Thursday, May 28, 2009

Does Your Neurology Determine Your Politics?

So you think you're an enlightened Limbaugh-listening conservative who actually has respect for authority? Or perhaps you think you're a tree-hugging Huffington Post-reading liberal who actually believes in fairness for all? Well it turns out rather than arriving at your beliefs through deliberative thinking and considering carefully the arguments of each side, you actually may have come wired this way. Maybe your neurology determines your politics.

Reductionistic thinking or appropriate use of science??? Read Nicholas Kristof's column in today's NY Times. His argument seems simplistic, but I imagine there is some truth in his point that we tend to base our political and moral views more on how we feel than how we think.

I suspect there is some relevance here for conservative and liberal churches as well.

One point Kristof makes that struck a little close to home for me is how often people use the internet to convirm their own biases and preconceived notions. He writes:
This came up after I wrote a column earlier this year called “The Daily Me.” I argued that most of us employ the Internet not to seek the best information, but rather to select information that confirms our prejudices. To overcome that tendency, I argued, we should set aside time for a daily mental workout with an ideological sparring partner.

Whether one buys all of Kristof's argument or not, it seems to me that there is enough in his column to make a thoughtful person--either conservative or liberal--pause and at least consider that some of what he or she holds dear comes from a sub-rational level. We should, therefore, hopefull gain a little bit of humility when we approach others with whom we disagree. From a Christian perspective, love of neighbor would seem to involve understanding that both I and the one whom I am all too ready to disregard or write-off may be acting more from our own personality or neurology or social-conditioning or whatever than we are from a rational well-thought out point of view.
Grace and Peace,


Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A Prom Divided--a Story From Sunday's Sermon

In my sermon last Sunday, I mentioned the story from the New York Times Magazine this past week regarding the separate proms in Montgomery County, Georgia for white students and black students. I brought it up on Ascension Sunday as an example of the kind of lines God would have us erase and when we have an ascendant view we can share God's goal. I recommend also checking out the audio slide show (located on the left hand side of the page under one of the pics) where you hear the reporters covering the story and the voices of parents and students. The words from the black students and some of the white students are heartbreaking. The words of the white parents and many of the white students are infuriating.

Grace and Peace,


Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A New Blog Recommendation

My church's new Director of Youth Ministries, Andrew Kar, is a new blogger for He's covering Protestant Christianity in Kansas City. So far, his posts on the religious meaning of the new Star Trek movie and "National Bible Week" are drawing thousands of readers. Way to go Andrew!

Some Qualifications to My Last Post

After I put my last post here on the blog and in our church newsletter questioning where is the outrage of people of faith when it comes to torture, I did take a moment to visit the web site of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. I've signed on to this group's petition of people of faith who oppose torture and I get periodic e-mails from them. When you look at the list of prominent religios leaders who have signed on to the petition opposing torture, the list does carry an impressive group of names--including Sharon Watkins, the General Minister and President of our denomination The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). They even have a protest at the White House planned in June--attended by Muslim, Jewish, Unitarian and some Christian religious leaders--although the Christian ones represent groups and denominations that tend to show up for such protests (e.g. The United Church of Christ, National Council of Churches, etc.).

In no way do I wish to diminish the important work NRCAT is doing, because it certainly gives me hope that there indeed are people of faith out there concerned about our nation's use of torture. I guess I just wish there was more to report. The prophetic voice of the American church has surely lost its influence. I am pessimistic about the group's June protest getting any mainstream press coverage at all. Granted, mainstream press coverage is not the best measure of any kind of success, but at least people of faith who feel like I do would feel like our opinion was at least registering on the national consciousness.

I also noted in my last post that Christians on the Right side of the political spectrum tend to support the use of torture in great numbers. In fairness, I should also note that there are exceptions to this trend. Evangelicals for Social Action--granted they lean left but they still keep the name evangelical!--have adopted a statement against torture. Also, it is worth noting that an out-and-out fundamentalist has come out against the use of torture. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Conventions Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, stated that he opposed the use of torture by U.S. officials even if they thought a suspect had information with implications for national security. I was frankly stunned by Land's stance, given that usually I disagree with just about everything he says and find his views repugnant.

There are exceptions to the silence of the church on torture, but they remain exceptions.

Grace and Peace,


Who Would Jesus Torture? (Dialogue Column 5.26.09)

I wrote this for The Dialogue, the newsletter of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in St. Joseph, MO. Often, 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.

Last week our nation was treated to the contrasting ideologies of President Barack Obama and former Vice-President Dick Cheney concerning the use of torture to obtain information necessary for the security of the United States. The talking heads of cable news and even more austere writers and reporters covered the competing speeches as a Right vs. Left issue. My concern, however, is what does the Gospel have to say about torture? Unsurprisingly, there was little, if any, coverage of what religious leaders have to say about torture, yet, even if there were, to my knowledge there were no religious leaders to interview. It seems no spokesperson for any faith was up for the debate. Why the silence?

Religious leaders who generally align themselves with the Right politically perhaps have nothing to say on the issue, because from their perspective the justification for using torture to safeguard innocent lives is not controversial at all. A recent poll by the Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life revealed that white evangelical Protestants were overwhelmingly in favor of using torture to ensure national security. Furthermore, the theology preached most Sundays in such churches seems to reinforce the idea that if torture is carried out by the “good guys” against the “bad guys” then it is okay. I tend to agree with the religious writer Sarah Sentilles who argues that atonement theology—the belief that it was necessary for Jesus to suffer and die to save a sinful humanity—and its images of a bloody, crucified Jesus somehow lay the groundwork for Christians to believe that violence and suffering can be not only justified but necessary. If it is okay for one who is blameless to suffer for the sake of the many, how much more is it okay for one who is a terrorist to suffer?

It is entirely up for debate, however, as to whether any useful information was gained from “waterboarding” or any other “enhanced interrogation techniques.” On the contrary, it seems that the most useful information gained to protect the United States came from interrogations that did not involve torture. The usefulness of torture is actually beside the point, however. What should be the central concern for people of faith is whether or not it is ever morally justifiable—even if it works?

From my own perspective, I believe that the crosses that adorn our jewelry and our churches should stand as a refutation of violence rather than a justification for it. The tortured and executed Christ should cause us to question our own motives whenever we believe it is acceptable to demean one whom Christ died for—especially demeaning them to the point that it is okay to torture them. Didn’t the Roman authorities and guards think they were doing their part to keep the peace? Some may argue that we are dealing with terrorists and criminals, a far cry from the situation of the Romans and Jesus. It’s a fair point but an unpersuasive one from the perspective of the Gospel. Jesus taught us to love God, our neighbors, ourselves AND our enemies. Living in a complex world like ours it is a struggle to balance a healthy love for one’s self and the people one considers worthy of love with love for those we deem unworthy of love, but the Gospel is not easy. Balances can perhaps be found in many forms of law enforcement, intelligence services and the military, but I believe torturing another human being fundamentally betrays any effort of love no matter the motives for it. Torture crosses a line that demeans the one being tortured and the torturer—not to mention those who sit by and let it happen in their name.

So that’s one minister’s opinion—a minister serving a church far from the halls of power and the media spotlight. I can’t help but wonder, however, where are the voices of objection and outrage coming from Christian leaders who are called to serve the tortured Christ and to love both neighbor and enemy? I have read articles by Christian academics and the blogs of Christian social activists who have offered protests, but the leaders of denominations and the writers and the thinkers in the glare of the media remain silent. The silence is as troubling to me as the political machinations being debated on cable TV.

Grace and Peace,


My Support of a New Mosque in St. Joseph

A few posts back, I shared that upon reading of the plans of local Muslims to build a mosque here in St. Joe I was glad to hear the news. I also posted my thoughts on the News-Press site. Well, in the no good deed goes unpunished category, Erin Wisdom, the N-P religion reporter saw my post and asked if she could quote me in an article about local reaction to the forthcoming mosque. I joke about the "no good deed goes unpunished" thing, but I'm actually quite glad Erin interviewed me for the article. I'm also appreciative of her getting the quote right, which is not something I've always experienced with other reporters in the past--here and elsewhere.

Here's a link to the article, and below you'll see my quote. Here's hoping Christians and Muslims can live together peacefully here in St. Joe!

Many people may not want to see St. Joseph’s Muslim community and number of mosques grow as Kansas City’s have. But the Rev. Chase Peeples, pastor of First Christian Church in St. Joseph, sees Islam’s presence here as a positive thing, noting that religious diversity is good for a community and that he’s grown as a Christian from having discussions with people of other faiths. He said, too, that in his interactions with Muslims, he’s always been impressed by their devotion to prayer, their hospitality and their respect for others — which is something he wishes all Christians were showing them in return.

“I think Jesus spoke pretty clearly about loving our neighbor, and our neighbor may very well be someone of a different faith,” he added. “In Northwest Missouri, Muslims are so much in the minority they probably have more to fear from Christians than Christians do from them.”

Grace and Peace,


My Wife's Letter to the Editor

Last Friday, the St. Joseph News-Press published a letter from my wife regarding how the school district's new districting program is affecting our family. I'm proud of her for keeping positive and encouraging others to do the same.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Why I Celebrate Having a Mosque in St. Joseph

Today, I read gladly the article in the St. Joseph News-Press regarding the plans of local Muslims to build a mosque here in St. Joseph. I think this is great news. It was a really wonderful experience for me to interact with Muslims where I served on Long Island and I've really missed the religious diversity that I knew there. I realize St. Joseph is not New York, but I do think the more diverse of a religious community we have here in our town the better off all of us are. I've become a better Christian through getting to know people of different faiths.

Here's the comment I left on the News-Press web site expressing my point a view--in contrast to some of the rather negative comments left by others. (Although I was pleased to see some of the positive comments stressing inclusion and welcome.)

As a Christian and a minister of a church here in town, I would like to celebrate the Islamic community of St. Joseph and their plans to build a mosque. I think it's great. My experiences with Muslims in other communities have been really fruitful in terms of dialogue and building mutual respect and understanding. My hope is that here in St. Joseph--here in our little part of the world--Christians and Muslims and believers of other faiths can demonstrate not just tolerance of one another but real love and respect. I believe that the more each of us regardless of our faith learns of different beliefs the more we all grow and learn. My experiences with Muslims in the past have helped me not only to understand an often misunderstood religion here in America but also they have helped me to understand more deeply what I cherish about my own faith as a Christian. I celebrate having a mosque here in St. Joe.

Grace and Peace,


Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Reaching the "Religiously Unafiliated" (Dialogue Column 5.5.09)

I wrote this for The Dialogue, the newsletter of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in St. Joseph, MO. Often, 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 have a great collection of books, articles and seminar materials on reaching the “unchurched”—people who are not active in a community of faith. Generally, these resources sit and gather dust on my bookshelves and in my file cabinets, because the strategies they offer—at least in my mind—are little more than gimmicks and fads. Trends come and go regarding changing worship styles, adding certain types of programming or adopting a new strategy for evangelism. Although there may be bits of wisdom to be found here or there in this stuff, I find most of it to be fluff put out there by a thriving economy of speakers, publishers and authors. The theology in these resources is usually shallow and so are the principles they profess.

The only church growth I’m interested in is spiritual growth. If the members of a church—say, our church for instance—are growing in their relationships with God and each other, then God will provide the number of members God wishes to provide. Bigger is not always better—quantity does not necessarily equal quality, however, I do believe that if a church is striving for authenticity and doing so with humility, the number of people showing up will increase. Recent polling data regarding the religious affiliation of Americans bears out my opinions.

You may have seen headlines about the recent surveys done by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life which discovered that the number of people who are “religiously unaffiliated” is growing. Although it is becoming more socially acceptable than in previous years to self-identify as an agnostic or an atheist, generally the “religiously unaffiliated” are anything but hostile or indifferent towards religion. Most have a very positive view of religion in general but just have not found the right religious group to connect with. Furthermore, the surveys revealed that among people who were raised with no particular faith, a majority have chosen a faith as an adult and most of that group became Christian of one kind or another.

The results show a hunger out there for religious belonging, so why are there more unaffiliated people now than before? The respondents said across the board that their main reason for not affiliating with a religious group currently is their perception of religious groups in general—and Christianity in particular—as judgmental and hypocritical. Also, people who were raised in a particular faith but who do not currently claim one cite judgmental attitudes and hypocrisy as their main reasons for their status. In other words, the reason people without a church do not have one has largely to do with their experience of churches as hostile to them and unable to live up to their own standards.

This is why I believe numerical growth—if it is to come and if it is to have any real significance—can only follow spiritual growth. If people of faith can develop a community that seeks to be an authentic expression of the Gospel of Christ, then doing so necessitates humility on the part of its members and leaders. If people in a church—say, First Christian Church of St. Joseph—can understand themselves as imperfect people who have nonetheless been accepted and forgiven by a loving God, then I believe that humility and honesty will translate into openness towards others who likewise are aware of their own imperfections and need for God. The understanding that one has been accepted by God, in spite of one’s mistakes or inadequacies AND not because of one’s achievements or material possessions, leads to an acceptance of others under the same conditions. This type of openness and acceptance is what the “religiously unaffiliated” are looking for.

Furthermore, I believe it is the job of any church that is worth its salt (pun intended) to combat the perception of Christianity as a judgmental and hypocritical religion, and that can only be done through a humble approach to one’s self and a gracious approach to others. There are people in our community who only know churches to be condemning and hostile. Are we as a church willing to show them a different face to Christianity? Doing so may literally be a life-saving or at least life-transforming enterprise for everyone involved.

This week, we continue our Season of Prayer by praying for God to show us what groups of people in our community are without a church and could use a community of love and grace. We are asking for God to show us who these people are so that we can be such a community to them. We do so not for the sake of numerical growth but because our own spiritual growth demands a faith that embraces people who are “religiously unaffiliated” but who wish to belong to a community that will accept them as they are. Will First Christian Church be that community for them?

Grace and Peace,