The Story of the Faithful Disciple and His Untrustworthy Friends

Doubting Thomas.  Our weekly ecumenical lectionary study group pondered this passage from John’s gospel that’s scheduled for every Second Sunday of Easter.  To refresh your memory, disciples were gathered late on the day of resurrection, in a room where the doors and shutters were closed.  Suddenly, Jesus appeared to them bodily, which began the hard work of understanding the reality of the resurrection, and the greater reality of who Jesus is.  One disciple, Thomas, wasn’t there.  A week passed when they were again gathered in the same place.  This time Thomas was present, dismissing the credibility of their testimony.  Suddenly, Jesus appeared as he had before.  Ignoring the others, he invited Thomas to touch him, even his wounds, to prove his reality.  Ever after, Thomas earned the nickname, Doubting Thomas.
The theme my sermons on Thomas have been built around the story of the faithful disciple and his untrustworthy friends.  Face it, why would Thomas believe these characters?  They all proved faithless.  They all ran away.  Peter denied he even knew Jesus.  Why should he believe anything they had to say about having seen Jesus suddenly appear to them in their shuttered room?  If there was ever an untrustworthy gaggle of disciples, they were it.  
Thomas alone, says John, was willing to follow Jesus to the cross.  Thomas alone, says John, had the courage to interrogate Jesus about what he meant by “I am the way…,” demanding more explanation.  Thomas, it seems, was the one with more steadfast integrity, making it reasonable that he would demand verification from a source other than his untrustworthy friends.  What source?  Jesus of course.  What other source could there be?  It might have been Mary Magdalen, had Thomas been there when she announced her meeting with the resurrected Jesus.  But he wasn’t, and the disciples had accused her of bearing an idle tale.  No.  It had to be Jesus or no one.   

Jesus didn’t chastise Thomas, but honored his integrity by inviting him to examine closely, touching his flesh and wounds.  It’s not recorded that he did so for any of the others.  So away with Doubting Thomas, and in with Faithful, Courageous Thomas.  The others did catch up with him, each in their own time, but it took a while. 

Winning Elections With Pothole Language

My previous column had something to say about the need to translate lofty policy proposals into pothole language.  The millions who were once dependable Democratic voters turned away in part because lofty proposals, not brought back down to earth, were enormous disincentives to voters who revel in reverse snobbery, to protect themselves from even snobbier elites, real or imagined.
Trump, who cares not one whit for the average Jane and Joe, understood it well as he flimflammed them with his second rate steaks, fake university, and tawdry casinos.  He may have failed at each, but they taught him how to woo disaffected voters by picking at their wounds while promising  healing salve at no cost to them.  That he had no salve, and no intention of getting any, was irrelevant.  What he learned from steaks, fake schools and casinos was how to talk about hopes and dreams in the language of fixing everyday problems.
He learned how to talk convincingly about big national problems as if they were neighborhood potholes that he alone could fix.  Of course he was manipulating the system the whole time to make money for himself.  It’s what he does.  If a pothole or two got fixed along the way, so much the better.
I was reflecting on that while on hold calling a local business.  Their hold music was Sammy Johns’ 1981 song “Common Man.”  It goes like this:
I’m just a common man, drive a common van
My dog ain’t got a pedigree
If I have my say, it gonna stay that way
‘Cause high-browed people lose their sanity
And a common man is what I’ll be
It’s a thirty-eight year old lyric written in the first year of Reagan’s presidency, reflecting the theme Reagan ran on: Democrats were out of touch with the common man, and Western common man Reagan would be their new voice in Washington.  As it turned out, Reaganomics set in motion structural changes that began the erosion of the American Dream, the downward slope of middle class income, and the climb toward greater extremes of wealth inequality.  But Reagan was sold as one with the common man, and they loved him for it.  I think even he believed it. It didn’t flip a switch.  Reliable Democratic voters didn’t turn over night.  It was a slow process that gained acceleration with the election of an intellectually articulate, professorial black president whose presence on the national stage triggered long suppressed racial prejudices.  And Trump knew how to make the most of it.
Mr. Johns’ song remains popular today for a reason.  It’s an anthem of reverse snobbery declaring that high-browed elites (intellectual, liberal, sophisticated, well read, articulate) not only look down with contempt on common people, they’re shallow and corrupt to boot.  Strip away their veneer, and there’s nothing there.  It’s emotional and political self defense for (mostly white) self identifying common men and women.  They clutch it close to the breast.
Roosevelt, Truman, Johnson, and even Bill Clinton, understood the dynamic well.  They knew how to present the most important issues facing the nation in pothole language, and it wasn’t flimflam.  They intended to do  real work for real people to make their lives better.  Not all their ideas were good, not all worked, but there was genuine intention to do well for ordinary people.  To be sure, the legacy of systemic racism corrupted good intentions, but that’s a subject for another time.
Today’s subject is the need for today’s Democratic candidates to use pothole language to talk with, not at, ordinary people about the major issues facing the nation, and their plans for dealing with them.  It has to be authentic because the trumpian GOP has done a superb job of painting Democrats as coastal elites who care nothing for common people.  Even worse, they’re liberal big government socialists who will take away your freedom.  
Bernie’s ranting and raving may raise cheers in some quarters, but he never explains how he’ll fix the potholes.  Warren’s academic erudition nails the issues to perfection, but never explains how the potholes will get fixed.  Beto dances on table tops, which is entertaining but avoids potholes.  Harris is still in prosecutor mode, responding to questions as if cross examining hostile witnesses.  The one who comes closest to getting it right is the young mayor of South Bend with the funny last name.  Mayor Pete takes on national and international issues, speaks about them as if they were South Bend potholes, and makes it clear that he knows how to fix them – and not all by himself.  He speaks respectfully but knowledgeably, without condescension, to the concerns of ordinary people.  
Stacey Abrams can do the same.  Combine a Georgia legislative leader with a romance novelist, and you’ve got someone who knows how to connect with the common person’s deepest desires.  She’s not running, so learn from her.  Be like Stacey.  Be like Pete.
Pay attention people.  If a dishonest grifter like Trump can fool enough people, and he knows how to do it, he can win again.  Honest opposition can do better by authentically, honestly speaking with quiet confidence in pothole language.  And remember, all modern soap boxes have very good audio systems.  No need to screech and yell.  


Sen. Warren’s Ideas Fly High – Way Too High

Friends of Senator Warren have pegged their hopes on her aggressive menu of policy initiatives.  They’ve been widely touted in the media, with one problem: few popular sources have said much other than there are a lot of them.  Coffee conversations with progressive and conservative friends alike indicate that laundry lists of proposals have the impact of Nerf balls.  They can be tolerated for awhile, not taken seriously, and quickly become nuisances.  It’s partly because few know what her proposals are, and partly because even fewer have confidence they will ever get beyond the campaign stump speech stage.  In that sense, Warren and Sanders have a lot in common.
Because I know you’re interested, Warren’s proposals fall into six broad categories, as far as I can tell: 1) Lobbying reform; 2) Corporate governance reform; 3) Tax reform; 4) Election reform; 5) Criminal justice reform; 6) Foreign policy 
She wants members of congress to be prohibited from ever serving as lobbyists, and from engaging stock trading while serving.  I wonder if mutual funds would be OK? 
Forty percent of corporate board membership would have to be elected by  workers.  I presume she means major corporations, ones at least in the S&P 500.
Top marginal income tax rates would be increased substantially.  An additional excise tax of 2% would be levied against estates greater than $50 million.  I’m assuming it means the first $49 million would not be subject to the excise tax.  For estates greater than $1 billion, the tax would be 3%.
Elections would be made more fair by eliminating gerrymandering, reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act, and finding a legislative way to overturn Citizens United.  
Other than legislation banning private prisons, her criminal justice reform package seemed vague to me.  Maybe there’s more.
The same with foreign policy.  She wants NAFTA to be renegotiated to provide more worker protection, and the same for all other bilateral and multilateral trade agreements.  Add to that adequate funding for the military, and that’s about it.
I admire her passion, and believe her proposals are each worthy of consideration.  More than that, they’re worthy of enactment in forms that can make it through to signature.  But they’re not going to inspire voters to rush to her side.  For one thing, they’re way up in the stratosphere, and voters are more focussed on potholes.  If her rhetoric can’t make her ideas look and sound like practical ways to fix potholes, they don’t have a chance.  For another, voters, at least informed voters, are more aware that the president doesn’t have much power to push things through congress.  Even Trump’s bombastic attempts at authoritarianism only block and throttle.  When he tries, he flops.  
Warren is a powerful and needed voice in the senate.  That’s where she should stay.  Same for Bernie.

The Holy Mystery of Easter

I’m a little naive about the secular value of Easter, especially to candy, card, and flower shops.  Holy Week is not normally a time for me to wander into stores, except when absolutely necessary.  This afternoon it was, to the local candy shop known for its chocolates hand made on site.  The place was jammed.  I was overwhelmed.  People were picking out bunnies, eggs, baskets, and, oh, as long as they were there, a few other things chosen slowly after much deliberation without the slightest bit of concern for others waiting to be served.  
I waited my turn, idly wondering if anyone else in the shop was also overwhelmed by the plethora of essays on the meaning of Easter that pile in clergy mailboxes this time of year.  Probably not.  Chocolate bunnies and eggs more or less sum up the meaning of Easter for many.  Anyway, the theme of this year’s essay crop appears to be about the mystery of Easter, and how trying to solve it deprives it of the power of mystery that’s essential to apprehending Easter without comprehending it.  I have found them appealing.
Easter needs to be illuminated on Sunday with words that guide worshipers toward the mystery in ways that invite them to consider what it means for them.  As a reasonably orthodox Christian, that meaning has constraints.  It’s not anything goes.  Easter is about resurrection, not bunnies, decorated eggs, and warm fuzzy feelings.  Moreover, resurrection is incomplete without the cross: you can’t have one without the other.  Setting the parameters is particularly important for those who seldom attend church, and know little about Christianity.  On the other hand, dedicated regulars, content with well established ways of believing bereft of surprise, need to be shaken into the disorientation of holy mystery. 
Easter sermons doing both don’t come easily.  At least mine never have.  One obstacle is that few in the pews on Easter Sunday will have invested in Holy Week time and prayer that opens the door to holy mystery.  Nor will they have participated in the hard work of Good Friday observances where the event is brutally obvious, but its meaning elusive.  Another is the abundance of bad theology decorating poorly constructed Easter pageants.  I’m not a fan of Easter pageants: the worst of them being Gibson’s 2004 “The Passion of Christ,” but I digress.
Maybe the best we can do is help Easter Sunday worshipper see the disciples as women and men who could no more easily make sense out of the resurrection than we can, even though they were Jesus’ closest companions.  They could no more anticipate what would come next than we know what tomorrow or next week will bring.  It took them the rest of their lives to fully grasp that, in the resurrection, the rabbi they had come to trust and love is fully revealed as God incarnate.  What he said and did was not just wisely instructive, it was the authoritative demonstration of what God’s commandments are, and what living into them means.  

The passion narrative from cross to resurrection is a holy mystery profoundly filled with ultimate truth.  It’s wrapped in a greater reality than any ever to be experienced in this life.  Those who apprehend it would not trade it for anything.  As St. Paul wrote, everything else is rubbish.  How can that be?  It’s a mystery.

Christianity 101 for Atheists

One of my favorite atheists likes to post Facebook memes about magical thinking and fairytale stories that gullible Christians eat up without question.  Some of them are quite funny because they contain an element of truth.  Magical thinking is a hole some fall into.  Treating scripture too literally can lead to interpretations that sound like fairytales.  On the other hand, fairytales retain their place in history because they reveal real truths about human nature, and our collective fascination with magic unveils a deeply held sense that we are connected to spiritual realities in ways we don’t understand.  
Knowing that doesn’t help explain Christianity to fairytale loving atheists, but it might create an opening.  Among other things, the fairytale god they don’t believe in is one I don’t believe in either.  But I do believe there is a God, and that God has revealed God’s self to us in many ways.  I also believe in spiritual reality that is not the same as biological reality, although biological reality is one way through which we can experience spiritual reality.  
There are a variety of ways people believe in any religion, and some of them leave us scratching our heads, but each religion has its own foundation for how some people believe or don’t believe in it.  One problem with today’s Christianity is that many believers quit learning anything about it back in church school.  A juvenile understanding of one’s faith is not adequate for the adult world, but we seem to be stuck with it.  Maybe that’s why so many Christians appear to believe in a fairytale religion.
At its core, Christianity can’t be adequately understood without first understanding its Jewish roots, and the story scripture tells about it. Sometimes literal, sometimes poetic, sometimes polemic, but always metaphorical, the Hebrew texts, covering 2,000 years of experience trying to understand God, unveil a deep understanding of the human condition and divine intention.  If you have trouble taking some of it seriously, ask yourself how it can be understood metaphorically.  As rabbinical literature attests, there is no end to how metaphorical reading sheds new light on old questions.
By contrast, the New Testament of Christian scripture covers a mere 65 years, with its greatest emphasis on only three.  There are some basics.  The Word of God became flesh and lived among us in Jesus of Nazareth.  Jesus established parameters for understanding divine intent by defining what the commandment to love means, declaring that God’s love extends to all people, everywhere, in every time, and by demonstrating that life, as we experience on earth, is not the whole picture.  He made it clear that to believe in him meant to follow him, and not something else.  
What Jesus isn’t is just another good teacher of love and morality.  For Christians he is the living presence of God dwelling among us.  Therefore, he has ultimate authority.  We have no king but Jesus was a threat to the rulers of his day, and still is to the rulers and bosses of today.  His death and resurrection are understood by different people in different ways, but all agree it was, and is, the definitive demonstration that there are no powers of any kind, however brutally applied, that can force God into submission.
Jesus said he came that we might have life in abundance, and he interpreted the ancient scriptures to more fully explain what that means.  He laid out the path, led the way, and invited all to follow him on it.  He is not a best friend, spiritual teddy bear, magical healer, fairy godmother granting wishes. He is the Word of God made flesh.  In him all humans are made worthy to stand before God as one of God’s beloved.
You may not buy it, but I hope these few words have offered a bit more understanding for you.  Feel welcome to contact me with any questions you may have.             

Christians, Christianity, and Weaving Community

The importance of community has been the subject of several recent Country Parson columns.  I’ve taken up the cause because popular right wing media has distorted the American myth of rugged individualism, making community subordinate to it, even attacking it as the enemy.  Individualism has become an idolatrous religion sometimes vested in Christian garb, which is as heretical as it gets.  Country Parson objects.

Anything intended to strengthen community, particularly if related to social welfare, gets labeled progressive or liberal, and is suspected of being an entrée for socialist government control of every aspect of life.  Those who stand against systemic racism, systemic economic inequalities, and for higher standards of restorative justice have become “snow flakes” who threaten the American way of life.  Curiously, the same people who distrust everything governmental also support a president who behaves like a petty dictator, and favor a Republican party refusing to do anything about it.  When the obvious threat of creeping fascism is called out for what it is, the GOP and Trump supporters shrink from recognition or responsibility, claiming it’s all fake news.

What’s enabled the American experiment to endure until now, in spite of everything up to and including a civil war, has been an underlying commitment to the rule of law in a representative democracy through which governments have been established at every level to build and sustain community.  Before the Civil War, there was a move to let states nullify federal laws they didn’t like.  It was a cruel effort to protect the institution of slavery, but at least it recognized the importance of community, the rule of law, and the obligation of the people to obey the laws of the jurisdictions in which they lived.  The war may have confirmed the supremacy of the Constitution and the federal government as the agencies setting rules of law for the entire nation, but it didn’t stop the fight for state’s rights.  Nevertheless, it was a fight conducted within the context of respect for the rule of law as defined by our constitutional democracy.

Now, it seems, we are beset by nullifiers who, in the name of individualism, declare their right to decide for themselves what the rule of law means, and to obey or not as they choose.  Curiously, a number of conservative thinkers in the public forum have become alarmed at the trend to disunite the fabric of community through the incautiousness of this extreme nullifying individualism.

In keeping with their distrust of government, they want to reweave the fabric of community through voluntary work and local non governmental organizations.  They want to reestablish shared moral values through revitalized religious orthodoxy of an acceptable Christian sort, yet a sort that other religions would endorse.  It’s all very worthwhile, but it skirts the role of government at every level, and it assumes things about religious plurality that are unlikely to stand.

David Brooks, conservative NYT columnist, is on a campaign to encourage what he calls “weavers.”  They’re people who do the work of reweaving the fabric of community in the places where they live.  The stories he tells about them are uplifting and encouraging.  May there be more of them.  They’re reweaving because, says Brooks, the fabric has been torn to shreds by the excessive individualism of our times.  For him, the process of reweaving is exemplified by individual volunteer effort to build relationships that strengthen the bonds of community.  It takes place at the local level with government, from Brooks’ point of view, simply hovering in the background, providing the basic structure within which community building can take place.  It’s a rather vague understanding of government’s role, but at least he recognizes there is one.

The key ingredient to reweaving the fabric of community is a shared moral culture he believes the nation once had, and needs to regain.  It’s needed to act as a restraint on laissez-faire capitalism run amok, and pretend meritocracy that exacerbates extremes in economic and social inequalities.  They are the playgrounds of excessive individualism that destroy the fabric of community.  He would not abandon the virtues of individualism, but they must be subordinate to the virtues of relationships in community that are at the center of the American ideal.   It’s a center historically defined by The Federalist Papers, the Constitution with all its amendments, and a nostalgic sense that there was a time,  not long ago, when America had a united moral culture.  There never was such a time, but the nostalgic sense of it endures.

Brooks recently shared a piece by Lee Drutman showing a scattergram of 2016 voters according to whether they were more liberal or more conservative on social and economic dimensions.  From it, Brooks asserted that what will define a shared morality will be moderately liberal economically, and moderately conservative socially.  Perhaps he’s right, at least in the sense that center-right to center-left is where aggregate public sentiment tends to fall, even if what is liberal or conservative is poorly understood.  The extremes seem to get all the publicity, and political leaders, clearly moderate in their views, are nonetheless caricatured as extremists by those who disagree with them.  It’s the trumpian way, and many have adopted it as their own way of attacking others.

I’m not sure Brooks is ready to accept a pallet of shared moral cultures that integrates new understandings from a variety of ethnicities unwilling to be subordinated to the white middle class, yet willing to live in cooperative accommodation with others not like themselves.  I’m not sure he’s ready to firmly reject shared moral values that have used oppression and injustice as tools for maintaining individualistic rights of some while denying them to others.  It’s just a guess.  I’ve never met the man.  I could be wrong.

Brooks’ theme of weaving community reminded me of three books from the first decade or so of this century: Prothero’s on Religious Literacy; Haidt’s on The Righteous Mind; and Douthat’s on Bad Religion.  Each of them seems to believe that the dissolution of an American shared morality, more or less based on Protestant orthodoxy, has contributed to the overall decline in American political and social moral standards. 

Prothero is disturbed by religious illiteracy that is a common denominator of believers and unbelievers alike.  It makes it difficult to give meaning to history, and to the development of democratic political thought.  He would like bible studies, but not evangelism, to be a part of public education from kindergarten through college.  Other religious texts should be included, but it is the bible that would restore a shared vocabulary of moral values, so he says.

Haidt appears to have a Hobbesian view of human nature, and so favors strong institutions to curb our “unruly wills and affections.”  Religious institutions with well defined standards could do what government never can, but government can provide the structure in which religious institutions can prosper.  It’s a sort of weak government with strong churches thing.  A 21st century version of Plymouth Plantation?

Douthat believes we’ve become a nation of heretics, adhering to everything but orthodoxy, which he finds in the pre Vatican II Catholic Church and old time mainline Protestantism.  Our floundering disunity and divisive politics are a function of wandering heresies at war with each other.  Recovering a shared sense of Christian orthodoxy is the key to reweaving a shared moral culture.

All the nones, spiritual but not religious, and followers of other religions would, in their collective view, find a more secure place to live if religious institutions were once again the arbiters of a shared American morality.  If we weren’t so paranoid about separation of church and state, government could help make that happen –– again.  They are never explicit about favoring Christian institutions, but the bias is always there, and there’s always a sense that they have in mind a certain brand of Christianity that doesn’t include others (Douthat, at least, is up front about his bias).

It’s a romantic notion, and as much as I treasure romance, when it comes to this I favor more realism that is unafraid to use government as the appropriate tool for addressing community wide issues, at every level of community.  Religious or not, we need an informed and involved electorate  willing to engage in political life as the defenders of the rule of law according to our constitutional form of government.

More especially, Christians, well versed in historical development of the faith, are obligated to exercise their civic duties first as followers of Christ Jesus, and secondarily as political partisans.  Yes, absolutely, they’re to do what they can to influence public policy in a Christlike direction, which is not the same as a direction favoring Christianity.  Moreover, and this is the really hard part, they’re to try as best they can not to confuse their treasured social values with what orthodoxy means.  What Jesus commanded must inform social values, not the other way round, and Jesus commanded very few things.   

Is Abortion a Sin?

Some time ago a fellow I know, but not well, sent me a text asking me, as an Episcopal priest, if abortion is a sin.  I don’t know what prompted the question, but he comes from a conservative background, including a number of family members adamantly opposed to abortion in any form. 
It’s a complex question not given to easy answers, and given the Georgia “Heartbeat Law,” it’s become a more frequent topic for virulent arguments.  All I could offer at the time were some starters for conversation that never happened.  They remain all I can offer.  Is abortion a sin?  Yes, but probably not in the sense that will satisfy those who are unalterably opposed to it.
Every abortion is a tragedy.  Something in a woman’s life has gone terribly wrong, running counter to the abundance of life’s blessings that God would have for all.  In that sense, it is a sin.  But what has gone terribly wrong?  I’ve counseled several women who’ve had abortions, and several who were contemplating it.  Each presented unique problems: rape, incest, physical and mental illness, and sometimes the foreknowledge that the developing baby wouldn’t survive birth.  No two were alike.  For what it’s worth, none who were contemplating an abortion had one.  
What I never encountered was abortion as a form of birth control, or abortion just because having a baby would be inconvenient.  There was one young woman, counseled by a colleague, who was ignorant of the causes of pregnancy, had no idea what abortion meant, and only a vague understanding of what parenthood might mean.  She was the exception, and her level of sheer ignorance was an indication of how important sex education is. 
This may come as a surprise, but no man has ever been pregnant, nor has the power of the state been used to prevent a man from having a medical procedure he otherwise might have on advice of his physician and conscience.  It means, as a man, I’m unwilling to support the power of the state to do the same to a woman.  Are there exceptions?  I think there are, although agreeing to what they might be is not easy to come by.  Screaming about late term abortions is not helpful, nor is it truthful.  Neither is yelling murder whenever abortion is mentioned.  Pro life and pro choice need not be mutually exclusive terms.  
Abortion cannot be eliminated, but it can be reduced to the medically necessary.  What has been proven to work is sex education, birth control, and prayerfully wise counseling.  What continues to help are policies that assure new mothers and their babies will not be abandoned by society.  Pro life sentiment cannot end at birth.  It has to include all that is needed to aid a child toward successful transition to adulthood.  For the same reason, pro choice sentiment cannot end at rallies.
What doesn’t work is the state using its coercive power to force its will on the most intimate, sacred, and painful decisions that must be made between a woman, her physician and her God.  I’m always puzzled by conservative friends who demand that government stay out of their private lives, but are OK with state coercion stripping women and their care givers of the right to make a critical decision involving their own bodies – compounded by enthusiasm for policies endorsing use of lethal force against real or imagined threats from persons who are not infants.
I wonder what would happen if we held men criminally liable for abortions of embryos fertilized by their sperm from rape, incest, STD infections, etc?  Let not the woman, but the rapist who caused a pregnancy ended in abortion, be found guilty of murder.

Is abortion a sin?  Yes.  Something has gone terribly wrong that should not have gone wrong.  When Jesus healed women rejected by society because of sin, he restored them to wholeness of life not only in body, but in their relationships with others.  Their sin had something to do with their condition in life, and much to do with guilt adhering to the society that accused them of sinfulness.