Tuesday, August 25, 2015

President Carter: Naming the Demon of Racism

President Carter announcing his cancer diagnosis.

Then the whole town came out to meet Jesus; and when they saw him they begged him to leave their neighborhood.
Matthew 8:34

I said they refused Jesus, too, and he said, “You’re not him.”
Bob Dylan

They asked Jesus to leave because he had been casting out demons.

The Gospel stories of demons and demon possession are hard for us to understand. The pre-scientific world view of the first century is in many ways very different from our own. But the demon stories leave us with some enduring truths:

1. The demons recognize Jesus. They see the truth in him and they are afraid.
2. He names them and by this naming and identifying, he takes away their power.
3. People get nervous when demons are cast out.

This last point was apparent in the response to President Jimmy Carter’s remarks about racism and our first African American President.

Jimmy Carter has been on my mind a lot lately. He is 90 years old, so his death cannot really be a surprise. But when he announced, with typical grace and humility, that he has brain cancer, it brought me up short. I will miss him. I wish him a long but pain free good-bye. I do not want him to go quickly into that good night.

Whatever else one might say about Jimmy Carter, “Jimmah,” as Rosalynn always seems to pronounce it, he was our most self-consciously and consistently Christian president. More than any other president, he tried to put his Christian faith into practice in the White House. And that was always his problem. As a country we demand that our presidents profess their faith, but we are generally uncomfortable if they try to put it into practice.

Over the next few weeks I want to look back on some brief episodes in the long and good life of a man we have so often under-appreciated.

The first episode comes from the summer after President Obama took office when Carter was asked why he thought there was so much criticism of the President. Much to the chagrin of the White House, he said that although there were many legitimate policy issues to debate, he attributed the virulence of the reaction to racism.

Speaking from his experience growing up in the South, he correctly identified the demon of racism, which has possessed our country for so long, and he has been vilified for it. I remember watching a video of him being asked about this. Carter sat solemnly, his shoulders hunched and his posture bent by age, as the commentator talked about him “intimidating” and bullying those who disagree by calling some of it racism. Apart from the gentleness of his demeanor, it was hard to imagine this elderly man intimidating or bullying anyone. But when a person has the courage to name the demon, we say that he or she is “playing the race card.” The one who names the oppression is called the oppressor. That is our way of begging Jesus to leave our neighborhood.

Racism does not surprise me. What surprises me and troubles me, is the inability (or unwillingness) of people to call it what it is and cast it out.

The issue was in the news at the time of Carter’s interview because of an incident earlier that summer when Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested at his home in Cambridge, when a police officer thought he was a burglar. President Obama commented critically on the officer’s behavior and then invited both the officer and Professor Gates to join him for a conciliatory beer in the Rose Garden.

In an attempt to refute the charge of racism, the Providence Journal ran an editorial comparing Bob Dylan’s encounter with a police officer in Atlantic City with the Henry Louis Gates incident in Cambridge. If only Professor Gates had been as calm as Bob Dylan, said the editorial, there would never have been a problem. And except for a few small details, the circumstances are remarkably similar:

Bob Dylan was trespassing on someone else’s property, while Professor Gates was in his own home.
Dylan was wandering in the middle of the night and Gates was coming home in the middle of the day.
Dylan was dressed like a street person and Gates was dressed like Henry Louis Gates.
Gates showed his identification, and Dylan had no ID.
They both got a ride in a police car. Gates was handcuffed, Dylan was not.
Gates was taken to the police station to be booked. Dylan was taken to his hotel to see if someone could verify his identity.
And in the Dylan case, the police officer apologized.

Other than those minor details, the cases were identical.

In an interview with Brian Williams, President Carter said, "I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man, that he's African American.” Sadly, the issues of racism have intensified over the years since President Carter first had the courage to speak that painful truth.

President Carter named the demon and there were (and are) lots of people who want him to leave the neighborhood. He did not call it racism because he disagreed with the criticisms made by President Obama’s opponents. He was naming the demon. We need to have the courage to cast it out. Then we can get back to debating the issues.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Three Simple Mistakes That Preachers Make

"I give you a new commandment that you should love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another." 
John 13:34

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” 
Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”
John 6:35, 41-42

On Sunday we went to church. I like to go to church when I am on vacation because it gives me a chance to just sit and listen. I am not responsible for anything. It is Sabbath time in a way that the Sundays when I am preaching cannot be Sabbath time.

The guest preacher was very earnest and he spoke well. He had an engaging manner and a ready smile. Mostly he just repeated Bible stories in colloquial language, but he did it effectively.

The sermon seemed to have three main points:

1. All God asks of us is that we believe.
2. You don’t have to DO anything.
3. It is not about this world.

All three points are very fairly common in traditional Christian preaching, and all three are wrong. 

Part of it was not his fault. At this point in the Lectionary cycle we are deeply mired in John’s Gospel and the stories seem to be on a repeating loop about the bread of life. After a while, even the best preachers will either run out of things to say or get lost in the weeds. This is one of the reasons that at the United Methodist Church in East Greenwich we have departed from the Lectionary and are doing a series on “Faith in Film.”

There was a time in my life when John’s Gospel was my favorite. But that was long ago and far away.

Parts of John are amazing. Few passages in the Bible can compare to John’s prologue in terms of theological and philosophical depth. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” That verse alone has launched a thousand sermons. And poems. And philosophical reflections. To borrow a phrase from a rabbi, that verse has infinity within it.

John has incredible stories and character studies: “The Woman at the Well,” “The Man Born Blind,” “The Woman Taken in Adultery.” And then there is the dialogue between Jesus and Pilate. It doesn’t get much deeper than Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” And you get a feeling for both Pilate and Jesus that is unique in the Gospels.

But John has some major failings that are challenging to work around. One of the prominent story lines in the New Testament is the transformation of Christianity from a sect within Judaism into a new religion. The Gospels continually define the teachings of Jesus over against the teachings of traditional Judaism and there is an emphasis on the differences which is inherently anti-Semitic. But John gives us anti-Semitism on steroids. It is understandable, once you consider the historical context. When the synoptic gospels were written (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), the church was still part of the synagogue. Those writers wanted to draw a contrast, within Judaism, between Jesus and the Pharisees. Really, they were contrasting Jesus with other Pharisees, since Jesus was a Pharisee. As the church breaks away, John casts “the Jews” in the role the other gospels assign to the Pharisees, although the fact is that Jesus and his disciples, and most of the other early Christians, were all Jews.

And then there are the three points of the sermon. John isn’t really trying to make these points. They are a simplistic interpretation of his theology. It is at least partly their simplicity that makes them so popular. 

Could anything be simpler than the idea that all we need to do is believe? 

What Alfred North Whitehead said of science and natural philosophy is also true of theology, the aim “is to seek the simplest explanation of complex facts.” But then Whitehead adds the caution that, “We are apt to fall into the error of thinking that the facts are simple because simplicity is the goal of our quest.” And he concludes, “The guiding motto in the life of every natural philosopher should be, ‘Seek simplicity and distrust it.’”

In theology and biblical study we should always seek simplicity, but we should also recognize that a simple explanation cannot fully explain a complex reality.

The idea that all we need to do is believe, ignores the fact that in Matthew, Mark, and Luke there is almost nothing at all about belief. The invitation is simply to follow Jesus. And it also ignores the very strong emphasis in John on servanthood as the evidence that we are Jesus’ disciples. John is the one who reports Jesus saying, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-45).

Believing, as the early Christians understood it, is not the same as what modern preachers mean by it. To believe in Jesus, in the biblical sense, is to give one’s heart to Jesus. It is an existential commitment rather than an intellectual exercise. And there is nothing simple about it.

 “You don’t have to DO anything,” said the preacher. He said it more than once to emphasize the simplicity of Christian faith. This second point is a heresy as old as Christianity. In Paul’s Second Letter to the Church in Thessalonica, one of the oldest texts in the New Testament, he confronts a group who literally will not do anything. They will not work and instead are living off of the work of others. If they cannot earn God’s favor by good works, then what is the point of working? Paul has a simple solution. If they will not work, then they will not eat.

God loves us and accepts us just the way we are. It is a gift of grace. We don’t have to do anything to be loved by God. But that is not the only word. The synoptic gospels are organized around a single question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” What must I do to have fellowship with God now and forever? And the answer is always the same: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.” We don’t have to do those things to earn God’s love, but we do have to do those things in order to experience life the way it is meant to be lived. We don’t experience the gift of God’s grace until we choose to receive it.

Point three in the sermon was that it’s not about this world. The preacher said that the Jews in John’s Gospel were looking for a paradise on earth, but Jesus was talking about a “heavenly” kingdom. It is a popular and traditional misconception. In the Lectionary text for last Sunday and at other points, John seems to say that Jesus is focused primarily on something beyond this world. When Pilate asks Jesus if he is a king, Jesus answers, “My kingdom is not from this world,” if it were, “my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over.” But the key point in that passage is that Jesus’ kingdom, the Kingdom of God, is not like the kingdoms of this world. It is not built on violence and domination. It is built on peace and non-violence. To use Paul’s language, it is in the world but not of the world. Most specifically, it is not like the Roman Empire.

Similarly, the preacher pointed out that Jesus was talking about the bread of heaven while “the Jews” were looking for a meal. According to John’s account, Jesus did talk about the bread of heaven, but throughout the Gospels he talks a great deal more about real bread that feeds hungry people here and now.

John’s emphasis on eternal life certainly means more than just the time that we are alive on earth, but it starts now. It is not something that happens to us only after we die. Eternal life means living fully in the presence of God, now and forever. Almost two thousand years later, when Dietrich Bonhoeffer talked about “this worldly Christianity” as he led the Confessing Church against the empire of Hitler, he was much closer to Jesus’ meaning than the popular tradition of an “other-worldly” Jesus. 

After the sermon we said the Lord’s Prayer, which gave a wonderful counterpoint:

Thy kingdom come, 
Thy will be done 
on earth 
as it is in heaven. 
Give us this day our daily bread . . .   

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Hiroshima, Seventy Years Ago Today

Hiroshima after the Atomic Bomb

“Blessed are the peacemakers, 
for they will be called children of God.”
Matthew 5:9

“War is essentially the denial of everything Christ stood for.”
Harry Emerson Fosdick

One of our summer traditions is going to the Patten Library book sale. The books sale is part of “Bath Heritage Days,” a festive occasion of craft fares, displays and sales. A few years ago I found a wonderful little book of sermons by Harry Emerson Fosdick called, “A Great Time to Be Alive.” 

Fosdick looks better and better to me as the years go by. When I was in seminary, I thought he was a theological and intellectual lightweight. In my estimation, opposing Fundamentalism was obvious. And didn’t he spend his whole career at Riverside Church, bought and paid for by Rockefeller money? But now, when I re-read “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” I am struck by its relevance for our time. Fosdick’s liberal theology, which seemed so pale and lifeless when I was in seminary, now looks both profound and prophetic. Truthfully, I held those negative opinions based almost entirely on what other people had said or written. My opinion changed as I began to read Fosdick for myself. 

Still, I was put off by the title of the book. I assumed that “A Great Time to Be Alive” would be a sugary recitation of happy insights from the 1950’s. Optimism pretending to be faith. A mid-twentieth century version of Joel Osteen. I bought it because I have a small collection of Fosdick books, but I did not expect much.

I was surprised to find a prophetic and  remarkably hopeful collection of sermons written and preached during the Second World War. Fosdick’s hope takes account of the stark reality of war, but also looks ahead to the possibilities beyond the war. 

The book was published in the summer of 1944, shortly after the Normandy invasion, when the outcome of the war was not yet certain. Fosdick had the courage, in that perilous time, to declare that war is always at odds with Christian teaching. It may be necessary, but it is never good. “Whether one thinks of what our enemies have done to us—of Warsaw, Lidice, Rotterdam, Coventry—or what we have done to them—‘We literally drop liquid fire on these cities,’ says one expert in air warfare, ‘and literally roast the populations to death.’”

He assumes that we will win the war. Hitler will be defeated and Imperial Japan will be vanquished, but the real challenge will be to win the peace, to create a world which is worthy of the human lives lost in war. “Many Americans,” he writes, “would love to save the world if only they could save it without changing their isolationism, without changing their ideas of absolute national sovereignty, without changing their racial prejudices and their economic ideas to fit the new interdependent world.” Sadly, those words are still relevant. We still want to save the world without giving up anything.

In many ways, we did “win the peace.” The Marshall Plan was an incredible effort to rebuild the nations we had defeated, and it led to decades of post-war prosperity. Although we still have a long way to go, we have made great strides in race relations. And the United Nations, for all its shortcomings, is still at the center of maintaining peace in the world. In other ways, we are still struggling to recognize the ties that bind us together and embrace the interdependence of God’s world.

Fosdick’s vision is particularly relevant as we contemplate the proposed nuclear deal with Iran and the 70th anniversary of the dropping of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. In 2009 the Boston Globe described the bombing this way:
Targeted for military reasons and for its terrain (flat for easier assessment of the aftermath), Hiroshima was home to approximately 250,000 people at the time of the bombing. The U.S. B-29 Superfortress bomber "Enola Gay" took off from Tinian Island very early on the morning of August 6th, carrying a single 4,000 kg (8,900 lb) uranium bomb codenamed "Little Boy". At 8:15 am, Little Boy was dropped from 9,400 m (31,000 ft) above the city, freefalling for 57 seconds while a complicated series of fuse triggers looked for a target height of 600 m (2,000 ft) above the ground. At the moment of detonation, a small explosive initiated a super-critical mass in 64 kg (141 lbs) of uranium. Of that 64 kg, only .7 kg (1.5 lbs) underwent fission, and of that mass, only 600 milligrams was converted into energy - an explosive energy that seared everything within a few miles, flattened the city below with a massive shockwave, set off a raging firestorm and bathed every living thing in deadly radiation. Nearly 70,000 people are believed to have been killed immediately, with possibly another 70,000 survivors dying of injuries and radiation exposure by 1950.
It is sobering to remember that the United States remains the first and only country ever to have used an atomic bomb. The Daily Mail published a stark pictorial of the immediate aftermath of the attack showing horrifically injured survivors wandering through the desolation, picking their way among the corpses just hours after the bomb was dropped. It is particularly chilling to realize that every person pictured would have died of radiation exposure in the weeks and months following the attack.

(Portions of this post were originally published on August 6, 2009)

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Who Do You Trust?

A Protest in New York against the Iran Nuclear Pact

He shall judge between the nations, 
and shall arbitrate for many peoples; 
they shall beat their swords into plowshares, 
and their spears into pruning hooks; 
nation shall not lift up sword against nation, 
neither shall they learn war any more.
Isaiah 2:4

Once upon a time there was a quiz show called, “Who Do You Trust?” In its original incarnation it was called, “Do You Trust Your Wife?” Johnny Carson hosted the program before going on to his more famous role as host of  “The Tonight Show.” The contestants competed as couples and the quiz format had the man (always the man) choosing a category and then, after hearing the question, deciding whether to trust himself or his wife to give the correct answer.

The proposed nuclear deal with Iran has all of us playing a variation of that old game show. The critical question is, “Who do you trust?”

Technically, I think, it should be “Whom do you trust.” But since we no longer trust the grammar experts we now go with the common usage. Because most people would use “who” in that context, we have decided that “who” is proper, even though it isn’t.

Which is part of the problem. We no longer trust the experts. We don’t trust physicians about vaccines or scientists about global warming. We don’t trust historians. And we certainly are not going to trust diplomats and scientists to tell us whether or not the Iran deal is worth supporting.

Some of our not trusting is a good thing. Heaven knows that we have not always been well served by experts in many areas. The people who got us into Vietnam were, as David Halberstam wrote, “The Best and the Brightest.”

It is not a bad thing to question authority. The Hebrew prophets questioned authority. Jesus questioned authority. On the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, it is worth remembering that Protestantism is founded on the questioning of authority.

But we have gone far beyond a healthy skepticism. 

It’s not just that we don’t trust the experts. We don’t believe there are such things as experts. For some people, the very idea that a person is an expert is an automatic disqualifier.

And that is part of what is going on in relation to the proposed deal with Iran. 

Some of the criticism should be dismissed out of hand. Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee is indulging in outlandish  campaign  rhetoric when he says that President Obama is using this nuclear deal to “take the Israelis and march them to the door of the oven.” This is not appeasement. Secretary of State John Kerry is not Neville Chamberlain. And no one is giving away the Sudetenland.

It is also worth noting, as we consider our concern for the security of Israel, that the Israelis already have a nuclear capability. Although the official government position is that they will neither confirm or deny the possession of nuclear weapons, there is widespread agreement that they do have nuclear weapons. It is the official position of the Israeli government to promise that they will not be the first nation to use a nuclear weapon in the region. 

Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who succeeded Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the father of the Iranian Revolution, after Khomeini's death in 1989, is a genuinely scary guy, but he is not to be confused with Adolf Hitler. Hassan Rouhani, who was elected President in 2013 is generally perceived to be a moderate (admittedly a relative term), at least in comparison to his more bellicose predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

This deal will not cause the Iranian people to “greet us as liberators,” as Vice President Cheney famously predicted of the Iraqis when we went to war in 2003, but it could be the beginning of an improved relationship which would ultimately benefit the entire region. In a recent New York Times column, Nicholas Kristof observes, “Iran’s people are perhaps the most pro-American and secular of those of any country I’ve been to in the Middle East. (On my last trip to Iran, I took two of my kids along, and Iranians bought them meals and ice cream, and served them illegal mojitos.) The public weariness with the regime’s corruption, oppression and economic failings is manifest. I would guess that after the supreme leader dies, Iran will begin a process of change like that in China after Mao died.”

Opponents of the pact have made much of the crowds celebrating the deal in Tehran. We should note, however, that not everyone is celebrating. The people of Iran are celebrating what they expect will be the end of economic sanctions and a movement toward more freedom within their country. The militant Ayatollah’s have condemned the pact in a mirror image of the more hawkish leaders in the United States. Opponents in Iran warn that the United States government cannot be trusted.

Some have pointed out that our Saudi Arabian allies are against the deal, but these are the same “allies” who have supported Wahhabi Muslim extremism at home and exported it abroad in the various forms of the Taliban, Al Queda and ISIS. The Saudis are also the ones who provided the manpower to staff the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The people who negotiated this deal are experts in diplomatic relations, foreign policy, atomic energy, defense, and international economics. Thanks to C-Span, I was able to watch parts of the congressional hearings last week as members of the House of Representatives questioned Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, and Secretary of the Treasury Jacob Lew. They were impressive, answering antagonistic questions with an almost encyclopedic grasp of the situation and a calm demeanor.

The Iran deal is not perfect, but it is a lot better than the alternative. In spite of the critics, there is very little downside. We are giving up sanctions that would erode anyway in return for closer oversight of Iran and the possibility of a much more peaceful future.