Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Thou SHALT Commit Adultery??? (Dialogue 7.21.09)

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 choose.

What do South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, Nevada Senator John Ensign and former Mississippi Congressman Charles Pickering, Jr. have in common? Other than all being wealthy, white, Republican politicians who campaigned on “Family Values” platforms, they each have had extra-marital affairs and each have ties to a secretive fundamentalist Christian group called “The Family.” The Sunday before last I preached a sermon entitled “What Would Jesus Say to Gov. Mark Sanford” and here I am bringing up adulterous politicians again! I don’t want to come across as obsessed with the tawdry details, because I really am much more concerned with how these men of power used a particular reading of the Bible to justify their behavior.

In my sermon two weeks ago, I shared that I thought Jesus would have two things to say to Gov. Sanford: 1. “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11) and 2. “Woe to you Pharisees” (Luke 11:37-44). I feel sure Jesus would condemn Sanford’s and others’ hypocrisy while still offering them grace. My sermon did not allow time for a discussion of “The Family,” a group with which Sanford, Ensign, Pickering and many other politicians of both parties have connections. For example close to us, Republican Senator Sam Brownback from Kansas and Democratic Senator Mark Pryor from Arkansas are involved with the group, although there is no evidence of either one of them having similar troubles of marital fidelity. “The Family’s” membership rolls include a Who’s Who of Washington politics, according to religion journalist Jeff Sharlet’s book, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, not to mention members of the political elite from around the world.

According to Sharlet, “The Family” offers a take on Christianity extremely seductive to men seeking power. They believe that Christianity should focus not on “the least of these” but on the powerful, so that righteous men in power will bestow blessings upon those beneath them in a sort of “trickle down fundamentalism.” The reasoning goes that if a man is called by God to a position of power then that is all that really matters—not their sins or failings, only God’s call to lead. The group’s leader often cites the example of King David noting that David committed adultery and had the woman’s husband killed, but he was still “a man after God’s own heart.” In other words, personal integrity or righteousness doesn’t really matter if God chooses you to rule. Think I’m kidding? You may recall that when Gov. Sanford made public his decision NOT to resign following the revelations of his affair, he cited King David as an example of God continuing to bless a fallen leader.
As I’ve read about this secretive fundamentalist group and its ability to aid the rise in power of those who belong to it, I have kept shaking my head in disbelief and wondering if this is the plot of Dan Brown’s new novel? It doesn’t seem real. Then I do a double-take and realize that it is all too real, because it happens all the time and not just among Washington politicians. From its beginning, Christianity and its message of humility before a gracious God has been twisted into religion serving the powerful and corrupt. Why do you think Paul seems so angry in his letters? What do you think happened when Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire? Christianity, like anything we humans touch, can be twisted into a means for justifying our own selfish actions and desires.
If it seems far out that a conservative Christian group would countenance adultery for the sake of power, just consider how Christians through the ages have used scripture to justify slavery, racism, war, colonialism, destroying the environment, greed, materialism, etc. etc. etc. The lesson of these politicians and the group they belong to should be one of humility for anyone who dares to take the name Christian—a humility concerning our own ability to twist scripture and our beliefs to serve our own ends. “The Family” organizes the annual Presidential Prayer Breakfast attended by powerful elites from around the world, so it is worth casting a suspicious eye upon its proceedings. In the same way, we should approach our own prayer meetings with “fear and trembling” regarding our own tendency towards self-deception.
Grace and Peace,

Friday, July 17, 2009

New Sermon on the Church Web Site--the one about abortion

Now on the First Christian Church, Disciples of Christ of St. Joseph, MO web site is my June 7 sermon "A Rejection of Christian Terrorism." This was the sermon that I preached in response to the killing of Dr. George Tiller, a doctor who provided third-trimester abortions, at his church in Wichita, KS. In the sermon, I tried to make the point that the many issues surrounding abortion are complex rather than black and white as those on either extreme would have us believe. Because of this complexity, I argue, Christians should stay far away from positions that end up demonizing those with whom they disagree. Instead, Christians should be doing much more listening than speaking, caring than judging and certainly not resorting to violence.

The other point I was trying to make is that some of the same people who view Islam as a religion of hate because of the actions of a relatively few extremist may cheer on or at least not condemn the killing of George Tiller. If it is fair to call all Muslims terrorists, then would it not also be fair to say the same for Christians given the violence of extremists like the one who shot an unarmed man in cold blood while he was ushering at his church? I would, of course, say judging a religion by its most violent extremists is very unfair judgment indeed--whether Islam, Christianity or another religion is in question.

There are a few web resources that I made use of for this sermon that I'd like to share here, since there are so few resources for preaching on abortion other than the millions of web pages devoted to uncritical condemnations of everything from the destruction of an embryo to a third trimester abortion:

1. First, for a helpful (and disturbing) discussion of the rates of unlicensed abortions and mortality rates of women seeking them in countries with restrictive laws concerning abortion see the interview with Michelle Goldberg, author of The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, And The Future of the World, on the NPR program Fresh Air With Terry Gross.

2. I shared in the sermon about the blog post written the week after Tiller's murder by Frank Schaeffer, son of the late Frances Schaeffer--one of the architects of the Religious Right. The younger Schaeffer apologies for his part for helping to inflame the language of opponents of abortion rights. It's a rather remarkable piece of writing by a former leader in the Religious Right.

3. I've heard from conservative Christian friends the charge that Muslim religious leaders never condemn terrorism--a completely false charge, so since I made the comparison between Muslim and Christian terrorists and did my part to reject the violence of my religion's extremists, here is a helpful list of Muslim statements against terrorism, at the website of Charles Kurzman, professor at the University of North Carolina.

4. I also found very helpful the educational resources at the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice web site. I especially made use of Paul Simmons’ helpful discussion of the difference between “potentialities and actualities” in his article “Personhood, the Bible and the Abortion Debate,” in Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice Educational Series No. 3 on the RCRC web site. Simmons notes, “Logically, for instance, no one can deny the continuum from fertilization to maturity and adulthood; however, not every step on the continuum has the same value or constitutes the same entity.”

5. I also referenced the statement on abortion by my denomination, The Christian Church, Disciples of Christ, and noted its description of views that state "life begins at conception" as theological statements rather than scientific ones. The full text can be read on-line at the Disciples for Choice web site and at the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice web site. It's worth noting for those who are not DOC that this statement is not binding upon the denomination's churches or their members. It is only a position statement that all members of the DOC are free to disagree with.

Finally, although I did not mention it in my sermon, I found an article by Ed Knudson at Religion Dispatches to be very helpful. Knudson, a Lutheran minister (ELCA) well-studied on the issues surrounding abortion, offers an explanation to opponents of abortion rights who were astounded that a Christian could be providing abortions in the last term of pregnancy. Tiller was murdered while ushering on a Sunday morning at the Lutheran (ELCA) church he attended.

Grace and Peace,


P.S. I respectfully request that the anti-abortion folks who find their way to this blog and then leave comments telling me how both I and my church are going to hell, because we choose to at least entertain a point of view other than yours--keep your comments clean!!

Friday, July 10, 2009

Yes, Ghana Can!

My ONE bracelet got pretty shabby, so after about seven years of wearing it, I took it off earlier this year. I still care, however, about what the organization founded to fight extreme poverty around the world stands for. ONE was founded by a hero of mine--Bono--lead singer of my favorite band, U2.

Bono's got an op-ed in today's NYT about President Obama's trip to Ghana and speech that will take place tomorrow morning our time. It's well worth a read. I went to Ghana in 2001 and it changed my life. That trip helped me decide that I needed to be a minister in a local church. It's an amazing country and unlike so many horror stories in West Africa, Ghana is stable and thriving. (Take a look at the video ONE has produced for the occasion of Obama's visit to Ghana. It will give you a taste of this beautiful country.)

The op-ed is also worth reading, because Bono reminds us our debt to Africa as the birthplace of us all. That fact has not changed, even though Western nations have raped it of natural resources for centuries. Bono references the great theology of Desmond Tutu called ubuntu--"I am because we are."

He asks the question: "Could it be that all Americans are, in that sense, African-Americans?"

Grace and Peace,


Wednesday, July 8, 2009

E Pluribus Unum (Dialogue Column 7.7.09)

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 choose.

Students of history and/or coin collectors well know the phrase ”e pluribus unum” as our national motto. The phrase is found on currency and on the national seal and translated into English it means “Out of many, one.” Our country has long been called a “melting pot” or more recently a “mosaic” of people representing various ethnic and national heritages that come together to form one nation. Implied in this motto is the value of a common good that all citizens of our country share, a common good comprised of freedoms and opportunities for well-being and personal achievement. We celebrated this common good and our nation’s ability to make “one” out of the “many” this past weekend; yet the “one” is threatened by various forms of Christianity today.

I preached a sermon this past Sunday entitled “One Nation Under Many Gods” which stated my support for religious liberty for all people, regardless of whether they share my beliefs or not. I stated that, unlike many Christians who seek to declare the United States a “Christian nation” and desire the government to force their religious values upon others, I feel no need for government to validate my religion or to prop up my beliefs. I believe that Christians concerned about the increasing religious diversity of our country are concerned about the wrong gods. More threatening to the Christian faith than Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, New Age beliefs or atheism are the other “gods” in our culture that we give little or no thought to. As I mentioned, I define a “god” or “idol” as anything we give more allegiance to than God, and I believe the greatest threats to our faith and all faiths are the idols of violent dehumanization of others (“it’s okay for others to be killed, tortured or hurt as long as I’m not personally connected with them), consumerism (“you are what you buy”) and utilitarianism (“whatever is easiest is best and self-sacrifice is to be avoided at all costs).

I preach without notes or a manuscript, so occasionally I unintentionally leave out parts of my sermon prepared ahead of time. Sometimes this is for the best—not everything I think about needs to be said, but other times I leave out things I really wanted to say. Sunday I left out one of the “gods” or “idols” that I believe threatens our faith—individualism. We enjoy such freedom as individuals here in America that I think it is easy for us to privilege our own needs and/or wants above what is best for our community or country. Obviously our freedoms need to be guarded, but freedom without responsibility towards others is selfish and destructive.

The struggle over the needs of the individual vs. the needs of the community is not new to Christians (think of Paul’s discussion of the subject in his letter to the Romans). In the class I’m teaching on Sunday mornings about the practice and beliefs of the Disciples of Christ, a new member who comes out of a different tradition remarked how shocking it was to learn how much freedom we have in our denomination. To her, it seemed like an anything goes free-for-all. I explained to her (in language not dissimilar to the apostle Paul’s) that although we have freedom as individual believers, we operate within a covenant or sacred agreement as a church and a denomination. The struggles we wrestle with over how much freedom we have in Christ are analogous to the struggles over the limits of freedom in the civic arena. At times, these two struggles overlap.

The great sociologist of religion, Robert Bellah, writes in his essay “American Politics and the Dissenting Protestant Tradition” (in the collection of essays One Electorate Under God? A Dialogue on Religion and American Politics) that so-called “free church” traditions among American Protestants have greatly shaped our national character. Often the influence has been for the good, but not always. He notes that Catholic and mainline Protestant Christians have a greater understanding of the common good than do “dissenting Protestants” or churches with a large emphasis upon individual salvation and morality. (Disciples straddle the line between mainline and “dissenting” Protestants.) Such an emphasis upon the individual from a religious point of view can translate into politics that focus solely upon an individual’s right to act apart from the effect those actions have on others. Poverty is thus the fault of the individual’s choices rather than systemic societal ills. Unilateral foreign policy becomes acceptable regardless of the rest of the world’s opinion or interests.

The current debates over health care illustrate this point. Is the freedom of those wealthy enough to afford quality medical care worth more than the health and well-being of the millions who cannot do so? Is there not a way to protect the freedom of the individual and the common good? It seems to me that what we need is a vibrant Christian faith to address the needs of our society at this time—one that protects the God-given freedoms of the individual but also robustly challenges its members to work towards common solutions to real-world problems. Individualism run amok can become its own idol, a god that prevents us from loving our neighbors as God commands us to do. We need a Christianity that can begin from an understanding of church as “one body with many parts” and move out into our country to help live out “e pluribus unum.”
Grace and Peace,


Sunday, July 5, 2009

Great Article on Religious Liberty

Today in honor of our nation's birthday I preached a sermon on religious liberty. In it, I shared about John Leland, an early Baptist minister, and his influence upon James Madison in getting the clauses regarding religious liberty in the first amendment to the Constitution. There are more people I could have mentioned, however, including Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island.

One of my favorite authors, Sarah Vowell, turns her wry, sarcastic and reverent attention to Williams in an op-ed in today's NY Times. In her piece, Vowell shares a bit about Rhode Island and its founder. As is her custom, she shares many facts that they did not teach us in our American history classes. I encourage you to read it and offer thanks for "cranks" like Williams who fought for the freedom of all to worship as they please.

Also, if anyone cares to read more about Leland and other Baptists' contributions to the cause of religious liberty, I recommend an excellent and brief article by Stan Hastey. Hastey is the executive director of the Alliance of Baptists, a small group of liberal Baptists that was very influential upon my own faith journey from Southern Baptist to minister in the United Church of Christ and Disciples of Christ. If the world possessed more Baptists like Hastey and the heroes of religious liberty he tells about, perhaps I would still be a Baptist.

Grace and Peace,