Monday, August 7, 2017

The Core Message of Christianity

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
Mark 1:14-15

I grew up believing that when Jesus proclaimed the “Gospel,” he was talking about his life and death and resurrection. That was the “good news of God.”

Imagine my surprise when my New Testament professor said that the “good news” proclaimed by Jesus was actually about the Kingdom of God. (Of course if I had paid attention to what I was reading rather than just assuming I knew what it meant, I would have already known that.)

My first thought was that the professor must be wrong. My second thought was that this changed everything.

I thought about that transformational learning as I read a blogpost by Alisa Childers on “Five Signs Your Church Might Be HeadingToward Progressive Christianity.” She lists the five signs as: (1) A Lowered View of the Bible, (2) The Emphasis on Feelings Over Facts, (3) The Reinterpretation of Essential Christian Doctrines, (4) The Redefinition of Historic Terms, and (5) The Heart of the Christian Message Shifts from Sin and Redemption to Social Justice.

These “Five Signs” can be summarized in what she sees as the fatal flaw of Progressive Christianity: A failure to take the Bible literally.

And by literally, she means her understanding of the literal meaning of each story and verse in the Bible. It is, of course, a selective literalism which allows one to make the claim of literalism while ignoring, for example, significant sections of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). And making believe that there is only one Creation story, rather than two. And one account of Noah’s Ark, rather than two.

Biblical literalism claims to take a high view of the Bible, but in reality it denies central elements of the biblical witness. The symbolic language of the Bible is not less than literalism; it is more. Literalism limits the meaning of the text to the words on the paper. An ancient rabbinic teaching says that God is found in the white spaces that surround the black letters of the text. Biblical literalism sees only the letters. For the literalist, there is nothing beyond the text.

Paul said that the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life (II Corinthians 3:6).

But this isn’t just Biblical Literalism, this is Selective Biblical Literalism and the problem is most evident in her last complaint, that “The heart of the Christian message shifts from sin and redemption to Social Justice.”

Childers explains it this way:

“There is no doubt that the Bible commands us to take care of the unfortunate and defend those who are oppressed. This is a very real and profoundly important part of what it means to live out our Christian faith. However, the core message of Christianity—the gospel—is that Jesus died for our sins, was buried and resurrected, and thereby reconciled us to God. This is the message that will truly bring freedom to the oppressed.”
She is correct in saying that the Gospel is both personal and social, but she has the order and the priority reversed. And her assertion that the needs of the oppressed are primarily spiritual rather than material reminds one of the question posed in the First Letter of John, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” (I John 3:17)

Jesus’ preaching was focused on the Kingdom of God. That was the heart of his message. He proclaimed it as a present reality and a future hope. He said it was among us, around us, and within us.

The Romans crucified him for sedition. His invitation and challenge to his disciples was to “take up the cross and follow me.” He was inviting them to be part of the Kingdom of God rather than the Roman Empire. In this new reality, the poor are lifted up and the mighty are cast down. In this new reality the normalcy of violence is replaced by peace and justice. Everyone has a place at the table and everyone has enough.

Jesus stands in a prophetic tradition that sees sin and redemption primarily in social terms.

In Matthew 25, those who have failed to be faithful ask,

“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?”

And the Lord will answer them,

"Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”

The final test is not about what we believe. It is about what we do. Specifically, it is about what we do for those who are on the margins. And so that there can be no mistake in the meaning of the parable, Jesus makes clear at the beginning that the nations will be judged. In other words, this final test is about social justice.

If your church is becoming more focused on Social Justice, then it is following more closely the life and teachings of Jesus.

Faith always begins with the personal and Jesus spoke to his disciples and his listeners in personal terms. He called them to a personal commitment to follow him. But for Jesus, as for the prophets before him, that commitment led to social justice. 

Micah declared God’s commandment to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.” And Jesus referenced Micah’s proclamation when he told his disciples that God desires “mercy and not sacrifice.” Without a commitment to social justice God is not moved by our worship.

Christians have always been tempted to reduce sin and redemption to personal issues. It is easier and less controversial. And no one was ever crucified just for being a good person.

By reducing sin and redemption to personal terms we also reduce the meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion. Walter Rauschenbusch was right when he observed that,

"Jesus did not in any real sense bear the sin of some ancient Briton who beat up his wife in B. C. 56, or of some mountaineer in Tennessee who got drunk in A. D. 1917. But he did in a very real sense bear the weight of the public sins of organized society, and they in turn are causally connected with all private sins."

If your church is focusing on social justice, that’s a good sign that they are trying to be more faithful.

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

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Hiroshima and the Prophetic Vision of Harry Emerson Fosdick

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

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

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

Fosdick looks better and better to me as the years go by. When I was in seminary, I thought he was a theological and intellectual lightweight. In my estimation, opposing Fundamentalism was obvious. And didn’t he spend his whole career at Riverside Church, bought and paid for by Rockefeller money? But now, when I re-read “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” I am struck by its relevance for our time. 

Fosdick’s liberal theology, which seemed so pale and lifeless when I was in seminary, now looks both profound and prophetic. Truthfully, I held those negative opinions based almost entirely on what other people had said or written. My opinion changed as I began to read Fosdick for myself. 

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

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

The book was published in the summer of 1944, shortly after the Normandy invasion, when the outcome of the war was not yet certain. He believed it was “A Great Time to Be Alive” because so much was at stake for the future of humanity and every decision mattered existentially and spiritually.

Fosdick had the courage, in that perilous time, to declare that war is always at odds with Christian teaching. It may be necessary, but it is never good. 
“Whether one thinks of what our enemies have done to us—of Warsaw, Lidice, Rotterdam, Coventry—or what we have done to them—‘We literally drop liquid fire on these cities,’ says one expert in air warfare, ‘and literally roast the populations to death.’”
He assumes that we will win the war. Hitler will be defeated and Imperial Japan will be 
vanquished, but the real challenge will be to win the peace, to create a world which is worthy of the human lives lost in war. “Many Americans,” he writes, “would love to save the world if only they could save it without changing their isolationism, without changing their ideas of absolute national sovereignty, without changing their racial prejudices and their economic ideas to fit the new interdependent world.” Sadly, those words are still relevant. We still want to save the world without giving up anything.

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

Today, on the anniversary of dropping the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, as we contemplate a chaotic foreign policy and the threat of long range missiles in North Korea, Fosdick’s vision is particularly relevant.

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

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

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Maybe We Need Less Hot or Cold and More Lukewarm

And to the angel in the church of Laodicea write: “I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”
Revelation 3:14a, 15-16

Long ago and far away, when I was in seminary, we were sure of almost everything and one of the things about which we were most certain was that the principle problem with the church was that it was lukewarm. 

And nothing could be worse than lukewarm.

The Laodiceans lacked commitment. They were middle-of-the-road moderates. They were the ancient equivalent of modern cultural Christians, observing the forms of Christianity without the content. They had no passion.

Today I take a more tolerant view of that church.

And sometimes when I consider our current impasse over the issues of LGBTQ inclusion or exclusion, I think that in the United Methodist Church we could use a little more of Laodicea.

When the first talk of schism began in earnest a few years ago, I believed that it would not happen. Not because I expected that we would have a sudden epiphany, but because I thought our lukewarm bureaucratic polity would move so slowly that the issue would be settled long before we ever got to schism.

That now appears unlikely.

One of the things I have loved about the United Methodist Church is that historically we have always had a big tent. We could accommodate George Bush and Hillary Clinton, George McGovern and Dick Cheney. At our best we worked together toward common goals. Sometimes we worked both sides of the same issue and at other times we focused on very different concerns. But in all of that we respected each person’s commitment.

Some of us wanted to sing “Onward Christian Soldiers” and others wanted “Once to Every Man and Nation,” but we agreed on “Jesus Loves Me.”

In our current conflict there is a sense in which the very visible issue of LGBTQ exclusion or inclusion serves as a proxy for a conflict that is really about doctrine and biblical interpretation. The Wesleyan Covenant Association, Good News, and the Confessing movement all want to take a much more literal approach to the Bible and to the ancient creeds.

And they want everyone to agree with them.

More than two decades ago I mentored a young man in our church who wanted to be a United Methodist Pastor. When he was turned down at one point in the process, I wrote to the Board of Ministry and pressed hard for his inclusion, arguing that we needed diverse theological positions and that this was an essential part of who we were as United Methodists.

A colleague applauded my efforts and then added a cautionary addendum: “You know, Bill, that’s great that you want Tom to be included. But you need to understand that if they get the majority they will want to have you thrown out.”

And that’s basically where we are.

I’m not sure whether the traditionalists are hot or cold in the sense we see in Laodicea, but they present a faith that is brittle and narrow. And they want me to see it all the same way that they do.

For more that forty years we United Methodists have been doing harm to the LGBTQ folks in our midst, and we have contributed to the broader “Christian” cultural condemnation that surrounds them. We need to stop harming folks. But beyond that we should not expect everyone to conform to the same point of view.

The traditionalists fret about the church “condoning sin” when we elect a gay bishop, ordain LGBTQ clergy, or marry same sex couples. 

But what traditionalists experience today is certainly no worse than what progressives went through fifty years ago when we saw churches and clergy within our denomination perpetrating the sins of racism, segregation, and voter suppression, contrary to positions we took as a church in our Book of Discipline. Today in our Social Principles we support a living wage, gun control, collective bargaining, universal health insurance, immigration reform, and we support programs to combat global warming, but we tolerate opposition by churches and clergy and we do not sanction those who advocate antithetical positions.

Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter proposed an amendment at the 2012 General Conference that ultimately failed, but it described our choice this way:
“We can divide, or we can commit to disagree with compassion, grace, and love, while continuing to seek to understand the concerns of the other. Given these options, schism or respectful co-existence, we choose the latter.”
And then they concluded:
“We commit to disagree with respect and love, we commit to love all persons and above all, we pledge to seek God’s will. With regard to homosexuality, as with so many other issues, United Methodists adopt the attitude of John Wesley who once said, ‘Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may.’”
I know that many United Methodists reject the possibility of “respectful co-existence” as no better than that lukewarm church in Laodicea, but I see it as an affirmation that we are held together by something more than the Book of Discipline.

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