing the words of the LORD.” If you do not act justly, says Amos, then you will not be able to hear what God is saying to you.

In Indiana there is a famine among some of their political and religious leaders, “not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord.”

They are so unaware of the injustice of a worldview that takes for granted the lesser status of LGBTQ citizens, that they cannot hear the words of the Lord in this context. When injustice looks like normal, it is very difficult to see anything else.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said that a prophet is someone who knows what time it is.

He did not mean time as measured by the clock. And he didn’t mean the sense of timing that we associate with successfully telling a joke or making a political calculation. The role of the prophet is to reflect on the sacred story of what God has done, and what God has called us to do in the world to work for justice, and then by reading the signs of the times, to proclaim what God requires in the present moment.

The prophet Micah asked rhetorically, “What does the LORD require of you?” And then declared the answer, “To do justice and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

In response to Governor Mike Pence’s recent signing of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, United Methodist Bishop Mike Coyner issued a pastoral letter about “Faith and Fear.”

He rightly notes that the measure is not founded on faith or on religion, but on fear. People fear that that their faith is under attack, even though it isn’t. But he wrongly argues that there is an equally misplaced fear on the other side of the issue; that those who fear the law will lead to discrimination are overreacting. In the end, his desire to be fair to both sides gives legitimacy to those who want religious cover for their prejudice.

The law is designed to enable discrimination. It is not unreasonable to fear that the law might do what it is designed to do.

In one sense, the bishop is probably right when he says that it will all turn out to be “much ado about nothing.” It is unlikely that very many vendors will turn away business. It is not the most important thing in the world.

But that is not the point.

The law will do at least two things.

The first and most important result of the law is to reassert the dominance of a worldview that discriminates against LGBT people. Every time they enter into a business transaction, or look for an apartment, or apply for a loan, or apply for a job, they will know that the law says that they can be denied simply because of who they are. That is no small thing.

The second result of this law is that it reinforces the perception that Christians are bigots.

It is time (long past time) for Christians to speak up. This isn’t about sincerely held beliefs on both sides. It is about right and wrong. It is about justice. It is about knowing what time it is.