Friday, December 13, 2013

Who Decides the Future of the Kansas City, MO Public Schools?

If you are a resident of the Kansas City metro area, I hope you have been following the stories over the last week about the KCMO public schools.  The district's years of failure hurt our entire city and affects the economy and quality of life of everyone--even those in the suburbs.  It's easy for those of us without kids in the district to turn away from its problems viewing them as insoluble and unchangeable.  Yet, thousands of school children--most of them low-income--who are stuck in failing schools deserve better than us shaking our heads and turning away.  This is specifically true for our church which has historically ministered to the students across Wornall at what once was Southwest High School.  These are our church's neighborhood schools and what happens to them affects us.  

CCCUCC's own Jan Parks has been working with the Education Task Force of MORE2 (Metro Organization for Racial and  Economic Equity) on issues related to the KCMO public schools.  She and others on the task force filed a Freedom of Information Act request regarding the state Commissioner of Education Chris Nicastro's dealings with the group hired by the state to come up with a plan for the school system's future.  That group, CEE Trust, actively supports privatizing public schools through corporate-run charter schools.  The documentation revealed by the FOIA request details how Nicastro and CEE Trust rigged the bidding process so that CEE Trust would be chosen to come up with a plan for KCMO public schools and that Nicastro already had a plan for dissolving the school district--all this with no input from anyone in Kansas City.    

Here is some of the news coverage about this unfolding story  
Everyone can agree that KCMO's public schools have been a failure for decades, but the real justice question is whether or not the people most affected by the district's failure or success--the children and families served by the district--get any say in their own education.  Do corporations and the politicians they fund get to decide what is best for the children of Kansas City all by themselves or is there not some other way that involves all the people affected by the future of education in Kansas City?  Those without billionaire backers and lobbying groups deserve a voice in their own future.  I was proud to rally with other people of faith from MORE2 on Monday night against the way Commissioner Nicastro and CEE Trust have conspired in secret to determine the future of KCMO schools.

I don't claim to have the answers for the systemic failures of KCMO public schools, but I believe firmly that whatever effort is made to improve them should be transparent and ethical and should involve those most directly affected.  This week I have spoken with people who have emotional responses whenever KCMO schools are brought up.  These folks have worked to improve the schools for decades without success and feel burned out and frustrated.  I heard one fellow minister who has been a KC fixture for decades say, "Who cares if the state takes it over?  I have given up hope that people in Kansas City can fix this broken school system."  His remark came out of pain and disillusionment, and I as a newcomer to the situation won't attempt to talk him out of his feelings.  That being said, whether the solutions for the KCMO district involve local control, state control, private control or some mixture of all three, I would hope that everyone involved could agree that the process for saving KCMO's schools should be above board and at the very least should adhere to state regulations on things such as bidding.

A related issue that is much more complicated than mere bid rigging is whether or not privatization of public schools is a good or bad thing.  Certainly, one can easily find both good and bad examples of privately run charter schools just as one can easily find both good and bad examples of publicly run.schools.  The solution to failing schools is not simply an either/or solution.  Most public school systems could benefit from the expertise of businesses in terms of best practices and every public school system I know is grateful for private dollars that support their work.   

A real solution to our city's failing schools must be found by a focus on the common good.  Education has proven throughout our nation's history to be a great determining factor in terms of a person's emotional, financial and political achievement in society.  Our ancestors in faith saw that need before there was a system of public schools and colleges.  It was people of faith who first founded schools in our country--not for reasons they do so today which are mainly for indoctrination, but because they saw it as essential to the common good.  I believe something is lost when private businesses approach public education as a money-making enterprise rather than as a contribution to the common good.  Critics such as Diane Ravitch charge that groups like CEE Trust--which conspired with Commissioner Nicastro to get the bid to develop a plan for KCMO's schools--and its parent organization Mind Trust are interested in privatization of public schools not for the common good but for the good of their own bottom line.  Over a year ago, Reuters wrote an article about hedge fund managers meeting to discuss how they could increase their profits through vendors offering "solutions" to failing public schools.  Making money in and of itself is not a sin, but when making money becomes more important than the common good it is sinful.   People who make a lot of money can do a lot of good with it to help others, but they can also do a lot of bad with it when their profits come at the expense of those who lack power and money. 

The move towards privatization in sectors of our society other than education has not served us well.  The private contracting of the military over the last sixty years has resulted in "Defense Spending" becoming one of the largest parts of our nation's budget.  Once private companies have that much public money they can lobby the government to increase spending in the military sector.  Critics of this process make use of Eisenhower's term the "military industrial complex."  The military industrial complex has profited greatly from the last twelve years of war.  Today our prison system is in large part run by private corporations who have not only enriched themselves but taken public money and used it to lobby for a criminal justice system that ensures prisons are full and that more of them are needed.  It is named by critics as the "prison industrial complex."  What might an "education industrial complex" look like?    

I've laid out my suspicions and biases.  I don't require or expect the members of the church where I serve to agree with everything I think about such complicated issues, but I would hope that we could agree that the first sensible first step is for an investigation into the bidding process carried out by Commissioner Nicastro and CEE Trust.  This is what MORE2 has called for and what a growing number of politicians across the state are also calling for.  Other organizations are calling for more drastic measures, but this seems like a sensible first step to me.    

It may be that when it comes to KCMO public schools there will be more opportunities for people of faith in KC to raise their voices on behalf of those people whose voice is not being heard. 

I'm proud to be pastor of a church with members like Jan Parks who care enough about their community to work to expose public corruption.  I'm proud that our church supports MORE2 which works for racial and economic justice in city hall and in the statehouse.  I'm proud that our church is concerned about more than just what is best for us as individuals but is concerned enough about the common good to do more than talk about it.   

Grace and Peace,

Friday, November 15, 2013

Ship of Fools

          Last week I was honored to be invited to preach in a chapel service at Saint Paul School of Theology. Having not only attended seminary which had weekly chapel services but also gone to a Baptist college where chapel attendance was mandatory, I've sat through a lot of chapel services. I was honored to be asked, and I hoped I would be a more interesting speaker than many I can recall from my own days attending chapel.
            I wondered what do seminary students need from a chapel service where some random minister just shows up to preach? Well, if they're anything like me and ministers I know, we were all wondering (and still are) if this whole calling from God thing is legit. Do I dare believe that God is bothering to call somebody like me to be a minister? I came to seminary right out of college when I was young and broke, but also I didn't have a career, a family or anything really to lose. The stakes were relatively low. Most seminary students today, however, are coming in at mid-life and they are second-career students. They have left behind job security and taken on school debt. They have spouses and children who are wondering if they have gone crazy and are going through some kind of reverse mid-life crisis. If they are at all self-aware they are wondering if they are fools for "accepting God's call" to be a minister.

            I was reminded of Paul's words in 1 Corinthians, where he writes, "Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong." Following where God leads to proclaim a message of sacrifice, humility and service is foolishness from the perspective of our culture. Yet, Paul writes God chooses to use what is "foolish" in human terms to shame the conventional wisdom of humanity. So, I told the gathered seminary students to take heart if they felt foolish, because God uses what is "foolish" to accomplish wise things.
            I was scrambling for a sermon title and thought of the expression "Ship of Fools." I didn't really know where it came from, but a quick Google search revealed that the philosopher Michel Foucault wrote about it. I wanted to look educated since I was speaking at a seminary, and I happened to have a copy of Foucault's Madness and Civilization sitting on my shelf never read, so I picked it up and read what Foucault has to say about where the expression "Ship of Fools" came from.
            According to Foucault, in the Middle Ages municipalities would literally ship off their people with mental illness by paying ship captains to take them away and dump them in the next port of call. That image captured the imagination of artists and writers who depicted shiploads of "fools" or mentally ill people adrift at sea. Later on during the Renaissance, this image of a "Ship of Fools" was taken up as a means to criticize religious hypocrisy and excess. The Latin word for ship "navi" and the word for church "nave" were similar, so a simple pun would turn a "ship of fools" into a "church of fools." Think Don Quixote or one of Shakespeare's fools and you get the idea of how a "fool" is a great character for speaking the truth to those who think they are wise but really are not. Sometimes, it takes a fool to speak the truth, because any wise person knows to keep her or his mouth shut.
            I reminded the future ministers of what they already know-that the 21st church is cast adrift from a culture that no longer honors religious institutions. A recent poll said that 44% of Millennials claim "none" when it comes to religious affiliation. Yet, I offered my opinion that the 21st century church has also set adrift anyone who really wants to be "foolish" in the way Paul talks about. I argue that most forms of the church today act like insecure middle schoolers running around doing anything to be liked by a culture that no longer cares about them. The most popular religious best-sellers are essentially self-help books that trade in a form of self-fulfillment that differs little from narcissism.
            It is difficult to find examples of churches that really want to embody the sort of sacrifice Jesus demonstrated in his own teachings and actions. It has always been and I guess it will always be counter-cultural to sacrifice out of one's own blessings, comfort and security for the sake of others who do not have them. In a world where fame, luxury and wealth are celebrated-no matter how gaudy-it really is "foolish" to try to live in a way that demonstrates compassion for others.
            I gave my thoughts about being on board a "ship of fools" to seminary students, just as I try to do each Sunday at our church. It's a pleasure to be sailing with you foolish folks at CCCUCC.

Grace and Peace,

Sunday, October 13, 2013

People Don't Need Church Until They Do

The following was written for the weekly newsletter of the church where I serve, Country Club Congregational United Church of Christ.

            You have heard me repeatedly say from the pulpit, "The church is not a building; it is a community."  I deeply believe these words.  If-God forbid-our church building burnt down tomorrow, we would still have a church, because we would still have our community.  This year we began a new ministry called Church Out of Bounds, where every fifth Sunday we cut out of worship early and spend some together as a congregation serving others outside the walls of our building.  I can't think of a healthier thing for a church with a building to do, because all too often church people get confused and think the church is in fact the building.  That's the problem with our religious language.  We use the same word for the building and the community that uses it.  We get confused about our identity and think it is found in brick and mortar rather than as followers of Jesus Christ.
            The vast selloff of religious real estate over the last decade speaks to the truth of our inadequate vocabulary.  Everywhere you look individual congregations and entire denominations are selling off buildings they no longer can afford.  Yet, the presence of God still resides among faithful people whether or not they own real estate.  A building is not necessary to be a church.  That wasn't the case in the first century and it remains the case among many congregations today.  There are plenty of churches with buildings that look like a church in terms of real estate but not in terms of actually being a community of love and grace.
            I can name a long list of congregations that today are upside down on their real estate, sort of the way many individuals and families are upside down on their mortgages.  There are churches who built tremendous buildings when their congregations were larger and our culture approved of going to church.  Now these same congregations cannot afford their big (and empty) buildings anymore, and they devote all their energy and money to keeping the buildings from falling down.  After all, generations of blood, sweat and tears (and building fund contributions) built those buildings.  Children were married and baptized in those buildings.  Funerals for loved ones were held in those buildings.  Faithful people experienced God in those buildings.  Letting those buildings go involves grief and pain-not to mention it feels like failure.  It's too bad however that most churches in this situation cannot make the difficult but healthy choice to let go of the buildings they can no longer afford and devote their money and energy towards something other than building preservation.
            I am thankful such is not the case at our church.  When I interviewed, I asked a lot of questions including ones about the building.  I learned about the building campaign in 2005 and the approximately half a million dollars spent on renovations.  I learned that continuing maintenance is expensive and it is difficult to find the funds to do that maintenance.  (What church with a building these days doesn't have that problem?)  Yet, I also learned that the membership of this congregation has financial means to do what it wants to do when it is challenged.  I heard what I needed to hear-namely that the building is expensive but the congregation is not in dire straits (at least not yet) when it comes to meeting those expenses.
            Furthermore, our building is an asset to ministry, because it is beautiful and situated so nicely at the intersection of 65th and Linden Streets, people are attracted to it.  We frequently have visitors who drop in out of curiosity just so they can see what goes on in this kind of building.  It is not an eyesore.  Currently, we have more space than we really use when you take into consideration the basement and top floor, but that is more a question of us using our building intentionally for ministry than an issue of having too much space.
            I believe firmly that the church is more than a building.  Without the community of people, the only thing you have is a building and nothing more.  The building, however, can be important to the community of faith and to the community outside its walls, if it is used for ministry.  In my sermon this past Sunday, I quoted from an opinion column by Amy Butler, a Baptist minister in Washington, D.C.  She states eloquently why things like a church building and a church staff matter.  The following is an excerpt from her column:

think before we do even one more church budget, we need a whole new framework for thinking about church and ministry. 

In the past we churches thought of ourselves as the backbones of society, places where good, moral and faithful people gather to pool resources so we can go out into the world and feed the homeless and convert people in order to save their souls. Keeping administrative costs as low as possible would help us to help the needy.

While many good and righteous things have come out of this view of ourselves, the truth is that that way of thinking is a pretty arrogant self-assessment borne out of a climate of popularity and ease.

With our role in society shifting, we are no longer bastions of benevolent and overflowing food pantries that we graciously bestow on the less fortunate and then return to our churches filled with other scrubbed and spiritual do-gooders to plan new ways to do ministry.

What we are now is mission outposts. We are islands in a world full of increasingly adrift people. We are places of solace and hope, community and hospitality for people who are too smart to believe in God and pretty convinced they don't need the church - until they do.

I cannot count the times people who never grew up in church stumble into worship looking for solace and discover - to their shock and amazement - liturgy, music and preaching that help them begin to connect with the tradition of the church and the message of Jesus, things they find they desperately need in their lives.

Or the inquiries I get from people looking for a nice staging area for their wedding, feeling they might vaguely enjoy some kind of traditional twist on things. After five sessions of required premarital counseling they begin to discover that maybe spiritual grounding of relationships has some merit they'd never considered.

How about the calls from the mayor's office asking for a spiritual perspective on justice issues in the city? There are plenty of people around who can offer opinions about what's most politically expedient, but it turns out that sometimes our leaders want to talk about what it would look like to do the right thing instead of just the easy thing. So they come to us.

And there are the times I get called to do a funeral, visit a hospital or intervene in a crisis for people I don't know. They call because they don't know who else to call. The church-free lives they've constructed don't offer the kind of resources they need to navigate the death of a child, the loss of a job or the break-up of a marriage.

So they come to church, and when they do they encounter grace-filled community that changes their lives.

All these things require substantial investment of resources that we have labeled as "administrative" - pastors, musicians, church staff, bulletins, air conditioning, janitorial services, capital repairs, instrument tuning - but all of these things are ministry. In fact, they're frontline, on the ground, where-the-rubber-meets-the-road kind of ministry.
How we go about being church in the world is changing radically. With that change, now more than ever, our whole life together in faith community is mission and ministry.

And we'd better start seeing it that way soon, because the call to live "Jesus' two Great Commandments" in this world is going to take a heck of a lot more than our church mission budget line. It's going to take the full engagement of everything we have.

As we go through another stewardship campaign, I hope we at CCCUCC will listen to Butler's words.  "Administrative costs" like our building and our staff matter.  When all things are working as they should, the building and the staff create space for people to find healing, discover community and experience God.  If we really believe that is what we offer in this community that is our church, then these things are worth investing in.  As you consider what you will give to this community of faith in 2014, I hope you will consider digging deep, thinking sacrificially and giving joyfully, because these costs are investments in making sure there is a church here when people discover they need one.

Grace and Peace,

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Are We Being Out-Prayed?

UPDATE: 3/2/14--When I originally wrote this blog post I was just describing my impressions after stopping by to visit International House of Prayer (IHOP) in Grandview, MO..  Although it certainly didn't appeal to me, there wasn't anything on the surface that alarmed me--at least not to any greater degree than most conservative evangelical megachurches usually alarm me.  However, after reading further press accounts about the death of Bethany Deaton along with a blog post from an ex-IHOP member who knew those involved, I think there's a lot to be alarmed about when it comes to IHOP and its leadership.  Furthermore, now there are connections between IHOP"S founding pastor and other IHOP people to the terrible anti-gay laws in Uganda which is pretty freaking horrific.  It appears there's a lot to be concerned about below the surface at the International House of Prayer--dangerous theology that is not evident from a cursory visit..

ORIGINAL POST: 10/5/14            

     This morning I found myself around the Red Bridge area so I decided to drive by the International House of Prayer. I grew up in Grandview, so it's pretty weird to drive around my old stomping grounds and see that the main economic engine in that town now is a church which continues to buy up more and more of the town's real estate. I've read a lot of stuff in the press about IHOPKC (including that they were sued by the International House of Pancakes for using the acronym IHOP, hence the KC added to it). It's difficult as an outsider to separate truth from fiction about the group. When I drove up to the strip mall on Red Bridge Road that they have converted into their headquarters, I was surprised by two things: how many cars were in the parking lot on a Friday morning and how normal it looked.
            In the strip mall, I found the church's bookstore (over half of its stock consisted of books and recordings of its pastor's teachings), the church's coffee and sandwich shop (fancy enough to rival any similar retail operation), the church's realty office (for the hundreds of people from around the country moving to Grandview to be near the church) and the church's 24/7 prayer center which claims to have had a continuous prayer service operating since 1999. Oh yeah, the folks milling around buying DVD's, drinking coffee and of course, praying, were largely young and hipster-ish. Despite all of the talk I've heard about it being a cult, it all looked pretty normal.
            I'm well aware of the controversies surrounding the church, such as the murder of IHOPKC intern Bethany Deaton and the violent apocalyptic language used by some speakers at IHOPKC conferences. Also, to the extent that I can make sense of IHOPKC's theology, there's plenty I disagree with, such as its interpretations of biblical prophecy regarding things like the Rapture and other end-time scenarios. I feel sure the church is overly dependent upon its pastor's charisma and that I wouldn't find much common ground with them in terms of hot-button social issues like sexuality, reproductive rights, feminism, etc. In sum, you don't have to worry that I'm a fan of IHOPKC-I'm not.
            I could pretty much say similar things, however, about hundreds of other Pentecostal and evangelical megachurches. Many of them, like IHOPKC, own plenty of real estate and seek to create their own empires of Bible colleges, coffee shops and ministries. Many of them also have scandals associated with them, just as pretty much every group of religious people does.  I didn't see anything at IHOPKC that was scarier than what I've seen at other megachurches around the country. In fact, IHOPKC seemed less scary in some ways, because (at least to this outsider) it lacked many of the trappings of the Religious Right so common in earlier generations of megachurches. I didn't see stacks of anti-gay literature or sign-up sheets for picketing clinics that provide abortions. Maybe they have that stuff, but it wasn't laying out for somebody like me to stumble upon.
            I went into the 24/7 prayer chapel and found rows of chairs like plenty of other bland worship spaces so common these days. Plenty of people were scattered around; some were praying and others were staring intently at their phones (prayer apps?). Onstage was a band playing ambient music with a drum machine pounding out a beat-they were quite good. A speaker praying and the band vocalists alternated between spoken word prayers and choruses. I had a seat, and I have to admit I could see the appeal. It was meditative-if you liked the music and agreed with the theology of the folks praying. During the 15 minutes I was there, I didn't hear anything I disagreed with; in fact, I heard a lot I did agree with. (Of course, two minutes after I left they could have prayed for all kinds of stuff I would abhor for all I know.) The people praying offered prayers for area high schools and the Kansas City area and asked God to provide guidance to teens without fathers and to those facing temptation. They asked God to stop sex traffickers and prevent violence. I found myself joining in and praying those same things, because I do pray for those same things all the time.
            As I said, I have no idea what other stuff IHOPKC prays for and I assume given their theological beliefs, especially about the end times, there are plenty of things they might pray for that I wouldn't agree with. But I was pleasantly surprised that they were praying for our community and asking for God's help with the violence that plagues us. It just so happens that our church has been asked to pray this weekend for our city and for solutions to the violent crime in it that seemingly has no end. All of the congregations in MORE2 (Metro Organization for Racial and Economic Equity) have been asked to pray this weekend and to remember Myeisha Turner and her daughter Damiah White. (I was proud to be a part of a press conference this week promoting this weekend's prayer.)
            Myeisha and her 3 year-old daughter Damiah were gunned down in their home this past August. Myeisha's 11 month-old was left alive and found crawling through the crime scene. As of today, the murders remain unsolved like so many in Kansas City. We've been asked to remember these murders especially, because many in our community believe that if this had been a Caucasian young mother and child murdered that the story would have remained in the news longer and the community outrage would be greater. Instead, their deaths have thus far largely been viewed as two more dead African Americans in a string of murdered African Americans in Kansas City. Just this past week, two more children were hit by gunfire. One of them was in Overland Park which goes to show that the gun violence in our city affects us all; moving to the suburbs does not offer us any way to hide from it. This summer a man was gunned down two blocks from where my kids go to school-as of today that homicide remains unsolved.
            During worship Sunday morning we will read together a prayer for our city that remembers Myeisha and Damiah. I have included it below, and I hope if you read this e-mail you will pause at least once this weekend and pray it as well. Prayer changes our indifferent minds and calloused hearts to feel the pain of those around us. It can also prepare us to act and work to improve our communities. Prayer is more than mere words.
            I figure that it's not too much to ask for a church like ours committed to God's Peace and Justice to pray this prayer. After all, IHOPKC has already been praying similar prayers.

Gracious God,
Author of All Divine Mercies,
Giver of All Eternal Comfort--
as we continue to mourn the deaths of
Damiah White and Myeisha Turner,
we pray for Your inspiration and wisdom.

Inspire us and all people everywhere in the metro area,
particularly in communities of faith,
with your enthusing power--
to not grow weary in well-doing,
to seek justice for little Damiah--and all other children,
to seek justice for Myeisha--and all other young mothers,
to secure the communities in which we dwell and
the homes in which we live
with righteousness and honesty and fervent care,
especially for those among us who are most vulnerable.

Grant that we may bind ourselves together
with such purpose and persuasion and bonding,
heart to heart and soul to soul,
that respect will be accorded to Damiah's memory
and honor unto Myeisha's memory,
and justice will prevail for them.

Hear our prayers, O God,
from the broken hearts of we who offer these prayers
on behalf of those who have known too much tragedy
and burdensome loss,
as we participate in the sacred quest of healing our  city's heart,
and, indeed, all cities everywhere.  AMEN. 

Grace and Peace,

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Do We Really Need Another Historical Jesus Book?

          About two months ago, you may have seen floating around the web a FOX News interview of Reza Aslan, a scholar of religion who also happens to be Muslim. Aslan put out a book this year titled Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. The interview made a stir because the poorly informed Fox News host couldn't seem to fathom the idea that a Muslim could possibly have anything good to say about Jesus. She apparently doesn't know that Jesus (known as Issa in Islam) is considered a revered prophet by Muslims and receives quite a bit of favorable attention in the Qur'an. Yet, as Aslan patiently makes clear repeatedly in the interview, his book isn't a Muslim perspective of Jesus but an attempt by a religion scholar to understand the person Jesus using the tools of historical investigation. The host was woefully ignorant, but her poor excuse for an interview did have the unintended result of giving the book all kinds of publicity which sent it to number one on the NY Times non-fiction bestsellers list.
            If I must pick sides, I'm on Aslan's side against a silly TV host who believes all Muslims are anti-Christian and hell bent on destroying America, but what I didn't care for were Aslan's protestations of objectivity. In the Fox interview and elsewhere, Aslan declared that he was an objective scholar who examined the historical figure of Jesus using the objective tools of historical research. He should know better. I believe that he attempted to use a particular methodology to write about Jesus and that point of view is different from his religious views, however, critiques of historical scholarship-especially of historical scholarship of religion-have pointed out for a couple of generations now that no such objectivity exists for anyone. Historical data requires interpretation and the interpreter's own culture, biases, philosophical presuppositions, etc. shape her or his interpretations.
            Think of recent historical figures, such as Ronald Reagan, Henry Kissinger or Franklin Roosevelt, what an historian writes about one of these presidents depends in large part on that scholar's political views. Similarly, a biography of the Buddha, Muhammad or Joseph Smith may be shaped by a scholar's particular education, social status, religious leanings and culture. An undergraduate philosophy major learns this lesson the first time she is assigned to read Michel Foucault.
            The myth of objectivity does not mean, however, that all scholarly works are equally valid or invalid. There are more and less responsible historians. The best ones admit their own biases (at least as much as they are self-aware) and make efforts to consider the perspectives of others who do not share them. The best ones also seek to compile evidence including evidence that does not necessarily support their perspective. The truly best historians admit when they reach the limits of historical evidence and move beyond it into hypothesis and conjecture.
            The fact that a scholar has a particular point of view-if he or she admits it-can lead to some fascinating discussions and even revisions of thinking about history. Consider a history of Manifest Destiny in the United States written from the perspective of Native Americans rather than European Americans. Similarly, one of the best books on the historical person of Jesus I have read was written by Amy-Jill Levine, a practicing Jew, who critiques Christian religious scholars for anti-Jewish bias when writing about the life of Jesus. I would have liked to have heard Aslan speak about how his own perspective as a Muslim influences his scholarship on Jesus. What would a Muslim see in the New Testament's portrayals of Jesus or the culture of first century Palestine that a Christian might miss? It's too bad that conversation didn't happen.
            I haven't read Aslan's book and I probably never will, not because I'm offended he's a Muslim (I'm not) nor because it is a bad book (I have no idea if it is), but rather because I grew tired years ago of reading books claiming to reveal the "true" Jesus of history as compared to the Jesus of the church. As I write these words, I just walked over to my bookshelf where I counted 58 historical Jesus books from the early 1800's to the present. In each of them, the writer claims to provide the "real" Jesus. My couple of shelves of Jesus books is just a drop in the bucket of historical Jesus books written since the late 1700's. A century ago, Albert Schweitzer wrote The Quest of the Historical Jesus, in which he showed that the previous century's scholarly works about Jesus revealed more about their authors than about Jesus. Ironically, Schweitzer didn't apply his criticism to his own picture of Jesus which looked a lot like Friedrich Nietzche's "superman." Nonetheless, Schweitzer's point is well taken towards all of the historical Jesus books written before and after him.
            The problem with any attempt to provide a "true" or "objective" view of the person Jesus apart from the writings of the New Testament is that there really isn't anything else to go on. Other than a few brief mentions of Jesus and his followers by ancient historians that tell us little, there are no sources other than the New Testament. Paul, who never met Jesus prior to his death, wrote around twenty years after Jesus died and says little about his teachings or actions apart from his death. The Gospels were written 40+ years after Jesus' death, and although it is extremely likely they contain words and deeds that come from eyewitnesses to Jesus' ministry, scholars do not agree on which ones definitively go back to Jesus and which ones are the additions of later editors. Scholars, like those in the publicity-seeking Jesus Seminar, claim to have definitive answers about what Jesus "really" said and did, but an examination of their process for making such determinations reveals that they, like all historical Jesus scholars before them, end up with a Jesus who looks pretty much like their own presuppositions.
            Don't get me wrong, I think historical research very much matters for our understanding of the teachings and actions of Jesus. An understanding of first century Judaism helps us understand who the Samaritans were and why Jesus' parable of "The Good Samaritan" would have been scandalous to his hearers. An understanding of the patriarchal culture in the ancient Mediterranean world helps us understand the forgiving father in the parable of "The Prodigal Son" as a powerful example of grace. An understanding of the Roman dominance of first century Palestine helps to explain why Jesus was put to death on a cross. Context matters and shapes our reading of the New Testament, but ultimately historical research cannot tell us objectively or definitively who the person Jesus was. We are left to make up our own minds based on our own biased readings of the New Testament and what biased scholars tell us about the world Jesus lived in.   
            When I went to seminary, I was taught that the writings of the Jesus Seminar revealed the identity of Jesus to an extent never before revealed. My esteem for the Historical Jesus scholars of the 1990's was shattered however, when I went to do doctoral work in New Testament. Then I learned that claims about the historical Jesus in the 1990's were essentially the same ones made in the 1890's and the 1790's-Jesus was a non-miracle working prophet who happened to share the politics of highly educated Caucasian people.
            In the end, I have to admit that who I think Jesus was is in large part dependent upon who I believe Jesus is. My own faith claims and what I choose to believe are my own experiences of God along with my culture, education, politics, family upbringing, etc. determine the claims I make about the person Jesus was. That belief has changed over my lifetime and will certainly change more in the future. (For example, whether or not I believe God intervenes in the natural world and if so how I believe that happens determines whether or not I believe Jesus performed miracles and rose from the dead.) My belief about who Jesus was is informed by what I know of the context in which Jesus lived, but it is also informed by the context that I live in.
            I'm glad to be a minister who has the privilege of serving a church where our beliefs about Jesus do not have to align completely. Instead, we get to share our journeys with one another, including our distinct understandings of who Jesus was and our beliefs about who Jesus is to us now.

Grace and Peace,

Saturday, September 7, 2013

What's the Peace with Justice Answer in Syria?

           It's tempting to tune out all of the discussion regarding whether or not to bomb Syria in response to the Assad regime's brutal use of chemical weapons on its own people. It's a complex situation and as Americans we are used to Presidents launching cruise missiles and drone strikes whenever they feel like it without giving us input into whether or not we should do so. Why not change the channel and go about our lives? Well, one good reason not to do so is because you are a part of CCCUCC which has declared itself a Peace with Justice church. Turning a blind eye to another military intervention in the Middle East is not an option if you say you believe in Peace with Justice.
            The Syria dilemma surely has to do with peace, yet simply saying no to military force is not enough. It leaves aside the issue of justice for the hundreds killed by chemical weapons, the millions made refugees by the Syrian civil war and the hundreds of thousands killed so far in the conflict. This is such a confusing situation that President Obama has found an ally in John Boehner in supporting a military strike, while Sara Palin, Pope Francis, Noam Chomsky, the Southern Baptist Convention, the Family Research Council and the United Church of Christ all oppose the use of military force in Syria. Strange bedfellows indeed! (I seem to recall many of the Evangelical Christians who oppose Obama's plan to bomb Syria supporting Bush's wars back in the day. Have they changed their minds about the morality of war or do they just hate Obama that much?)
          Personally, I like this president and I want to believe that he is different from his predecessors, more deliberative and cautious about the use of military force, but I am cynical enough to believe that anyone in the White House, no matter his or her party, can be seduced by the trappings of power and a misguided confidence in US military power. Even though I agree with many of his political positions such agreement does not mean blind trust, and my devotion to Jesus Christ must come before any and all political beliefs.
          I would love to believe that launching some cruise missiles would somehow equal justice for those killed by the Assad regime's chemical weapons. The victims deserve justice. Yet, the likelihood of the actual perpetrators feeling the blow of a US military strike is low; much more likely is the possibility that innocent civilians will pay with their lives for a US strike adding to the devastating body count in Syria. The Assad regime, like many rogue governments, has entrenched its high value targets in the midst of its civilian population. Killing them, even unintentionally, gives the Assad regime a propaganda tool that changes the conversation from its atrocities to the actions of the US. It inflames anti-US beliefs in the volatile Middle East, and most of all it moves us further away from and not closer to an international condemnation of the Assad regime's brutality.
          We have been down this road before-a US administration declares it has solid intelligence of a foreign government's hostile actions-remember the Gulf of Tonkin or the WMD's of Iraq? How many times must this occur before we learn that "rock solid evidence" may very well not be so definitive? As Americans, we like to think that we fight on the side of morality, but our foreign policy over the last seventy years has been about our perceived self-interest and not about justice. Michael Shank wrote this week in The Washington Post about those in Washington who argue that the world is watching and waiting for the US to act on the side of morality. "They are not expecting America to act nobly now, as they know how that has worked out.  They watched America unseat democratic leaders in Iran, support military autocracies in Egypt for decades, turn a blind eye to religious fundamentalism and gender oppression in Saudi Arabia, create and sponsor a violent mujahideen [sic] movement in Pakistan, and more. If we truly want to lead, and regain the world's respect, correcting our inconsistencies would be a start." Similarly Henry Allen, also in The Washington Post, wrote that our wars fought supposedly on the side of what is moral have largely been disastrous. "Since World War II, says Allen, "we have failed to win any land war that lasted more than a week: Korea (a stalemate), Vietnam, little ones like Lebanon and Somalia, bigger ones like Iraq and Afghanistan....all intended to be good wars, saving people from themselves." Despite what we tell ourselves as a nation, we aren't very good at deciding when to use military force or understanding the unforeseen consequences of such actions. Most of all, we aren't very good at justifying the morality of our use of military force. The same seems true of the situation in Syria now.
          Our decisions about an attack on Syria should be based on more than just a consideration of the weaknesses of American foreign policy and its use of military force; in the end our decisions should be based upon our church's commitment to be a Peace with Justice church as we seek to follow the way of Jesus Christ. Christians who subscribe to "Just War" theory argue military action is permissible when certain conditions are met; not the least of these conditions is that war must be a last resort used only when all other options have been exhausted. In the case of Syria, can we really say that there are no other options besides violent ones? Furthermore, believers in "Just War" theory and outright Christian pacifists all believe that violence should not be used when such use increases rather than decreases the likelihood of further violence and suffering. In the case of Syria which is already in the midst of a humanitarian crisis of casualties and refugees, a military intervention by the US seems unlikely to change the calculus on the ground and very likely to make things worse. Neither the Assad regime nor the Syrian rebels who now include large numbers of Islamist extremists are good options for governing the Syrian people. Furthermore, the possibility that Syria will become a hot war between the Sunni Muslim governments of the Gulf like Saudi Arabia and the Shiite government of Iran and its proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon is terrifying to consider.
          Most of all, if we truly want to be a Peace with Justice church and follow Jesus' declaration that we are to be peacemakers, our opinion about a military strike in Syria must only be a starting point rather than an end point in our thinking about the use of military force in the world. What do the complicated realities of the Syrian civil war reveal about our nation's foreign policy? For decades we have allied ourselves with military dictatorships throughout the world that oppress their own people while giving lip service to human rights. We continue to strike a devil's bargain with nations like Saudi Arabia who promote extremist forms of religious violence, oppress women and do not give their people a say in their own destiny so that we can have cheaper fossil fuels which destroy our environment. We continue to ignore the long-term consequences of short-term alliances with thugs and despots. Our "allies" in one generation morph into our enemies in the next generation. We supported Saddam Hussein's brutal repression of his people because we shared the same enemy in Iran, but a decade later we would begin over 20 years of armed military engagement with Iraq. We supported the Mujahidin against the Soviets in Afghanistan only to later fight the Taliban and Al Qaeda. If we wish to avoid creating today our enemies of tomorrow, it is time that people of faith consider the limitations of violence and commit to a different way that honors the interconnectedness of humanity.
          When CCCUCC made a "Peace with Justice Covenant" in 2007, our church declared the following:

We seek to be faithful to God's call to be peacemakers. We seek to advocate for peace and Justice through our faith, following the example of Christ. We seek to engage all of the world's peace-loving religions to advocate peace and justice for all humanity by:

  • Promoting human interdependence through economic, social, and political justice throughout the world; 

  • Loving and enjoying life in all its diversity;

  • Working for a sustainable earth and proper use of God's earthly gifts;
  • Challenging the values of our age that threaten peace and justice; and,
  • Answering anger and resentment by seeking an equitable distribution of resources.
With God's help, and with the gifts of courage and caring which God has given us, we will answer Jesus' call to work towards becoming a peacemaking community. Through this covenant, we commit to:
  • Train ourselves, through spiritual discipline, in non-violence;
  • Seek knowledge about issues related to peace and justice;
  • Work for a world free of war, mistrust, and hatred;
  • Weave Peace with Justice principles into all aspects of our church life including worship, education, relationships with one another, and joint advocacy;
  • Embark on a journey of Peace with Justice through an extraordinary commitment to advocacy and change
Now is a good time for us to reconsider our commitment to be a Peace with Justice church.

Grace and Peace,

P.S.  Here are some other statements on the proposed military strike on Syria that are worth reading:

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Re-reading Letter From a Birmingham Jail

            Today as I write these words people are gathering on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. to commemorate the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom that took place 50 years ago.  At that event, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.  The words of that speech along with the events of that day have been whitewashed (pun intended) in our collective memory so that we forget the turmoil of that time, the stakes involved in that movement and the sacrifices made to fight virulent racism in our country.  MLK's words did not magically make the United States a better country; less than three weeks later four girls were killed while attending Sunday School when the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed in Birmingham, AL.  I heard one scholar state the civil rights leaders understood that the more victories they achieved the more the white racist mind would be driven to violence in order to stop them.
            Perhaps a way in to remembering the risks taken on by the Civil Rights leaders is found in re-reading King's Letter From a Birmingham Jail.  It was written in April of 1963 four months before the March on Washington after King was arrested for leading a non-violent action in Birmingham.  Before that action, white religious leaders published a letter denouncing the tactics of outsiders provoking violent retaliation in Birmingham and urging Blacks and Whites to negotiate and let the courts work out the issues surrounding segregation.  The religious leaders included a Catholic bishop and auxiliary bishop, a prominent rabbi, two Methodist bishops, an Episcopal bishop, the Presbyterian moderator of Alabama and the pastor of First Baptist Church in Birmingham.  These men were not violent racists but rather men who claimed to not like segregation.  They wished to move slowly in changing the system of repression. 
            This powerful writing became a living document to me rather than a piece of history when I was in graduate school at Emory University.  I was a TA at Candler School of Theology, a Methodist divinity school that is a part of Emory, when one of my African American students pointed out to me some ornate paintings of Methodist bishops that hung on a classroom wall.  I had given them little thought, but he pointed out to me that two of the giant oil paintings were the Methodist bishops King addressed in his Letter From a Birmingham Jail.  One of those bishops was a trustee at Emory until his death, while the other remained an adjunct faculty member until only a few years earlier.  The latter maintained in his autobiography that the letter by King was a "publicity stunt."  The men who had urged the slow change of segregation without ever bearing any of its oppression are not long gone from us.
            In a spiritual sense, the moderate white church has not left us at all but remains a living reality among us giving lip service to social change but refusing to bear the pain of its tardiness or hear the cries of those who suffer from its slow pace.  The comforts of peace and security for myself trump the cries of pain from others in terms of racial justice, immigration reform, fighting poverty, standing against sexism, fighting for LGBT rights and so many other areas.  As I re-read King's jail letter, I am once again reminded of my complicity in insulting calls for moderation by a Christianity that has more often than not lost its soul.  Here are a few excerpts that were painful for me to re-read:

"History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily."

"An unjust law is a code inflicted on a minority which that minority had no part in enacting or creating. . ."

"I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: 'I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action'; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a 'more convenient season.' Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
"Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured."

"We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people."

"I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows."

"In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: "Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern." And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular."

"But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust."

This day, I invite you to re-read King's Letter From a Birmingham Jail and see what strikes you in uncomfortable places. 

Grace and Peace,