Monday, May 22, 2017

Mark Tooley, Bishop Sprague, the IRD and False Doctrine

Bishop C. Joseph Sprague addressing the Caretakers of God's Creation Conference

"Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”
Matthew 7:3-5

Jesus’ admonition to “judge not” and the companion illustration of the speck and the log first caught my youthful attention when I was an early teenager.

I thought it was brilliant. And I thought that it perfectly explained the wrongness of my parents’ propensity to point out my faults, while ignoring their own. How could they be so blind, I wondered, to the logs that so obviously obscured their vision of me?

It took at least a decade before I understood the irony of my judgment.

In a recent blogpost on “Methodist Bishops and False Doctrine,” Mark Tooley, President of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, and ardent critic of most of what I love about the United Methodist Church, took aim at retired Bishop Joseph Sprague for preaching what Tooley calls “False Doctrine.”

Tooley plays a theological game of “gotcha” that is no more helpful in the church than it is in secular politics. In both cases it distracts from deeper issues and questions that might move us farther along toward new understandings.

Of course, in Jesus' terms, I am judging Tooley for judging Sprague. 

It is no excuse, but I just can’t help myself.

According to Tooley, Sprague has denied the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection, the atoning death of Christ, as well as Christ’s eternal existence. And in a recent sermon at the United Methodist Women’s environmental conference he told a story about giving what Tooley sees as a very vague and doctrinally suspect answer to a question about his “ultimate hope.”

Historically, one of the great strengths of our Wesleyan tradition in United Methodism is that we are not a doctrinal church. We do not insist that everyone should believe the same thing. We do not have anything like a doctrinal catechism. Part of our heritage has been a valuing of the individual faith journey, and the recognition that our journeys are not all the same. We have a lot in common, but we also have a great diversity.

If we take more than a glance at these “false doctrines” we can see that the label is highly problematic. 

The thoroughly orthodox biblical scholar William Barclay, writing in the middle of the last century, observed in his commentary on the birth narrative in Luke’s Gospel that the church has never insisted that everyone should believe in the virgin birth. He gives some biblical reasons in favor of believing it and other biblical reasons against it. And then he suggests that the wording in Luke and Matthew may reflect the common Jewish understanding of the time that every child had three parents, a father, a mother, and the Spirit of God.

When it comes to bodily resurrection, atonement, and the eternal nature of Christ, those are not simple concepts. People believe them very differently.

The resurrection narratives speak of a “bodily” resurrection because they want to insist that something really happened. They are not talking about a ghost or a spirit. This is not an illusion or a memory. But it is also not a story about a resuscitated corpse or a flying body. One of the consistent details in the resurrection stories is that the disciples do not recognize him. If he had appeared post Easter in his earthly body they would surely have known who he was. And Paul would not have claimed that the appearance to him was the same as the appearance to the original disciples. It is after all a mystery.

We  will fast-forward to the issue at the heart of Tooley’s critique: a supposedly vague and non-traditional answer that Sprague remembers giving to a woman in prison. According to Tooley, the woman had asked the bishop for “his ultimate hope.”

But that was not the question at all.

This is the story as Bishop Sprague actually told it in his sermon:
“On Fat Tuesday, I met with 80 participants in the multi-faith Horizon Prison Initiative at the Ohio Reformatory for Women. . . .

“As the participants delved into their personal religious traditions, experiences and values, while learning to better understand and respect the differences among them, they expressed growing interest in learning more about the intersection of faith and practice in the public arena. Truth be told, they wanted chapter and verse regarding the social justice involvements of the president of Horizon.
“To honor their invitation, I presented a litany of a lifetime of social justice involvements in church, nation and world. At the conclusion of this narrative, an insightful young participant responded, “You’re an old man, who has done a bunch of things. When you look around at today’s mess, was it worth it?”
“With this, the blunt young woman opened the trapdoor to the dark night of my soul. And, I suspect to that of many activists in today’s church. Was it worth it? Has my life counted for much of lasting value, given the increasingly reactionary state of the church and the tragic folly of a Trump-led nation? I am not sure. I admitted to the young woman and her other Horizon participants that sometimes despair and situational depression creep up the back stairway of my soul.”

And then later, as Sprague worked his way toward the conclusion of his sermon, he said:
Let us return to that brutally candid, young Appalachian inmate at the Ohio Reformatory for Women, “OK,” she said in response to my confession, “but when you are down, and believe me, we here in prison know down, what do you do?” 
Pensively, I responded, “I try to immerse myself in beloved community; to push my too proud self back into the care and company of intimate friends and fellow travelers that I/we might be helped to remember potent empowering stories and ponder anew the Eternal Yes in the heart of the Great Mystery made normatively visible in Jesus.”

The question was not about “ultimate hope,” it was about the hope that gets you through the day and the week. It was about the hope that keeps you going. And Sprague answered with deep faith.

Then he went on to give several illustrations of what he say as the “Eternal Yes in the heart of the Great Mystery made normatively visible in Jesus.” It was, in spite of Tooley’s attempt to belittle it, a great sermon. It was challenging and inspiring and uplifting.

He closed with some familiar lines from Emily Dickinson.

Hope is the thing with feathers,
That perches in the soul, 
And sings the tune without the words 
And never stops at all . . .

Tooley makes a rather revealing observation when he writes that, “Sprague’s open defiance of core Methodist and Christian doctrine nearly twenty years ago illustrates that Methodism’s divisions and theological confusion are not new. . . . Liberal theology governed Methodism for most of the 20th century.”

So his point is that Methodism has ignored its own core doctrines for something  like 40% of its denominational life in the United States. Of course, I would give a much earlier start time to progressive theology in Methodism, dating back at least to the beginnings of the Social Gospel, when progressives and evangelicals were the same people. A strong argument can be made for going back to the Civil War, or maybe to the 1844 split over slavery. I’m sure I have many colleagues who would argue that it goes all the way back to old John Wesley himself. And still others would insist, not without reason, that it started with Jesus.

But even if we take Tooley’s assessment as correct, it is hard to see something that has been around that long as a passing phase.





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

Friday, May 12, 2017

Healthcare and Income Redistribution


"He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.”
Luke 10:34-35

Maybe it’s not always about the money, but it’s about the money often enough to suggest that’s always a good place to start.

In Jesus’ famous parable, the last thing the Good Samaritan does for the man who was beaten and robbed is to leave money with the innkeeper for his continued care, and promise the innkeeper that if it costs more he will repay “whatever more you spend.”

In an article in Friday’s New York Times, Thomas B. Edsall outlines the effects of the American Health Care Act recently passed by the House of Representatives, and he begins with the money.

The bill cuts more than $800 billion from Medicaid over ten years and basically redistributes the money from those at the bottom of the income pyramid to those at the top. “By 2022, when the provisions of the AHCA would be fully effective,” he writes, “those in the bottom two quintiles would pay higher taxes, up to $160 annually, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. Those in the middle of the income distribution would get an average annual tax cut of $240; those in the fourth quintile, a cut of $510; and those in the top 20 percent, an average tax cut of $2,830.”
“The distributional impact of the tax provisions is most apparent in the highest income brackets: those in the top one percent, whose household income is more than $770,000, would get an average tax cut of $37,220. Those in the top 0.1 percent, who make $4 million or more, would get an average reduction of $207,240.”
“According to the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, at the highest point of all, the 400 households with annual incomes exceeding $300 million apiece, the tax cut would be worth an estimated $7 million.”
The combination of repealing billions of dollars in taxes that were used to pay for the Affordable Care Act, and slashing the subsidies provided to those on low incomes means that when we compare the economic impact of the ACA with the AHCA we see huge redistributions of income in the House plan that flow from the poorest to the richest Americans. 

The politics in this are not nearly as clearly delineated as one might assume. Donald Trump was elected by white working class voters who voted for him overwhelmingly. That constituency was critical in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, the key states in his electoral college victory. But the voters who put him in office are the very ones who will suffer the most under the repeal of the ACA and the implementation of the AHCA.

Senator Joe Manchin, a conservative democrat spoke with Mr. Trump about his home state of West Virginia, where Trump carried every county and won the state vote with 67.9% compared to 26.2% for Hillary Clinton. According to Manchin’s account, he told Trump:
“Mr. President, 172,000 West Virginians got insurance for the first time. These are working people, but they’ve got something they never had before. They don’t know how they got it, they don’t know who gave it to them, they don’t know the Democrats, nothing about, ‘It’s Obamacare.’ They don’t know any of that. All they know is they’ve got it. And you know what? They voted for you, Mr. President. The Democrats gave it to them but they voted for you. They’re going to know who took it away from them.”
One of the strangest observations in all of this is that so many Americans voted against their own self-interest. Lower income voters were overwhelmingly for Trump, while upper income voters were solidly for Clinton.

One of the reasons that working class white voters supported Mr. Trump is race. In his Times article Edsall cites a piece in the March 23 issue of Rolling Stone in which Bridgette Dunlap points out that manipulating racial and ethnic animosity is a tried and true political strategy. She called it “divide and rule.”
“The rich guy convinced much of the white working class that he would ‘take back’ the country from the rest of the working class and other undeserving non-white and non-Christian people, as well as the coastal elites giving those folks jobs and handouts at the expense of ‘real’ Americans. It’s a strategy as old as this country.”

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Love Is on Trial

Bishop Karen Oliveto (left) greets Dixie Brewster (right) prior to the opening of oral arguments before the United Methodist Judicial Council meeting in Newark, N.J.  At rear is the Rev. Keith Boyette, representing Brewster before the council. (Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS
And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
I Corinthians 13:13


According to Paul, “Love never ends.” It is eternal.

In a very real sense, it is love which is on trial as the United Methodist Judicial Council meets in Newark, New Jersey, this week.

Technically, it is about a motion made by Dixie Brewster, a laywoman from Milton, Kansas, and passed by the South Central Jurisdiction, which asks the court to declare invalid the election of Karen Oliveto as a Bishop by the Western Jurisdiction.

The contention of Brewster's petition is that since Bishop Oliveto is married to another woman, Robin Ridenour, she must be considered a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” and therefore in violation of the Book of Discipline and ineligible for election as bishop.

In a Washington Post article, Susan Hogan reports that “The two women greeted one another and shook hands before Tuesday’s hearing.” At a press conference after yesterday’s session, Bishop Oliveto was asked why she had sought out Ms. Brewster. She said that if we cannot love one another and show love for one another, then we are not witnessing for Christ.

In his opening presentation, the Rev. Keith Boyette, an ordained elder in the Virginia Conference and an attorney representing the South Central Jurisdiction, argued that  the “nomination, election, consecration, and  assignment of Karen Oliveto as bishop” violates church law and is, therefore, “null, void, and of no effect.”

As evidence that Bishop Oliveto was in fact a “self-avowed practicing homosexual,” Rev. Boyette presented a copy of the marriage license of Bishop Oliveto and her wife, Robin Ridenour.

My colleague Will Green, who is attending the hearing, commented eloquently on the use of the marriage license as evidence against Bishop Oliveto.
“This made me remember a conversation I had with Karen years ago when we were talking about performing same-sex weddings. She told me that out of all the weddings she has ever performed, she has noticed that the only couples who have copies of their marriage license framed and hanging up in their homes are all same-sex couples. This is a reminder that the ministry we have to offer is more valuable and beautiful than we can ever realize. She encouraged me to feel joy in performing weddings of same-sex couples because people who have had to fight and suffer to be able to celebrate their love are people it should be a special honor to minister to. 
“Knowing that Karen & Robin's wedding license was being submitted to the Judicial Council as ‘exhibit 1’ made it clearer than ever that this church treats our love as nothing more than evidence to be used against us.
This tells you everything you need to know about the case. If love is used as the evidence against Bishop Oliveto, then it is easy to see which side we need to be on.

In conversation with a group of friends, I was talking about the argument brought by Rev. Boyette and the South Central Jurisdiction, that marriage is a romantic relationship and therefore a marriage between two women is evidence that they are “practicing” homosexuals. A recently divorced woman laughed ruefully. “Marriage isn’t always romantic,” she said. “And I can tell you about a celibate marriage.”

We laughed with her, but we also felt her pain.

A marriage license tells us that two people are married. It doesn’t tell us anything about their relationship. We may hope that being married would be much more than a legal contract, but we cannot know that.

My hope for Robin Ridenour and Karen Oliveto, and for every other couple, is that they are head over heels in love with each other. That they love each other deeply, intellectually, spiritually, physically, and emotionally.

And if they are blessed with that kind of love, then it is bizarre beyond words to use it against them.



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

Monday, April 24, 2017

This Is Going to Hurt

Robin Ridenour and Bishop Karen Oliveto
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Romans 12:2

Last July the Western Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church elected the Rev. Dr. Karen Oliveto, formerly the Senior Pastor of Glide Memorial UMC in San Francisco, California, as Bishop and assigned her to oversee the Mountain Sky Area. Dr. Oliveto became the first openly gay bishop to serve our denomination.

For those who dream of a more inclusive church it was a high and holy moment. In a letter to her “Sisters and Brothers in the Western Jurisdiction,” Bishop Oliveto wrote:
“I stand amazed at this new thing God has done, and give thanks to you, my dear sisters and brothers, at the careful and prayerful way we responded to the Holy Spirit and allowed our fears to fall away so we could joyously cross the threshold of this new thing together. I am overwhelmed by the outpouring of love I have received from around the world—it is more than my heart can hold.”
But even before the songs of celebration could echo their last chorus, other voices were raised in opposition. In a letter to the Mississippi Conference, Bishop James Swanson wrote: 
“. . . after a spiritually blessing and joyous jurisdictional conference concluded, we received word late Friday night that our sisters and brothers serving as delegates of the Western Jurisdictional Conference elected The Rev. Dr. Karen Oliveto as a new bishop. Dr. Oliveto is identified as a self-avowed practicing homosexual.
“As a result of her election, The South Central Jurisdiction Conference, in seeking clarity around her election, voted to petition the Judicial Council for a Declaratory Decision concerning Dr. Oliveto's election. A Declaratory Decision is a ruling by the Judicial Council on the constitutionality, meaning, application or effect of an action taken. This is now in the hands of the Judicial Council.”
Just to be clear, when he says that they are seeking clarity, he doesn’t really mean that they are seeking clarity. He means that they want her election nullified. 

On Tuesday the Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church will convene in Newark, New Jersey to hear oral arguments on the motion brought by the South Central Jurisdiction asking that the election of Bishop Oliveto be declared invalid. 

The contention of the South Central Jurisdiction is that since Bishop Oliveto is married to another woman, Robin Ridenour, she must be considered to be “a self-avowed practicing homosexual.” That would mean that she was in violation of the United Methodist Book of Discipline and therefore, they argue, she should be ineligible to be elected Bishop.

The Western Jurisdiction holds that since the election of bishops is the responsibility of the jurisdictions, the South Central Jurisdiction has no standing to challenge what the Western Jurisdiction has done. She was an elder in good standing and she was fairly elected. That should be the end of it.

Each side believes they have a strong case. But the Judicial Council, as constituted by the 2016 General Conference, is dominated by conservatives, so that gives the edge to the South Central Jurisdiction.

Whatever they decide, we can be certain of one thing: this is going to hurt.

If the Judicial Council decides in favor of the Western Jurisdiction (Lord, hear our prayer!), then the traditionalists will be more determined to split the church. And if the decision favors the South Central Jurisdiction then then traditionalists will still want to split the church and more of the progressives will agree with them.

At first glance, schism does not seem like a bad option. And it has historical precedent.

In the 1844 the Methodist Church split over the slavery issue. And it only took us a century to come back together.

If the division is done by conferences, then there will be many churches that find themselves out of step with their conference. Traditionalist churches will find themselves in progressive conferences and vice versa. And if the division is church by church it will be even worse. Most churches are far from unanimity on this issue. Those on the losing side of a vote may well feel betrayed by people they counted as friends. 

It will be ugly. And painful.

Of course, if we are honest about it, we know that the United Methodist Church has been an ugly and painful place for LGBTQ persons for decades. In the words of the old Confession, “We have not loved our neighbors as Christ hath loved us.”



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

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Why Did Jesus Die?



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 you and I don’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, 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 us 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 a faithful life.


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


*A version of this post originally appeared on Good Friday in 2015.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Money Talks in North Carolina Bathroom Controversy


Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
Romans 12:9-13

North Carolina legislators may not love what is good and hate what is evil as Paul admonished, but they do love money more than they hate their LGBTQ neighbors.

And in this case, that is progress.

Legislators have repealed HB-2, the controversial “Bathroom Bill,” in an attempt to reverse the outflow of businesses and the cancellation of concerts and sporting events growing out of a widespread revulsion at the discrimination and hatred embodied in the original bill.

As he signed the replacement bill into law, newly elected Governor Roy Cooper commented, "For over a year now, House Bill 2 has been a dark cloud hanging over our great state. It has stained our reputation. It has discriminated against our people and it has caused great economic harm in many of our communities."

In a classic understatement he called the new bill “not a perfect deal.” And to his credit, he said it was “not my preferred solution.”

The good news is the repeal of the most egregious part of the original bill, which required everyone to use the restroom conforming to the gender assigned on their birth certificate. The revised bill means returning to the previous norm by which each person chose the restroom corresponding to the gender with which they identified.

So far, so good.

But apparently fearing that goodness might get ahead of them, the legislators prohibited municipalities from enacting their own ordinances protecting the rights of LGBTQ persons. In other words, in North Carolina it will remain legal to discriminate against LGBTQ persons. You can be fired or denied housing because you are gay or transgender.

Whether the new bill will be enough to bring the NCAA back to the state remains to be seen.

Shannon Ryan, writing for the Chicago Tribune, notes that the NCAA has been waiting for the North Carolina legislature to address the issues of discrimination before deciding on host sites for 2018-2022.

NCAA President Paul Emmert said at a Final Four news conference Thursday that the site selection committees “have to wait and see whether or not the board of governors will determine whether or not this bill that was recently passed is a sufficient change in the law for the board to feel comfortable going back to North Carolina."

CNN reports that the NCAA listed four factors in its decision last September to move their events:
"North Carolina laws invalidate any local law that treats sexual orientation as a protected class or has a purpose to prevent discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender individuals.
 "North Carolina has the only statewide law that makes it unlawful to use a restroom different from the gender on one's birth certificate, regardless of gender identity.
North Carolina law provides legal protections for government officials to refuse services to the LGBT community. 
"Five states plus numerous cities prohibit travel to North Carolina for public employees and representatives of public institutions, which could include student-athletes and campus athletics staff. These states are New York, Minnesota, Washington, Vermont and Connecticut."
The revised law addresses just one of those factors. And it enshrines discrimination by prohibiting municipalities from enacting their own anti-discrimination laws until 2020.

My hope is that the NCAA will see that the revision does not go far enough. It does not even restore the status quo.

The NCAA decision means $3.76 billion to the state over the four years from 2018 to 2020. The legislators may have no understanding of equal protection or of what it means to love your neighbors. But they apparently understand money.

The NCAA huge influence. 

And they should use it for good.



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

Monday, March 13, 2017

LGBTQ Civil Rights (A Lenten Lesson in Law and Grace)


Law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.

Romans 5:20

Through the mysterious algorithms of Facebook I was reminded of a blog post I wrote six years ago after testifying in favor of Marriage Equality at a State House hearing.


It had been in many ways the perfect Lenten experience.

I was at the State House for almost six hours before it was my turn to testify.

I spoke briefly (but passionately, I hope) about how I believed that God is always calling us forward as Abraham and Sarah were called to leave home and journey toward "the land that I will show you." We are working toward the Kingdom of God and we are impatient with the present because we look for a future that will be more just. And I believe that Marriage Equality is part of a more just future.

While I waited and watched, I had a lot of time to reflect and meditate. (A good Lenten discipline.)

As a Christian it hurts to hear the Bible (and Jesus!) misused to promote an unholy trinity of tradition, fear and ignorance. One woman lamented the fact that until her testimony, no one had mentioned “the sin of sodomy.” She assured us that a same sex couple cannot really teach children about sin because their lives are immersed in sin. She told us that “it grieves our Lord and Savior, and his Blessed Mother in heaven.”

The Bible has over 30,000 verses, and there are, in fact, six brief passages that condemn homosexuality. None of them are in the Gospels. Oddly, they only condemn male homosexuality. Each of the passages is problematic in one way or another. And not one of them is addressed toward a faithful, committed, monogamous same sex relationship. But listening to some of these folks one would think that everything from Genesis to Revelation was written just to condemn homosexuality.

At times I felt like I had fallen into the Bible Study from hell. No wonder that to many people outside the church it looks like Christianity is fundamentally about self-righteousness and condemnation. This was a weaponized Gospel. Devoid of grace. Abounding in judgment. It was painful.

In a post last month I spoke of ours as "a time when so many Christians seem to hate immigrants (and LGBTQ people, and people of color, and poor people) so much more than they love Jesus." That statement drew immediate and fervent response from several traditionalists. Just because they believed something was sinful, they argued, that did not make them haters.

As an intellectual argument, it sounds plausible. But in practice it does not work. Expressing the belief that homosexuality, or "the practice of homosexuality," is sinful is experienced as hateful.

And that night at the State House there were many Christians who seemed to hate gay people a lot more than they loved Jesus.

“But where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.”

There were wonderful grace-filled stories told by parents about their gay children and by children about their gay parents. 

Partners told of their struggles to build a life together. 

A neuro-scientist talked clinically about studies of sexuality and the brain, and then introduced his brother, who is a pediatrician and cannot marry his partner.

Altogether it presented a very vivid illustration of Paul’s argument about law and grace in Romans. The more the traditionalists invoked the Law (Natural and Religious), the more “the trespass multiplied” by them against their sisters and brothers.

The Law was used as a club; in the apparent belief that if they could pound home their point with sufficient force, then they could make same sex relationships go away.

They are against Same Sex Marriage because they are against homosexuality, and they are against homosexuality, at least in part, because they do not believe that the Bible is a living Word. For them it is a dead letter. As Paul argued in his second letter to Corinth, “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” The dead letter of the Law can be used to wound, but it cannot heal and it cannot bring life.

We need to remind ourselves that we are called to be “ministers of a new covenant, not of letter, but of spirit: for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (II Corinthians 3:6)

Friday, March 10, 2017

Healthcare Is a Universal Human Right


Thus says the Lord GOD: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.
Ezekiel 34:2-4

Healthcare is a universal human right.


The libertarians will disagree, but from a Christian perspective there is broad consensus that the conclusion is unmistakable.


Healthcare is a universal human right and most Christian denominations would agree with the United Methodists that, “it is a governmental responsibility to provide all citizens with health care.”


The United Methodist Discipline states:

“Providing the care needed to maintain health, prevent disease, and restore health after injury or illness is a responsibility each person owes others and government owes to all . . . Like police and fire protection, health care is best funded through the government’s ability to tax each person equitably and directly fund the provider entities.”
In case you missed the meaning of that statement, we are talking about single payer insurance.

On the other side of the argument, writing for Freedomworks, Julie Borowski makes the libertarian case against the Affordable Care Act. “The dangerous philosophy behind the law,” she argues, “is that too many Americans now see health care as a human right rather than a good.”

“The Declaration of Independence states that we have an unalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That doesn’t mean that other people should be forced to sustain our life or make us happy,” she writes. “These legitimate rights do not place obligations on anyone except to not infringe on the rights of others.”
Of course, when you boil it all down, the issue is money.

On Vox.com, Matthew Iglesias characterizes critics of the ACA this way:

“They think it taxes rich people too much, and coddles Americans with excessively generous, excessively subsidized health insurance plans. They want a world of lower taxes on millionaires while millions of Americans put ‘skin in the game’ in the form of higher deductibles and copayments. Exactly the opposite, in other words, of what Republican politicians have been promising.”
“What they fundamentally did not like is that the basic framework of the law is to redistribute money by taxing high-income families and giving insurance subsidies to needy ones.”
This, they believe, is immoral. The ACA, they argue, was never about healthcare, it was about the redistribution of income.

Whether intended or not, the ACA does redistribute income as this chart from Gary Burtless and Henry Aaron of the Brookings Institution shows, the Affordable Care Act enacts substantial income redistribution in the United States.




For those who care about economic justice and narrowing the gap between rich and poor, the redistribution does benefit the bottom two-tenths on the income chart. The bad news is first that it does not help a great deal. And second that as a percentage of annual income, the gains at the bottom come at the expense of the middle class. In raw dollars, of course, those at the top contribute the most, but the highest percentage is borne by those at the lower end of the middle class.


The ACA made some real gains in healthcare by making health insurance available to more than twenty million Americans who previously were uninsured. And it did modestly affect the distribution of income.

The plan presently being considered in congress will decrease Medicaid funding, throw millions of people off of insurance plans, make insurance more costly for those who are least able to afford it, and give tax breaks to those who need them least.


We can do better.




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

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Making Vulnerable Kids More Vulnerable


People were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them; and when the disciples saw it, they sternly ordered them not to do it. But Jesus called for them and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs."
Luke 18:15-16

Recently the Trump administration rescinded the guidelines given by the Department of Justice and the Department of Education requiring that public schools allow transgender students to use the bathrooms and facilities corresponding to their gender identity.

This means that the students most vulnerable to bullying and harassment are given less protection.

Those already most vulnerable are made even more vulnerable.

Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, called it “a mean-spirited attack on hundreds of thousands of students who simply want to be their true selves and be treated with dignity while attending school,".

For decades, maybe centuries, transgender adults have been using the bathroom corresponding to their gender identity. Most transgender folks dress and look like the gender with which they identify. And the rest of us don’t think very much about it.

The situation for transgender kids is more difficult. Before they understood their gender identity as different from their biology at birth, classmates may have known them as a different gender. The trans male may have been known previously as female, or vice versa. This makes them uniquely vulnerable to bullying and harassment.

The goal of the original guidelines, put forth last year, was to give kids protection at this very vulnerable time in their lives.

In rescinding those protections, the Trump administration presented the actions of the Justice and Education departments as simply affirming the rights of the states to develop their own guidelines.

"As President Trump has clearly stated, he believes policy regarding transgender bathrooms should be decided at the state level," the White House said in a statement. "The joint decision made today by the Department of Justice and the Department of Education returning power to the states paves the way for an open and inclusive process to take place at the local level with input from parents, students, teachers and administrators."

Although the directive was presented as the shared product of Justice and Education, the
initiative came from Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Publicly, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was in agreement, but she was a reluctant participant.

She told Sessions about her reservations, but she was called in to the White House for a meeting with Sessions and Mr. Trump and was told to get on board.

"It was the President's decision," a source told CNN. "When the President tells you to do something you don't want to do, that is a hard spot to be in."

CNN reported that “DeVos reminded Trump that both of them had publicly promised to protect all students, and she felt that withdrawing the guidance ran counter to those promises. She was concerned that some people may interpret the action as removing protections.”

DeVos asked for clarification in the directive affirming that the rights of students would continue to be protected and assuring them that the Office of Civil Rights of the Education Department would investigate any complaints.

After the directive was released, Devos reaffirmed the Education Department’s responsibility "to protect every student in America and ensure that they have the freedom to learn and thrive in a safe and trusted environment.”

"This is not merely a federal mandate, but a moral obligation no individual, school, district or state can abdicate," she said in a statement. "At my direction, the department's Office for Civil Rights remains committed to investigating all claims of discrimination, bullying and harassment against those who are most vulnerable in our schools."

According to the Trump administration the guidelines protecting transgender students were withdrawn because the president believes that “policy regarding transgender bathrooms should be decided at the state level.”

In other words, the administration is claiming neutrality, which is another way of saying that they side with the bullies. 


As Bishop Tutu observed, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”



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

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Please Be Prepared to Stand Up When the Time Comes

The Leadership of Rising Hope United Methodist Church

When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.
Leviticus 19:33-34

It is a small thing. Not much at all in the grand scheme of world events. And at first glance it may look more like darkness than light. But I believe that when the church stands up for the gospel, it matters.

This morning I received a letter from a United Methodist layperson in Virginia. His sister is a member of our church and he attends with her when he is visiting.

He enclosed a letter from the Alexandria District Superintendent, Rev. Jeff Mickle, addressed to the clergy of that district.

Rev. Mickle wrote to inform the pastors of what he called “a special cause for prayer and advocacy” in relation to the appropriately named Rising Hope United Methodist Church:

“On Wednesday morning of last week, February 8, as a group of homeless men left the Rising Hope hypothermia shelter at 6:45 a.m., a contingent of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents were stationed just across the street from the church to stop these men. The agents gathered the men (all Hispanic) and forced them to stand against a wall for two and a half hours while they were questioned. Many of the men had green cards, and no criminal warrants that would justify this kind of treatment. Eventually, about six men were arrested and taken away in vans.”
He went on to explain that he had participated in a prayer vigil and press conference held at the ICE Field Office in Fairfax County. Jim Wallis, of the Sojourners community, was one of the speakers, along with the Rev. Keary Kincannon, Lead Pastor of Rising Hope UMC, where the raid took place.

Rev. Mickle assured his colleagues that “Keary represented the call of Christ and the witness of the United Methodist Church very well.” And he reported an obvious but crucial point made by Jim Wallis, that "If the choice is between honoring a president’s campaign promise, or honoring the commands of Jesus, the Church has no choice but to follow Jesus, even if it leads us to stand up against the actions of the government.”

The District Superintendent went on to express his hope that “many of you can participate in solidarity with our brother Keary and in support of the ministry of Rising Hope UMC.”

“As you know,” he writes, “Jesus tells us that ‘inasmuch as you do it to the least of these, you do it to me,’ which specifies feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and welcoming the stranger.” When government agents stake out churches which are fulfilling the commands of Christ, it is important for other Christians to bear witness.

“Please keep the matter in your prayers in the days ahead,” he writes.

And then he adds:

“Please be prepared to stand up when the time comes.”

I guess if you are keeping score, the ICE agents won this one.

But for me it is still a sign of hope.

In a time when so many Christians seem to hate immigrants (and LGBTQ people, and people of color, and poor people) so much more than they love Jesus, I am thankful for Rising Hope UMC and the people who will stand up for the strangers who sojourn with us in our land.






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

Monday, February 27, 2017

Like an Everflowing Stream



I hate, I despise your festivals, 
and I take no delight 
in your solemn assemblies. 
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings 
and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals 
I will not look upon. 
Take away from me the noise of your songs; 
I will not listen to the melody of your harps. 
But let justice roll down like waters, 
and righteousness like an everflowing stream.
Amos 5:21-24

These verses from the prophet Amos will provide our worship theme for Lent at The United Methodist Church in East Greenwich, Rhode Island. Together we will look for the ways in which we can be God’s agents for change in our world. The Hebrew prophets were clear that working for justice in the world was central to their faith. Without justice God would not “listen to the melody” of their harps. Without justice their songs were just noise. We cannot worship God without working for justice in the world.

Historically, Amos has often been labeled as one of the twelve “Lesser Prophets” of the Hebrew Bible. But that “Lesser” label was about length rather than importance.

Writing and teaching nearly eight centuries before the birth of Jesus, Amos was the first prophet to speak as the nation’s conscience. In a time of relative prosperity, he speaks God’s word of condemnation for the national leaders and for the nation because they have oppressed the poor and needy. They wonder why God does not hear their songs of prayer and praise, or respond to their burnt offerings. But Amos tells them that without justice their rituals of piety and sacrifice mean nothing.

In the passage that provides our Lenten theme, Amos pronounces God’s blistering condemnation for the system of cultic sacrifice and the festivals that celebrate it. He declares that the rituals are meaningless as long as the people who keep them are morally polluted.

This call to moral accountability was as difficult to hear in ancient Israel as it is today in modern America. But condemnation is never the last word. And we must remember that Amos was critical of what he saw in Israel because he knew that the nation could do better. Ultimately, it was his hope for the future that resulted in his criticism of the present.

Lent is the perfect time for us to look forward and remind ourselves of the people we are called to be, and the nation we are called to be. If we will “let justice roll down,” then the future can be better than the past. “Like an Everflowing Stream,” God’s justice calls us into a future filled with hope and possibility.

Friday, February 17, 2017

With Charity Toward None



“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”

Matthew 5:21-22

Political Correctness, also known as PC or P.C., is commonly defined as “the avoidance, often considered as taken to extremes, of forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against.”

Some trace it back to a statement by Mao Zedong, “Not to have a correct political point of view is like having no soul.”

The term was first used ironically by leftist commentators. But (ironically) one might suspect that it is true for most American politicians on both sides and especially on both extremes. No one would admit that because it would mean agreeing with Mao and that (again, ironically) would not be politically correct.

Mao’s aphorism explains the willingness of Conservative Evangelicals to abandon their supposed moral principles in order to advance their politics. Their politics is their theology.

Opponents of Political Correctness say that it stifles free speech.

Taken to extremes, it does stifle debate and discussion. But the foundational concept is a good one. We should not “exclude marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against.” That’s just common decency.

Nevertheless, Political Correctness is everyone’s favorite punching bag.

No one wants to be insulted or called a name. But everyone seems to be offended by the idea that they ought not to offend others.

Donald Trump rode that common feeling of indignation all the way to the White House. His ability to articulate that inchoate sense of victimization turned out to be a brilliant strategy. 


In an article published by The Guardian, Moira Weigel observes that, “Throughout an erratic campaign, Trump consistently blasted political correctness, blaming it for an extraordinary range of ills and using the phrase to deflect any and every criticism.” And she points to a key moment during the first debate of the Republican primaries when Fox News host Megyn Kelly asked Trump how he would answer the charge that he was “part of the war on women”.

“You’ve called women you don’t like ‘fat pigs,’ ‘dogs,’ ‘slobs,’ and ‘disgusting animals’,” Kelly pointed out. “You once told a contestant on Celebrity Apprentice it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees …”
“I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct,” Trump answered, to audience applause. “I’ve been challenged by so many people, I don’t frankly have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time either.”
Weigel asserts that pushed beyond what any other critics of Political Correctness had been willing to say and do. “Trump did not simply criticize the idea of political correctness,” she writes. “He actually said and did the kind of outrageous things that PC culture supposedly prohibited.”

One of the things his supporters liked best was his willingness to “tell it like it is.” He was willing to say what many of them were really thinking.

He broke the boundaries of what was acceptable.

Weigel summarizes this appeal by contrasting it with a much more conventional politician:

“In 1991, when George HW Bush warned that political correctness was a threat to free speech, he did not choose to exercise his free speech rights by publicly mocking a man with a disability or characterizing Mexican immigrants as rapists. Trump did.
“Having elevated the powers of PC to mythic status, the draft-dodging billionaire, son of a slumlord, taunted the parents of a fallen soldier and claimed that his cruelty and malice was, in fact, courage.”
In this strange new world, free of the chains of oppressive political correctness, we are now free to call names, ridicule the powerless, and slander the already marginalized. Best of all, we need not feel guilty for our cruelty. Instead we can celebrate our willingness to “tell it like it is.”



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

Friday, February 10, 2017

Nevertheless, She Persisted.

This 1906 Cartoon depicts the Senate as a more fearsome place than it is today.

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.
Galatians 3:28-29

Nevertheless.

She persisted.

This should not be a partisan issue.

The United States Senate has done something that they ought not to have done.

They have confirmed Jeff Sessions as Attorney General of the United States, which means they have placed a man with a public record of racism in charge of overseeing the Civil Rights laws that are supposed to protect our citizens against racial discrimination. And they have placed a man opposed to the equal treatment of our LGBTQ citizens in charge of protecting those citizens.

Along the way they silenced Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren using an obscure Senate regulation  called “Rule Nineteen,” which dictates polite discourse in Senate debates and states in its second section:
“No Senator in debate shall, directly or indirectly, by any form of words impute to another Senator or to other Senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator.”
Her sin was in reading a letter from Coretta Scott King written in opposition to the appointment of Sessions to a Federal judgeship after he was nominated by President Reagan. In her letter she detailed how Sessions had worked against Civil Rights and had used the Voting Rights Act to harass civil rights workers who were trying to help African Americans to vote by absentee ballot.

He used an act designed to prevent voter suppression in order to suppress voters.

Sessions was defeated for the judgeship, but he was elected to the senate a few years later. And as a senator he has continued to oppose Civil Rights for African Americans as well as for LGBTQ persons. 

Curiously, after voting to use Rule Nineteen to silence Senator Warren, no one objected a day later when several of her male colleagues read the full text of the letter into the Congressional Record.

In an article published in TheAtlantic.com, Russell Berman reviewed the genesis of Rule Nineteen:
“In February 1902, the Senate was debating a treaty to annex the Philippines when Senator Benjamin ‘Pitchfork Ben’ Tillman became infuriated that his fellow South Carolina Democrat and onetime close friend, John McLaurin, had switched his position to join Republicans in supporting the accord. McLaurin, Tillman raged, had succumbed to ‘improper influences’; Republicans had showered him with perks and privileges, Tillman charged, and he had caved in return.
“A former South Carolina governor whose statue still stands on the statehouse grounds, Tillman has drawn more recent attention for being a white supremacist who advocated until his death the lynching of black people who tried to vote. Back then, he was known for his outspokenness and his ‘less than courteous’ manner of debating in the Senate. Alerted to Pitchfork Ben’s comments, an incensed McLaurin ‘dashed into the Senate chamber and denounced Tillman's statement as “a willful, malicious, and deliberate lie,’” according to a Senate history of the incident. Tillman responded by physically attacking McLaurin ‘with a series of stinging blows,’ the historians wrote, and efforts to separate the brawling Southerners ‘resulted in misdirected punches landing on other members.’”
The problem is not that Attorney General Sessions engaged in racist acts thirty years ago. The problem is that he has not apologized, nor has he clearly stated a present understanding that what he did then was wrong. But it does not end there. He has continued to oppose Civil Rights from that time until now.

The unintentional connection to “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman through the invocation of Rule XIX is worth a closer look.

In an article published in the Washington Post, Sarah Larimer cites an Associated Press report that up until his death in 1918, Tillman was an unapologetic defender of his “post-Reconstruction tactics to restore white rule in the then-majority-black state by killing any black who tried to vote.”
“The purpose of our visit was to strike terror,” he said in the Senate in 1900 about the so-called Hamburg Massacre of 1876, where his militia killed black Republicans. “And the next morning when the Negroes who had fled to the swamp returned to the town the ghastly sight which met their gaze of seven dead Negroes lying stark and stiff certainly had its effect.”
So a rule first voted into effect to civilize the behavior of a man who once practiced the most extreme form of voter suppression was used to suppress the witness of Coretta Scott King  and silence the dissent of Elizabeth Warren. And this was done in order to support the nomination of a man who continues to oppose the civil rights of minorities.

Nevertheless.

She persisted.

Sometimes it feels like we have gone through the looking glass.




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