American Social Decay and the Church

It was Thursday, February 15, and we were touring Old St. Paul’s Cathedral in Wellington, NZ.  It’s no longer used for regular worship, but remains a popular attraction partly for the magnificence of its wooden architecture.  The New St. Paul’s Cathedral some blocks away has replaced it.  A docent telling the story of its history was interrupted by an American who wanted to know about the decline in church attendance, especially among Anglicans, and whether New Zealand had become another secular society (of unbelievers).  They were fair questions, but asked in an accusatory tone that left the docent searching for an answer that was not overly defensive.  

Later that day we heard news of the Ash Wednesday-Valentine’s Day school shooting in Parkland, Florida.  It unleashed a torrent of in person and online comments, many centering blame on an increasingly godless society in which there is no longer respect for right behavior, as there once was.  One friend, a strong supporter of the right to own guns without restriction, believed the problem lay in the fifty year decay of American social and political values emphasized by lack of respect, laziness and greed combined with a decline in personal responsibility in favor of someone else (the government) to take care of everything.  In a sense, his argument, firmly believed by many, is that we were once not a fallen nation, but now are.   There is no doubt some truth in that, but probably not in the way he would agree with.

A theologian’s response must begin with the caution that, yes, we are a fallen people, but we have always been so.  If nothing else, holy scripture tells the story of our universal human fallenness, creatures determined to be our own gods, the measures of our own goodness, and the masters of our own destinies.  Blaming others and shirking responsibility are human traits scripture assigns to every time and every place.  To think that we have somehow become more fallen than we were fifty years ago defies everything we know about human nature, and ignores unpleasant historical fact.  More particularly, as a society we have not become lazier, greedier and less responsible than we have ever been, which may be faint praise, but it’s the best I can do. 

However, things have changed about which much has been written by many, including me in previous articles on this site.  There were a few decades following WWII in which a socially acceptable civil religion in the form of generic Protestantism was understood to set the standard for what it meant to be “One nation under God,” a phrase added to the national lexicon in 1954 to make the point that we were not godless Soviet or Chinese Communists.  They were years of sustained economic growth (with periodic recessions), rising blue collar wages, international hegemony challenged only by the USSR, and the unchallenged assumption that the white middle class was the proper vessel of all things truly American, with white men as America’s natural and proper leaders.  

It could not endure, and it didn’t.  The Vietnam war began the erosion of American global hegemony.  First blacks, and then women began to demand their rightful place in society, and it wasn’t under white or male domination.  The Nixon era, more than any other, threw into doubt the validity and reliability of established institutions of political and economic power.  All that began around fifty years ago.  The process of painfully redefining what it means to be America has continued, and there is no doubt that to many it looks like decay.  Moreover, it could be, but not in the way my interlocutors imagine.

Some conservative evangelicals demur.  David Brody, host of the “Faith Nation” broadcast on CBN wrote in a February 24 New York Times op. ed. piece that Trump is the answer to evangelical prayer.  Yes, he may be morally challenged, but the bible is filled with such leaders called by God to do God’s work.  Moreover, he has a private side, known only to them, that is filled with faithfulness (Brody has written a book about it so you can know it too).  What God has called Trump to do, and what he is doing, is restoring the moral equilibrium of fifty or sixty years ago that they equate with godliness.  I equate it with the accepted (white) social values of the time draped in pharisaic religious vestments Jesus would have a hard time with.

For them to recover what they believe to be the social stability and predictability of the post war era, they have no choice but to impose legal restrictions on anyone who opposes them.  Freedoms they cherish for themselves cannot be shared with others except through strict control over how, what, where and when.  Freedoms others cherish can have no standing.  Genuine libertarians must shudder at that if they give it much thought, but libertarians seem to have fallen into bed with conservative evangelicals who, in their libertarian defense of the freedom of the individual against the power of the state, are willing to subject all others to that power, not recognizing until it was too late, that they too would lose all.  It’s a scene played over innumerable times in small measure and large. 

The Puritans and Pilgrims wanted nothing more than the freedom to worship as they desired in a moral God fearing society.  With the best of intentions, and deep commitment to God’s word, they produced for themselves an inflexible, freedom denying dictatorship of enforced morality.  On a larger, more secular scale, fascist and communist idealism quickly turned to Stalinism, Naziism, and Maoism.  America even flirted with Naziism in the late 1930s for both secular and religious reasons.  It doesn’t take a deep look to recognize that the current tea party inspired movements have the heartbeat of modern day fascism.  

Maybe we haven’t experienced moral decay.  Maybe we are experiencing the eruption of an abscess that has been hiding just below the surface for decades.  Decay or abscess, it can happen in the best of democracies.  It can trigger reform, or it can stampede down a path to totalitarianism.  Which it will be for us is yet to be determined, and we’re not even sure what mechanisms will lead one way or the other. 

One of the weaknesses in our chaotic effort to redefine what America has been is the incessant complaint by each generation that the younger generations have become lazy, disrespectful, unmotivated, lacking a work ethic, etc.  It’s been ever thus.  Ever since Adam and Eve, the younger generation has never lived up to the expectations of the older.  It’s comical except when it isn’t, and it isn’t right now.  There seems to be a critical mass among both right and left wingers sewing enough disrespect for teens and young adults to make it difficult for them to become prepared to assume leadership roles as they mature.  They will, of course, as they always do, but in the meantime being held accountable for the decay of society is a heavy and unfair burden to bear.  I’m heartened by the outpouring of responsible adult behavior from Parkland teens, and their counterparts all over the country.  I’m heartened by what I see from teens and young adults in our own community.  I’m heartened by the example of my own grandchildren, who are among the most privileged of youth, yet are hard working, morally responsible, and understand that their privilege is an undeserved gift not to be taken for granted.   

With that said, let’s return to the question of religion, and the accusatory question of the guy in Wellington that merely echoed dozens more expressed online.  While I don’t believe the civil religion of generic Protestantism that once dominated the American scene was ever anything other than a religious smoke screen, I also believe that mainline Churches, including Catholics, have done a miserable job of making disciples out of those who still go to church.  The children, who overflowed Sunday schools during the ‘50s and ‘60s, left the church as soon as they could because what they were taught was cheap pablum lacking in any worthwhile nutrition.  They never bothered to send their own children except when social demands required.  Those children grew up and quit going altogether.  And why not?  On the other hand, conservative evangelical and fundamentalist denominations seemed to flourish, but what they offered was a mix of right wing politics and1950s social values  muddled with religious teachings that cannot stand up to close examination.  They too are beginning to lose membership, and for good reason.

So several of those on both sides in this long conversation are right.  The Christian Church has failed to contribute to the moral leadership this country needs.  In fact, it has failed in every Western country where it once dominated social and political life.  It’s not that the Church has failed to provide strong moral leaders.  It has.  Sometimes, like King, they have inspired great movements of moral progress.  More often they have inspired generations of theologians and pastors, which is good, but it didn’t reach a broader constituency.  As for the popularity and influence of a large herd of conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists, they may proclaim Christ as loud as they wish; as far as I can tell they seldom follow him.  For the most part, they have been agents of social repression and oppression in the name of morality, and of all things scientific or intellectual, in the name of literal biblicalism.

Two things keep me hopeful.  One is the resiliency of the American people.  We’ve been down paths like this before, and recovered.  We can do it again.  The other is my Christian faith.  This is God’s world, and God’s word will prevail, no matter how hard we try to get in God’s way.  My own denomination, the Episcopal Church, has called for a renewed commitment to spiritual and moral revival in the land.  It’s much needed, not only in the land, but even more in the Church.  Go for it. 

It’s About Guns

Like many my age, guns were an ordinary part of my youth and young adulthood.  Many had them, many didn’t.  They were used for hunting or target shooting.  A few enthusiasts coveted the right gun for the right purpose, but most gave them little thought.  Even fewer had concealed weapon permits due to their work.  I carried one for a few years because of my work.  Never used it.  There was no such thing as open carry.  Except for boys playing cops and robbers, no one thought they were needed for personal protection.  The NRA represented users not sellers, and was interested mostly in teaching gun safety. 
For many reasons long in building, a dramatic sea change occurred when the tea party movement sprang to life in 2007-08 with the election of a black president.  It’s not to imply that all of its adherents were overt racists.  They weren’t, but embedded in the movement’s many racially motivated fears was a strong libertarian theme of fearful opposition to the federal government combined with a threat that “they” were coming to take away your guns.  It was nourished by the claims that the only defense against a bad guy with a gun was a good guy with a gun, that if guns were banned only criminals would have them, and that the Second Amendment was a solid rock guaranteeing one’s right to own any type of gun for any reason without limit.  Liberals, it was said, were intent on abolishing that constitutional right.  Of course it was nonsense, but nevertheless widely believed.  The years passed, and “they” did not come to take away all the guns.  No one proposed abolishing the Second Amendment.  The ballooning gun culture, with its love for assault style weapons, coincided with the advent of sequential mass shootings on a scale unknown to previous American generations.  The weapons industry, underwriting the NRA, leaped at every killing as a marketing opportunity to sell more guns to people who were led to believe they could be used to protect themselves.  Curiously, they were often sold to those who already owned guns as the industry preyed on their fears and illusions that a well armed public would be a safer public.  It was not to be.  Nor can it ever be.  And the killings went on.
It’s tempting to think the election of a president who takes pride in pandering to tea party inspired beliefs would have relaxed fears of gun regulation, but it hasn’t.  When the recent school shooting in Florida hit the news, I posted a simple message on FB wondering when we would recognize that it’s about guns, and not anything else.  At once came responses from friends, real friends, who cannot separate themselves from the toxic fears of a decade ago.  It’s not about guns, they said, it’s about, and then followed the usual litany: mental health, disrespect for authority, inadequate school safety measures, lack of enough armed protection, personal safety, etc. They were followed by statistics showing guns are not the only cause of death and injury, so why pick on them?  That we alone among all OECD nations suffer an ongoing plague of mass shootings, murders, suicides, and accidents all anchored in guns, is something they easily brush aside as a fiction hypocritical liberals use to advocate gun control, while they are more committed to improving mental health care and public safety.  
They do not see the fiction in their argument is precisely about libertarian and presidential contempt for committing the federal government to do anything to improve the nation’s mental health care services, or its public safety, except for building a wall no expert wants and militarizing police no expert believes would be helpful.  They are unwilling to consider the obvious, simple option of regulating guns without confiscating all their beloved weapons.  That we regulate every other deadly implement without jeopardizing constitutional freedoms, is something they are also unwilling to consider.  What deadly implements?  Medicines, cars, trucks, industrial and agricultural equipment, ships, airplanes, trains, workplace conditions, dangerous chemicals, you name it.  We license and certify people to engage in a wide variety of dangerous pursuits: practicing medicine, driving, operating heavy equipment, etc.   

Common sense laws regulating human behavior make a difference.  Food and drug laws don’t guarantee safety, but they make food and drugs much safer.  Traffic laws don’t keep drunks from driving or speeders from speeding, but they make driving much safer and save many lives.  Common sense regulation of guns and gun ownership will not guarantee the end of gun caused death, but it will make everyone safer.  It just makes sense.  Just the same, my gun loving friends become extremely defensive every time the subject comes up.  Accusing gun regulation advocates of being hysterical, they display emotionally charged, often angry outrage at any mention of it.  How do we get out of this mess?  It’s going to take a critical mass of hunters and other gun owners to do two things: stand up against the NRA, and become the articulate voice of gun owners with enough authority to lead others to follow them.  Is that likely?  Maybe after a few hundred more children are killed?  Who knows?

Political Agendas and Romans 12

When I write an article on politics or the economy, it generally gets fairly wide readership.  Those on Christian theology less so, meaning a lot less so.  I’m never sure why.  In any case, when the lectionary for Morning Prayer brought me to Romans 12.9-21, I felt compelled to offer theologically grounded political commentary.  Here is what Paul had so say to those in Rome who read his letter.
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.  Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.  Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.   Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.  Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.  Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.  Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.  Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.  If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.  Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”  No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12 9-21)
What would a political agenda look like if Paul’s advice was taken seriously?  Would it show hatred for evil by accusing political opponents, or anyone who disagrees, as evil?  That would be hard to do if in the same breath it had to be generous in love and mutual affection, outdoing others in honoring others.  To do that requires respecting the dignity of every human being.  I don’t believe an agenda anchored in mutual affection and showing honor can be articulated by leaders who take pleasure in ridiculing and humiliating others, who declare opponents to be treasonous, and who openly despise losers and their kin, especially those of a different skin color.  Yet many self proclaimed Christians seem to have no problem with it as long as they think their own social and economic well being is being taken care of.  How do they do it?  It’s a mystery to me, but it seems to indicate that selfishness easily trumps both Jesus and Paul’s teaching about the way of following Christ.
Imagine a political agenda that celebrated welcoming strangers, and living in harmony with one another.  A management buzzword that died a well deserved death needs to be resurrected to resume its proper meaning: synergy.  Synergy happens when differing ideas and individual efforts are given the opportunity to work together toward common goals.  It requires respect for diversity.  It’s what happens when the best basketball game plan is beautifully executed by a well trained team.  It’s not an easy thing to do.  Human organizations from nations to small work groups try, but too often let it deteriorate into conformity that stifles creative individuality.  It also deteriorates when teams try to be all stars with no benchwarmers.  All are needed.
Repressive regimes in every organization, both states and companies, enforce conformity and call it harmony.  It’s not.  Harmony always accommodates a wide range of abilities and behaviors, celebrates differences, and encourages individual responsibility.  Years ago I taught courses in organization and management that emphasized the value of harmony in diversity needed to optimize effectiveness in work groups.  Experiments and studies piled up the evidence that it could work.  W. Edwards Deming demonstrated its value to an entire nation in the rebuilding of the Japanese economy.  Nevertheless, managers and top executives nodded yes, yes, but their desire to exercise command and control by dictating what that should look like usually overrode the better way.  
The current administration, and our dysfunctional congress of many years, prefer to define harmony as the product of winners dictating terms to losers.  There is no place for working together in mutual affection for the good of the whole, little respect for diversity of abilities and ideas, and a tendency toward public ridicule of the dignity of others.  
Imagine a political agenda in which the least of those in the community were blessed, and not cursed for being the least.   What would it mean to bless and not curse?  In politics, some argue that blessing lies in taking away all forms of welfare, thus forcing the least to fend for themselves, gaining self worth in the process.  Others argue that blessing lies in providing the necessities of life to those who cannot provide for themselves, thus honoring their dignity as fellow human beings.  It isn’t either/or.  It’s both/and.  The measure of the proportions of both and and is a political decision that understands blessing as something other than welfare or its elimination, and it begins, not ends, with public recognition of the dignity of every human being.
In like manner, a foreign policy that blesses, not curses, one’s “enemies” would not repay evil with evil.  Living in peace with one another is not always possible, but it is always more possible than we think it is.  Even in the aftermath of bitter, violent conflict, blessing can and should displace cursing.  The imperative to give food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty is what drove the Marshall Plan in post war Europe, and the Deming inspired rebuilding of Japan’s industry.  Overcoming evil with good works, but like living in harmony, it’s hard to do.  In the face of overwhelming evidence that it works, it remains difficult to convince of lot of people.  In many years of vigorous conversation with my friend Don, he’s never been able to understand it as anything other than lying down like a doormat, letting everyone trample all over you.  For him, it’s either win or lose, live or die, there’s no alternative.  Don’s conviction is not uncommon.   Faithful Christian though he is, Don is certain that Jesus and Paul were wrong about this one.  
But he does like the wrath of God part.  So do many others.  For one thing, it allows room for us to claim to be the wrath of God in our fight to vanquish foes to the status of permanent losers.  Even if we can’t do that, it allows us to look forward to the day when God’s wrath is unleashed on others.  That the definitive demonstration of God’s wrath was worked out on the cross with words of forgiveness and reconciliation is conveniently ignored in favor of something more reasonable, such as the Archangel Michael defeating the devil’s forces, sending them all to eternal damnation.  
How likely is it that we could have a Romans 12 driven political agenda?  We could have glimpses of it, elements of it, but not under the current administration, not with the current congress, and not with the dominance of tea party type thinking among the electorate.  One final word of caution.  Tea party type thinking exists on the far left just as much as it exists on the far right, so a word of advice to my fellow liberals: do not be haughty, you’re not that good.

Corroborating the New Testament

This began as a letter to a friend, but ended up as an article intended for the non-theologian occasional reader who may have wondered whether the writings in the New Testament can be verified by extra-biblical sources.  That was the complaint of a friend citing a professor of religion from somewhere who proudly announced that there is no mention of Jesus in any first century Greek or Roman document, and therefore the New Testament cannot be corroborated.  Yeah?  So what.
It left me perplexed.  For one thing, there aren’t that many surviving texts from first century Greece or Rome, but that begs the question.  Why would first century Roman or Greek writers take note of Jesus in the first place?  If they heard of him at all, he would have been just another so called wonder worker wandering around the Levant.  Hardly worth writing about.  There were other self proclaimed messiahs and other crucifixions.  Why bother writing about Jesus?  Nevertheless, some did.  Late in the century Jesus is mentioned several times in passing in  Josephus’s histories of the Jews and the Jewish Wars.  You may recall that he was a Jewish warlord/general who was defeated by Vespian in 67 c.e., and wrote his tomes at Vespian’s behest.  By the start of the second century Christianity had become a major religion, a thorn in the side of Rome, and Jesus could no longer be ignored.  There’re a number of second century Roman citations about Jesus and Christians.  Easy to look up if interested.  
However, the main point is that the New Testament is, in a sense, self corroborating because it was written by different people at different times, each telling the story from a perspective not shared by the others.  It comes as a surprise to many that the New Testament as we know it was not handed down from heaven, was not written as a single book, developed over decades, and was assembled in the form we now have no earlier than the fourth century after years of debate about what was genuine scripture and what was not.  The various authors of the texts were brutally honest in that they weren’t shy about narrating the bad and ugly along with the good.  Take the gospels.  Mark, the first, written somewhere around 30 years after Jesus, is in rather basic Greek and tells a simple, direct story.  The writer of Matthew, written at least ten year later, was clearly Jewish, but with an educated command of Greek. He used almost all of Mark, but had other sources of his own, and another source to which the writer of Luke also had access.  Luke, written about the same time as Matthew, was a Greek, well educated, who admits he was not an eye witness, but was nevertheless determined to do the best he could gathering up verifiable stories about Jesus.  Like Matthew, he used most of Mark, added sources of his own, and had a third source known also to Matthew.  The three stories cannot be easily harmonized.  It’s like witnesses to and accident, each swearing to what they saw, but each telling it in a way that doesn’t agree in particulars with the others.  Just the same, together they form a mosaic of truth.  Finally, toward the end of the century, we get John, who may well have been an eye witness, knew about the other three, maybe read one or two of them, and was disinterested in telling the same story again.  His gospel is pure theology, even as it tells stories about Jesus that the others don’t.
So who were Mark, Matthew, Luke and John?  No one knows for sure.  The names have stuck for centuries, so why not keep using them.  It’s also important to remember that newly formed communities of Christian worship may have been aware of one gospel but not the others, that they heard it first through oral recitations, and that the bible as we know it would not exist for two more centuries.  
But wait!  There’s more!  The authentic letters of Paul were all written before any of the gospel narratives.  They’re the earliest Christian records.  Paul was beheaded in Rome by Nero in about 65 c.e. while other Roman Christians, and assorted unwanted types, were massacred in less humane ways.   His letters don’t tell the Jesus story, but they do advise struggling young congregations about how to live into this new faith with Jesus as their guide.  So, within the New Testament we have a variety of writers and sources that corroborate each other not unlike how a court room drama might play out as witnesses took the stand.

Fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals have a hard time with some of this because they want everything to be historically and literally true.  My guess is that my questioning friend got whatever she knows about Christianity them.  But that’s not how writers of the time worked.  They worked hard to tell the truth with whatever facts they had at their disposal, and added creative use of them to fill in the gaps.  We Anglicans, and most classical Christians, are certain that God’s hand inspired them in every way, but they were, after all, just human beings, and made mistakes.

The Sacrifice of Iphigenia

The Ancient Greek myth of Iphigenia tells the story of Agamemnon who offended the goddess Athena in some way as he prepared to lead an attack on Troy.  To make good with her, he had to sacrifice his young daughter Iphigenia, which he did.  There are any number of paintings, and a few sculptures, depicting the event.  One of them was painted by Arnold Houbraken of Amsterdam in the late 17th century.  It normally hangs in the Rijksmuseum, but we saw it in Sydney where it was on loan along with others by Rembrandt and his school.
The painting shows Agamemnon (and his wife?) hiding their faces in their hands while curious onlookers stare at the two central figures.  One is an attractive teenage girl, kneeling, stripped to the waist, looking apprehensive.  Behind her, holding a large knife, is a priest who is about to slit her throat.  What struck me about this painting of a Greek myth from the time of Homer were the vestments of the priest.  They were the vestments of a second temple Hebrew priest, or at least what popular imagination believed them to be.  Why would a late 17th century Dutch painter portray a Hebrew priest in a painting about a Greek myth?  Think about it.
If nothing else, he made a clear public statement that if one wanted to look for the source of nasty things being done to good, righteous, God fearing Dutch people, look no farther than to Jews, especially Jewish bankers.  They’ll cut your throat and never give it a second thought.  Why Jewish bankers?  At the time, the only “international” bankers in Europe were the great Jewish banking houses.  It was they who financed wars and trade across state lines.  There are lots of reasons for that, none of them sinister, but it did make them an easy target for racist blame.  It was not the beginning of European anti-semitism, but it was an obvious example of a trend of long standing that would continue uninterrupted another 240 years building momentum toward the Third Reich and the Holocaust.  
In the aftermath of WWII we believed the world had learned its lesson, that we had freed ourselves at last from the curse of anti-semitism.  It was not to be.  Instead, we became more aware of its close cousins, the brutal prejudices we had accepted and promoted as the normal way of things that placed those of us of white Northern European heritage above all others, the rightful rulers of all others, the enforcer of limits on the freedoms and rights of all others.  The decades long battles to right the wrongs we had perpetrated over the centuries have had some success.  Of that we can take modest satisfaction.  At the same time, it has emboldened the remnants of white supremacists and neo-Nazis to put  other races and ethnicities back in their places, Jews among them.  That’s especially true under the current administration whose leader has made no  secret of his own prejudices expressed in violent, humiliating terms.
Houbraken’s painting could be replicated many times over, with the knife wielding priest portrayed as a black man, Asian, Mexican, American Indian, Australian Aborigine, Pacific Islander, Arab sheik, or any of a dozen others.  It would be understood instantly.  It would be applauded and endorsed by many who would otherwise proclaim themselves to be good, righteous, God fearing people.  We can do better.  We must do better.