Christian Obligation, The Poor, The Government

Not too long ago one of my conservative Christian friends brought up the subject of who is responsible for attending to the needs of the poor.  His take, widely shared by many in our area, is that it is not the responsibility of government but of the Church (and other NGOs?).  After all, he asserted, the bible says nothing about what government should do, and what it does say about our responsibility to the poor is laid at the doorstep of the Church.
He was not impressed with my opening rebuttal about the many things that scripture has to say about government.  I think it was because I didn’t make a connection between his idea of government and what is written about the obligations and sins of society in general and kings in particular.  I thought the connection was obvious, but it wasn’t to him.  After all, what do David or Nebuchadnezzar have to do with democratically elected American presidents, governors and mayors?  What do councils of elders, the Sanhedrin, or Roman authorities have to do with today’s legislatures and courts? 
Perhaps we will have a chance to go over that again, but in the meantime I was puzzled by his laying the obligation to the poor at the doorstep of the Church.  From what I can tell about Jesus’ teaching, that obligation is laid at the foot of every follower of Christ, not at the doorstep of an institution.  Saying that the Church is responsible is just a way to avoid one’s particular obligation as a professed Christian.  That came to mind in an especially powerful way in a recent morning’s prayer and meditation remembering the work of Fr. Damien among the lepers on Molokai.  It was not the Church that took responsibility for that work, but Damien the priest who acted against the better judgment of his superiors. 
To be sure, the Church is a vessel from which followers of Christ emerge into the world to take up their work, but the Church itself, as an institution, has limited abilities to be an agency of support and relief to the poor, sick, and oppressed.  The Church may nurture, train, and send out persons to continue the healing and reconciling work of Christ, but that is not the same thing as being an operating agency engaged in that work.
The romantic ideal of individual Christians lovingly giving of themselves and their treasures to meet the needs of those who are desperately poor, oppressed, systemically disadvantaged by society, and so on is not a myth, it is a corrupting deception that effectively shields selfishness and prejudice.  There are very few Damiens among us.  Disciples continuing Christ’s healing and reconciling work are called upon to do what they can, and what they can do best is organize local resources for action while influencing the public policies of the societies in which they live to turn toward justice.   
As an example, about fifteen years ago a new organization was created in our community to address the needs of the desperately poor.  Called Helpline, it was given birth by committed persons from a number of congregations.  Without those individuals taking up the obligation of doing Christ’s work in the world, it would not have happened.  They had the (sometimes shaky) support of their congregations, but it was their individual effort brought together in collective action that made Helpline a success as an agency that helps the desperate poor successfully access social services that will help them avoid homelessness, recover wholeness of life, and become more productive members of society than they had been.  The social services themselves are, for the most part, functions of or largely supported by government, which is not an alien agency forced upon the people, but the agency of the people.
It is that idea of individual efforts brought together in collective action that brings me to my next point.  The cult of extreme individualism fails to recognize that the communities we live in are a function of individuals gathered for collective action for the good of society, or community if you prefer.  Government is not an foreign overlord imposed on us from above, but our own invention of how best to create and sustain community.  It is individual effort brought together in collective action for the good of society.  One form of that action is to require, if nothing else, that individuals pay their fair share of creating and sustaining community, which we accomplish through taxation.  We make collective decisions about what those taxes should be used for, and, at least for the last seventy years, we have decided that a significant portion of them should be used to mediate problems of poverty, hunger and health.
It’s an imperfect system of elements cobbled together by elected representatives who find it difficult to cooperate with each other and are often unduly influenced by narrowly focussed “special” interests.  It may be ugly, but it’s not the enemy.  We Christians are called to help make it better, not destroy it.

Moral Evil

The tragic events in Boston and West, Texas, with Newtown so recent in our lives force us to confront the question of evil, to which there is no easy answer.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t have a useful conversation about it.  Let me suggest that in general terms we can talk about two types of evil: natural and moral, and maybe that’s the place to start so that we can have a place to begin our conversation.
Natural evils are the destructive events that come upon us through the force of nature.  Hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, and the like are examples of natural evil, and they are evil in the sense that they cause destruction of property, and death and injury to people.  They are not moral evils because no human agency called them into being, they are the ordinary and necessary products of a living earth hurtling through a living universe.  We have the misfortune of getting in their way and suffering because of it.  We made decisions to live and build in places where natural events like these are common, and we take our chances because of it.  At the same time, natural events that are destructive of our lives and property can occur in any place and at any time, so no matter where we are, we are always going to be confronted by nature’s power, and we need to be respectful of it.  
Moral evils, on the other hand, are the destructive events that come upon us through human agency, and it gets complicated.  We usually think of a moral decision as one that is good and proper by the standards of the society in which we live, but in this sense, a moral decision means any decision that intends to do good or bad, regardless of the reason.  The slaughter of children at Newtown was the insane act of a troubled man who intended to kill and cause grief that cannot be healed.  It was a moral evil brought upon us by the intentional act of a person, whatever the condition of his mind.  We do not know the motives of the Boston bomber(s).  Whatever they were, they were intentional.  He, she or they intended to cause destruction, injury, death and panic.  It was a moral decision, and that makes it a moral evil.  
Both are outrageous examples of moral evil, and we are united in finding them repulsive beyond words that can describe our feelings.  Sadly, we are not ourselves totally innocent when it comes to moral evil.  Our grudges, anger, fear, impatience, selfishness, and prejudices often seduce us into acts of moral evil.  They are the ordinary sins of daily life, if you will, that lead us to confess that we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves, and often we have not loved ourselves very much either.  Sometimes we cause real physical injury to others, but more often we cause emotional and spiritual injury, small or great, by our hurtful words and deeds.  
That brings us to the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas.  It’s a real event of great human carnage and property damage that is also symbolic of other disasters like it that occur far too often.  What happened?  It was not a natural evil, but would it be fair to call it a moral evil?  Maybe it was just an accident.  We build things, and everything we build is imperfect.  We run imperfect things with imperfect knowledge, skills and abilities.  Our goal is to do the best we can with what we have.  That doesn’t always work.
I recall a recent local factory fire caused by a worker who skipped a few safety checks when mixing chemicals.  He didn’t intend to cause a fire.  He may not have known about the importance of the safety checks, or what would happen if he skipped them.  Yet property damage occurred.  A few years ago I threw up a ladder to scramble into a garage attic.  I didn’t bother to check if it was well anchored, and the trip down was unpleasant.  It wasn’t just the excruciating pain.  It also costs thousands in ambulance, hospital and doctor bills while disrupting my ability to do the work of pastor and rector.  I didn’t intend all of that to happen, but it did anyway caused by my impatience and tendency to do things in the order of ready, fire, aim.
Neither of these incidences can be labeled a moral evil, but moral decisions were a part of them, and real destruction and injury were the result.  Moreover, they are the kinds of decisions we all make every day.
At the same time, as in recent incidents involving coal mines and cruise ships for example, there are events that are the result of decisions motivated by selfishness, greed, and egotistical pride showing callous disregard for the well being of others, particularly others with little ability to protect themselves.  One might claim that there was no intent to cause harm, but the lack of intent in the face utter disregard for the lives and property of others adds up to moral evil.     
The question of evil is not an easy one.  It gets tangled up and very messy.  But perhaps this can be a framework for a conversation to begin.
I hope so.

The Second Amendment Argument

I often write in reference to my conservative friends.  For the most part they are more like acquaintances with whom I work or have a pastoral relationship, so it can be a little tricky, as you well know.  You can imagine the issues: homosexuality, authority of scripture, climate change, environmental protection, taxes, and so on.  It’s the usual market basket of goods.
Of late it has become the Second Amendment.  Apart from the familiar claim in its many forms about good guys with guns protecting us from bad guys with guns, the Second Amendment argument asserts that: A) it establishes a well defined and unlimited right for individuals to bear arms; and B) any restriction on the Second Amendment will trigger a cascade of falling dominoes that will diminish or eliminate the rights established by the other nine amendments in the Bill of Rights.  It’s been played out on Facebook in any number of recent posts, most of them with such hostility that I wonder about itchy fingers on hair triggers just waiting for a chance to shoot someone, preferably someone like me who favors gun control legislation.
We all know the language of the Second Amendment, but just in case it’s slipped your mind, here is how it reads: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”  Now that seems fairly straight forward doesn’t it?  Except that one might ask if the predicate of the need for a well regulated Militia might modify what it means to infringe.  One might also ask if limiting or restricting certain kinds of weapons while allowing others constitutes infringement.  Even die hard gun rights advocates draw some limits: shoulder fired missiles, mortars, live hand grenades, and the like for instance.  So maybe the word “infringe” does not establish an unlimited right. I certainly don’t think it does.
That brings us to the second part of the argument.  Most of my more conservative friends, I’m sorry to say, have never read the Constitution, don’t know very much about the other nine amendments in the Bill of Rights, and are generally unaware of the seventeen amendments that follow them.  If they did, they would know that none of them establishes an unlimited right.  Freedom of speech, for instance, is limited by restrictions on libel and speech that jeopardizes public safety.  The right to peaceably assemble and petition the government is limited by requirements for parade permits, registration as lobbyists, and, again, issues related to public safety.  Unreasonable search and seizure has been the subject of many court decisions that both allow and place restrictions on what that means.  And so it goes for each of the first ten amendments.  
The Constitution is a living document, and there is no such thing as original intent that has the authority lock its meaning into the mindset of a handful of 18th century men.  The Constitution means what the Supreme Court says it means, and through the years that court has said it means many things, even reversing itself after due consideration and the changing conditions of American society.
Now I know that you, my faithful readers, are intimately familiar with the whole Constitution and especially the Bill of Rights, but I am not.  I always have to be reminded because it’s not something I think about every day.  So just in case you also need to be reminded, here is a copy of the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments.
Amendment [I]
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Amendment [II]
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
Amendment [III]
No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.
Amendment [IV]
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
Amendment [V]
No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.
Amendment [VI]
In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.
Amendment [VII]
In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.
Amendment [VIII]
Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.
Amendment [IX]
The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
Amendment [X]
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

CREDO? Not Sure.

In a few weeks I will attend a CREDO conference for retired clergy.  CREDO is a program of the Episcopal Church funded, I think, by the Church Pension Fund, that provides a one week, all expense paid program of renewal for clergy in mid career.  Renewal is broadly defined improved well being within the dimensions of the spiritual, emotional, physical and financial.  A few years ago a new version was added for retired clergy with the intention of adapting the program to issues especially important to retirement and aging. 
I’ve heard many good things about CREDO from those who have gone.  Everyone I have talked with has said it was well worth the time and effort involved, and they highly recommended it.  I had often signed up for it in the several years before retirement only to be told the session was sold out and I should try again later.  Now, in the sixth year of retirement, I am going, and I find I have some apprehension about that. 
The orientation packet arrived a while back.  It required detailed information about my health, including an online Mayo Clinic evaluation.  It also asked for, but did not require, detailed information about my financial condition and plans for the future, a timeline of important developments in my life, and so on.  It seems to me that their operating assumption is that, as a retired clergy person, I am probably in questionable physical condition, emotionally and spiritually exhausted, have poor eating habits, and am ill prepared for the financial burdens of retirement, all of this without a clear understanding of my vocation as a priest in retirement.  Give CREDO a week and they will get me back on the right track, all fixed up and ready to hit the road until my next 5,000 mile check up and oil change.  I wonder if I’ll get new wiper blades to improve my vision. 
Does it really have to take an entire week away to do that?  I’m not too keen on any conference that lasts over three days.  We travel a fair amount as it is, so a cross country flight, even one paid by someone else, is more of an endurance test than a treat.  I’m a fairly private person so find much of this to be a little too invasive.  As you might guess, on the good old Myers-Briggs, I score fairly high on the introversion scale, with a composite profile of INTJ, so find this forced intimacy a bit threatening.  After all, I grew up in Lake Wobegon.  I’ll share my most intimate self with you after I’ve known you a decade or two.  Moreover, I’m relatively confident that I’m in decent shape in most of their categories.  I don’t believe I need to be fixed.  Is that true or just arrogance?  So, I’m working hard on having a more open, less skeptical, mind about this upcoming event, with the intention of learning some new things during a week that will be refreshing.  We shall see.

Grace upon Grace at Grace

We had a glorious Easter service at Grace Church.  Some of the regulars were missing, mostly due to ill health.  But we also had a family of three visiting from another near by community.  The music was very special thanks to friend Ed Dixon, principal cellist for the Walla Walla symphony, who drove up to adorn our worship.  I’m not sure what it is about a cello, but I can’t imagine a better instrument for a small rural church.  Its rich tones didn’t fill the space, they enfolded it in a warm embrace.  We sang lustily and mostly on key.  Anyway, there were twenty-one of us there.
The sermon was OK.  I don’t think I realized until this Easter Sunday just how much I do not like preaching from a prepared text.  For some reason I decided that certain ideas voiced in certain words had to be written out for this service.  The rough ideas laid out in a previous post on this blog were smoothed out and woven together, thanks in part to a nice long clearing of the head conversation with another friend, Tom Davis, who teaches philosophy at Whitman, and with whom I share many cups of coffee while laughing at the absurdities of life in general and our lives in particular.  
This Sunday, with Thomas and his doubts again before us, I shall return to my preferred way of preaching, which is certainly well prepared and much prayed over, but without text or notes.  I have in mind comparing two seemingly unrelated sets of things: the Big Bang and the Resurrection as one, and the progressive revelation of God by God from Abraham to Jesus and the progressive revelation of God by God from the resurrection to 70 c.e. as the other.
If you want to see how that gets worked out, we meet at 9 a.m. at Grace Episcopal Church in Dayton, Washington.  It’s the tiny grey church with the red door on Third a couple of blocks south of Main.  Afterwards, we’ll have coffee hour at the bakery, which is really The Country Cupboard, at least I think that’s its proper name because everyone just calls it the bakery.  There won’t be any cello to accompany us, but Tom Herron might bring his pitch pipe to get us started on the right note, more or less.