Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Politics of Vomiting in 2012

I wrote the following  for The Dialogue, the newsletter of the church where I serve, First Christian Church, Disciples of Christ of St. Joseph, MO.

On Sunday mornings when I get ready to come to church, I usually have ABC’s This Week running in the background.  (Nothing makes me want to fall on my knees and ask God for mercy like listening to politicians and pundits.)  This past Sunday I had the misfortune of listening to Rick Santorum describe how listening to John F.Kennedy’s famous 1960 speech on the separation of church and state made him “almost throw up.” 

(from the show transcript)

SANTORUM: -- Because the first line, first substantive line in the speech says, "I believe in America where the separation of church and state is absolute." I don't believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute. The idea that the church can have no influence or no involvement in the operation of the state is absolutely antithetical to the objectives and vision of our country. . . 

The First Amendment says the free exercise of religion. That means bringing everybody, people of faith and no faith, into the public square. Kennedy for the first time articulated the vision saying, no, faith is not allowed in the public square. I will keep it separate. . .  

STEPHANOPOULOS: You think you wanted to throw up? 

SANTORUM: . . . Well, yes, absolutely, to say that people of faith have no role in the public square? You bet that makes you throw up. What kind of country do we live that says only people of non-faith can come into the public square and make their case? That makes me throw up. . . 

Santorum’s comments make me wonder if he actually read JFK’s 1960 speech on the separation of church and state, because Kennedy said none of the things Santorum is talking about.  I’m not alone inquestioning Santorum’s interpretation of the speech; Joan Walsh of, Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, the LA Times editorial board and even his fellow Catholic Republican presidential candidate, Newt Gingrich, have all stated Santorum got it wrong.  I and pretty much everyone besides Santorum read Kennedy’s speech to be an argument against the government imposing a particular religious point of view upon people who do not share it.  Nowhere does Kennedy say religion should not be a part of the public political process.  Instead, he makes an eloquent argument for freedom of religion.  (The context for Kennedy’s speech is that he spoke before a group of mostly Baptist ministers in Texas to assure them and others that he—a Catholic—would not take orders from the Vatican if he were elected president.)  Here are some excerpts from JFK’s speech:

     I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute -- where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishoners for whom to vote -- where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference -- and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him. 

     I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish -- where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source -- where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials -- and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.

     For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew -- or a Quaker -- or a Unitarian -- or a Baptist. It was Virginia's harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that helped lead to Jefferson's statute of religious freedom. Today I may be the victim- -but tomorrow it may be you -- until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped at a time of great national peril. 

Santorum fails to realize that Kennedy’s speech helped pave the way for Catholics like Gingrich and himself to run for president—not to mention Latter Day Saints like Romney and Huntsman.  The same freedom that allows people of any religion or no religion to run for public office allows people of any belief to live in freedom in our country.  Whatever one may think of Kennedy as a person or as a president—he fought against religious bigotry towards Catholics like himself and religious bigotry of all kinds.  This is what makes Santorum’s gastro-intestinal problems so absurd!

As a member of a particular Protestant Christian denomination, I have beliefs that differ from many of my fellow Americans, but because, as a Christian, I believe in loving my neighbor and, as an American, I believe in the right of each person to his or her own religious beliefs, I want Kennedy’s and Jefferson’s “absolute” wall of separation of church and state.  This does not mean that the government should be anti-religious, but rather that the government shall not impose one religious belief upon all.  

It’s quite common for politicians to play the victim card; doing so energizes their base supporters—be they from the left or the right.  Perhaps no victim card is as powerful as the religious victim card—declaring your opponent is “anti-religious” or conducting a “war on religion.”  Yet, America remains a religious nation—albeit a more diverse religious nation—today, because despite politicians’ claims to the contrary, the government generally maintains a level playing people for people of all beliefs.  Let’s hope for more speeches on religious freedom like that of JFK and less like that of Santorum.

Grace and Peace,

P.S.--It appears even Santorum thinks Santorum went too far in saying JFK's speech made him want to throw up.

Source's Used in Sunday's Service on the Temptation of Jesus

On Sunday at First Christian Church of St. Joseph, we had a special worship service using music, video and readings about the temptation of Jesus Christ in Matthew's Gospel.  Our vocalists at FCC sang Bruce Springsteen's "Hungry Heart," The Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil" and Bob Dylan's "Gotta Serve Somebody."

I read commentary about each temptation from Thomas G. Long's excellent commentary on Matthew.

Also, we watched the temptation scene from the 1999 miniseries Jesus.  Although no portrait of Jesus on film is perfect, the Jesus in this miniseries is superior in many ways to the non-human Jesus of earlier films.  I particularly like the way it handles the temptation scene

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Letter to the Editor of the St. Joseph News-Press re: MO SB 590

I wrote the following  for The Dialogue, the newsletter of the church where I serve, First Christian Church, Disciples of Christ of St. Joseph, MO.

Below is a letter I sent to the St. Joseph News-Press in response to a proposed law now making its way in the Missouri Senate regarding undocumented immigrants.  My perspective comes out of a deep belief that Jesus’ command of us to love our neighbors includes undocumented immigrants.  Similarly the Bible speaks strongly about people of faith showing hospitality to strangers and immigrants.  I hope you will join me in opposing Missouri Senate Bill 590.
Letter to the Editor of the St. Joseph News-Press

In his February 6 column, Steve Booher writes in support of Missouri Senate Bill 590, which would require local law enforcement to check the legal immigration status of anyone they suspect of being an undocumented immigrant and local school officials to check the status of every child in their schools.  Mr. Booher does not see a problem with local officials doing the job of the federal government or passing a law that has already been blocked by the courts in other states and sees no possibility that innocent people might be harassed by such procedures.  Much more reasonable was Ken Newton’s February 14 column which pointed out the burden this law would place upon our already overextended schools.  I hope Mr. Booher read Mr. Newton’s column.

SB 590 resembles in large part recent legislationpassed in Alabama.  That law’s provision requiring schools to check the status of children was immediately blocked by a federal court.  The provision requiring local law enforcement to check the status of anyone they suspected of being an undocumented immigrant resulted in, among other problems, the arrest of aGerman Mercedes-Benz executive and the ticketing of a Japanese Honda employee.  The state saw an immediate drop in interestfrom international business.  The effectsupon agriculture have been extremely negative since it depends upon immigrant laborers, who are now leaving the state.  In sum, the effects of the law have been so bad that Alabama’s governor and legislators who crafted and passed the law now all admit that it must be changed.

Given those disastrous results, why would we want a similar law in our state?  It would be far better if Missouri chose instead to pressure the federal government to retool our nation’s broken immigration system.  Instead of passing laws that would damage our state—laws designed for partisan political gain in an election year—our state government should be working to recognize the positive difference documented and undocumented immigrants make in our state and finding ways for all to have a path to work here legally.

In addition to not passing bad laws, I would ask our state leaders (and our local newspaper columnists) to each make an effort to meet and talk to just one family of undocumented immigrants.  Rather than finding threatening foreigners intent on destroying America, I believe they would look into the eyes of parents and children who want nothing more than a good safe life.  If they dared to set aside cheap political profit for the courage to look fellow human beings in the eye, I feel sure they would find not “illegals” or “criminals” but good people who only want what any of us want—a good community in which to raise our children.

I realize that expecting politicians and newspaper columnists to choose courage and human decency over xenophobia and scapegoating is perhaps not realistic, but I believe such virtues are possible—even in an election year.

Rev. Chase Peeples

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Faith in Action in the News

As I mentioned in my last post, FCC St. Joseph is a proud part of Faith in Action.  Here's the local press coverage of last Sunday's annual meeting by KQ2 and the St. Joseph News-Press.

Over 1168 miles!!!!

I wrote the following  for The Dialogue, the newsletter of the church where I serve, First Christian Church, Disciples of Christ of St. Joseph, MO.
1168 miles!  That’s the number of miles FCC’s own Sheryl Webb drove in 2011 for Faith in Action.  Primarily, she has driven elderly people to doctor’s appointments and for specific treatments.  These folks are members of our community who cannot drive themselves and lack family to do so.  They need more than a ride; they often need someone to give them an arm to lean on as they walk to the car and a hand to hold as they wait at an appointment.  Sheryl has provided all these things as a Faith in Action volunteer.
During worship services, you may have heard me mention Faith in Action, one of the ministries of our church.  First Christian helped start FIA back in the early 1990’s to organize volunteer caregivers for people with HIV/AIDS in our community.  Over time, the county health department took over that role (FCC’s own Kelly Kibirige is the HIV/AIDS nurse for Buchannan County and would be glad to talk with you about volunteering).  Faith in Action evolved into an organization that helped people with a variety of medical conditions through volunteers coordinated by Heartland Hospital.  Eventually, Heartland and area churches decided that needs could be better met if the churches made this ministry their own.
In 2008, I was a part of the reorganization of Faith in Action and today I serve as chairperson of its governing board.  Although FIA still receives some support from the Heartland Foundation (free office space at Hope House, etc.) and some logistical support from Heartland Hospital (IT support, etc.), the organization is governed and financially supported by St. Joseph churches.  First Christian is one of them.  Rather than being a non-profit organization, FIA is a coalition of 29 churches and organizations that provide volunteers to help low-income people (often seniors and disabled people without family support) in a variety of ways.  If St. Joseph churches choose not to make FIA happen, it simply disappears.
A great thing about FIA is its diversity.  Member churches include Roman Catholic, mainline Protestant and evangelical Protestant ones.  FIA churches come from downtown, southside, northside and the east side of town.  Each church provides volunteers who provide ministry to people through transportation to doctor visits, building wheelchair ramps, minor home repair, phone calls to seniors living alone and many other ways.  Here are some highlights from the wonderful work done by FIA over the last year:
  • 2,235 Volunteer Hours 
  • 12,122 Volunteer Miles driven 
  • 875 rides provided 
  • 7 wheelchair ramps built 
  • Numerous home repairs: new handrails, a screened-in porch, storm doors, kitchen cabinets, fixing a leaky roof and weatherizing windows
During these difficult economic times, FIA helps people who would otherwise not be helped.  The clients helped are often referred by social service agencies that for one reason or another cannot provide what is needed.  These folks would fall through the cracks without the volunteers from St. Joe churches.  An important by-product of the work of FIA volunteers is that low-income seniors who do not have support from family are able to live independently in their own homes rather than facing the choice of moving into a care center or possibly becoming homeless.
I am very grateful to Melissa Miles who took on the role of First Christian’s FIA team leader.  She is the one to talk to about volunteering with FIA.  If you can drive, call a lonely senior once a week on the phone, drop off food from Second Harvest, perform minor home repairs or do yard work, you can volunteer for FIA.  Is God calling you to serve by putting your faith into action?
Grace and Peace,

An Award I Share with First Christian Church

I wrote the following  for The Dialogue, the newsletter of the church where I serve, First Christian Church, Disciples of Christ of St. Joseph, MO.

I'm catching up on blog posts.  This one was written on Jan. 25, 2012
On January 23, I was given a great honor, The Center for Multicultural Education of Missouri Western State University gave me the “Drum Major for Justice” award at its annual awards banquet.  The award is given to individuals at Missouri Western and in the larger St. Joseph community who have worked for justice in the tradition of Martin Luther King, Jr.  I was humbled to be one of three recipients of the award for 2012. 

The award takes its name from MLK’s remarkable speech, “The Drum Major Instinct” in which he declares that we all have the desire to be out front and to be leading the band.  Yet, Jesus taught us to serve others and to embody the Kingdom of God’s ideal that the least shall be the greatest.  At the end of the speech, he states that at his funeral, he does not want long speakers describing his many awards.  Instead, he says, “If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice.  Say that I was a drum major for peace.  I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”

I was more than humbled to receive the award; I was a little overwhelmed, because if there is any award in our community I would ever desire to receive, it is this one.  For someone to say that you are standing up for God’s vision of justice in the same tradition as MLK is not only an honor; it is also quite daunting.  Any conscientious person receiving such an award would naturally think of her or his many failures to do enough for the cause of justice.  I know I certainly did.

I was given the chance to share a few words when the award was given out.  I declared that this great honor was one I shared with the church where I serve, First Christian Church of St. Joseph, MO.  In whatever way I have been able to speak out and work on behalf of marginalized people in our community, it is only because my church has supported me doing so and has been there with me.  During my first year here, I spoke up at a city council meeting in support of a new homeless shelter which faced opposition and FCC members were there with me.  I have made my beliefs very public about the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in both church and society, but it was the membership of FCC which voted to be open to and affirming of all people, including LGBT people.  By taking often unpopular stands like these in our community based on our understanding of a loving and just God, our church has faced criticism from those outside the church and has even lost some members.  Yet, it is the church’s determination to stand on principles of justice that make me proud to be its minister.  So, I accepted the award, but as I did so, I stated publicly that it was First Christian’s award too.

When I spoke at the banquet, I shared a story from my father’s experience that has guided my own sense of working for God’s justice.  When my father was a young minister at a small white Baptist church in Texas, an African-American family began attending.  When word got out that the new young preacher was fine with African-Americans coming to his church, other such families began attending.  After a time, the original family desired to join the church, but the white members insisted on a church business meeting first.  Members of the church who had not darkened the doors in years showed up to vote to refuse membership to the African-American family.  My father went to meet with the family and to share the news of the church’s rejection of them.  They were gracious to the young minister and considered the decision to be just another example of the larger racist culture, yet my father left their home feeling that he should have spoken up and fought for their inclusion.  He never forgot that feeling of regret.

To give my father credit, throughout his career as a minister he routinely worked to overcome divisions between blacks and whites.  One of the last churches he served was located in a small town in southeastern Virginia which literally had a black side of the tracks and a white side of the tracks.  He baptized the first African-American person in the church’s long history and did so over the objections of some church members.  Even with many occasions for standing up against racism on his resume, my father never forgot about the time he failed to do so.  I learned from him that any short-term discomfort, opposition or rejection you may face for standing up for the justice of God pales in comparison to the regret you will feel for not doing so. 

In my ministry, I have tried to stand for God’s justice even in the face of opposition, because I know that in the end each of us must face our own conscience and our God.  I am proud to serve a church that feels the same way.  Together, may we at FCC continue to be “Drum Majors for Justice” and work for the dignity of all God’s children. 

Grace and Peace,

The Domestication of MLK, Jr.

I wrote the following  for The Dialogue, the newsletter of the church where I serve, First Christian Church, Disciples of Christ of St. Joseph, MO.

I'm catching up on blog posts.  This one was written on Jan. 18, 2012--the week of the MLK, Jr. holiday.

I’ve been listening to the Republican candidates jockeying for their party’s nomination.  I’ve been reading about the Obama campaign ramping up for this year’s election.  I have channel surfed the talking heads and pundits.  I heard the reporters talking about poll numbers.  Although I have encountered discussion of the problems faced by our culture, those problems are always framed in terms of who will win the political horse race rather than in terms of justice, especially not the type of justice spoken of by the Hebrew prophets, the early church and Jesus.

On this week of commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life, we need his prophetic take on God’s justice more than ever.  We, as a nation, need to hear not the MLK of sound bites or platitudes, but the MLK who inspired people to risk their lives for justice.  We have domesticated MLK and made him as inoffensive as a greeting card.  We have lost the man who not only fought against Jim Crow but risked the support of his own African American base speaking out against the Vietnam War.  He was assassinated in Memphis working for higher wages and safety standards for sanitation workers—both Caucasian and African American.  When even his own people wanted him to play it safe, he chose to heed the demands of justice. 

What would MLK say about the “War on Terror” and our nation’s militarism?  Read the words from his speech about the Vietnam War ("Beyond Vietnam"--April 4, 1967) and see if they are relevant today:

“Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government's policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one's own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover, when the issues at hand seem as perplexed as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict, we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty; but we must move on. . . A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death. . . There is nothing except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war.”

What would MLK say about the ever-widening gap between the wealthy and everyone else?  Read his words from the same speech ("Beyond Vietnam"--April 4, 1967):

“I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered. . . A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life's roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

What would MLK say about the rhetorical and legislative attacks upon Latino immigrants (documented and undocumented) and upon lesbian and gay people so prevalent today?  Read his words about racism against African Americans and ask yourself if they are not just as relevant regarding the oppression other minority groups today (Martin Luther King, Jr., Where DoWe Go from Here: Chaos or Community?):

“If a man asserts that another man, because of his race, is not good enough to have a job equal to his, or to eat at a lunch counter next to him, or to have access to certain hotels, or to attend school with him, or to live next door to him, he is by implication affirming that that man does not deserve to exist.  He does not deserve to exist because his existence is corrupt and defective. . . Racism is a philosophy based on a contempt for life…Racism is total estrangement.  It separates not only bodies, but minds and spirits.  Inevitably it descends to inflicting spiritual or physical homicide upon the out-group.”

What should we say about MLK today?  He told us what he wanted said about him in his incredible sermon “The Drum MajorInstinct.”  (This was misquoted on theMLK, Jr. monument in Washington, D.C. and will soon be corrected.)  In it, he described the human tendency to be like a drum major—being out front, getting all the attention, leading the band, etc.  He declared that Jesus taught a different way of humility and service.  Then he declared how he wanted people to think about him after his death:

“If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. . . Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize—that isn’t important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards—that’s not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school.  I'd like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others. I'd like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody. I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question.  I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry. And I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked.  I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison.  I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.  Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice.  Say that I was a drum major for peace.  I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”

God save us from domesticating Martin Luther King, Jr.  Help us to hear his words anew today.

Grace and Peace,