Christianity, Patriotism and Fear

I guess I should not be surprised when I see e-mails such as the one you can read below.  They come often enough.  In fact I’m not really surprised anymore, but I am always disturbed.  

Diatribes about not being able to pray in school fly in the face of all the active Christian student clubs and organizations thriving along side similar organizations representing other religions.  What is not permitted under the Constitution is for the state to endorse and promote a particular religion as it commonly did when I was in grade school.  There were mandatory prayers each morning, often followed by a reading from scripture.  It was all very generic Protestantism and ignored the presence of Christians from other traditions, Jews and non-believers.  In reality there could have been no greater flaunting of the Constitution than that. Besides, it was all just mindless babble and no one ever paid any attention.

Likewise the Ten Commandments.  All this outcry about removing them from court houses and city halls where sometimes there were plaques with the Roman numerals I through X, or possibly a foreshortened version of the text itself.  No one ever read them and they did not guide anyone.  The Ten Commandments need to be etched in the hearts and minds of each Christian and taught in every church.  That’s where they belong.  That’s when Christians might actually start living as though they loved God with all their being and were willing to live with holy integrity with all their neighbors without prejudice or partiality.

Throughout much of American history there was a sort of innocuous civil religion loosely connected to Protestantism.  It was simply assumed that one was Protestant, Catholic or Jewish, with Catholics and Jews as minorities to be constantly held in check and always suspect.  Myths about the Christian origins of America filtered out the influences of Deism, Unitarianism, and Utilitarianism that were instrumental in forming the structure of our nation.  Of course Christianity was a vital and driving force as well, but it was not united in its efforts.  Congregational New England, Anglican South, Lutheran, Quaker and Baptist middle colonies had a hard time getting along, and more than a few had “state religions” that required membership in the state church in order to be a citizen.  The first and second “Great Awakenings” energized a whole new population of Evangelical denominations that divided and subdivided like out of control amoebae.  Each made its own claim on some aspect of Godly truth that fenced them in and ruled out everyone else.

Fear mongering was rife.  Blacks, Italians, Irish, Jews, Chinese, Japanese and American Indians were in turn and together banned, burned, jailed, hung, driven out, and oppressed in every way, all in the name of preserving a White, Protestant, Northern European America.  The fires were lit by hysterical cries that civilization as we know it, meaning our own rights and privileges, would be destroyed if we let these people get their way. 

Our nation is changing again. We may not like it but Spanish has become, and will remain, an important second language in America.  Islam is, in fact, one of the fastest growing religions in America.  Not radical, fundamentalist Islam but just plain ordinary every day vanilla Islam.  

Right now the radical fundamentalists carrying the hottest branding irons and threatening the worst violence against our cherished American traditions and the Constitution are not Muslims, but a particular segment of far right-wing fundamentalist Evangelicals, and they do it with the self-righteousness of someone who honestly believes that they are protecting the very thing they are destroying.  Moreover, they regularly conflate militaristic patriotism and their own brand of Christianity with such pugilistic fervor that it can be downright dangerous to argue about it.

It’s time for the mindless hysteria to stop, and for Christians to return to doing what they are commanded by God in Christ to do.  Love God with all their hearts, minds and souls.  Love their neighbors as themselves.  See that the hungry are fed, the homeless housed, the naked clothed and the sick made well.  Proclaim with boldness the love of God in Christ Jesus that is the light of the world. 

Now and then I’ve taught some bible and church history classes that included these matters, and I’ve noticed that there has always been a small group unwilling to give up their hardened and fear driven beliefs.  They either ignore the witness of history and scripture, or challenge its truthfulness, preferring their own well secured myths instead.  I’ve often wondered.  It seems to me a very brittle sort of Christian faith.  Not very strong.  Not very trusting in God’s eternal Lordship.  It seems the sort of brittle faith that if one thing breaks the whole thing will collapse like a poorly built shack.  I think they kind of know that deep down and are scared to death that it might happen at any moment.  How very sad.  

Now, here is the e-mail that set me off.

On Oct 29, 2008, at 4:33 PM, JMurray wrote:


I was very dismayed when, recently, a member of my Church said to me with great resignation that she was afraid Obama will take the presidency.  These  words came from someone that in the past has been a great prayer warrior.
What is happening was my question!!  Why are we Christians settling for the loss of our Christian heritage, not issuing a battle cry and falling to our knees and taking our country back?   

We allow ourselves to be stripped of the right to pray at school functions and in school, we have the Ten Commandments removed from government places and are told we cannot pray publicly or proclaim Christian principles, all the while providing public prayer places for Muslims.  We allow Muslim mosques to operate in America funded by Saudi Arabia, and proclaim anti-American, anti-Christian threats and terrorism.

What in the world is going on and why are we being so apathetic?  Why aren’t we praying?  Our God is an Almighty God who is waiting patiently for us to raise our voices to heaven to stop the tide of the anti-Christian actions in our world today.    
There has never been a time in 2000 years that we can do nothing, never a time that we must sit back and allow the evil in men’s and women’s hearts to take over our world!   We should be afraid, very afraid because our apathy is  leading us to perdition.  It is time for all Christian Americans to raise the battle cry and take our nation back!

Maybe McCain on his own cannot defeat Obama, but our God can and He will if we take to our knees in prayer and raise a mighty cry to the heavens.  We have the power to change the course of this election and to keep a man as suspect as Barack Obama from leading our country to who knows where with his message of ‘change’; a change which I fear will be away from our Christian ideals, and  away from Christ, and further away from one nation under God to one nation under Allah. 
We can bring our country back to its Christian roots and stop the undermining of our country by Muslims.  We can stop our country from being ‘under Allah’ but we must begin to pray; to pray as our country and our lives depended on it because they do.  We can stop all these atrocities against God’s commandments that have taken root in our country through something as simple as sincere prayer, a call to God to deliver us, to protect us from the evil that is upon us.

OK, prayer warriors, here is your challenge… Start those prayer chains.  Get the spiritual power working on our behalf and stop Barack Obama the proper way, by calling on our God to save us from the deception that charismatic preaching is using to lead us on the wrong path.  Stop those who would take God out of our country and our government.   Raise up good men to lead us and protect us.  But we should not rest on our laurels and allow ourselves to be taken further off the path of Christianity and to have God removed from our presence in our schools, courts, government and businesses. 

Invite God into the fray.  Ask that His power rest upon us and give us the victory.  Ask him to raise up a mighty army to defend us and to protect our country as he did in days of old.  Let us be victorious beginning NOW.  The battle is His but we must call on Him without ceasing and unite our voices and hearts in prayer and fasting.
Please pass this around to all people of prayer that you know and maybe, just maybe, we’ll bring a victory for us and ultimately for Him.   Once again live in a country that wants to bring Glory to God!   AMEN

Geographic Humor

It’s always risky when humor comes at someone else’s expense.  Yet it happens that way a lot.  Our valley is known for producing super premium wines, and last July I arranged for some to be shipped to friends and family in Hawaii.  The winery said they would not be sending anything until the weather cooled to become more favorable for wine shipments. Fair enough; it gets very hot around here in August and even September.  No one wants their finest wine sitting out in blazing heat on the airport tarmac.  October, they said, would be the shipping month.  Here it is the end of October and still no shipments, so I called the winery.  They were still waiting for the cooler weather, they said. They had been checking every day on Honolulu weather and there was still no sign of cooling at that end.  They would have to wait.  Think about that for a minute.  You have to admit there is something pretty funny about waiting around for the cool fall weather in Hawaii.

Geographic ignorance about our own country is a constant source of sad amusement.  People who are anchored in a particular region can get some pretty weird ideas about what lies beyond, despite whatever they were supposed to have learned in grade school.  Now and then a local from around here will announce their big trip “back east” meaning Nebraska or South Dakota.  Life long Northeasterners wonder if the ‘O’ states (Oklahoma, Ohio, Oregon) are all pretty much near each other out there somewhere.  When we moved from NYC to Walla Walla, Washington some of our friends asked if that is a neighborhood near the White House.  And so it goes.

Reality and Candidates

As we come to the final days of this overly long campaign, it would be well to remind ourselves of some basic political reality in order to temper the many candidate promises that have filled our days.  And to also temper some of the naïve silliness that has been expressed in too many letters to the editor.  However much the current administration has tried to make it not so, there is relatively little the president can do to change policy initiatives into law.  Congress, however weakened these last eight years, still has to act.  McCain can promise retention of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, but he can’t do it without congressional approval.  Obama can promise tax cuts for the middle class, but he can’t produce them without congressional approval.  Congress only acts when it can generate a sizeable majority vote on an issue, and that always means negotiation and compromise with a final product quite a bit different than the original proposal.  Democrats control the current congress in name only.  With a bare majority they get to claim the leadership positions but the Republicans, with a bare minority, are able to block anything but the most innocuous legislation.  Unless one party or the other wins a substantial number of seats, the deadlock will probably continue.  Whatever the outcome of the election, there is one more point to consider.  Members of congress, Republican and Democrat alike, are fed up with the so-called imperial presidency that has all but ignored the legislative process and desecrated newly passed laws with egregious signing statments.  Members of the next congress will begin to reassert their constitutional rights as a check and balance against overly strong executive authority.  That, in itself, will require the next president to come to the table as one willing to negotiate.

Stewardship. It’s about money, isn’t it?

Not long ago I conducted short workshop on stewardship at our diocesan convention.  Preparing for it was something of a struggle, and in the end I tossed out all the ‘how to’ stuff to go in another direction altogether.  It seems that no matter how clever and well designed all the stewardship courses and materials are, they end up being just another set of sales and marketing gimmicks that collect dust on the bookshelf.  Then there are those who say they are tired of stewardship talk that is limited to fund raising and want to explore the broader sense of time, money and talent, which usually turns out to be a way of artfully avoiding the subject altogether. 

We started by me saying that the workshop would be concerned about raising the money needed to support the life of the congregation in the work God has given it to do, and it would not be about other things.  The second thing I said was that I had nothing to offer in terms of ‘how to’ and don’t believe that any off the shelf set of materials is worth much, so together we were going to have to invent this thing from the ground up.  Finally I offered a theological foundation based on that Sunday’s readings (Matt. 22.15-22, 1 Thess. 1.1-10, Isa 13.1-7).

Caesar, like Cyrus, can be an unwitting agent of God’s work because, in the end, God is God and Caesar isn’t.  But if we are to, in the name of God, render the coin to Caesar, with what currency do we render more directly to God?  Paul suggests that it is with works of faith, labors of love and steadfastness of hope.  To be sure, some of the works and labors can be accomplished with our own hearts, minds and hands, but much more can be leveraged through our gifts of money that enable a multitude of other hearts, minds and hands to multiply our efforts.  The community can do much more acting together than can be accomplished individually.  The freedom to do that with steadfastness of hope requires that we recognize that we are not the owners but the stewards of all that has been given into our hands, and that we must be accountable to God for that.  At least that’s the short version.

With that in mind I asked the group to talk about what needs to be done in their congregations to make all of that real.  Without much prodding the ideas gushed forth.

Stewardship has to be year around, we can no longer be satisfied with a brief hard-sell stewardship season leading up to the parish budget.  Stewardship has to be a way of life, integral to what it means to be a Christian.  Effective stewardship education is different for different age groups and situations in life.  It has to start in Sunday School with effective age appropriate teaching about what it means to be God’s steward.  It requires parental support, and in today’s world that probably means that we need to teach young parents about what effective parenting is all about.  Many families are really struggling, so it also means providing help with financial management and planning.  Middle age and older persons may benefit from a deeper theological examination of stewardship as well as unbiased estate planning help.  None of that can ever lose sight of the primary purpose of doing works of faith and labors of love in the name of Jesus Christ, because if that is lost all is lost.

The enthusiasm was high, the ideas overflowing, and I will be interested to see if any of it actually gets translated into action over the next year.  In any case, what they came up with was theirs.  They created it, they own it, and it wasn’t some prepackaged program that would probably work if anyone believed in it but no one does. 

Bulgarian Friendship

We have become the “friendship family” for a freshman from Bulgaria as a part of a program at one of our local colleges.  We took a little road trip with him this weekend up the Columbia River to Wenatchee, Washington.  Do you know how exciting it is to look with fresh eyes at wheat fields, desert scrub lands, orchards, rivers, vineyards, mountains and dams?  Listening to a well educated but teenage take on Europe, Bulgaria and America illuminates a whole new way of seeing the world.  And that world is getting closer by the day.  It turned out that one of his high school teachers from his international school in Sofia now lives in Wenatchee, so it turned out to be something of a reunion for them as well.  How about that?

A Wee Bit More on Poverty

My presentation last week on the faith community and poverty was only part of a larger event.  Another workshop devoted itself mostly to practical activities that churches are doing or could be doing to help alleviate immediate needs and the conditions of poverty in our community.  It can be a lot.  Local hospitals, food pantries, emergency social services, housing and clinics are all the product of local Christian outreach and mission.  On the other hand, the conditions that nourish poverty and starve opportunity are still present in abundance. 

If the various congregations in the community were of a mind, they could bring tremendous pressure and resources to bear on poverty, but they are not of a mind.  Congregations cannot come to agreement within themselves as to what should be done, and there is division and competition between congregations and denominations.

For that reason, my workshop was devoted to the theological foundation for what we are called by God to do.  My own favored path leads from Leviticus through First Isaiah and Amos to the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew.  The question then is not what we can or should do that frankly is no different than what any semi-organized group with some intentionality can or should do.  The question becomes what work has God commanded us to be engaged in for the current and continued welfare of humanity.  Taken seriously, it can block us from using personal political or social attitudes and beliefs as excuses.  Taken seriously, it removes specious economic arguments from the table.  Taken seriously, it means that we are to be engaged in the work God has given us to do because God has given it, and for no other reason.  We are to be the agents of God’s love to one another and to all because we are followers of Jesus.

That, of course, assumes that we take it seriously as the most important work we have, and that is not something we are very good at doing.  We get it right part of the time, and when we do it’s something wonderful to behold.  But most of the time life gets in the way.  My job, my family, my own immediate needs and wants, and the circle of my friends and acquaintances consume all my time and mental and emotional energy.  That’s neither an excuse nor an accusation; it’s just the way it is.  And so we muddle through.  Maybe that’s why Jesus said the poor would always be with us. 

The Corruption of Complacency

I’ve noticed that my blog is one among many in the CC network that has drifted from theology to politics for, as they say, a season.  I wonder why that is?  Do you suppose it has something to do with God’s urgent concern for economic justice and equity in organized societies?  Consider, for instance, a brief news item from this morning.

Goldman Sachs will cut about 3,260 jobs. Goldman’s work force, which was at record high levels at the end of the third quarter, will be pared back close to 2006 and 2007 levels. No additional cuts are planned, the person said.

Among those to be cut are likely to be a number of employees working hard for reasonable wages and decent benefits as they make ends meet for a modestly comfortable life.  Some of them may have to take the subway or train for an hour or more to get to the station from which they walk to work.  Some may live in conditions that are modestly comfortable for them but would seem intolerable to us.  Some may be overextended middle class families desperately hoping for a raise or bonus next year in order to keep the bill collector away.  Well, that’s life. Sometimes it’s tough.  The point is that grotesquely over-paid top executives who have squandered the hard work of all those people will never have to pay the price that they have to pay.  Instead, they will be granted enormous separation packages as a reward for their incompetence.  That is what is so infuriating to many of us, and so blatantly unjust in the eyes of God.

But there is more.  A lot of the blame must be ours.  We have become complacent in too many ways, and complacency is a corruption hard to overcome.  Our complacency has made us comfortable with patterns of economic injustice.  Our complacency has made us comfortable with our own profligate use of credit and sense of entitlement to things we don’t really need.  Our unexamined wants have been satisfied on mere whims and the promise of low monthly payments.  Our complacency has kept voter turnout low, and many votes cast on issues we have not bothered to understand or for lousy candidates just because they were from “our” party.  Even today’s outrage is a complacent one as we look around to point the finger of blame at someone else but never look at our own individual and collective behavior.  What’s more, we don’t want to hear any of that any more than the people of Jeremiah’s day wanted to hear him.

A Brief Note on Socialism. This ought to get me into some trouble.

There has been a lot of talk lately about Socialists, Socialism and whether the U.S. is becoming a Socialist country.  It seems like whatever Socialism is, it is something that everyone understands, or pretends to, without ever actually defining it.  Mostly it seems to revolve around the fear that the government is going to control the private sector too much, including the private lives of citizens.  Free market capitalism is the right answer to our problems and the sure path to well being.  Isn’t that right?

Whatever form of capitalism we have had, it has never been free and it has always been in transition.  Consider that the modern public corporation is hardly over a hundred years old.  From the colonial period through the Civil War corporations were businesses chartered by governments, state governments for the most part, to achieve a specific public good with private investors putting up the money, taking the risks, and reaping the rewards, if any.  The birth of the modern public corporation, broadly owned by many shareholders and in business for its own private purposes, did not come over night but evolved over a long time right into the 20th century.

These, and other businesses such as sole proprietorships, partnerships and limited liability corporations, have never really been free to do whatever they want.  Laws and regulations have always given them a range of opportunities, limitations and protections.  In other words, something of a government crafted system has arisen that establishes the framework within which private enterprise can work, and for most of our lifetimes that framework has been systematically manipulated to create what can only be called Corporate Socialism.  

It has become a framework that leaves ordinary citizens, even business owners, as mere pawns.  Certainly we Americans have a tremendous amount of freedom, and we treasure that, but it’s also true that some of that freedom is illusory.  A good example is the health care system.  Some would have you believe that a national single payer system of health care would “put the government in control of your lives” removing individual choice, creating huge bureaucracies of uncaring clerks, and giving up the many advantages of competition.  I’m not sold on a single payer system either, but what makes anyone think we have control or choice now?  Huge bureaucracies of uncaring clerks already control our health care destinies, and competition is not about providing the best care at the lowest price, but about out foxing the other company to produce the highest yield for corporate salaries and the annual report to investors. 

Some have accused me of being a left wing, pinko, liberal but I think of myself as a classical conservative.  I hope that the next president and congress will move to turn corporate and other business regulation to focus more on the public good, and that they will be courageous enough to recognize what it is that government can and should be doing because it can do it better than the private sector.  I recognize that the likelihood of that is minimal, but it’s worth a shot.

It’s Your Fault I’m Not A Better Christian

This morning I led a one hour breakout session on the faith community and poverty.  It was a part of a larger all day forum held at one of our local colleges on the needs of children, especially those in poverty.  It was a lively session with lots of great ideas, but I got the distinct impression from the 15 or so who were present that they held their clergy responsible for not having made the church or themselves more responsive to Jesus’ teachings or more spiritual in their own daily lives.  Almost all of them were members of a Christian tradition of one kind or another and active in their own congregations.  Moreover, they were mostly professionals in early childhood education or social service intervention.  Yet they appeared to think of the church and its role as being the responsibility of ‘them’ rather than seeing themselves as a part of the ‘us’ who are the church.  Amazing!  How did we end up with such a disconnect, or has it always been that way?

Absentee Voting in Florida Redux

Home now and going through the mail I found another piece from the Florida Republican Party.  It’s addressed to my deceased mother who is buried in Florida and has been for several years.  Nevertheless, they ask her to fill out a simple form attesting to her temporary residence in Washington State, a place she has never been, even in life.  No verification of any kind is required, and just in case they sent two cards.  One shows the address of her former home in Florida, but the other is blank, allowing her to report her new permanent Florida address.  I wonder what would happen if I sent it back in with the address of the church memorial garden where her ashes lie next to dad’s?