Monday, September 24, 2012

The Social Implications of Our Discipleship


Dr. Colin Harris, who is a professor of religion at Mercer University, has written a very perceptive article that appeared at EthicsDaily.com titled, When Good People Happen to Bad Things (a twist on Rabbi Kushner’s book, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People”). I encourage you to read the article, but here are a few excerpts:

“Humility, of course, counsels us all not to claim absolute truth or goodness for any of our partial understandings, but it is disconcerting when people who epitomize compassion and generosity on so many levels align themselves with positions and policies that seem to contradict their basic commitments.”

“When good people allow themselves to be drawn into narratives that feature and depend on ‘bad things’ (prejudice, fear, greed, Islamophobia, homophobia and the many other forms of ‘other-phobia’), those ‘bad things’ gain a credibility they would not otherwise have that increases their toxicity in a society.”

“The silence and tacit acceptance by good people of bad things in their subtle disguises provides more fuel for their destructive work than do their outright advocates.”

Dr. Harris reminds us that when we go along with systems, organizations, policies, etc. that run counter to the kingdom of God, we are complicit in the injustice of those systems and policies.

Consider immigration reform. As disciples of Jesus, our first response should be to consider what sort of policy is most in harmony with the inclusive, grace-filled vision of God’s kingdom as embodied and taught by Jesus. If we simply go along with whatever position our political party embraces, without critique and question, we are participants in the injustice such policy perpetrates.

Our discipleship to Jesus should make us advocates of social justice issues, policies, principles, etc. that favor the common good without regard to political party. As a disciple of Jesus, I can without hesitation (based on Christ’s vision and teaching) declare that the drone strikes in Pakistan endorsed by our present Administration are morally wrong. In like manner, I can also without hesitation (as a disciple of Jesus) declare the economic plan and federal budget championed by the opposing political party to be morally wrong.

Our commitment to a larger vision and story, God’s kingdom on earth, must take precedence over all other group loyalties and commitments. If not, then we are only nominal Christians who do not take seriously the privilege and responsibility of discipleship.

I must remind myself of this frequently, for I find it no easy task (as a disciple of Jesus and especially as a pastor) living with the tension of being both priest and prophet (engaging in both priestly and prophetic work). In Israel, there was always some uneasiness between priests and prophets. Priests functioned within the established forms of religion, while the prophets ministered out on the edges and in the margins.

Churches need to maintain this balance. Too often faith communities get bogged down in priestly concerns almost to the exclusion of social/prophetic concerns. Think of how much energy has gone into forms and methods of church worship without any discussion at all taking place about just and compassionate immigration policy, health care for the poor, strategies for peacemaking, etc.

As disciples of Jesus, all our personal interests and group identities/loyalties pervaded by conventional wisdom must come under the scrutiny and discernment of our allegiance to the counter-cultural wisdom and vision embodied by Jesus.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Two Visions: Redistribution or Accumulation


We have all by now heard the video of Presidential candidate Mitt Romney expressing his contempt for the 47% who, he says, are dependent on government  and who believe they are “victims” and that they are entitled to government provided food, housing, etc. The Romney campaign has responded with a video of then Senator Obama in 1998 stating that he believes in some form of redistribution of resources because everyone should “have a shot” at making it in a country like ours.

Both candidates will inevitably downplay these statements, but in my estimation they reflect two fundamentally different visions based on diametrically opposed values and priorities.

My contention is that President Obama’s statement is completely congruent with the heart and core of Judeo-Christian faith, while Romney’s is antithetical.

In the wisdom and prophetic literature of the Hebrew Bible, God is often pictured as the champion of the poor (e.g., Ps. 12:5; 14:6, etc.), and the prophets frequently rail against Israel’s religious and political leaders for their oppression of the poor (e.g., Isa. 3:14–15; Isa. 58:3; Amos 2:6–7; etc.). In this literature, the accumulation of wealth and the exploitation of the poor often go hand-in-hand. Also, it was written into Israel’s legislature to take care of the needs of the poor. The Torah made clear that it was the responsibility of the nonpoor to provide for the poor (Deut. 15:7–11; 24:10–15; 24:19–22).

One of the most striking provisions aimed at the just and equitable distribution of resources was the year of Jubilee (Lev. 25:10). Every fiftieth year the land reverted back to its original owner. If people had lost their land through bankruptcy, it was restored to them. This provision was designed to reduce poverty and circumvent the ever-widening gap that occurs in most economic systems between the wealthy and the poor. These people of faith believed that benevolence could not be left to the personal whims and wishes of the rich. Jubilee integrated the spiritual, social, and economic dimensions of life into one piece.

Luke’s Gospel captures the spirit and trajectory of the Jubilee legislation in a statement of Jesus’ mission, where Jesus reads from the prophet Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth and applies the reading to himself:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18–19, NRSV).

Most interpreters agree that Jesus was not calling for a specific program of social and economic reform, but without question, he was casting a social vision based on the ethics of distributive justice within the Hebrew tradition. His announcement of God’s reign was permeated by the spirit of Jubilee and the equitable principles of justice incorporated into Israel’s covenant with God.

Jesus spoke frequently of the dangers of wealth (e.g., Matt. 6:19–21, 24; Mark 10:17–25, etc.) even pronouncing blessing on the poor and woe upon the rich (Luke 6:20–26). At least on one occasion, according to Luke’s portrait, Jesus told his disciples: “Sell your possessions and give to the poor” (Luke 12:33, NIV). Jesus taught that to whom much is given, much is required.

The spirit of giving and redistribution pervaded the first community of Jesus’ disciples as depicted in the book of Acts:

“All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44–45, NRSV).

“Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common” (Acts 2:32, NRSV).

When the Apostle Paul revisited the churches he had established in the Mediterranean world, a major component of his mission was to collect money for the poor disciples in Jerusalem. He put enormous pressure on the church at Corinth to contribute to this work (see 2 Cor. 8–9). He encouraged them: “This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of God’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God” (9:12). Paul was encouraging some redistribution of resources to meet the needs of God’s impoverished people in Jerusalem.

It is inconceivable that followers of Jesus would not believe in or practice some form and degree of redistribution. This is true because disciples of Christ are to be driven by compassion and love for all God’s children, especially the most vulnerable.

Any government that cares about its citizens, no matter what its economic and political system, will practice some form of redistribution. It is inconceivable that a democratic government grounded in “we the people” and pervaded by Judeo-Christian ethical principles would not practice some form of redistribution.

America has always had some fondness for the idea. Under the title “Robin Hood-themed films and TV series” ranging from the 1900’s to the present, Wikipedia lists sixty-three entries. In August, President Obama drew on this image to critique  Romney’s economic policies, which gut programs and curtail resources that assist the poor while giving tax breaks to the extremely wealthy. He said, “It’s like Robin Hood in reverse. It’s Romney Hood.” The popularity of this mythological character captures some of our nation’s hopes and dreams for a more just, fair, equitable society.

This election sets before us two visions that will, in some measure, determine who we as a people want to be. Will we decide to be a greedy people, focused on our own little nest egg, driven to accumulate more and more for our personal benefit? Or will we be a generous people, focused on the needs of others, driven to redistribute some of our resources for the common good of all God’s children?

In the video that is circulating now, President Obama (at the time, Senator Obama) says that he believes in some redistribution so that all persons “have a shot” at a flourishing life. I do too. I don’t see how a follower of Christ cannot.


Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Way Up Is Down


When I say “the way up is down” I do not mean to infer this as a strategy for personal success, honor, or reward.  

When the disciples were caught arguing about who would be the greatest in the kingdom of God, Jesus rebuked them and said, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35). Jesus was not saying that downward mobility in this life is the way to acquire upward mobility in the next. Jesus was not laying out a strategy for accumulating rewards in the next life or for moving up in the pecking order. What he was saying is that in God’s kingdom there is no pecking order. It does not operate on the basis of meritocracy. God’s kingdom is not about being first or last; it’s not about winners and losers. It’s all about loving one another and being the servant of all, especially the most vulnerable and disadvantaged.

Jesus was, however, expounding the way to experience fullness of life in God’s kingdom now and later. This way involves relinquishment of personal ambition and commitment to self-giving service for the good of others.

In a paradoxical teaching Jesus puts it this way, “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” (Mark 8:34–35).

The way of life––life in relationship with God and participation in God’s work— is the way of the cross, the way of sacrificial service, suffering, and death. In order to find life we must lose life, we must “deny” or “renounce” ourselves.

Thomas Merton calls this the false self. We must let go of our false self in order to discover our true self. Others call this the little or small self, or the ego-dominated self. It’s the self caught up in itself. It’s the self wrapped up in my story, or my group’s story, without the balance, perspective, and compassion of the larger story, God’s vision of peace, restorative justice, healing, and life for all.

When Peter rebukes Jesus for talking about the cross, about suffering and death, in response Jesus says, “You are setting your mind not on divine things but human things. You are directing your attention not on God’s concerns, but your own selfish concerns” (Mark 8:33).

That’s the false self. It’s the calculating self. The self that is into competition and comparisons, the self preoccupied with appearances—how I look to others and how others perceive me. It’s the self looking for applause and praise.

One of the ways we can tell whether we are operating out of our false self or true self is by considering how we pray. Do we pray in order to bend God to our own agenda, to persuade God to do what we want God to do, to enhance our well-being? Or do we pray in order to bend our will to God’s purpose? In order to discover what God is doing and participate with others in doing it?

There can be a very stark contrast between the actual purpose and will of God for human beings and the purpose or will that human beings have for themselves, which they tell themselves is the will of God. As long as we can convince ourselves that what we are doing is the will of God, we can feel good and guilt-free in doing it.

It’s no wonder so many of us have ignored, denied, or altered the message of Jesus in the Gospels and turned it into a message about success, self-fulfillment, or the afterlife. The call to lose one’s life and deny one’s self in order to participate in a larger story for the good of all just doesn’t sell in a culture pervaded by the philosophy that bigger is better and more is gain. The idea that less is more and letting go is the path to spiritual life doesn’t quite square with the American Dream.    

The paradox of discipleship is that gaining means losing and losing means gaining. The more we cling to the false self, to merit badges, accolades, pecking orders, and working the system to get to the top of the pile, the more we lose. And the more we lose, the more we surrender and denounce in order to embody the love and compassion of Christ, the more we gain. It’s a crazy kind of math in God’s upside down kingdom that defies human calculation and challenges conventional wisdom. 

Monday, September 17, 2012

First Impressions


Author, storyteller, and pastor Philip Gulley says that for a brief period in his life he was a Cub Scout. He joined under the false impression he would be given a pocketknife. His scoutmaster was the Pastor of the United Methodist church in town. Each week he required them to repeat the law of scouting. So they all said: A scout is trustworthy, loyal, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent. Then he would add, “Just like Jesus.”

He explained how Jesus was like a Boy Scout. He camped outside, cooked over a fire, helped people, was kind to the elderly, obeyed his mother (I might add, except for the time when Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem and his parents spent several days looking for him, which, by the way, is the only childhood story we have of Jesus), and went to church. Gulley says that image of Jesus as Scoutmaster stuck with him for several years. 

Most people reading this were taught about Jesus from an early age. Many people live their whole lives with these childhood, Cub Scout, Sunday School images of Jesus, and never serious examine or question them.

Isn’t it strange how many Christians allow these first impressions of Jesus to solidify into firm convictions and dogmatic doctrines? We wouldn’t do this with other persons we first meet. We know that people are complex and that often our first impressions are mistaken. Or if we are not mistaken, our first impressions only skim the surface and never capture the fullness and complexity of the person. We know that only time and the deepening of the relationship that involves multiple encounters will reveal other aspects and dimensions of the person.

And yet, while many of us know this, and are willing to have our first impressions altered and changed with regard to persons we have come to know, we are not willing to do that with Jesus of Nazareth.  

I sometimes wonder how many people worshiping in churches across our country on any given Sunday hold to the same views, the same beliefs, the same images and ideas that were first impressed upon them by parents, Sunday School teachers, Cub Scout leaders, pastors, church training leaders, etc. Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not suggesting that there is anything wrong with first impressions. We have to have a beginning. We have to start somewhere. And it is certainly possible that many of these first impressions may have been positive, healthy, and transformative images of Jesus. I hope so, but then, maybe not . . . probably not.  Therefore, it is vital to our spiritual health and growth that we be open to reassess our understanding and beliefs, and our values, practices, and lifestyle based on these beliefs. 

I am no one’s judge, but it seems to me that very few Christians are open to having their beliefs questioned and challenged. I suspect that such closed mindedness is a major component in their spiritual stagnation. They haven’t grown in years. They keep repeating the same negative patterns and attitudes, they keep harboring the same biases and prejudices, they keep perpetrating the same shallow and superficial answers, and they become very defensive and protective of their beliefs and way of life.

In Mark 8, Peter, acting as the spokesperson for all the disciples, confesses Jesus to be the Christ. In the next statement Mark says, “And he (Jesus) sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him” (Mark 8: 29–30). They really had no idea at this point in their relationship with Jesus what kind of Christ he was. While there was no standardized portrait among them, the picture of a royal, Davidic deliverer was fairly popular in the Palestinian Judaism of Jesus’ day. Their first impressions lacked understanding and depth. So when Jesus speaks about rejection, suffering, and death, they were not ready to hear it (8:31–32).

When I was in seminary in Indiana years ago, I pastored a small rural congregation and lived in their parsonage. Everyone around me had a garden, so I decided to have one too. I made a good start. I set my boundaries, tilled and worked the soil, planted, and then became totally preoccupied with school and ministry and family, pretty much in that order, and completely forgot about the garden. Well, do you know what happened to all my plants? They were overtaken by weeds, by these strange plants that came up all on their own, and they strangled and suffocated and choked out the good plants (Sounds like a parable doesn’t it?). They drew the life out of them. The good plants did not have space or room or opportunity to grow.

Some Christians have hardly grown in their relationship to God and to what God is doing in the world because they have allowed their first impressions, their early images of God and beliefs about Jesus to strangle out any new images and beliefs that could make their relationship to God and God’s kingdom more dynamic, vibrant, and transformational. Old images choke out the new. The result: Enthusiasm wanes. Dreams die. Energy dissipates. And spiritual entropy sets in. Or worse, spiritual energy gets misdirected causing more harm than good.

If the gospel that Jesus proclaimed and embodied, that Jesus called the kingdom/reign of God, if that gospel is going to heal us and change us and propel us into a new, more transformative state of spiritual awareness and consciousness, then we must lose, we must let go of some of our biases, first impressions, and childish beliefs and create some space, some opportunity for some new ones, more mature ones, to take root, grow, and flourish.    

Monday, September 10, 2012

Going Forward


This past weekend, Julie, my daughter, participated in the Special Olympics state softball tournament in Bowling Green, Kentucky. The Frankfort Bombers wanted to win and played to win, but in the end, it was not that big of a deal. They were just happy to be there, to be able to participate, to enjoy one another.

They have much to teach us about what it means to be human and to pursue God’s dream for humanity.

I read a story about a Special Olympian athlete competing in the one hundred meter race. He very much wanted to win and was ahead of the other runners when a friend slipped and fell. When he saw him fall, he stopped, turned around and picked him up, and they ran across the finish line together. His love for his friend was greater than his desire to win.

I wonder how many of us are prepared to give up the prize, to give up our agenda, to relinquish our need to be first, to be on top in order to be in solidarity and in relationship with our sisters and brothers in the human family. I wonder how many of us have come to feel secure in our false superiority and exceptionalism and desire our own comfort and freedoms over those whose comfort and freedoms are far more restricted because of their place in the world. I wonder how many of us who bear the name Christian actually have a desire to practice Jesus’ kind of spirituality (which is both personally transforming and socially engaging) and share his inclusive vision for a world at peace and made whole. I wonder first about myself. 

I believe that following Jesus means trusting in the value of every person. It means believing that we are all children of God, all one body, all one family, all sisters and brothers who are loved and cared for by God without partiality.

If we believe in the inherent worth and value of every person, then distributive and restorative justice should be at the top of our prayer and “to do” list. I know that we are limited in what we can do. But we can all vote for representatives who favor and promote policies for the common good, especially the disadvantaged. We can volunteer. We can engage in community service projects. We can become advocates for those who so desperately need someone to speak and work on their behalf. We can confront oppressive powers and speak out, even when it is not popular, when we know that what we say will be challenged by family and friends.

Do we believe what Jesus taught? That prayer can move mountains and that all things are possible with God? These promises were not given to us to enhance our own position, power, and place in society, but to motivate us to engage society with the unconditional love of Christ. Christ’s love is for everyone, but has special regard for and takes special action on behalf of the most vulnerable, wounded, impoverished, and disadvantaged. 

Both political parties take too little interest in and show too little concern for the disadvantaged, though I do believe this coming election will say something significant about who we want to be as a country and what we value.

I have been both pleased and disappointed in President Obama’s policies. Health care reform was greatly needed and he demonstrated great courage in taking it on. The new law will help many afford health care who could not otherwise, though it’s likely that some will still fall through the cracks. (Universal health care is what is needed, because in a democratic society adequate health care should be a fundamental, inalienable right of every person.). On the other hand, drone attacks are a moral travesty, we have deported too many, and  it’s taken too long to end the war in Afghanistan.

It seems to me that valuing every human life means that Democrats need to talk as much about the disadvantaged as they do about the middle class and prochoice should be about limiting the number of abortions, ensuring that abortions take place in the early stages of pregnancy, and never supporting abortion simply due to the personal ambitions of the mother (or father).  

But unless I’m missing something, it seems obvious to me (I invite Republicans to convince me otherwise) that the philosophy that permeates the Republican party these days has completely eliminated compassionate conservatism. Under the Romney/Ryan budget the rich get richer and the poor poorer. Programs assisting the disadvantaged and disabled, like my Down Syndrome daughter, will be eliminated, while the wealthy enjoy more tax breaks. From a Christian point of view the Republican budget is completely immoral.

Both political parties are obviously flawed, but it does seem fairly clear that this election will determine the course we choose as a nation. Are we on our own? Do we care only for our own well-being? Or do we bear responsibility for those less fortunate and advantaged? I hope we go forward, even if it is a baby step, rather than surrendering to fear, false security, and greed under the guise of personal liberty, getting the economy moving, and the call to reform government.  

Monday, September 3, 2012

It Takes Grace


In Mark 7, when Jesus is criticized by the Pharisees for ignoring the laws of purity pertaining to table fellowship (in this case, the ceremonial washings), he responds by noting how they favored external rites and laws over real spiritual transformation.

Jesus supplies one example: The practice of declaring one’s possessions Corban (dedicated to God). Apparently, by setting apart their possessions as sacred, they sheltered them from secular use, even for aging and ailing parents.

There is that old joke about W.C. Fields who claimed to read his Bible every day. A skeptical friend called him out, “Every day, Bill? Really?” Fields said, “Yep, looking for loopholes.” Well, let’s be honest. We are all looking for loopholes. We just don’t want to admit it.

In the book Dead Man Walking, Sister Helen Prejean is talking to rapist and killer Robert Willie as his spiritual advisor. Willie has not faced his demons. He has not experienced any remorse for the horrible crimes he committed. He has not confronted the evil in his heart. But he thinks he is okay with God. He tells Sister Prejean that he believes Jesus died for him on the cross and that God will take care of him when he appears before the judgment seat of God.

Where did he get this notion? That he can somehow be on good terms with God without repentance, without facing the pain and evil of his heinous crimes. I suspect he got the idea from Christians. Popular Christian preaching and teaching leaves the impression that because Jesus died for our sins all we have to do is believe the arrangement.

Sister Prejean writes, “I recognized the theology of ‘atonement’ Willie uses: Jesus by suffering and dying on the cross, ‘appeased’ an angry God’s demand for ‘justice.’ [The theological term for this is substitutionary atonement.] I know the theology because it once shaped my own belief, but I shed it when I discovered that its driving force was fear that made love impossible. What kind of God demands ‘payment’ in human suffering?”

Indeed, what kind of God demands the blood of an innocent victim? It’s no wonder that many intelligent and compassionate people are abandoning their Christian roots.

But it makes for a good loophole. It allows me to be sure of heaven, to be acceptable to God, simply because I trust in God’s arrangement to forgive my sins through Jesus’ death. I don’t have to change. I don’t have to give up my greed or prejudice. I can go on being the same arrogant, selfish, unchanged person, without ever going through the crucible of transformation, just as long as I believe the right things and accept Jesus’ death for my sins. Franciscan Priest Richard Rohr likes to say, “God cannot be that petty. God cannot possibly be that small.”

Jesus is criticized by the religious leaders, not just for the way or manner in which he eats (with unwashed hands), but also for who he eats with, namely, tax collectors (Jews who were employed by Rome to collect taxes from their fellow Jews) and sinners (those who, for whatever reason, were careless in observing the laws of holiness). 

The very thing that the Pharisees considered to be a sinful disregard of the covenant is considered by Jesus to be a beautiful demonstration and expression of the gospel itself. What is sinful to the Pharisees is good news to Jesus. The banquet, the fellowship meal, where all manner of sinners and poor people are welcome is considered by Jesus and his followers to be the most important image/symbol for the kingdom of God.

Jesus never won over the Pharisees. All his reasoning, his logic, his arguments, his parables, his prophetic actions, his witty sayings, fell on deaf ears. Some historians, as well as a number of Jewish and biblical scholars argue that the Gospels are somewhat biased in their treatment of the Pharisees. They contend that not all Pharisees were actually the way they are depicted in the Gospels. I do not doubt that this is true. But the point the Gospels make is not about who the Pharisees were historically, but about what the Pharisees represent in the story. They represent something spiritually toxic in all of us. We all have some “Pharisee” in us. (And I am reminded by Jesus that I better be very careful about pointing my finger at others. He tells me to remove the log in my own eye before I try to remove a speck in someone else’s.)

When it comes to real change and transformation, it takes grace, and grace has to be experienced. I am convinced that it cannot happen through good biblical interpretation, theological reflection, logical arguments, common sense, and reasonable moral critique alone. Don’t misunderstand me. These things are extremely important. I have invested my life in them. But it takes more. It takes grace, and grace has to be experienced.

Like the sinners and tax collectors who ate with Jesus and felt his acceptance and love. Like the General and the dour and sour religious community in Isak Dinesen’s short story, when they experienced Babette’s Feast. Like when I am loved by my two year old granddaughter who wraps her arms around me in a tight embrace. In a thousand ways grace reaches us, if we can simply receive it.

The reason so many of us can’t receive it and why we keep looking for loopholes is because we are living in a different world—a world of meritocracy, a world of rewards and punishments, a world of us and them. We think we have to prove ourselves, be better than others, earn our way.

But as the General says to the religious community in Babette’s Feast: “Grace demands nothing of us but that we should await it in confidence and acknowledge it in gratitude.” And when we do, it changes us into good, gratuitous, and generous persons and communities who come to incarnate and reflect something of the beauty and glory of Christ.