Monday, April 20, 2015

A word to Christians who support RFRA laws: Grow Up!

Are you as weary as I am in hearing all these well-to-do, materially prosperous and secure American Christians whining about being religiously persecuted because they cannot act on their exclusive theology in the market place and deny services to our LGBT sisters and brothers?

To all my financially secure, well-off persecuted Christian friends: Please, let it go! Give it up!

It doesn't matter what your worldview is or what your religious beliefs are, in the public arena you have to treat everyone equally. This is not rocket science. It’s the best of our democracy.

Everyone seems to know this except sexists, racists, and conservative Christians (and maybe a few Supreme Court judges).

Besides, even if you do think same-sex marriage or partnership is wrong, should you not welcome and accept everyone the way Jesus did. He didn't require prostitutes and tax collectors to stop doing what they were doing before he fed them and accepted them at the table.

“Come one and all,” said Jesus. Shouldn't Christians be saying, "Serve one and serve all"?

When the disciples argued with one another about who was the greatest, Jesus told them to stop acting like persons of power and prominence who liked to “lord” it over others; rather, they were to be servants of all (Mark 10:42-44).  

A contemporary application of Jesus’ teaching might be: “Certain persons in the world like to assert their power over those they do not like – denying them services and goods. But it is not to be so among you. Whoever wishes to assert such power must become the servant of all.”

Many, perhaps the majority of American Christians initially opposed the push to abolish slavery. Then they stood firm against women's rights, a battle that is still ongoing. Next, they refused to join the civil rights movement, many supporting segregation. Now they stand against LGBT equality and fairness laws.

This is NOT the way to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.

It's a damn shame!

An edited version of this article was first published on the Unfundamentalist Christians blog. 

Letting Go - Moving On (The Metaphorical Meaning of an Easter Story)

In the story world of John’s Gospel Jesus tells the disciples that he is going away, but he would not leave them without his presence. How could that be? Most spiritual truth is paradoxical in nature. The Father, says Jesus, will send an Advocate, the Spirit of Truth, to be with them forever. The Advocate is currently “with” them, apparently in the person of Jesus, but will be “in” them (in a different nonvisible, nonphysical sense) after Jesus is gone. The Spirit of Truth, who will function in Jesus’ name will teach them “everything” they need to know and bear witness to Jesus (John 14:15-20, 25-26; 15:26).

The presence and activity of the Spirit of Truth will not be limited to the disciples however, but will be active in the world convincing and enlightening all people about spiritual reality (John 16:8-11). John declared in his beautiful prologue that the light and wisdom that became incarnate in Jesus is the light and wisdom that is in every person (1:9).

Here the distinction is made between the pre-Easter Jesus and the post-Easter Christ. Christ is a title attributed to Jesus, which includes Jesus, but means more than Jesus. Paul makes this same distinction when he speaks of Christ living in him and in the Messianic communities gathered in the name of Jesus.

And as John points out (attributing the words to Jesus in 16:8-11) the Spirit of Truth, the “Christ Spirit,” the “living Christ” is not restricted to the Christian community, but at loose in the world and in all people revealing, convincing, enlightening them to spiritual truth.  Harvey Cox points out in The Future of Faith that “one of the most devastating blunders made by the church . . . was to insist that the Spirit is present only in believers” (p. 53).

In one Easter story told by John, Mary Magdalene comes to the empty tomb and is distraught. She encounters someone who she thinks is the gardener. It is actually Jesus, but she does not recognize him. When he speaks her name, she is enlightened. Then she sees, knows, encounters, experiences Jesus. Jesus next says, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’” (John 20:17).

In light of the Johannine narrative the point here, I believe, is that Jesus could no longer be present as Jesus; he would be present as the Spirit of Truth/the Spirit of Christ. Mary must give up the physicality of the pre-Easter Jesus in order to experience the presence and power of the living Christ, who is “more” than Jesus. In the biblical tradition there is an obvious and clear continuity between Jesus and Christ, but Christ is a much larger reality than the historical Jesus. (Notice the clear distinction made in the Johannine text above – “my God and your God” – between Jesus and God.)

Brother David Steindl-Rast points out that the connections people make between Jesus and Christ are greatly impacted by upbringing, cultural conditioning, and the circumstances of one’s life. He notes,

“A Christian child may grow up with a continuous confusion between Jesus and God. A Jewish child might discover that even mentioning Jesus is asking for trouble. If we are lucky, we might meet Christian followers who are true followers of Jesus and bring the joy of God’s love to everyone they meet. But we may have the misfortune to meet people who claim a special closeness to Jesus and are obnoxious. The culture of our ancestors may have been destroyed in the name of Jesus by well-intentioned but misguided missionaries. Or we may have grown up in a culture in which the most admirable traits are somehow connected with Jesus, from Handel’s Messiah to 12-step programs. A fair-minded approach to Jesus demands a colossal effort for many people to overcome either negative prejudice or biased exclusiveness . . . In any event, we owe it to ourselves to get as clear as picture as we can of Jesus [the historical Jesus], whose impact on history set in motion a nonviolent revolution that is still in full swing: the struggle to overcome the love of power by the power of love” (Deeper than Words, p. 48).

On a personal and communal level, this Johannine Easter story compels us to ask ourselves what we are holding on to that is hindering us from experiencing the living presence and power of Christ. (By the way, this is true whether you take the story literally or metaphorically).

It could be some deep hurt or betrayal or grievance story that we replay in our minds over and over again. The more we replay it the more we are weighed down by resentment and bitterness and entangled by frustration and anger.

It might be some regret, a dashed dream or a missed opportunity that we will never get back. Or a past failure or failures that have us questioning any possibility of our doing something that might have value and significance.

Or it might even be the image of God or Jesus we grew up with that no longer, if we would admit it, works for us or makes good sense to us. But since we have lived with this image for so long, to relinquish it, to let it go feels like we are being disloyal or unfaithful to our parents or our past Christian heritage and the pastors/teachers who taught us and have meant so much to us. 

But there can be no significant growth, no movement forward, no development, no becoming “more” unless we can stop clinging to whatever it is that is keeping us from living right now in the spiritual presence and power of Christ.

In a kind of picture book for adults Trina Paulus tells about the life journey of two caterpillars who eventually become butterflies. The one named Yellow is the first to undergo the transformation. She stumbles across a caterpillar who is hanging upside down. He tells her that he has to do this to become a butterfly. When she inquires further he says, “You must want to fly so much that you are willing to give up being a caterpillar.”

That’s the issue isn’t it? Do we want to move on so much that we are willing to let go of whatever it is keeping us from changing? Yellow says, “You mean die.” The other caterpillar says, “Yes and No. What looks like you will die but what’s really you will still live. Life is changed, not taken away” (emphasis mine, Hope for the flowers, p. 75)

Think of all the stuff in our lives that feeds the false self, the ego self, the little self (the self that looks like us, but is not the real or true self) and keeps us from moving on to a higher level of spiritual enlightenment and growth.

I love the final line by the Tom Hanks character in Castaway. He finally makes it off the island and discovers upon his return home that the woman he loved, whose memory kept him going on the island, has remarried and has a child. He is, of course, heartbroken. He tells his friend that he has lost her all over again. But then he says, “I’m alive. I have ice in my glass . . . And tomorrow the sun will rise, and who knows what the tide will bring.”

Maybe it’s time we step outside of whatever tomb we have been buried in and let go of whatever it is that we have been clinging to, and look to the sun and take to the sea and let the waves of new life, hope, and faith wash over us. 

(This article was first published at Baptist News Global)

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Good Power/Bad Power (The nonviolent Jesus versus the apocalyptic Christ)

It is vital to our spiritual health to understand the difference between dominant power and spiritual power. Dominant power is the power to externally influence behavior by the use of force, coercion, threat or promise, reward or punishment. Spiritual power, on the other hand, is the capacity to influence and persuade based on the quality, integrity, authenticity, and authority of one’s own being, apart from any position or any external authority.

Dominant power is often bad, but not always. It is sometimes necessary. I think most of us would agree that some form of dominant power is necessary to stop a terrorist group like ISIS, with whom peaceful negotiations are impossible. Dominant power can force a child to comply, which is sometimes necessary, but dominant power cannot make that child love you. Love cannot be controlled or coerced or demanded.

Holy week begins with Jesus’ nonviolent, peaceful procession into Jerusalem on a donkey (Mark 11:1-10; par. Matt. 21:1-9; Luke 19:28-38)). This expression of spiritual power stands in direct contrast to another procession into Jerusalem led by Pilate, representing the imperial might of Rome. Departing from Caesarea Maritima, Pilot would have entered the city from the west with cavalry and foot soldiers to reinforce the Roman garrison on the Temple Mount, thus ensuring that during the Jewish high holy days any uprising would be met immediately with force.

Jesus’ peaceful entry into Jerusalem depicted in the Gospels also stands in direct contrast to the procession depicted in Revelation 19:11-21. John Dominic Crossan in his book, How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian points out that the radical, nonviolent, humble Christ of the Gospels who is committed to distributive justice is subverted by the apocalyptic, violent, warrior Christ of the Second Coming who pours out retributive justice. In other words, the spiritual power embodied by the Jesus of the Gospels is subverted and contradicted by the dominant power wielded by the apocalyptic Christ at the Second Coming.

So, which version of the Christ are you going to trust and aspire to emulate? Since every viewpoint is a view from a point, what will be your point of reference? Where will you plant your feet? Where will you stand? What lens will you use to see God and your place in God’s world? Will you stand with the nonviolent Jesus of the Gospels or the violent Christ of the book of Revelation.

If your tendency is toward dominant power you will most likely side with the apocalyptic Christ of Revelation 19 (along with all who embrace the Left Behind worldview/Godview). If you are a believer in spiritual power then you will allow the nonviolent Jesus of the Gospels and Paul’s authentic letters to be the filter through which you read and apply the rest of Scripture and the Christian tradition.

If we read the Bible motivated by and filled with spiritual power, then we will read and appropriate the Bible so that the very best in the Bible brings out the best in us. The Bible will then be appropriated as an instrument of transformation that grows and expands our souls, empowering us to become more compassionate, loving, courageous, and self-giving.  

However, if we read the Bible motivated by and filled with dominant power, then we will read and appropriate the Bible so that the very worst in the Bible brings out the worst in us. When we rely on dominant power we use the Bible to justify our prejudices, our demand for retribution, and our control and dominance over others. 

The late Walter Wink tells about an experience he shared with a large crowd of both black and white activists during the turbulent weeks when Selma, Alabama was the focal point of the civil rights struggle in the South. The story vividly illustrates the difference between spiritual power and dominant power.

They had gathered singing to pass the time, when suddenly a funeral home operator from Montgomery took the microphone. He reported that a group of black students demonstrating near the capital just that afternoon had been surrounded by police on horseback. With all escape barred they were cynically commanded to disperse or take the consequences. The mounted police then waded into the students and beat them at will. Police prevented ambulances from reaching the injured for two hours. The one who reported this to the group in Selma was one the ambulance drivers. After the incident he had driven straight to Selma to tell them about it.

The crowd, which had gathered outside of Ebenezer Baptist Church was infuriated. Cries went up, “Let’s march!” Behind them, across the street, stood the Alabama state troopers and the local police forces of Sheriff Jim Clark. The situation was explosive. A young black minister stepped to the microphone and said, “It’s time we sang a song.” He opened with the line, “Do you love Martin King?” “Certainly, Lord!” the crowd responded. “Do you love Martin King?” “Certainly Lord!” “Do you love Martin King?” “Certainly, certainly, certainly, Lord!”

Right through the chain of command of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference he went, the crowd each time echoing, warming to the song. “Certainly, certainly, certainly, Lord” they sang. Then, without warning, he sang out, “Do you love Jim Clark, the sheriff?” “Certainly, Lord” came the somewhat stunned, halting reply. “Do you love Jim Clark?” “Certainly, Lord”—it was stronger this time. “Do you love, Jim Clark?” Now the point had sunk in. “Certainly, certainly, certainly, Lord,” they sang.

The Rev. James Bevel took the mike. We are not fighting for our rights, he said, we are fighting for the good of the whole society. He proclaimed, “It’s not enough to defeat Jim Clark—do you hear me, Jim?—we want you converted.” Then he said to the group, “We cannot win by hating our oppressors. We have to love them into changing [emphasis mine]. (The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium, pp 176-77).  

This is a point that Martin Luther King, Jr. repeatedly emphasized to all activists in the civil rights movement. Their goal, he said, was not to defeat or destroy their enemies. Rather, their goal was to destroy the enmity, the prejudice and hate that fueled their enemies. They wanted to turn their enemies into their friends.

In that struggle two very different kinds of power were at work and visibly on graphic display. I suspect the racist Christians who supported Jim Clark and the police brutality took their cue from Revelation 19 where the apocalyptic Christ slaughters all opposition. How different is the nonviolent Christ of the Gospels who tells his disciples to love their enemies (Matt. 5:38-48; Luke 6:29-36).

Only persons who are filled with spiritual power can be trusted with external power, because they don’t crave it, seek it, need it, or even want it. They are secure in their own being and in God. Spiritual power gives us the courage to follow Jesus all the way to the cross where we see another vivid pictorial of the difference between dominant power that induces suffering, and the spiritual power of suffering love.

(This article was first published at Baptist News Global.)