It got me thinking about our region, and how it tends to be conservative on most issues, with a flourishing band of tea party types who, in many ways, are a lot like the several hyper liberal faculty members at the college. They both love to wallow in their indignation. It’s their drug of choice. They both easily take offense at anything that challenges their world view. They both distrust authority, but behave with authoritarian zeal. They over simplify every issue, and are fully confident that their view is correct and true regardless of any evidence to the contrary. The main difference is that the tea partiers quote O’Reilly and Hannity while the academics quote Heidegger (Oops! Not him. He was a bad white guy). Let’s start over: Dubois and Malcolm X (Although that doesn’t work very well either when you think about it.) Oh well, I’m sure they quote somebody.
There is a lot of discomfort over the slow pace of economic recovery, which, nevertheless, has been the longest, steadiest recovery in our history. Several years ago, as it was just getting underway, I wrote a short piece on my hope that it would be a slow paced one. It seemed to me that we needed to position the economy to better resist the cycles of boom and bust that have often characterized its performance. A slow recovery, I thought, might help because it would give time for entrepreneurs, investors, and corporations to investigate long term opportunities rather than jumping on the next bubble, hoping to bail out before it burst.
I also hoped that a slow recovery would help Americans begin to recognize that, in an interdependent global economy, we don’t have to be Number One in everything, we don’t have to be the Greatest Nation on Earth, and we don’t have to pretend that we control the ebb and flow of global trade. We can just get on with the business of being Americans doing the best we can at what we are best at doing, doing well at what we are good at doing, and not obsessing about what we are not good at doing, even if we once were.
Finally, I hoped that the informed public would recognize that a 2 to 3% annual growth rate was a good and sustainable one for a mature economy, and that a return to GDP growth rates above 5% is unlikely.
Not everything has worked the way I had hoped. It’s hard to tell what the informed public thinks about our economy because I’m not sure we have an informed public of any size worth mentioning. Most of the small segment of the public I get to talk with seems to think the glory days of some indeterminate prior decade should be the norm. Otherwise intelligent friends join the chorus calling for the return of manufacturing jobs without any clear idea of what that actually means. Others seem to be anxious about other countries outperforming the U.S. in this arena or that in the same way they get anxious about the Broncos outperforming the Seahawks.
When “We’re Number One”, “Make America Great Again”, and “America First” become the rallying cries of the body politic, we sound like spoiled children stomping our feet, demanding attention amidst a global community that is getting very tired of such boorish behavior. There is serious business to attend to, and such nationalistic childishness not only gets in the way, it diminishes our ability to be taken seriously in negotiations with others.
I read the Sorkin article in the New York Times Magazine about his interview with President Obama and his economic legacy. In it, the president admitted to having wanted a faster recovery, which many of us believe could have happened had not the Republican led congress made it clear that nothing the administration proposed would see the light of day, nor would they negotiate in good faith on any issue. It may not have been all bad. Congressional bullheaded intransigence may have made it more clear to at least some leaders how much we need to invest in infrastructure, education and the like; how the ACA does not need to be repealed but improved; and that taxes, more fairly levied, are not a burden but our collective investment in the future of the nation.
So here’s to slow recoveries in the hope that they will be long indeed. And here’s to honest assessments of our needs and assets in place of adolescent political bloviating.
Every once in a while the lessons we Episcopalians use for Morning Prayer tempt me into a comment or two, and so it was this morning. We are in Leviticus, that most conflicted of books. This morning’s passage from the 19th chapter warned the people not to practice augury, get tattoos, or trim beards, and among other things, to treat resident aliens as if they were citizens. By whose authority? Thus says the LORD your God. You can’t argue with that authority. There is none higher.
As it happens, several of my Facebook friends who are of a more fundamentalist persuasion have been on their soap boxes about the imminent end of time in the firm belief that the signs of the times assure that it is so because God’s word is truth and the bible is God’s word which is to be believed in all things about all things. I know that’s a bit convoluted, but there it is. Which brings me back to this morning’s readings. Other than digging post holes, augury has to do with trying to read signs of things to come out of current conditions and events. It’s exactly what my Facebook friends are doing, and doing poorly because they haven’t paid much attention to history, and they are doing it in deliberate disobedience to God’s very precise instructions that are, according to them, to be believed as irrevocable truth.
To top it off, with their occasional tattoos and neatly trimmed hair, they are among those most eager and anxious to deny resident aliens any support or encouragement whatsoever. The Mexicans are bad enough, but to think that we might let in Muslim refugees, each one a likely terrorist, is a frightening prospect, a danger to all things American, and a threat to Christianity.
I thought about these things as I read and reflected on the readings this morning. Part of me was tempted toward a theologically smart aleck comment on their Facebook postings, but it would be rude and unhelpful. I know some of these people on a more personal level, and I know that they desire to be faithful Christians and good citizens. They are, for the most part, unaware of the contradictions they live with in their relationship with scripture. They have been taught a certain set of ‘truths’ from which any deviation would jeopardize their salvation ticket. They have been led to view the world as an evil place in which Christians are surrounded by enemies, both spiritual and material, aliens among them. Yet, they lead more or less contented lives, relatively happy in the company of others who enjoy doing the things that they enjoy. They deal with the cognitive dissonance by ignoring it, dislike it when I point it out, and are suspicious that I don’t play by the rules they are sure define what is right and true. In fact, they are inclined to wonder whether I may have been seduced by the dark side. Being an Episcopalian is half the evidence they need to prove it.
Rather than trying to change them, let’s change the subject. What shall we do with Leviticus, and the other books of the law? Perhaps the first thing is to stop picking and choosing passages to stuff down each other’s craw. That has all the class of a middle school food fight. As for me, I like the book. I cannot imagine a better way to organize a loose collection of tribes that claim a common ancestor, and have a vague idea about what might be an appropriate religion for an invisible God who is unlike all the other gods around them. With the publication of the final version after the Babylonian exile, the ground was set to “get it right this time.” I’m impressed. It got the people of Israel through centuries of existence under the thumbs of, and in competition with, other nations and other gods.
When I read Leviticus I do pick and choose. I look for those parts that I believe are consistent with what Jesus said and did. For me they are the treasures worth preserving as guidelines for current practice. The rest? They are like museum pieces to be honored and studied for what they might teach us, but not incorporated into the Way of following Christ.
Covenants and covenanting with each other seem to be almost as popular as mindfulness, and it bothers me. Taking my lead from Krister Stendahl, I shared a few thoughts about covenants with some of my clergy colleagues, and argued that a covenant is not an agreement negotiated between parties that is supposed to bind their relationship in some way. Rather, a covenant is imposed by the stronger on the weaker, the superior on the subordinate, and is not a matter of negotiation. For example, God made covenants with Abraham, Moses, and the people of Israel. God made them, he did not negotiate them. The people had a choice about whether to enter into the covenant, but no choice about what was in the covenant. In our own day, and in our denomination, we talk about the covenant of marriage. The Book of Common Prayer asserts that it was established by God as a holy covenant into which a couple (theoretically) agrees to enter. They don’t get to negotiate the terms.
I could go on, but you get the idea. So I tend to grit my teeth a bit when I hear someone talking about ‘covenanting with each other.’ To me that’s a contract, an agreement, a commitment, an arrangement, but it’s not a covenant.
My friend Gretchen disagreed. As a matter of fact, her D.Min. thesis was all about congregations establishing covenants of relationships. As she pointed out:
The most commonly used Hebrew word for the concept of the covenant is berit, which is a covenant of “oaths and bonds” and involves mutual, although not necessarily equal commitments. Some covenants in Scripture are unilaterally imposed – those being addressed by God have no need or requirement to agree to the covenant. Others are entered into jointly and indeed the people are required to agree. Some of the covenants are conditional – they spell out conditions which must be met for the covenant to be kept with corresponding rewards and punishments with those conditions. Other covenants are unconditional, they exist regardless of the faithfulness of the people. Some covenants are with single families, some with all creation. As is obvious there is great variety within our Scripture among the various covenants.
She suggested that I stop gritting my teeth and allow for different expressions of covenants.
I’m deeply respectful of her research on the subject, especially since I have never studied the use of berit. Still, I tend to stick with Stendahl and here’s why. I believe the popularity of the word works to cheapen it, and makes it too easy to accept or reject with casual disregard for any real commitment. It can become just another flavor of the month buzzword.
While a scholarly examination of the way in which a particular words are used in the Hebrew scriptures may do much for theologians that enlightens a deeper understanding, it is largely irrelevant to the way in which the contemporary English equivalents are used and understood by ordinary readers of scripture. It isn’t easy to explain that covenant A is very unlike covenant B even if the same word is used for each. The context and terms of each covenant make them mutually exclusive, or nearly so. Therefore, I would prefer to limit the term covenant to the Stendahl sense, and use other acceptable words for agreements negotiated between consenting parties.
What exactly is a golden calf? You know the story. Moses was up on the mountain for a long time working with God on plans for a place of worship and the rituals to go along with it. Meanwhile, the people down below figured he had abandoned them and asked Aaron to do the same according to their own plans, which he did by constructing a golden calf and declaring a festival to YHWH. He didn’t declare a festival to some other god, he declared it to the LORD, and that was just fine with the people.
I don’t think this story is about a statue of a calf made of gold, nor do I think it’s about worshiping idols instead of the LORD. To leave it at that makes it too easy for us to dismiss it as a sin of those people back then that had nothing to do with us. My guess is that it has more to do with human anxiety about who we are, where we’re going, and what it means. In the absence of definitive answers from God, we create our own. And why not? It relieves our anxiety and allows us to get on with life with some confidence, even if that confidence is misplaced.
One way to resolve our anxiety is to deny the existence of God altogether. Get God out of the way, and we can work our way through life as best we can according to whatever rules we create or adopt. I call it the video game approach to life and religion. Another is to stubbornly adhere to the rules of the religious tradition of our choice, or it’s corollary, to adhere to the rules of the religious tradition in which we were raised. These rules; are they not the very essence of a golden calf, even if they are not material statues?
It’s not that rules are unimportant. Moses and God worked out a ton of them, which God, over a succession of millennia, amended, clarified, repealed, and added to. We have several problems with that. First, we lack the patience to wait for God to speak through the ones whom God has chosen to speak on God’s behalf. Scripture has a way of compressing time, so it’s not obvious to the average reader that centuries pass until the people of God are able to comprehend a further revelation from God. Then, when the time comes, we tend to reject it as an unwelcome disruption of the way things are supposed to be. In the meantime, we have our own ideas about what God should be saying. When we put them into practice, they become our golden calves.
Second, we have a hard time discerning who has the legitimate authority to speak on God’s behalf. Why shouldn’t the people of Israel turn to Aaron? Wasn’t he second in command? Wasn’t he the principle spokesman? Couldn’t he wield the magic rod, just as Moses could? Think about how hard it was for us to discern that an obscure, young, black preacher from Atlanta might actually be the one authorized by God to reveal something new from God about race, justice, and mercy. That was fifty years ago and some of us are still struggling with it. When I stand in the pulpit on Sunday mornings, I’m well aware that there is another preacher down the street proclaiming an opposing message. Is God speaking through one of us, neither of us, or perhaps partially in each of us. It would help if God would be more clear about these things because we are not good at discernment.
Third, when we do hear the authoritative voice of God, we are dismayed that not everyone has heard the same thing at the same time. We Episcopalians have spent the better part of a century discerning what we are confident is the authoritative word of God about homosexuality. How can it be that others in our Anglican Communion have not also heard that word? Why are other denominations so slow to catch on? Are they deaf to the injustices that we have tolerated for thousands of years? Can’t they hear what Jesus is clearly saying? No, they can’t. Maybe the time is not yet right for them. Gamaliel was right. If it is from God, it will prevail. If not, it will fade away. Patience is called for, but patience does not meant doing nothing. It means proclaiming boldly God’s word as we understand it without undue anxiety over whether others are able to hear it.
Our faith is littered with a trail of golden calves with more to come. We don’t recognize them because they don’t look like golden calves. It’s a wonder that God puts up with us, much less loves us. But God does, and that’s enough.
“See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.” (Col. 2.8)
I have no idea what was going through Paul’s mind when he wrote this (and, yes, I know about the disputed authorship), but every time I stumble across it, it triggers my own train of thought. Philosophy I take to mean a combination of one’s world view and the themes of thought and action by which one lives into that world. We all have them regardless of how large or small our world is, or whether we can articulate what we think and why we act. Many of us, I suppose, have a philosophy of life like Lucy of Peanuts fame, one that changes from day to day depending on our mood.
To follow Jesus is to live with the daily critique of my philosophy of life by how well, or not, it harmonizes with loving God, loving myself, and loving others as Christ has loved me. If all the law and the prophets are to be measured against them, then so too am I to be measured against them. There are a multitude of other ways to measure my life, but no better way, and no other way that has been commanded by Christ. Any of us who try to do that has learned quickly how easily and in how many ways following Jesus collides with human tradition.
Not the first, but always the biggest, collision is with the traditions of the church. Well meaning Christians are often certain that misleading human traditions are whatever threatens the way they have been taught is proper for Christian believers. Sadly, that way is more often the product of cultural history and practice than anything to do with Jesus. I don’t know how or where you grew up. I grew up as a thoroughly mid-American Christian who was led to believe that the middle class (white) way of life was not only the Christian way of life, any other way fell far short of God’s hearty approval. It should not have to be said, but it does have to be said, that it included all the usual cultural assumptions of the time and place of my upbringing. Jesus, taken seriously, has a way of unceremoniously dismantling human traditions masquerading as the right way to be a Christian, just as he did with the Pharisees and Sadducees. The hard part is figuring out the balance between cleaning out the rubbish, restoring faith and church without demolishing them altogether. It takes time, trial, and error with an awful lot of each.
The empty deceit of which Paul warns had often confused me because a well crafted deceit appears to be full of promise, not empty at all. But a promise that cannot be kept, or was never intended to be kept, is the emptiness of an empty deceit. I don’t mind the minor cons that one faces every day. A good panhandler has a few dozen with which to work the crowd. Friends who offer a glib “Let’s have lunch sometime soon,” or some such, engage in a socially acceptable form of empty deceits. Politicians routinely make promises that everyone knows cannot be kept. For the most part we brush them off with little damage done. There are other more damaging empty deceits because they are so seductive as they lure us into buying things we don’t need in hopes of realizing a reward that is merely a figment of advertising imagination. We are surrounded by them and willingly participate in them. The danger for us, as it was for the people of Colossae, is that they can displace Jesus’ teachings from first place on our list of things that are important to us. They become idols we worship, although we say they aren’t and we don’t.
As for elemental spirits, even as a child I had my doubts about the devil and his angels as spiritual personages who snuck around tempting good people to do what they otherwise would not have done. They seemed more like excuses for not taking responsibility for one’s own actions, and taking responsibility was something drilled into the children in my family. The various schemes I came up with for ducking responsibility were entirely of my own making. Never could I say the devil made me do it. I’m with Walter Wink in understanding Paul to have been warning his people to be careful about those wielding the power of secular and religious authority. Being careful is not the same thing as rejecting. It’s a balancing act. We grew up under the authority of parents and teachers. We work at jobs under the authority of bosses. We live in a nation of laws under the authority of those empowered to enforce them. The problem comes when we allow that authority to take the place of Jesus when for Christians they must all be subordinated to him. It is not an easy balancing act. When your job is on the line, when the rent is due, when the coach demands priority, the demands of those in authority can easily displace Jesus, and they do.
Paul saw the first century version of all this threatening the integrity of the new community of Christians in Colossae, and it seems to be much the same in our own day. What saddens me most is that there are so many communities of Christians who have been taken captive by culturally driven philosophies they attribute to scripture, who lust after promises of empty deceit as if that’s what God wants, who are bound by traditions God never endorsed, and who bow to authorities of their choice. Some tend to be complacent with all of it, happily assuming that whatever being Christian means, they are doing just fine. Others are quickly outraged over any attempt to move in a more Godly direction, viewing it as a threat to all that Christianity stands for. All that loving God and neighbor stuff is good, as far as it goes, but this is the real world. Love in the real world works only if it can be made to work for me.
I don’t think that’s what Jesus had in mind.
Charles Murray offered an April 7 PBS report called “Did you grow up in a bubble?” The premise was that we all grow up in bubbles that insulate us from the reality of the world about us, and in the case of his article, it was about how some people are insulated from the reality of main stream white American culture. I suppose it was an example of just one culture among the many from which one might be insulated. For that matter, I don’t know what main stream white American culture is, but imagine that besides white, it must be something vaguely middle class middle American. Murray, citing some of his own research, picked on New York’s Upper East Side as producing kids raised in bubbles that insulate them from the reality of the way most ordinary white Americans live; provided other examples based on zip code analysis; and offered an online quiz anyone can take that says something about the thickness of the bubble in which one lives.
Oddly enough, I think it’s related to the lessons for the Fourth Sunday of Easter that have Jesus in another conflict with temple leaders who cannot hear what he has been teaching; Peter raising a presumably dead woman and then going to stay with an unclean person in an unclean household; and an uncountable number of heavenly residents from every nation, tribe, and peoples.
The temple Sadducees could not break out of bubbles that prevented them from hearing anything Jesus had to say. It took many tries, plus the awesome power of the Resurrection, for Peter to force himself out of his own bubble to be open to the fullness of God’s presence in the lives of people who had been anathema to him. The image from Revelation of an uncountable number from everywhere without exception flies int he face of every from of exclusivism. Thick bubbles, broken bubbles, no bubbles at all. Jesus disturbs everything, and opens a new path that does’t look all that inviting. Maybe that’s why we work so hard at rebuilding the walls he has broken down, and doing it with theological confidence.
My guess is that each of us was raised in a bubble, and continues to live in one that tends to insulate us from others who are not like us. From a secular point of view, the only way to make the walls of our bubbles as thin as possible is to have a wide variety of experiences in other places with others who are not like us. Education, travel, and work are probably the most obvious ways to have them, but I’m sure there are others. Being deliberate in making connections with others not like us is one of them. From a theological point of view, it requires an honest examination of how we got to where we are, with the theme of reformation always and everywhere as our constant mantra.
It takes considerable courage to walk through the walls of our bubbles into another place. The cultural assumptions and prejudices we were raised with form barriers that are not easy to overcome. When, like Peter, some of us do break through, we find ourselves in a world surrounded by others living in their own bubbles who are deeply suspicious of those who don’t. Bubbles give the illusion of safety. Living outside them dissolves that illusion, forcing us to live trusting in God, following Christ, but in a state of physical, emotional, and spiritual vulnerability. We were always vulnerable, but now we know it, and it can be very uncomfortable.
Jesus calls us, as he called Peter, to burst our bubbles and follow him into a world where bubbles don’t exist, knowing that the path will be strewn with people in bubbles who will be disinterested or even dangerous. Like Peter, we’d rather not. We venture forth with all kinds of caveats. For instance, like so many missionaries of old, we try to make our bubbles larger to accommodate more people coaxed out of their bubbles into ours. Then we can pretend we don’t live in one. Or we find ways to thin the walls of our bubbles so that we can hear words and music coming from others yet maintain our distance. Or we venture forth but scurry back the moment we discover that people living in other bubbles are threatened by “free rangers.” It doesn’t have to work that way, and it doesn’t always. Sadly, the exceptions are few enough that most of us can name some of them.
By the way, I took the on line quiz, and came out in the mid range of bubble thickness, which, Murray says, suggests that I am open to understanding and living with others who are not like me, but not at the expense of giving up my bubble altogether. He may be right.
Tom and I get together for coffee each Saturday, and sometimes during the week. Not long ago we talked about my recent article on American Eurocentricity. He did not think it would go over well with some of the faculty at one of our local colleges because they have climbed into a cupboard reserved for those who have developed a great distaste for anything that bespeaks of white male supremacy, by which they mean all of those dead white males whose words and deeds are the proximate cause of all things bad in American history, and all those living white males who refuse to repudiate them. It’s a little weird since most of them are white males, or closely related to one. I suppose they are trying to correct the chauvinistic romanticism attached to stories about how America was settled and the West was won by doing what they can to blot it out through indignant self righteousness, replacing it with other romantic stories that continue to obscure reality.
It strikes me as a case of those who wear the academic hood of intellectual white privilege trying to turn it inside out to look more like a hair shirt as they proudly beat their chests crying mea culpa, hoping to receive absolution for the sins of generations past, while simultaneously condemning anyone who doesn’t join in their chorus. I trust it’s simply a college fad that will soon pass so that the academy (at least our local version of it) can get on with serious business. In the meantime, in their bumbling sort of way they may stimulate a needed corrective, so it might turn out OK.