Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Dare to DREAM

           The talking heads, pundits and politicians will continue to debate the significance of the Obama administration’s announcement last week that it will not deport illegal immigrants who came into the country as minors, but the incredible significance the decision will have upon those young people cannot be underrated.  I consider the decision to be a moral victory, if an imperfect one.  Lest anyone think I’m playing partisan games and promoting the Obama administration’s agenda, let me assure you I have plenty of gripes with this administration regarding our broken immigration system, but at least I can say they did this one thing right.  Besides, it is reported that Republican Senator from Florida and potential Vice-Presidential nominee Mark Rubio was ready to put forward this same plan.  Whether Democrats or Republicans do the just and honorable thing, it’s all the same to me, just as long as we aren’t deporting undocumented young people who consider themselves Americans and who are willing to serve and even die for our country.
            This Executive initiative effectively does what the DREAM Act was supposed to do before it was blocked in Congress.  The DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors)—if it had been passed—would have provided conditional permanent residency to certain undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as minors, graduated high school and lived in the country for five years.  If they did not have a criminal record, enrolled in college or served in the military they could extend that period and even qualify for citizenship.  The decision last week only did this in effect but not in law.  The Department of Homeland Security will cease deportation of these young people and allow them to work in the U.S., but there is no path to citizenship available to them.
            I share this information with you, because it has become personal for me.  Over the last year I have been meeting with a group of people from the faith community in St. Joseph who have formed the Interfaith Alliance for Immigrants (IAI).  We have learned much about immigrant communities (documented and undocumented) in St. Joseph and about the complicated nature of immigration policy and law in our country.  I have become convinced that our nation’s immigration system is broken, and the consequences of this broken system are inhumane and heartbreaking.  There are of course issues of national security and criminal violence, but the vast majority of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. truly only want a better life for their families.
            If you or I had to face the decision between crossing into the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant or allowing our children to live in squalor, I feel sure we would choose the former option.  (News broke today that Senator Mark Rubio writes in his new memoir that he would make the same decision if faced with the same options.)  Our nation’s politics on immigration and our culture’s propensity for demonizing the stranger and scapegoating the other represent a deep failure of our ability to do unto others as we would have done to us.  The “Golden Rule” is close to a universal value held at least in principle, yet when it comes to seeing our undocumented immigrants as worthy of the same treatment we would expect, this value is worth little.  As Christians we are called not merely just to treat others as we wish to be treated but to LOVE others as we wish to be LOVED.  Love goes deeper than fair treatment; it involves sacrifice and devotion to others.  On this count, the American church has largely failed to live up to its own statements of faith when it comes to immigration.
            During my meetings with IAI, it has been a deep honor from me to get to know a young woman named Elizabeth—not her real name.  Elizabeth was brought to the U.S. from Mexico by her undocumented immigrant parents as a young child.  She cannot remember life before coming to the U.S.  She has always gone to American schools, had American friends and absorbed American culture.  She graduated from an American university and now works for a non-profit that advocates for immigrant rights.  Until last week she risked her own deportation to fight for other young people who like her are for all intents and purposes Americans.  When the news broke last week, she literally was on the phone with undocumented young people waiting to board a plane in order to be deported.  Elizabeth in many ways is a better American than I am, because she does not take for granted the freedoms and quality of life that I often fail to appreciate.  She is the kind of person our nation badly needs to help invigorate our culture just as immigrants have done since the founding of our nation. 
            Elizabeth can remain in the country, but she still cannot be a citizen.  I continue to dream of a day when she and those like her will be treated with God’s justice and loved by our nation as worthy members of it.
            Grace and Peace,

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Prometheus and the Christian God

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.

            Over the weekend, I saw the new movie Prometheus, which if you didn’t know is a sort of prequel to the classic 1981 science fiction/horror movie Alien.  The director of the 1981 film, Ridley Scott, returns to direct this new one.  Whereas the film 30 years ago was in many ways an exercise in simplicity (future astronauts inadvertently bring aboard an alien killing machine and then meet their demise in a claustrophobic space ship), the new film moves to the other end of the complexity spectrum and dares to ask all kinds of really big questions about life, existence, faith, the creation of the universe, etc.  In the end, I guess I found the movie unsatisfying, but it did leave me thinking and actually having interesting conversations about it, which is more than I can say for most Hollywood fare.   
            Director Ridley Scott is no stranger to using the genre of science fiction to ask questions about what it means to be human.  One of my favorite science fiction films is Scott’s 1982 film BladeRunner, in which organic robots called “replicants,” who are indistinguishable from human beings, try to find their creator.  To their dismay, the replicants (who are used for dangerous manual labor in space) discover they were made by a soulless corporation, and the CEO of that corporation views them as products not people.  [SPOILER ALERT: I’m going to start giving out details of Prometheus, so stop reading here if you don’t want to know those details.]  Similarly, in Prometheus another search is underway for a creator, but this time the ones doing the searching are humans.  Set in 2093, archaeologists have discovered ancient pictures of aliens, who apparently initiated the process of biological evolution on earth, and they set off across the stars to find the aliens who made us.
            The very first scene of the movie shows the aliens creating human life, and thus my disappointment began there.  As many movie critics have pointed out, ever since the publication of the book Chariots of the Gods? in the Sixties and the resulting 1970 “documentary” based on the book, it’s been a common sci-fi trope to talk about aliens inspiring ancient human civilizations, if not creating human life itself.  Chariots of the Gods? was ridiculed as “pseudo-history” and “science fiction pretending to be history,” but Hollywood saw an opportunity.  Probably the best example of aliens creating human civilization comes in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: a Space Odyssey.  Of course, there was also the cheesy but oh-so-fun 1980’s TV show Battlestar Galactica which began with the narration: “Some believe that life down here. . . began out there.”  I seem to recall a bad sci-fi move Mission to Mars back in 2000 that had a similar plot point.  Who knows how many other films used the same device?  Prometheus is not exactly breaking new ground here.
            Trite science fiction plot points aside, Ridley Scott has biblical thoughts on his mind.  In a recent interview in Esquire, Scott remarks that his intentions were to address questions of human origins, God and creation.  He says, “I'm really intrigued by those eternal questions of creation and belief and faith. I don't care who you are, it's what we all think about. It's in the back of all our minds.”  At least some of the film’s characters share Scott’s questions (at least the ones not inserted just to be gruesomely killed by aliens).  In Prometheus, the heroine, Dr. Elizabeth Shaw, wears a cross and we learn via flashback that her faith in God goes back to her believing father.  Shaw remains faithful even when it is confirmed that human life came from aliens.  When her boyfriend asks why she continues to wear the cross after finding out that aliens rather than God made humans, she replies by asking, “Yes, but who made them?”  Shaw is joined by a human-looking robot named David who seems keenly aware of the human emotions and desires he does not possess.  In one scene, David asks a scientist why he was created; the response: “Because we could.”  David offers the jarring rejoinder that perhaps the aliens created humans just “because they could.” 
            Prometheus may have been overdone, but the questions it wrestles with are real, namely does scientific inquiry reveal that we humans were made by an impersonal process rather than a personal God?  If so, what does that say about the worth and purpose of humanity?  What does it say about me?  The Christian response is that however God created the universe and humanity in particular (divine fiat, evolution, space aliens, etc.) such creation was done with love.  God loves the universe so much so that God came in Jesus Christ “to reconcile to himself all things” (Colossians 1:20).  It is the fear that we are unloved and that our lives have no inherent purpose which drives so much of the Christian response to debates between science and religion.  This is unfortunate, because all kinds of awful things are done when people are afraid.  Besides, we are told in our scriptures that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).  From the Christian perspective, this “perfect love” enables us not to fear what science discovers or even what science fiction dreams up, because we can, along with the father of Prometheus’  Elizabeth Shaw, “choose to believe” that we are loved by our Creator no matter the method of our creation. 
            Okay, I’ll confess that my experience of God’s “perfect love” may leave me unafraid of Prometheus’ plot point that humanity was created as a part of an alien race’s biology experiments, but it does little to stop me from screaming my head off when later in the film an alien bursts out of somebody’s stomach.  Some fears are unrelated to the meaning of existence, they’re just fun.
            Grace and Peace,

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Your God is Too Small

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.

The point of my sermon this past Sunday (hopefully it came across) was that all of us are in need of a God who is bigger than we are—a God that is not our own creation.  A God whom we fully understand, a God who fits all our own biases or prejudices, or a God who makes no claim upon our lives is a God unworthy of our devotion.  Indeed, we do not and cannot devote ourselves to such an inadequate God; rather we use such a God for our own convenience and to justify our own desires.
            In the moment of preaching Sunday, I left out part of what I had planned to say; it didn’t seem to fit.  I feel it is worth including this week at least in the newsletter, because it further illustrates the point of my sermon which is one I feel we cannot hear too often.  I will probably always remain indebted to a small book by Anglican clergyman and Bible translator J.B. Phillips entitled Your God is Too Small.  (available in full on-line)  Written in the late 1950’s, the slim book (less than 100 pages) divides views of God into two categories: destructive and constructive.  Phillips’ “constructive” or healthy/positive views of God are not too original, but his list of “destructive” views of God remains a helpful and accessible tool for thinking about views of God that limit spiritual growth and promote unhealthy and damaging forms of religion.
            His list of “destructive” views of God includes:
1. Resident Policeman—God is more than our socially conditioned consciences.
2. Parental Hangover—God is more than our experience of earthly parents.
3. Grand Old Man—God is not an out of date religion held by our ancestors.
4. Meek-and-Mild—God is not a sentimental and nonthreatening familiarity.
5. Absolute Perfection—God may be perfect but God loves those who are imperfect.
6. Heavenly Bosom—God is not escapism.
7. God-in-a-Box—God is more than the beliefs of a particular church or denomination.
8. Managing Director—God may “run” the universe but is still concerned with us.
9. Second-Hand God—God can only be “known” by first-hand experience.
11. Negative—God is a source of life and vitality not a mere source of prohibitions.
12. Projected Image—God is not a projection of our own insecurity or self-hate.
Phillips also touches on other “destructive” views of God, such as a God who is only for the elite, a depersonalized God who is only the Enlightenment’s highest ideals and more.
            Phillips’ prose sounds a little archaic to my American ears fifty years after he wrote them, but I am grateful for his insistence that we humans continue to limit our understanding of God in order that God might serve our own purposes.  With that warning in mind, I shall with some “fear and trembling” offer up some other “destructive” or inadequate Gods for you to consider.  (For most of these, I remain grateful to theologians who have written since Phillips’ time.)
  • ·       A Male God—Feminist theologians have rightly criticized the church’s long tradition of God’s authority with maleness, reminding us that God is greater than a specific gender and exhibits both masculine and feminine qualities.
  • ·       A Caucasian God—African-American male theologians, along with Womanist (African-American female) theologians, Asian and Latin American theologians have rightly charged the church with perpetuating a God who validates the consolidation of power by Caucasians over other peoples.
  • ·       A Heterosexual God—LGBT theologians and their allies offer the view that God is greater than sexual orientation or even sexual attraction.  A God who is only heterosexual reinforces the judgment and oppression of LGBT people.
  • ·       An American God—Many are the theologians and Christian laypeople outside of the United States who challenge the views that God is the property of our country alone and Americans are a chosen or superior people.
  • ·       A Capitalist God—Theologians and ethicists argue for a God who does not operate according to the rules of western capitalism.  God does not operate according to the accumulation of wealth but by graciously giving of God’s gifts to undeserving sinners.
  • ·       A Political God—God is not limited by the left vs. right political spectrum and refuses to be limited to one side or the other.  All theologians of any self-awareness recognize that God rejects any human claims to absolute truth in the political sphere or any other.
Why talk about inadequate views of God?  Only by doing so can we gain the proper humility before God, and only when we are humble can we begin to serve God.  I hope God blows apart our limited understandings of the divine.
      Grace and Peace,