Sunday, August 28, 2016

Christian Faith and Transgender Kids

Kai Shappley at age 5 with her mom

Jesus said to his disciples, “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.”
Luke 17:1-2

At age 3 Joseph Shappley began telling her mom that she was a girl.

“From my earliest memories of my child, my child’s been very feminine,” says Kim Shappley. “It’s just always been that way. I don’t know how else to put it. I’m a strong, spirit-filled, Bible-believing, born-again Christian. I’m a Republican.”

‘This was just not going to happen,” she told herself. “At home I had three other boys. I had a very masculine home. Nothing feminine in the home, and Kai started telling us at age 3, ‘I’m a girl.’”

I read about Kim Shappley and her daughter Kai in an article by Nyssa Kruse in the Texas Observer. Biologically, Kai was born a male and she was named Joseph.

Joseph knew at age three that she was a girl. But Kim believed that if she prayed enough and fasted enough, she could change Kai back into Joseph.

Then Kai began having behavior problems at school. Kim recalls, “If another little girl brought a toy for show and tell on Friday, my child would do everything in their power to steal that toy and lie about stealing it. And it just continued to escalate.”

Kim learned of a little boy in Oregon, a four year old, who was beaten to death by his mom because he had acted gay. She said it was something that “kind of struck me hard.” So she began reaching out to her pediatrician and to psychiatrists, “and they all pretty consistently said the same thing: ‘This is a real thing.’”

Then one night when Kai said her prayers at bedtime she started crying and she asked God to “let Joseph go home and live with Jesus.”

As Kim describes that time:
“Joseph is Kai’s male birth name. Kai was actually just begging the Lord to just let her die. Who wants to hear their toddler pray that? And then it starts clicking: 41 percent suicide rate. A 41 percent suicide rate. Why? The suicide rate is high because they don’t have the family support. They don’t have the community support and their self-esteem and their self-worth.”
Kim’s faith shifted and she told herself, “I am a Bible-believing Christian. I love the Lord. But God makes no mistakes, and my child is fearfully and wonderfully made, just as the Scripture tells us.” 

She says she used to listen to other mothers of transgender children say that they just wanted their child to be happy, and in her self-righteousness she would think, “It’s not about your kid being happy. You need to train your child in the ways of the Lord and be a better mom.”

Kai begged her mom to buy her panties, and Kim says it took her three or four trips to Wal-Mart before she could finally go through with it. She put the panties in Kai’s drawer and when Kai discovered the princess panties she fell on the floor hugging her new panties and sobbing to her mom, “Thank you, Mommy, thank you.”

Kim explains, “the thing is, what I saw in my child, when Kai got those panties, was this joy and this peace I had never seen in this child, and I realize it’s not about ‘I’m going to give you these to make you happy,’ it’s about my child had never truly been happy before.”
“We’ve lost a lot of very important people out of our lives and there are some thoroughly burned bridges. My sister has disowned me. I watch cousins and aunts post horrible things about transgender people, trying to rally the troops against the militant gay agenda, that Satan was using these little kids. I will say we’ve lost the majority of our family. I feel like sometimes we’re on a little island, but through this transition, my kid, within a few short weeks, we weren’t having lying anymore. We weren’t having bed-wetting any- more. We have had no nightmares in the past year. No stealing at all. That all was just erased within a few weeks of this. I have a happy, healthy, outgoing, loving, beautiful, sweet little girl who loves Jesus and loves her brothers.”
Finally, Kim Shappley has some thoughts on what lawmakers and public officials could do to help transgender children:
“They could stop fueling the hate. They are making a dangerous and hostile environment for my child, for me, for our family with their hate. The bathroom deal — how did that become an issue? Transgender human beings have been using the gender-appropriate bathroom forever. Forever. And it didn’t become an issue until it was made an issue. The argument about “We can’t let this happen because it will let perverts into the bathroom” — well, hey, make a law that says perverts can’t go into the bathroom. Oh, wait, we already have that law.
“If we were to send my daughter into the men’s bathroom like lawmakers want, there we have a risk. Either she’s gonna get beaten up by people who’ve had their hatred fueled because there’s this beautiful woman in the bathroom with them, where lawmakers want her to go, or she’s gonna get raped because she’s a beautiful little woman. Let her go into the women’s bathroom. The only danger my daughter is gonna do in the women’s restroom that might be a little offensive is try to tell a woman how to fix her hair or makeup better.”
Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.

Monday, August 22, 2016

A Summer Sunday Traffic Jam Reminds Me of Jonathan Edwards

Jonathan Edwards 1703-1758

Then I heard another voice from heaven saying, “Come out of her, my people, so that you do not take part in her sins, and so that you do not share in her plagues; for her sins are heaped high as heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities. Render to her as she herself has rendered, and repay her double for her deeds; mix a double draught for her in the cup she mixed. As she glorified herself and lived luxuriously, so give her a like measure of torment and grief. Since in her heart she says, ‘I rule as a queen; I am no widow, and I will never see grief,’ therefore her plagues will come in a single day— pestilence and mourning and famine— and she will be burned with fire; for mighty is the Lord God who judges her.”
Revelation 18:4-8

Yesterday after church I drove north and east to Georgetown, Maine, for a week of vacation.

In  our part of the northeast corridor there is always some traffic but on a Sunday afternoon most of the traffic was headed south and although I had some slowdowns, there were no delays.

At the northern end of Route 128 the southbound lanes were stop and go. And then from the Merrimack River north into the Maine Turnpike the southbound lanes looked more like a parking lot.

Mile after mile of bumper to bumper.

I thought about how frustrating it must be. I wondered whether it would be better or worse for the folks in those cars to know exactly how far the road would be clogged.

And then.

Although I knew it was not right, I could not help feeling an unreasonable delight in the contrast of the open road heading north in front of me and the parking lot heading south in front of them.

It reminded me of the great Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards’s perverse contention that, “When the saints in glory shall see the wrath of God executed on ungodly men, it will be no occasion of grief to them, but of rejoicing.”

The major difference being that what I saw as a moral failing he counted as righteousness. The righteous, he argued, rejoice in the punishment of the ungodly precisely because they are righteous. It is not a vice in them, it is a virtue.

Edwards meditates on this in a sermon titled, “The End of the Wicked Contemplated by the Righteous” and subtitled, “The Torments of the Wicked in Hell, No Occasion of Grief to the Saints in Heaven.” In his reflection, those verses from Revelation cited above should be understood as good news. Although the wicked might stand back in alarm, the righteous should rejoice at God’s judgment.

He tells of the righteous in glory observing the fate of those who are damned.
“When they shall see it, it will be no occasion of grief to them. The miseries of the damned in hell will be inconceivably great. When they shall come to bear the wrath of the Almighty poured out upon them without mixture, and executed upon them without pity or restraint, or any mitigation; it will doubtless cause anguish, and horror, and amazement vastly beyond all the sufferings and torments that ever any man endured in this world; yea, beyond all extent of our words or thoughts. For God in executing wrath upon ungodly men will act like an Almighty God. The Scripture calls this wrath, God's and the fierceness of his wrath; and we are told that this is to show God's wrath, and to make his power known; or to make known how dreadful his wrath is, and how great his power.
 “The saints in glory will see this, and be far more sensible of it than now we can possibly be. They will be far more sensible how dreadful the wrath of God is, and will better understand how terrible the sufferings of the damned are; yet this will be no occasion of grief to them. They will not be sorry for the damned; it will cause no uneasiness or dissatisfaction to them; but on the contrary, when they have this sight, it will excite them to joyful praises.”
In glory, the righteous will joyfully praise God’s righteous judgment.

What he calls virtue is at the center of the very worst in so-called Christian thought. The people who study Jonathan Edwards tell me that he was a genius, and for the most part I take their word for it. But on this point I think he has it upside down.

Sadly, for many Christians, this is where we are. We embrace the image of God’s judgment and are skeptical of God’s grace. 

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

An Atheist's Perspective on Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton preaching at Foundry UMC in September 2015. AP Molly Riley Photo
He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”
Luke 11:1-4

On a Blog site called “About Religion,” Austin Cline wrote a short summary of Hillary Clinton’s beliefs and practices

He writes from the perspective of an atheist.

For the most part, his description is straightforward. 

“Hillary Clinton grew up in a Methodist household,” he writes, “She taught Methodist Sunday school like her mother, is a member of a Senate prayer group, and regularly attends the Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington.”

Cline notes that in spite of her obviously sincere beliefs, she has been regularly portrayed by the Christian right as being “godless.” Conservative radio host Michael Savage described her as the “most godless woman in the senate,” and accused her of talking about her religious convictions only when it was politically expedient.

According to Cline, Jerry Falwell went further than Savage, “by declaring that she would energize the Republican ‘base’ of conservative evangelicals even more than if Lucifer were running as the Democratic candidate for president.” 

And he makes the important observation that by demonizing Hillary Clinton, Falwell and his followers can transfer the responsibility for the hatred “from the people who hate Hillary Clinton so much onto Hillary herself - if she's demonic, then people have no sane choice but to hate her. Furthermore, this ensures that there is no reason to hold back in attacks on her: you negotiate and compromise with political equals, not with demons.”

In contrast to Falwell and Savage, Austin Cline is convinced that Clinton is sincere in her beliefs. Of course, since he approaches this from an atheist perspective, that is at best a mixed blessing.

“There is no evidence,” he writes, “that Hillary Clinton's religiosity is superficial or an affectation; her behavior is consistent with her professed beliefs and she has explained more than once how important faith is for herself personally and her family. She has also said that prayer - trying to communicate with a god - is important in her life.”

I cannot be certain of how Hillary Clinton approaches prayer, but I think I can say with absolute certainty that she does not think of it as “trying to communicate with a god.”

Instead of the simple statement that Hillary Clinton “has also said that prayer is important in her life,” he inserts his definition of prayer as “trying to communicate with a god.”

It could be that Mr. Cline is just trying to have a little fun twitting the occasional Christian who might read “About Atheism.” It’s not “communicating,” it’s “trying to communicate.” And it’s not God, it’s “a god.” 


But maybe he is sincere.

And if he is sincere then that reveals a much bigger problem: we are not even talking the same language.

When atheists and literalists debate, they may talk right past each other, but they are at least talking the same language. For both atheists and literalists, religious language is meant to be taken literally. But for Austin Cline, and for many other atheists, the symbolic nature of religious language is lost. When atheists converse with mainline Christians, they are not even using the same language. In our increasingly secular age, this is no small thing.

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Donald Trump, Joseph McCarthy, and Two Girls from Maine

Some of them say, “His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible.”
II Corinthians 10:10

Senator Susan Collins
Maine Senator Susan Collins is not known as an orator. If you have heard her, you know that at times listening to her speak is almost painful. She seems to hesitate. Her voice cracks. It is as if she is searching for words or desperately trying not to stutter. Senator Collins has a rare speech impediment known as spasmodic dysphonia. It is characterized by involuntary movements or spasms of the muscles in her larynx when she speaks.

But earlier this week she spoke loudly and clearly. In an op-ed piece published in the Washington Post and then later in the Portland Press Herald, she announced her decision not to endorse Donald Trump as the Republican presidential nominee.

“I will not be voting for Donald Trump for president,” she wrote, “This is not a decision I make lightly, for I am a lifelong Republican. But Donald Trump does not reflect historical Republican values nor the inclusive approach to governing that is critical to healing the divisions in our country.”

Although she was impressed with Mr. Trump’s ability to connect with the concerns of voters who have felt left out of the political process, she was appalled by his attacks on Senator John McCain and Fox News Host Megyn Kelly. She understood his aversion to “political correctness,” but that did not give him license to abandon a sense of “common decency.”

“With the passage of time, I have become increasingly dismayed by his constant stream of cruel comments and his inability to admit error or apologize. But it was his attacks directed at people who could not respond on an equal footing — either because they do not share his power or stature or because professional responsibility precluded them from engaging at such a level — that revealed Mr. Trump as unworthy of being our president.”
In an interview on National Public Radio (NPR) with Ari Shapiro she explained, 
"Temperament, judgment, self-restraint are essential qualities in a president. After all, we live in an extremely perilous world and Donald Trump's tendency to lash out at foes, whether they're real or imagined, could produce a very unsettling effect, in which an international event spins dangerously out of control."
She was particularly troubled, she told Shapiro, by his propensity to mock those who were most “vulnerable,” such as a reporter with a disability. 

Reactions to her announcement broke down along ideological lines. Liberals criticized her for not speaking out sooner and for not condemning Mr. Trump more vigorously. Conservatives who support Mr. Trump called her a liberal and said that she was not a real Republican.

Portland Press Herald columnist Bill Nemitz praised Collins for her principles and noted her overwhelming popularity in Maine.

“Collins will be a U.S. senator essentially for as long as she wants to be” He observed. “The fact that she’s a lifelong Republican is overshadowed by the bigger fact that Mainers of every stripe like who she is, what she does and how she goes about doing it.”

Nemitz was not the only one to compare her op-ed piece to one of the most important speeches ever given in the United States Senate. 

Senator Margaret Chase Smith
On June 1, 1950, having been a Senator for barely sixteen months,
Margaret Chase Smith, the woman who once occupied the seat that Senator Collins now holds, delivered the address she called, “A Declaration of Conscience.” 

The most remarkable thing about the speech is that she dared to speak up when others were silent.

In the speech she condemned the witch hunting smear tactics employed by one of the most powerful men in the Senate, Joseph McCarthy. And McCarthy retaliated by removing her from the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and giving her seat to Richard Nixon. In 1997 the Republican Conference appointed Susan Collins to chair that committee.

Smith’s speech was a masterpiece of understated eloquence. “I speak as briefly as possible,” she said, “because too much harm has already been done with irresponsible words of bitterness and selfish political opportunism.  I speak as briefly as possible because the issue is too great to be obscured by eloquence.  I speak simply and briefly in the hope that my words will be taken to heart.”

“I speak as a Republican,” she said.  “I speak as a woman.  I speak as a United States Senator.  I speak as an American.”

She criticized the Democratic administration and the Democratic Party for a lack of leadership and she made it clear that “The nation sorely needs a Republican victory.” But victory by itself would not be enough. “I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny -- Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry, and Smear.”

There were no television cameras to record her speech, but the Senate chamber was filled and Senator McCarthy was sitting at his desk just behind her as she spoke. She had expected that he might respond, but he left the chamber in silence after she sat down. Later, speaking to the press, he referred to her and to the six senators who had endorsed her declaration as, “Snow White and the six dwarfs.” A few senators thanked her for her remarks, but most were silent, fearful of finding themselves the targets of Senator McCarthy’s attacks.

Margaret Chase Smith’s “Declaration of Conscience” was remarkable on many levels. She was new to the senate, she was a member of Senator McCarthy’s party and like him she was a vigorous opponent of communism. She had initially supported his efforts, believing that if there were communists in the State Department they needed to be found out and removed from the government. It was only after she discovered that his charges had no basis in fact and that he was destroying the reputations of innocent people that she saw it as her duty to speak out.

“Those of us who shout the loudest about Americanism in making character assassinations,” she declared, “are all too frequently those who, by our own words and acts, ignore some of the basic principles of Americanism.”

She listed four basic principles:
“The right to criticize;
  The right to hold unpopular beliefs;
  The right to protest;
  The right of independent thought.”
And she argued that, “The exercise of these rights should not cost one single American citizen his reputation or his right to a livelihood nor should he be in danger of losing his reputation or livelihood merely because he happens to know someone who holds unpopular beliefs. . . . Otherwise none of us could call our souls our own.”

Without the freedom to speak out, “none of us could call our souls our own.”

When Susan Collins completes her present term she will be tied with Margaret Chase Smith as the Republican woman who has served the longest in the United States Senate. Susan Collins has earned that honor.

(*The reference to "Two Girls From Maine" is taken from Gail Collins, who used it as her name for Olympia Snow and Susan Collins.)

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

It Is Time to Move On

Lou Ann Sandstrom and Kathleen Kutschenreuter, at Foundry UMC

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? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
Mark 8:34-38

I am not ashamed of Jesus.

And I am certainly not ashamed of his teaching.

But I am sometimes ashamed of those who claim to follow him.

I participate in several social media groups where United Methodists and others share opinions and insights and discuss issues of faith and practice. Last week on one of those groups someone posted this question:
"Does anyone ever post anything about feeding the hungry, providing healthcare for the poor, and other things that Jesus told us about? It seems that most if not all posts are connected somehow to sexuality issues in the UMC. Much energy is being spent on this issue to the detriment of many other issues the church could address. I agree with the idea of removing the restrictions on clergy and members, but it is as if the orthodoxies are holding the entire church hostage with this issue. Perhaps it would be more fruitful to split."
That’s embarrassing. It’s embarrassing because it is true. That is pretty much all we talk about. And it has to stop.

We need to move on.

We have spent too much time and energy on this. 

Unfortunately, we can’t move on until we have resolved this. And the resolution can only go one way. We need to stop the trials. We need to let conferences fulfill their responsibilities in determining the fitness of clergy to serve. We need to remove the discriminatory language in the Book of Discipline.

It’s embarrassing.

One thing that both sides ought to agree on is that this has been a public relations disaster for a very long time. 

Think about it.

In the twenty-first century two people celebrating their love for one another in marriage should not be news. We have marriage equality everywhere in the United State and in most of the civilized world. 

This should not be an issue.

For Christians of conscience, our first concern must be the harm done to LGBTQ persons, especially our youth. And our second concern should be the moral issue. The exclusion of LGBTQ people is just plain wrong.

But beyond all of that, it is hard to think of anything in recent history that has done more damage to Christian faith than the persecution of our LGBTQ siblings.

Among the early casualties in this conflict, is our witness to the nature of God. We cannot even imagine having this discussion in the presence of Paul Tillich or Reinhold Niebuhr, or any of the great twentieth century theologians. By reducing God to a rule giver, we have anthropomorphized the Ground of our Being, Being itself, into a grumpy old man in the sky who is petty and mean, judgmental, and superficial, more concerned with rules than with human beings. How absurd that looks from outside the church. 

This “god” we worship must have a very strange sense of priorities.

Of course, the anthropomorphism would be a problem all by itself. And there are plenty of “Christians” eager to embrace an anthropomorphic vision even without the issues around a rule giving “god,” but our current debate has given that vision a legitimacy within the church that it would not otherwise have had. And it has undermined our attempts to invite those outside the church into the spiritual journey.

A second early casualty is the Bible. In this argument the traditionalists have reduced the Bible to a rule book and led us to focus on some of the worst texts in the Bible, take them completely out of context, misrepresent them, and then give them a literal interpretation. If the goal is to invite folks to explore the biblical witness, does anyone really think that Leviticus is a good place to start?

The result of this misbegotten effort is not to legitimize the stigmatization of LGBTQ folks, but rather to de-legitimize the whole Bible. Because of this conflict there are folks outside of the church, and even some inside, whose only encounter with the biblical word is through those “clobber verses.”

By asking people to accept the literal interpretation of these scattered texts, we encouraged them to judge the whole Bible by the truth or falsehood they found there. The emphasis on the literal interpretation of those verses advanced the public perception that the only right way to read the Bible was to interpret it literally. Not surprisingly, many found the Bible to be untrustworthy. 

The final early casualty of our argument is the church itself. If those outside the church could not trust the Bible, then they also could not trust the church which had told them how these strange texts should be interpreted. 

The demographics tell an important story. 

According to the Pew Forum, in 2001 Americans opposed same sex marriage by more than twenty percentage points, 57% to 35%. In 2016 the numbers are almost exactly reversed. Supporters outnumber opponents 55% to 37%. White mainline Protestants basically mirror the national average, and United Methodists show a majority in support. But among younger Americans, Generation-X and Millennials, the support is even higher, with approximately 70% of Millennials supporting same sex marriage.

Demographically, our exclusion and oppression of LGBTQ people is a ticking time bomb.

Our experience of LGBTQ persons is changing and so are our attitudes. Eventually, even the traditionalists will come around. In the meantime, we continue to harm our LGBTQ friends and neighbors, and we continue to marginalize the church. 

If we want to have a credible voice in an increasingly secular world, we need to do what Christian ethics demands. Our present policies will soon render us irrelevant.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Hiroshima, Seventy-One Years Ago Today

Hiroshima after the Atomic Blast

“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 assumed that we would win the war. Hitler would be defeated and Imperial Japan would be vanquished, but the real challenge, he believed, would be to win the peace, to create a world which is worthy of the human lives lost in war. 

“Many Americans,” he wrote, “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.

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 blog post were first published in 2009)

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Release to the Captives

President Barack Obama meets for lunch with formerly incarcerated individuals who have received commutations, at Busboys and Poets in Washington, D.C., March 30, 2016.
(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, 
because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. 
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives 
and recovery of sight to the blind, 
to let the oppressed go free, 
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Luke 4:16-19

Yesterday President Obama made history by commuting the prison sentences of 214 people. According to the White House, that is the largest number of grants made in a single day since at least 1900.

Since taking office, the President has commuted 562 sentences, many more than other recent presidents.

A number of  law professors believe that even more commutations should be granted.

NPR’s Carrie Johnson reported that law professor Mark Osler told her, "I sometimes say that I feel like the guy that is rowing a lifeboat. And you're glad you have a few people in the boat, but you're feeling this impending sense of panic about the people in the water."

Johnson reported that law professors are advocating for at least 1,500 prisoners to be freed based on the president's own guidelines. She explained: "Those guidelines apply to inmates who have spent at least 10 years behind bars for nonviolent drug crimes — small players, not kingpins — people who would've received less prison time if they were convicted of laws on the books today."

According to the White House, "Since taking office, President Obama has fought for a smarter and more equitable criminal justice system.  He has committed to using all the tools at his disposal to remedy the unfairness at the heart of the system — including the presidential power to grant clemency."

Those pardoned yesterday were "incarcerated under outdated and unduly harsh sentencing laws," according to the White House. 

Commuting the unreasonably long sentences of those convicted of non-violent offenses makes sense. It is a good beginning. But it is not enough.

One of the great myths about crime and punishment in the United States is that compared to the rest of the world, we are soft on crime. According to the myth, criminals are not given long enough sentences and even when the sentences are long, they get out earlier than those given comparable sentences in other countries.

But that is not so. 

In a speech on criminal justice at Columbia University on April 29, 2015, Hillary Clinton declared,

“It’s a stark fact that the United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, yet we have almost 25 percent of the world’s total prison population. The numbers today are much higher than they were 30, 40 years ago despite the fact that crime is at historic lows.” 

Senator Rand Paul made a similar observation when he announced a reform bill he sponsored with Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey:

“Though only 5 percent of the world’s population lives in the United States, it is home to 25 percent of the world’s prison population. … Not only does the current overpopulated, underfunded system hurt those incarcerated, it also digs deeper into the pockets of taxpaying Americans.”  
–Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), in a news release on his Web site, March 9, 2015 

Those numbers may may seem unbelievable, but they are true.

Beyond the human cost, there is an economic cost. In 1980 the average American paid $77 per year in taxes to fund the prison system, by 2010 that cost had grown to $260. 

We need comprehensive prison reform. We lock up too many people and we keep them in prison too long. Other western nations have lower rates of incarceration, shorter sentences, more humane prisons, and lower recidivism rates. 

Surely we can do better.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Resting in the Arms of the Great Wide Open

When I am driving and I want to listen to music, my tendency is to put a CD in and leave it there. Several years ago, a friend gave me a recording of a Bob Dylan concert at URI and I listened to it from East Greenwich to Georgetown, Maine. 

Over and over for four hours. 

Needless to say, I was making that trip alone.

When my daughter gave me a CD of Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, I listened to it for weeks (around town). The music is brilliant and ultimately life-affirming, but there is a deep melancholy.

Not long ago I was listening to Mary Chapin Carpenter, and the song that most caught my attention is called “Almost Home.” It’s about looking at your life, seeing the things you have saved and wondering why you find it so hard to let go of the past. In the chorus she sings:

I'm not running
I'm not hiding
I'm not reaching
I'm just resting in the arms 
of the great wide open
Gonna pull my soul in
And I'm almost home

At a very basic level, faith is about “resting in the arms of the great wide open.” It is about trusting enough so that we don’t have to be running or hiding or reaching. A lot of ministry is about running and reaching. 

Our church, especially our leadership, has done a lot of running and reaching over the past few years. And in the process we probably have not taken enough time for faithful Sabbath rest.

In the song, she sings about being lost “in the ache of old goodbyes.” Over the recent months and years, we have gone through many of those painful times. We have said “goodbye” to many friends. Some have moved and others have passed on. And we have grieved with friends who have lost parents and grandparents and loved ones.

It is painful to leave the past and difficult to trust the future. And sometimes our reaching and running are little more than an ultimately unsuccessful effort to escape the inescapable.

In the twelfth chapter of Mark’s Gospel, a man asks Jesus what is the most important thing that he should do. Jesus answers by quoting from Deuteronomy and Leviticus: “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” After the man agrees and affirms the wisdom of his response, Jesus says, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.”

Not far. Almost home. It’s not about reaching or running or hiding. It’s about loving God and neighbor. 

Resting in the arms of the great wide open.