Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Nones Also Rise


They gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” 
Matthew 22:35-40

The ‘nones” are still growing.

Six years ago I used that same passage from Matthew’s Gospel in a blog post about a recent public opinion survey showing that the fastest growing religious group in America was the “nones,” as in “none of the above.” The “nones” don’t identify with any religious group.

When I wrote that original post, the “nones” had grown from just 8% of the U.S.  population in 1990 to 15% in 2008.  Today that same group comprises 23% of the population. Over that same period of time, the percentage identifying themselves as Christian has dipped from 78% in 2007 to 71% in the most recent survey.

The “nones” are still trailing Evangelical Protestants, who make up about 25% of all adults, but they are gaining.

We are not surprised.

Every community organization is confronting shrinkage and stagnation to one degree or another. That’s true for Rotary Clubs, Granges, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, unions and political parties, as well as for churches. We are not joiners. We don’t go to town meetings and we don’t make the same community connections that we used to make.

There are also broad trends of secularization that have been going on for centuries, with a brief interruption after the Second World War. If we were not constantly comparing church membership and attendance numbers today with the unprecedented growth after World War II, we would probably be less alarmed about the present situation.

But beyond the broad trends and the factors we cannot control, there are issues within Christianity today that ought to be addressed. Two leading United Methodist pastors, Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter talked about “What’s keeping young people away from church?” They point to some reasons which are the same today as they have always been. Young people have always been critical of the hypocrisy they see in their elders. But beyond the petty moralisms, Christianity today suffers from a deeper moral and spiritual disconnect. Young people today are turned off by churches which seem focused on rules rather than on people. Particularly on issues of LGBTQ equality, the church is seen as mean spirited and judgmental. In addition to the practical problem of losing an entire generation of young people, the church has lost the spirit of Jesus. In the view of Hamilton and Slaughter, the church today acts like the very people that Jesus confronted two thousand years ago.

In a recent issue of “Good News,” a magazine for a well funded traditionalist group committed to keeping the United Methodist Church from taking a more inclusive stance with regard to gay and lesbian issues, they note that “RELIGION [is a] LOW PRIORITY FOR MILLENIALS.” As evidence, they cite the results of a Pew Research Center poll asking adults ages 18-29, “What are the most important things in your life?”

Only 15% checked off “Living a very religious life” as one of the most important things in their lives. Given the very narrow phrasing of the question, the result is hardly surprising. Would Jesus think that “Living a very religious life” ought to be one of our most important goals?

The survey reported the responses to eight possible choices. Respondents were able to check all that applied, and the results looked like this:

Being a good parent: 52%
Having a successful marriage: 30%
Helping others in need: 21%
Owning a home: 20%
Living a very religious life: 15%
Having a high-paying career: 15%
Having lots of free time: 9%
Becoming famous: 1%

It’s hard to argue with putting a priority on being a good parent, and having a successful marriage, and helping others in need. Owning a home is a basic and practical financial goal. Living a very religious life edges out having a high paying career. And almost no one cares about becoming famous.

Not bad.

I wish that more young people were in church. Or more importantly, I wish that church could more often be the kind of place where young people would want to be. But if that survey is any indication, then the kids are alright.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and the Death Penalty

Richard Martin, Krystie Campbell, Lingzi Lu, and Sean Collyer

“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 use violence to resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”
Matthew 5:38-39

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”
Luke 17:5-6

It was probably inevitable that the jury would return a death penalty verdict in the Tsarnaev case. Those who were against the death penalty were not allowed to serve on the jury. The defense admitted that he was guilty of participating in the crime. And the crime itself was horrific in every sense of the word. Many people who are against the death penalty in general want to make an exception in this case.

We cannot discuss the death penalty without remembering the victims. Richard Martin, Krystie Campbell, Lingzi Lu, and Sean Collyer were all murdered. They were all innocent. They did nothing to incite the violence against them. And we could say the same of all those who were maimed. 

In the verses from the Sermon on the Mount quoted above, the first part of verse 39 is often translated as, “Do not resist evil,” or “Do not resist an evildoer.” That translation makes it appear as if Jesus is calling for “passivism” as well as “pacifism.” The translation I used is probably closer to the original meaning of the text. Jesus is against revenge, but he is also against indifference or passivity. He is inviting his followers to oppose evil with creative non-violence.

It is not easy to resist evil without participating in the cycle of violence. Jesus did not oppose violence and  revenge because he thought that “evildoers” were not really evil. He believed that ultimately we could not establish peace by violence.

Luke records an exchange between Jesus and his disciples that is particularly instructive in the Tsarnaev case. When they ask him for help in increasing their faith, they are not talking about believing an abstract doctrine. He has been teaching them about forgiveness and they are in despair because forgiveness is so hard.

When it comes to the death penalty, we are not number one.

First place belongs to China. They lead the world in executions by at least an order of magnitude. The Chinese government is the undisputed world champion when it comes to the death penalty. They are joined on the podium by Iran and Iraq. In fourth place is Saudi Arabia and then comes the United States. We are number five on the list of most executions. Somalia is number six.

Somehow this seems like a list we don’t want to be on. I don’t see us taking our cues on criminal justice from China. 

If ISIS or ISIL were a real country, then they would also be ahead of us. Again, that says something about the company we keep. That list, all by itself, it a pretty good argument against the death penalty.

Zubediat Tsarnaeva, the mother of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, sent a text note to a friend proclaiming her hope that the United States will suffer for what we are doing. “They think that they are killing us and they celebrate this,” she wrote, “but we are the ones who will rejoice when Allah grants us the chance to behold them in the flames of an eternal and terrifying fire, an otherworldly flame.”

It should go without saying, but just for the record it is useful to remind ourselves that she does not speak for all Muslims. But if we go back to our list of death penalty nations, there is something deeply ironic in her text against the background of that list.

One of the arguments in favor of the death penalty is that it is a deterrent. By executing a murderer, we deter others from committing murder. By that logic, the death penalty is a form of societal self-defense. But criminologists overwhelmingly reject that argument. And the statistics back them up. The graph compares the murder rate in death penalty states with the murder rate in non-death penalty states.


In the short term at least, it feels good to inflict pain on someone who has hurt us. And if anyone deserves the death penalty then Dzhokhar Tsarnaev deserves it. Death penalty advocates call it justice. But when it comes to the death penalty, “justice” is just another name for revenge.

When we feel hurt, the desire for revenge is (almost) universal. Just ask Zubediat Tsarnaeva. 

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Crime and Punishment in the NFL


"But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken."
Mark 13:24-25

There is weeping and wailing. We have been cast into the outer darkness. The world as we know it has come to an end.

The National Football League has determined that the footballs used by the New England Patriots in their 45-7 win over the Indianapolis Colts were (slightly) underinflated and that this was very likely the result of actions by team personnel, against NFL rules, and that quarterback Tom Brady was likely aware of this and may have orchestrated it. As a result, Brady has been suspended for four games, the team has been fined $1,000,000, and they will lose their first round draft pick in 2016 and their fourth round pick in 2017. And, largely forgotten in the furor, the two locker room guys allegedly responsible for doing the actual deflating have been suspended indefinitely. 

One hardly knows where to begin. 

There are no heroes in this story.

In his letter to Brady and the Patriots, NFL executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent made it clear that what the League was upset with Brady’s attitude. 

"The report documents your failure to cooperate fully and candidly with the investigation, including by refusing to produce any relevant electronic evidence," said Vincent. "Your actions as set forth in the report clearly constitute conduct detrimental to the integrity of and the public confidence in the game of professional football."

The NFL said that the League was taking these actions to preserve “the integrity of the game.” Seriously. The NFL would do well to remember that first, it is in fact a game. And second, they have demonstrated repeatedly and conclusively that they have no integrity whatsoever. Concussions, domestic violence, assaults, drug arrests, sexual assaults, performance enhancing drugs, and the list goes on. The NFL cares about money and image. And they only care about image because it leads to money.

And, sadly, everything we can say about the NFL we could also say about the Patriots. 

The NFL deserves a special award for self-righteousness, but there has been more than enough of that to go around. The usually measured veteran writer Frank Deford put out a podcast on NPR in which he said that Brady’s ego had him searching for any possible way to make up for his declining skills. He wondered what Brady might do when his good looks also deteriorated with age.

I am not really a big fan of Tom Brady. It bothers me that he could not make time to join his teammates when they were honored by President Obama at the Whitehouse. I’m still bothered that he left his pregnant girlfriend when he found Giselle. And I have  always found it annoying that so many sports fans have made invidious comparisons between Brady and his predecessor, Drew Bledsoe. 

The team that Drew Bledsoe inherited was not nearly as good as the one that Brady took over when Bledsoe was injured. He never achieved the championships that Brady has, but he was a very good quarterback.

Brady has been lucky. If a totally unknown defensive back (Malcolm Butler) had not intercepted a pass that should not have been thrown on a play that probably should not have been called, then Brady would not have been the Super Bowl MVP. On the other hand , it takes a lot more than luck to throw 33 touchdowns with only 9 interceptions last season, or to pass for more than 50,000 yards in his career.

But the hatred that Brady gets from around the country is nasty. And stupid. And it has more to do with his success than with any flaws in his character.


But beyond everything else, probably the most disturbing thing in the whole story is that we care so much about something that doesn’t really matter. And, apparently, we can’t help it. In case you haven’t noticed, I can’t help it.

We can make believe that it is a morality tale and that has deep meaning for us as a nation. Perhaps. 

In the most benign sense, it’s entertainment. Like the games themselves. And in that sense, it’s pretty harmless.

But I wish we could generate as much passion for social justice. Income inequality. Racism. Domestic violence. Sexism. Education. World Peace. 

Monday, May 11, 2015

A Prayer for Mother's Day

Walter Rauschenbusch

Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth;
break forth, O mountains, into singing!
For the LORD has comforted his people,
and will have compassion on his suffering ones.

But Zion said, “The LORD has forsaken me,
my Lord has forgotten me.”
Can a woman forget her nursing child,
or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget,
yet I will not forget you.
See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands;
your walls are continually before me.

Isaiah 49:13-16

For several years it has been my tradition to use Walter Rauschenbusch’s “Prayer for the Family” in the Pastoral Prayer for Mother’s Day.
Rauschenbusch is remembered as the greatest prophet of the Social Gospel awakening of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His theological analysis of the social situation and his application of biblical principles to social issues provide a continuing legacy for Christians who want to understand the practical meaning of the Gospel. But during his lifetime, Rauschenbusch was known and loved for his prayers. He lost his hearing at an early age while serving a church in Hell’s Kitchen in New York City, and the isolation this imposed made him a keen observer of the people around him. He was often moved to tears by the simple scenes of love and caring and pain that took place silently around him. On this Mother’s Day, as we celebrate the Festival of the Christian Home, our prayer begins with his prayer for the family.

“O God, we who are bound together in the tender ties of love, pray thee for a day of unclouded love. May no passing irritation rob us of our joy in one another. Forgive us if we have often been swift to see the human failings and slow to see the preciousness of those who are still the dearest comfort of our lives. May there be no sharp words that wound and scar, no rift that may grow into estrangement. Suffer us not to grieve those whom thou hast sent to us as the sweet ministers of love. May our eyes not be so holden by selfishness that we know thine angels only when they spread their wings to return to thee.”

On this Mother’s Day, we pray for those who have lost their mothers this year and for those mothers who have lost children or lost pregnancies. We pray for those who are struggling with infertility. We pray for the mothers who feel overwhelmed and inadequate, and we pray for those whose mothers were never able to give them the love and support they needed. May they be surrounded by your loving presence.

We give thanks for our mothers, and grandmothers, and great-grandmothers, and for all the women who have nurtured us and cared for us on life’s journey, for sisters and aunts, for Sunday School teachers and Girl Scout Leaders. We pray for single moms, and step-moms, and foster moms. We give thanks for adoptive parents and for those mothers who have courageously given their children for adoption. We give thanks for all the ways in which you have loved us as a mother loves her children.

We lift up our prayers for the people of this church and for the friends and loved ones closest to us. Heal, protect, and strengthen them according to their need. Comfort those who mourn with the assurance of your presence. 

We ask these things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ who taught us to pray together with sisters and brothers all across the whole human family, saying as he said, Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen.

Friday, May 1, 2015

How Long Must We Wait?


O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?
Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save?
Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me; 

strife and contention arise.
So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous— therefore judgment comes forth perverted.

Habakkuk 1:2-4

The late Dr. Harrell Beck (Blessed be his name!) liked to speak of the Book of the Prophet Habakkuk as a place where the writer stands on tiptoes to see what is coming. He noted that although Habakkuk was commonly referred to as one of the minor prophets, that was a reference to the length of the book, not to its meaning.

As I watch the nightly news from Baltimore and listen to the commentary, I wonder with the Prophet, “How long?” How long will this dark night of racism consume us?

As commentary on the Baltimore situation, Senator Cory Booker posted a quotation from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on his Facebook page. I think it is taken from an interview with Mike Wallace in 1966:

“Now I wanted to say something about the fact that we have lived over these last two or three summers with agony and we have seen our cities going up in flames. And I would be the first to say that I am still committed to militant, powerful, massive, non-violence as the most potent weapon in grappling with the problem from a direct action point of view. I’m absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt. And I feel that we must always work with an effective, powerful weapon and method that brings about tangible results. But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”

When I read that paragraph, and then read it again, I am struck by how greatly we underestimated Dr. King as a thinker and a social philosopher. He makes the current commentary on television seem shallow and superficial. Every sentence deserves analysis and reflection.

I want to lift up just one theme found in two places. “I’m absolutely convinced,” he says, “that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt.” Can I get an “Amen?”

Over and over I have heard pundits and ordinary white people speak as if the riots (I am using that word as Dr. King did, but with the awareness that the word itself is racially charged) absolved the larger white culture of any responsibility for the underlying problems.

And in the last sentence of the paragraph he observes that, “large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.” Once again, can I get an “Amen?”

Habakkuk begins with a lament, a complaint against God. In the face of injustice and strife and violence, God has not acted to liberate his people from oppression. How long, he demands, how long will this continue. The answer comes to him, but not in the way that he expected. He is the one who must act. The prophet must proclaim the vision and “make it plain,” so that “a runner may read it” as he goes by.

And I remember Dr. Beck raising up his considerable bulk, standing on tiptoes as he read the last verse of the book,

The Lord is my strength,
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
and makes me tread upon the heights.


Of course, we know that we will find our way through this. Peace will return. But will there be justice? Will this be a turning point? Will we work toward real solutions, or just continue to be “more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity?”