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, 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


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, 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.


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. 

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Truth Matters

Then Jesus said to those who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
John 8:31-32

One shouldn’t have to say this, but given Donald Trump’s statements during his first few weeks in office, it is a claim that needs to be stated: Truth matters.

The Bible makes many claims, but it is hard to find something more fundamental than this. Truth matters. It makes a difference. Falsehood leads to ruin and truth leads to life. 

In John’s narrative of the crucifixion, he describes the encounter between Jesus and Pilate centering on the nature and meaning of truth as it relates to Jesus’ ministry and mission. Before sentencing Jesus to death, Pilate interrogates him about the claim that he is the king of the Jews. He asks him a question in the form of a statement. “So,” says Pilate, “You are a king?” 

Jesus throws it back at him with a blend of irony and sarcasm, “You say that I am a king.” 

And then he explains his mission: “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” 

Although John does not say anything about how quickly Pilate responded, one imagines a pause. Possibly a very long pause.

And finally Pilate asks Jesus, “What is truth?”

Or in our present context, “What is a lie?”

Each of our previous four presidents has been accused of lying. George H. W. Bush “lied” that there would be “no new taxes.” Bill Clinton “lied” when he said he “did not have sex with that woman.” George W. Bush “lied” when he said that Saddam Hussein has “weapons of mass destruction.” And Barack Obama “lied” when he promised that under the Affordable Care Act, “you can keep your doctor.”

The first and fourth are political promises made based on assumptions about the future. Calling them “lies” is a stretch. When the meteorologist on TV tells me that I won’t need an umbrella, and then it rains, that’s not a lie. It’s a mistake, maybe, but it’s not a lie.

According to Web MD, 80% of young adults don’t count oral sex as having sex. From their perspective Clinton was not lying. If George Bush knew that there were no weapons of mass destruction and intentionally deceived the country, then he lied. But are we sure that he knew?

The situation with Donald Trump is very different. He seems to lie all the time about matters great and small. 

We could start with Barack Obama’s birth certificate and end with his comments earlier this week at the headquarters of the U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida. Addressing the troops at MacDill, Mr. Trump explained his concern about the danger of terrorist attacks, first by citing a series of recent events and then by criticizing the media coverage of terrorism:
"It's gotten to a point where it's not even reported, and in many cases the very, very dishonest press doesn't even want to report it."
From Mr. Trump’s perspective, journalists are not just mistaken or even lazy or indifferent to national security. They are not just dishonest or even very dishonest. They are “very, very dishonest.”

And then, with a sinister ambiguity, he told the troops that the media "have their reasons, and you understand that.”

It is impossible to imagine any previous president standing in front of his troops at the Central Command headquarters and telling them that the United States press is universally and intentionally dishonest. 

The truth matters. And it matters even more when you are the Commander in Chief.

There is deep irony in choosing Steve Bannon, a major architect of Breitbart news, as a senior adviser and even including him in the National Security Council, and then complaining about bias in the media. 

That irony would be much more entertaining if there were not so much at stake. We are in dangerous territory. We cannot have a free country without a free press. Delegitimizing the press threatens the foundations of our democracy.

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

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Jesus without Content

Dear Lord Jesus,
I know that I am a sinner and need Your forgiveness. I believe that You died on the cross for my sins and rose from the grave to give me life. I know You are the only way to God. So now I want to quit disobeying You and start living for You. Please forgive me, change my life and show me how to know You. In Jesus' name. Amen.

It is commonly known as “The Sinner’s Prayer.” That particular version comes from the Christian Broadcasting Network.

I visited their website in search of an interview they did with Donald Trump.

If you click on a link labeled “Know Jesus” you will find yourself on a page called “Peace with God.” They have a very simple four step process ending with the Sinner’s Prayer.

Step one is recognizing that God loves you.

Step two is realizing that we are separated from God by our sin which, if unforgiven, will lead to death. But God’s gift is eternal life through Jesus Christ.

Step three is understanding that Jesus Christ paid the penalty for our sin and bridged the gap between God and people.

Step four is receiving Christ as your personal savior. You must do that in order to be saved. Jesus is the only way to God and the only way to escape the punishment we deserve. But (lucky for you!) you can give your life over to Christ right now. All you need to do is to pray the prayer.

As near as I can tell, you don’t even need to be sincere, although that is not clearly spelled out.

G.K. Chesterton famously observed that “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.” But the CBN version of Christianity is not difficult at all.

Never mind taking up the cross, or loving your enemies, or turning the other cheek, or going the extra mile, or selling all that you have and giving it to the poor, or any of those other teachings of Jesus that seemed so difficult. You don’t need to worry about clothing the naked or feeding the hungry. 

Just say a prayer.

And just to be clear, you don't need to say a prayer for those who are poor or sick or oppressed. You just need to pray for Jesus to save you.

Don’t worry about doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God. Don’t worry about letting justice roll down like a mighty river. Don’t worry about what Jesus taught or how Jesus lived, or what he actually asked of those who follow him.

What does it mean “to quit disobeying You and start living for You”? If we were looking at the teachings of Jesus, that could be a very challenging endeavor, but in terms of the Sinner’s Prayer, one suspects it is a vague reference to conventional morality.

If we reduce Christian faith to such meaningless jargon, it is no wonder that people can call themselves Christians and still embrace racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and other forms of oppression. Jesus without his teachings is just an empty shell. You can fill it with whatever suits your fancy.

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

Thursday, January 26, 2017

The ACA Has Achieved Something Significant

Five Year Old James Cook of Cleveland, Ohio

When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

“I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”

Mark 2:1-5, 11-12

Modern readers tend to focus first on the miracle.

They may believe it literally, or they may see it as a metaphor. They may rationalize it, or they may see it pointing toward larger truths about healing and wholeness and forgiveness, they may focus on sin and guilt in relation to physical health.

But there is something else, central to the story, which is easily missed. What impresses Jesus is the four friends carrying the paralytic. “When he saw their faith” he offered the forgiveness that led to healing.

They picked him up and carried him.

When Jesus saw them carrying the man, he called that “faith.”

Over the past eight years of our national debate about the Affordable Care Act, one of the most contentious questions has been about whether or not healthy people have a responsibility to carry those who are ill.

And the good news is that we have made progress.

In September of 2011 CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer was moderating a Republican Presidential Candidates debate in Tampa Florida. He posed a hypothetical question to Dr. Ron Paul. If a healthy thirty year old man with a good income chose not to buy health insurance and then became catastrophically ill, what should happen? Paul tried to dodge the question by recalling (incorrectly) that years ago the churches took care of people who had no insurance, but a significant portion of the audience could be heard chanting, “Let him die! Let him die!”

Not our finest moment, though the Ayn Rand crowd must have rejoiced in the triumph of “the virtue of selfishness.”

No one is really happy with the individual mandate requirement of the Affordable Care Act. But without some means of requiring everyone to buy coverage it is impossible to pay for the very popular provisions protecting those with pre-existing conditions and eliminating the lifetime limits on coverage.

The ACA is far from perfect. But it has achieved something significant. It has shifted the terms of the debate.

When we first began discussing the ACA, one of the primary objections was that “we can’t afford it.” In other words, we won’t carry sick people. If people need to be carried they will have to pay for it on their own.

In the initial debates and in subsequent attempts at repeal, those against the ACA did not mention the folks without health insurance. And they did not seem worried that repeal would take away insurance from twenty million people who were previously uninsured and now have health insurance through the ACA.

But now that has shifted.

President Trump’s official position is that the ACA should be repealed and replaced with Health Savings Accounts, which is not really a viable alternative to insurance. But in his public statements he has repeatedly said that we can’t have twenty million people losing health insurance. And other opponents of the ACA have said the same thing.

In the long run we need some version of single payer health insurance like almost all of the developed world. And we could do this using the present Medicare model.

But for now at least we seem to have taken a small step toward.

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

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Monica Crowley and the Perils of Plagiarism

Remind them of this, and warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. 
II Timothy 2:14-15

It is quaint, really.

A reminder of a bygone era, a time when even the whiff of a scandal was enough to derail one’s candidacy for public office. Like Tom Daschle withdrawing from a proposed cabinet position in the Obama administration because he got a free ride (literally, the use of a limousine and chauffeur) which he did not declare on his income tax. 

Monica Crowley’s withdrawal as a candidate for the position of senior director of strategic communications for the National Security Council in (soon to be) President Trump's administration because of alleged plagiarism seemed oddly out of synch with everything else going on in the new administration.

She would have been working for a man who apparently believes strange conspiracy theories and tweets fake news without apology. And that man, of course, would be working for a president who once bragged that he could shoot someone in broad daylight on Fifth Avenue without losing any of his supporters. 

All the fuss over plagiarism seems strange.

In a comprehensive analysis for CNN Money, Andrew Kaczynski, Chris Massie and Nathan McDermott reported that a CNN KFile review found that Crowley had plagiarized thousands of words in her Ph.D. dissertation.
“In her dissertation on America's China policy under Truman and Nixon, entitled ‘Clearer Than Truth,’ Crowley, whose Ph.D. is in international relations, lifted multiple passages from Eric Larson's 1996 book, ‘Casualties and Consensus: The Historical Role of Casualties in Domestic Support for U.S. Military Operations.’ She also repeatedly plagiarized James Chace's 1998 book, ‘Acheson: The Secretary of State Who Created the American World,’ as well as a 1982 book by Yale's John Lewis Gaddis called ‘Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of American National Security Policy during the Cold War.’ Crowley's dissertation also contains passages taken from a 1996 book by Thomas Christensen of Princeton, ‘Useful Adversaries: Grand Strategy, Domestic Mobilization, and Sino-American Conflict, 1947-1958.’”
Plagiarism covers a wide variety of academic misdemeanors and felonies from the high school student who turns in a paper written by someone else to the researcher who does some sloppy work on the footnotes or leaves out quotation marks. Most of the time it is more about sloppiness and laziness than what we traditionally think of as cheating.

But the Crowley case belies that generalization.

One is struck by the sheer volume of the sections in question. The CNN Money article lays out her text beside the original. The individual passages are long. We are not talking about a sentence here and a sentence there. And they are word for word. And they go on for pages.

One guesses that the readers who signed off on her dissertation are not feeling very good about themselves right now.

And. There’s more.

Her 2012 book, “What the (Bleep) Just Happened,” published by Harper Collins, also contains significant material lifted from other sources.

But that’s not all. As Kaczynski, Massie and McDermott report:

“Crowley's first plagiarism scandal came in 1999, the year before she submitted her dissertation. After The New York Times reported a reader found that a column she wrote in the Wall Street Journal strongly resembled a 1988 article in the neoconservative magazine Commentary, a Journal editor said that the paper would not have published her piece if it had known of the parallels. Crowley denied the charge but acknowledged that the language is similar.”

So this wasn’t just a footnote missing here or there, or even a stray sentence or two, this was extensive and comprehensive. This was industrial strength plagiarism. 

Even so, I bet Donald Trump could have gotten away with it.

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

Friday, January 6, 2017

None Dare Call It Treason

The LORD your God you shall follow, him alone you shall fear, his commandments you shall keep, his voice you shall obey, him you shall serve, and to him you shall hold fast. But those prophets or those who divine by dreams shall be put to death for having spoken treason against the LORD your God—who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery—to turn you from the way in which the LORD your God commanded you to walk. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.
Deuteronomy 13:4-5

I can still see the book in the living room of the house where I grew up, sitting in the pine bookcase my father made. And there is still a copy on a bookshelf in our house in Maine, the legacy of Elaine’s great uncle Joe Higgins.

None Dare Call It Treason was written by John A. Stormer and published in 1964 in support of Barry Goldwater’s campaign for the presidency. Six million copies were distributed in bulk quantities that summer and fall.

The title of the book comes from an epigram by Sir John Harrington:
Treason doth never prosper.
What’s the reason?
Why if it prosper, none dare call it treason.
I grew up in a Republican household in a time when it was almost redundant to speak of “Protestant Republicans.” And the village of Sagamore, Massachusetts was part of rural America.

It was not long after the 1964 election that the combination of the Civil Rights struggle and the Viet Nam War moved our family away from the Republicans.

I never read the book, but I knew the basic thesis. America was being betrayed by the elites in politics and academia, who were procommunist. The Soviets were winning the Cold War because they were secretly supported by the elite liberal establishment. 

The title came back to me when Donald Trump began sending out tweets in support of Russia and Vladimir Putin, and against our own intelligence agencies. And it seemed bizarre that the script had been turned inside out. The longtime cold warriors must be suffering vertigo.

One can only imagine what the response would be if the situation were reversed and Hillary Clinton had been the candidate supported by Russian Spies who was now at odds with our own intelligence leaders.

In an article published online last month on Marty Kaplan wrote:
“It’s abysmal that Democrats didn’t have a good enough jobs message to convince enough Rust Belt voters to choose their economic alternative to Trump’s tax cuts for the rich. It’s disgraceful that the media normalized Trump, propagated his lies, monetized his notoriety and lapped up his tweet porn. It’s maddening that the Electoral College apportions ballot power inequitably. But as enervating as any of that is, none of it is as dangerous to democracy as the CIA’s finding that Putin hacked the 2016 election on Trump’s behalf. Without firing a single shot, the Kremlin is weeks away from installing its puppet in the White House.”
The puppet designation seems like a stretch to me. Donald Trump is too unpredictable and impulsive to be a reliable puppet for anyone. But Kaplan is right that the Russian intervention in our election is dangerous to democracy.

It is impossible to know whether the Russian hacking changed the outcome of the election. But the results were cheered in Moscow and celebrated by Vladimir Putin. It is hard to believe that could be a good thing.

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