Thursday, March 27, 2008

Is Wright the same as Falwell, Robertson, et al.?

In the past, I certainly have voiced my criticism of fundamentalist ministers like Falwell, Robertson and the like, and I have been reading and watching coverage of Jeremiah Wright over the last two weeks, I've been wondering if I have been guilty of castigating them in the same way I believe Wright is being unfairly criticized now? Perhaps so. Just as I believe the mainstream media has taken snippets of Wright's sermons out of the larger contextts of his ministry in general and his sermons in particular, I'm sure I have taken things out of context from right-wing ministers and criticized them.

Yet, I maintain that equating Wright with the likes of right-wing preachers such as Falwell, Robertson, Hagee, and many others is not appropriate or fair. First of all, the latter speak from the majority ethnic/cultural group and Wright speaks from the minority. Secondly, the latter demonize and oppress those without power or privilege or wealth, and Wright spoke for just those same people. Both sides may share some outlandish language that I do not agree with, but the difference is that Wright worked for and spoke out for those who are marginalized in our society and around the world.

I came across a great new blog on religion called "Religion Dispatches" that offers insightful analysis of religion in our culture and there was a great essay on Wright by Jonathan Walton, a professor at UC Riverside. He writes,

There is a difference between speaking truth to power in defense of the least of these, and scapegoating the defenseless on behalf of the status-quo. This is why it is inappropriate to compare Dr. Wright with Christian conservative voices like the late Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson or John Hagee. The latter group turns attention away from the interests of a privileged elite-class and lays the ills of society at the door of America’s “usual suspects.” Hence, it is easy to blame racial/ethnic minorities, Islam, feminists, illegal immigrants and the homosexual agenda for events such as 9/11. It is much harder, however, to point the finger at corporate controlled government, a neo-conservative military agenda, and the capricious whims of an exit-poll obsessed administration. And this is what Dr. Wright has attempted to do on a consistent basis over the course of his thirty-six years as pastor. Unlike his conservative opposition, his critique of American society points up as his hand of compassion and justice reaches down.

Grace and Peace,


Huckabee on Wright

I've posted here before on my blog about Mike Huckabee and expressed my distaste at his statements about God's relationship to his candidacy, not to mention his manipulation of biblical imagery and language for political gain. I was shocked, however, to see a segment from MSNBC (I can hardly stand Joe Scarborough--blech!) where Huckabee responds to Jeremiah Wright's controversial statements and to Obama's speech on race. Without condoning Wright's statements or endorsing Obama, he provides a thoughtful and nuanced understanding of race issues in general and in the Black Church in particular. Very surprising indeed.

Grace and Peace,


Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Can a Church Member Disagree With Her Pastor? (let's hope so)

Today I got a phone call from a church member who read yesterday's blog post. She wanted me to know that she disagreed with me about Obama (she didn't say anything about Jeremiah Wright). Essentially she told me why she didn't like Obama as a candidate and had several good reasons for her opinion. What I appreciated most about our conversation was that she started things off by stating, "I wanted to let you know my opinion which I believe I have every right to hold, just as you have every right to your opinion." What great words! Why can't every conversation start off that way?

I found myself nodding my head when I read Diana Butler Bass' thoughts on why the media seems unable to comprehend that a church member (Barack Obama) could go to a church and not agree with everything his pastor (Jeremiah Wright) says. She wrote:

The current media flap over the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama's former pastor, strikes me as nothing short of strange. Anyone who attends church on a regular basis knows how frequently congregants disagree with their ministers. To sit in a pew is not necessarily assent to a message preached on a particular day. Being a church member is not some sort of mindless cult, where individuals believe every word preached. Rather, being a church member means being part of a community of faith—a gathered people, always diverse and sometimes at odds, who constitute Christ's body in the world.

But the attack on Rev. Wright reveals something beyond ignorance of basic dynamics of Christian community. It demonstrates the level of misunderstanding that still divides white and black Christians in the United States.

As a minister, I'm not sure I could handle the responsibility of every one of my church members agreeing with me. I don't want to be responsible for what other people think. I am relieved to know that church members take what I say, consider it based on their own experience, and then make a conscious decision as to whether or not they agree with me. It just seems like a healthy thing for church members to disagree with their ministers from time to time.

I get worried about churches where agreement with ministers is expected and even required for membership.

In the case of Jeremiah Wright, as I wrote yesterday, I think the image presented in the media over the last week of Wright is little more than a caricature. It seems entirely possible to me that one could attend Trinity and disagree with some of what Wright said and still be deeply moved by the many other good things he said and did. Accounts of Wright's ministry and that of his church offer moving testimonials to their work in the depressed inner city of Chicago. I was intrigued by Martin Marty's account of his experiences with Wright and with Trinity. Marty is a noted church historian now retired from the University of Chicago.

An interesting statement came out from Dean Snyder, the pastor at Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington D.C. (Foundry is the church Bill and Hillary Clinton attended when Bill Clinton was president, although Snyder was not the pastor at that time.) He makes some excellent points about the need for those outside the African-American community to hear the prophetic voice of the Black Church, including that of Wright. I point out Marty's and Snyder's opinions of Wright as examples of people of faith who are not African American but were inspired by Wright even if they did not agree with him always. Cannot the same be allowed for one or any of Trinity's members?

For that matter, cannot the same be said of a member of my church or any church? I hope so.

I also hope that I have an informed enough opinions and deep enough thoughts so that there is something from me worth disagreeing with. Far worse it would be if I offered nothing controversial or provocative in an effort to make everyone like me. What a sad and pointless that would be.

When the video snippets of Jeremiah Wright first got airtime, a few church members came to me and suggested we destroy the video of our church services just in case their children wanted to some day run for political office. I responded that I feared not saying anything prophetic enough to get their kids in trouble.

Grace and Peace,


Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Thinking About Jeremiah Wright

Last week was Holy Week, one of the busiest weeks of the year for ministers, so there was little time to post to my blog, but all week long I was reading and watching about the controversy over Barack Obama's pastor, Jeremiah Wright.

As far as I can tell, this controversy blew up when video appeared. Apparently ABC sent off for video of Wright's sermons, and once there was video there was a meat for the carnivores of cable news talkshows. Any of them, however, could have tuned into this controversy a year ago, when Obama chose not to have his pastor pray before his speech announcing his candidacy for president. Back then, I blogged about Wright and his church, Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.
  • On my April 14, 2007 post, I wrote about Black Theology and its influence upon Wright and his church. Black Theology's originator, James Cone and his book God of the Oppressed is standard reading in most seminaries, as are the works of African American women theologians, whose work is named Womanist Theology.

  • On April 30, 2007, I wrote about my own experience hearing Jeremiah Wright speak at revival services at Riverside Church in New York. I found his messages to be surprisingly traditional, and even somewhat traditional, in their theological content. He stayed away from politics when I heard him. Of course, being socially liberal and theologically conservative is nothing new in the African American church--if you can call Wright's theology liberal.

  • On July 2, 2007, I wrote about Obama's speech at the national meeting of the United Church of Christ. How I first came to know anything about Obama was through UCC circles. The congregation I served before this one is UCC--although it was largely white and wealthy--a far cry from Trinity's neighborhood in the south side of Chicago. I still hold standing as a minister in the UCC.

So, I'm at a bit of a loss to explain why this has erupted now. All of the sermons from which ridiculously short sound bites are being played over and over on TV are old ones. I guess the timing was right in this presidential campaign for it to stick now.

I've made no bones about how I like Obama--although if the IRS is reading this, please note that I am not endorsing him nor using my church to do so, my opinion of him is my own and not that of my congregation--and after last week I like him even more. I thought his speech was brilliant and dealt with issues of race in America at a level of nuance that our sound-bite-addicted media cannot grasp. Don't get me wrong, I think he had political motives for his speech, but I do think that he chose to face the issues head on in a manner that is all too rare in our culture.

If you haven't read or listened to Obama's speech, you should do so. It's message has been drowned out by commentators speculating about political strategy rather than really talking about its content. (Howard Kurz at The Washington Post has a nice breakdown of how poorly the media has handled this story.)

Going back to Jeremiah Wright, there are a number of things that I believe should be said but that are not being said in the media about Wright's sermons.

In the few seconds of video that have played on TV ad nauseum, Wright appears like a demagogue and a madman, but I have to wonder how many of the commentators have actually listened to an entire sermon by him. Other than what I heard in NY--which was not very political at all--I have to say that I have not listened to an entire sermon by Wright, but I did do a little searching on YouTube and found longer excerpts from his sermons that do place the comments in question in a broader and more understandable context.

For example, there is the sermon he gave after 9-11. All I've seen on TV is him saying "God Damn America" and "the chickens are coming home to roost." But when you watch a ten minute excerpt of that sermon, you see that Wright does not in any way condone the terrorist attack, in fact he condemns it. Furthermore, he was preaching out of Psalm 137 where the Psalmist in grief over his exile from Jerusalem imagines bashing the heads of infants belonging to his captors, and Wright rejects the desire for revenge of the Psalmist and issues a warning to America to also avoid the desire for revenge. He notes the past violent tendencies of America and argues that along with grief, America must consider how its own violent past has contributed to the events of 9-11. He calls the victims of 9-11 innocent, but he also notes that America is caught in a cycle of violence. Finally, he shares from his own prayers and reveals that God has told him that the best thing he can do during this fateful time is to look in the mirror and do some serious self-inspection.

If you were there for my sermon on the Iraq War a month or so back, you might recall that I made a few similar points about America being caught in a cycle of violence and how just as we are now seeing the inadvertent consequences of previous wars, we will see future negative consequences from this one. I might not use Wright's language or imagery, but in general, if I understand him correctly, I think I agree with his point.

By only examining 10 more minutes of his sermon that surround some of the sound bytes being played, his words take on an entirely different meaning. As a minister, I have to say that I am sympathetic to a fellow minister whose words have been taken out of context. I think it is reasonable to ask if the caricature painted over the last week of Jeremiah Wright is an accurate one? Of course not, it is one-sided and shallow. Is Wright perfect? Of course not. Are some of the things he is charged with saying (assuming their context has been fairly examined) over the top? Of course. Are those of us who do not share his experience as a black man in America or as a minister working in inner city Chicago shocked by much of what he says? Of course.

I guess it should be no surprise to anyone who approaches the mainstream media--especially TV-- with a critical eye that they do a poor job discussing complicated issues--especially race and religion. For all the flames this past week, there was far too much light and far too little heat.

have a lot more to pass on regarding Jeremiah Wright. I'll continue to post about him in the coming days and link to some articles I've liked and some I haven't.

Grace and Peace,


Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Why Bother With Holy Week? (Dialogue Column 3.18.08)

The Dialogue is the newsletter of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in St. Joseph, MO. Oftentimes, I'll post here on the blog my columns for the weekly newsletter. I mention it just so that folks who read the snail-mail version can skip this post if they've already read it.

Every year it’s the same thing. We process in on Palm Sunday, we read of Jesus’ last night on Maundy Thursday, perhaps we hear Jesus’ last words on Good Friday and then we celebrate on Easter Sunday. This is difficult stuff we remember and reenact each year. Until Easter morning at least, the story of Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, torture and death is pretty depressing stuff. Why bother with it each year? Why not just skip to Easter?

For many Christians, the answer to my questions would involve something about Jesus’ suffering and death taking away our sins. They would speak of the Christian doctrine of atonement and quote scriptures that declare Christ takes on the punishment due us for our selfish and disobedient actions. There is good cause for believers to emphasize such beliefs. For most Christians they remain essential and orthodox articles of faith.

I guess you can call me a heretic.

I remain confused and uncertain about the mechanics of the cosmological implications of Jesus’ death on the cross. Oh, I believe that something happened there on the cross which changed the universe; I’m just uncertain about how it occurred and whether or not a loving God needs blood before that same God will forgive us. I grew up singing hymns about the blood of Christ and memorizing verses about Jesus being like the sacrificial lamb of the Jewish festival of Passover. There’s a strong case from scripture to be made for this kind of thinking. It just doesn’t do much for me, and it raises a lot more troubling issues, in my opinion.

For me, the traditions of Holy Week remain essential for a whole lot of reasons, even if I’m not a big fan of blood atonement theology. I may be a heretic on some fronts, but on others I sound downright orthodox; for instance, due to my understanding of the Trinity, I believe it was God on that cross. I believe that the cross reveals the lengths that God will go to in order to demonstrate God’s love for us, God’s efforts to identify with our own pain and suffering and God’s unwillingness to respond to violent hatred with more of the same. Furthermore, I believe that in the torture and killing of the ultimate innocent person, Jesus Christ, all of the violence we humans commit is exposed as sinful and ultimately dehumanizing to both victims and perpetrators. Finally, I believe that the God who died on that cross on the original Good Friday is the same God who can take whatever awful nastiness we humans can create and overcome it in order to save us from ourselves.

Despite what critics of Christianity may say and what adherents of the so-called “prosperity Gospel” may preach on television, I believe that Christianity, at its heart, is an honest religion. It is honest about the propensity for humans to commit cruel acts upon one another and the tendency of humans to believe they really can control, as if they were gods, the power of life and death. Christianity acknowledges these failings in humanity and asks us to believe that God is greater even than them. In a violent world—a world of genocide, war, crime and desecration—Christianity does not ignore the awful reality that we sometimes find ourselves in. Neither does it leave us there; it also offers us a way out.

We bother with Holy Week to be reminded of just how much we need God.

Grace and Peace,


Where's Jesus on the newstand this week?

In my newsletter column last week (posted below), I wrote that every year the weekly newsmagazines put out cover stories on Jesus during Holy Week--usually of the sensational variety. I thought I would cruise the web sites of the big three and see if I was correct.

In the case of Time Magazine, I was almost right. The cover shows the earth and provides the cover story: 10 Ideas that are Changing the World." There's no Jesus on the cover, however, one of the 10 ideas is "Re-Judaizing Jesus" which makes it on the list at #10. I'm guessing this was the religion writers' best shot at a Holy Week cover and it was slipped in here as a consolation prize by the editors.

In the case of Newsweek, I was just plain wrong. They went with a cover story on Iraq and the power struggles inside the U.S. Army. As far as I can tell from the table of contents, there's no Jesus story. (cue muted trumpet now: waaah wah)

On U.S. News & World Report, if I am looking at the right cover on their site, I struck out again. the cover I see has something about jobs and careers with no Jesus story in sight.

It's like they read my church newsletter column last week.

Grace and Peace,


Preparing for Holy Week (Dialogue Column 3.11.08)

The Dialogue is the newsletter of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in St. Joseph, MO. Oftentimes, I'll post here on the blog my columns for the weekly newsletter. I mention it just so that folks who read the snail-mail version can skip this post if they've already read it.

Every year, the major weekly news magazines run cover stories about Jesus. Mark my words; it will be the same this year. I’ve gathered quite a collection over the years of Holy Week issues of Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Reports. Usually, the stories are chock full of renaissance artwork depicting Jesus’ last days along with quotes from whichever writers or scholars will make the most sensational claims. Rarely, if ever, do these “special” issues say very much worthwhile or even anything new.

The questions asked in these magazines are not new ones. They are the same questions people have been asking about Jesus since he walked the Earth centuries ago. Is he just a madman? Is he just a political rabble-rouser? Is he just a wise teacher? Or is he something more than human? What the church has called the New Testament are writings constructed in large part to answer these types of questions. The writings of the church over the centuries can perhaps best be summed up as attempts to answer the question: “Who is Jesus?”

This is the question we are seeking answers to as we relive and reenact Jesus’ final days next week. Even as we ask the question, we know that no words, no scripture readings, no rituals and no songs can ever fully answer the question of “Who is Jesus?” for any of us. Indeed, each of us must find her or his own answer every time Holy Week comes around.

As we search for answers to the identity of Jesus during Holy Week, we learn about ourselves along the way. We realize anew the fickle nature of humanity. We take perverse pleasure in building up idols only to tear them down again, just as the people of Jerusalem welcomed Jesus and then screamed for his death a few days later. We see in vivid detail how fear can control even the most loyal souls, as we observe the disciples fleeing at Jesus’ arrest. We discover just how far we will go as humans to scapegoat the innocent in order to get ourselves off the hook. What we learn about ourselves during Holy Week is not easy to swallow.

In light of our self-awareness, what we see of Jesus during Holy Week is all the more amazing. We see Jesus forgiving the ones who mock and torture him. We see Jesus refusing to respond to violence with violence. We see Jesus choosing the hard road of faithfulness over the easy road of self-preservation. In short, we discover that Jesus demonstrates to us compassion rather than control, self-sacrifice rather than self-interest and love rather than hatred.

There is little, if any, need for a glossy cover story on Jesus that promises sensational revelations. The Jesus we encounter during Holy Week is sensational enough on his own.

Grace and Peace,

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Karen Ann Ezzell 1959-2008

I thought I would post a few links here that might be helpful as our church and community continue to honor, celebrate and remember Karen Ezzell who died this weekend.

The first link is to the poem Desiderata by Max Ehrman. This is the poem I read from during my eulogy for Karen, because it was special to her. She read it to her children when they were young and gave copies to them when they became adults. Its words fit in many ways the kind of life Karen attempted to live.

The second is to Karen's obituary on the St. Joseph News-Press web site. The site allows you to post a message to the on-line guest book. The family has already mentioned that reading the messages posted there already has been a comfort to them.

Grace and Peace,


A Life Remembered, A Church Challenged (3.4.08 Dialogue Column)

The Dialogue is the newsletter of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in St. Joseph, MO. Oftentimes, I'll post here on the blog my columns for the weekly newsletter. I mention it just so that folks who read the snail-mail version can skip this post if they've already read it.

I write this week’s column the day after the funeral and burial of Karen Ezzell. Just like many of you, I am still in a state of disbelief that Karen is really dead and that I will no longer see her smiling face around the church. At the same time, I am comforted by the outpouring of love towards Karen’s husband Rick and their family by our church and the community at-large.

Our sanctuary was near capacity yesterday for the funeral, just as the funeral home was full on Monday night for the visitation. Even at the graveside, the crowds came—an unusual event, given that most of the time only the family and close friends travel to the cemetery after a funeral. The calls, cards, visits and food given by the many people who loved Karen have truly been a source of comfort to Rick and his family.

Karen’s death offers many challenges to us as a church. The first challenge was to host the tremendous crowd of people that came for the funeral and reception. I believe we were successful in meeting this challenge. Members of both Rick’s and Karen’s extended families remarked to me repeatedly how grateful they were to our church for hosting the day’s events. Janie Kemp deserves special praise for organizing the reception following the funeral and burial. She coordinated volunteers and the many people from outside the church who wished to bring food for the reception with her usual grace and humility. I am thankful to all who helped make the event a time for warm remembrances and comfort. Karen would have been pleased with the nurturing atmosphere, just as she would have been shocked at the turnout. The church staff also deserves credit for things running so smoothly. From turning the furnace on in time to heat the building to printing the funeral bulletins to playing the piano to dealing with the city to make sure no one got parking tickets, everyone did their jobs in a manner that enabled everything to work out as it should.

The greatest challenges posed by Karen’s death remain ahead of us, however. The many members of our church who have experienced the death of a spouse or other loved one know well that some of the most difficult time occurs after the activity of the funeral is over. Some of our members who know firsthand such a process of grief have described to me how lonely it was after the visits and phone calls dropped off. The challenge for us as a church is to walk with Rick and his family through these coming dark days and not to assume that someone else will care for them. I, as the minister, will continue to be there for Rick and his family, but I cannot do it by myself. I need you to be there too. I ask you to continue to call, write and visit Rick over the coming days and weeks. Also, I would like to organize meals for them through the next few weeks. Rick lives with his stepson Matt, who is a student at Western and Karen’s granddaughter Haley. The three of them will need our care and presence. If you would like to provide a meal for the three of them, give the church office a call to sign up.

Another challenge for our church will be to continue the work Karen did of seeking out people who were in need of a church like ours. Many church folks may not realize that Karen routinely and consistantly through her many contacts in the community shared with people about First Christian. She encouraged people who felt ostracized from the churches they were raised in and people who no longer had any faith at all to give First Christian a try. I spoke with one such person in line at the funeral home. I tried to comfort him as he grieved, and he shared with me that Karen had talked with him many times about our church and encouraged him to attend. We must learn from Karen about the many people in our community who desire a church that will accept them and we must be that church.

Finally, we must face squarely the challenges to our faith posed by the nature and timing of Karen’s death. There are few, if any, theological writings out there that adequately explain suffering and death. A treatise on free will and providence does nothing to comfort the soul of one whose loved one has been taken from him or her. There are many questions and even doubts about a loving God in a time such as this. I want to encourage you not to ignore these questions. God is big enough to accept them. We, as a church, must make a space big enough for them too.

Grace and Peace,