Paul, Colossians & Politics

Like many, I have  love-hate relationship with St. Paul, the apostle, not the city.  On the one hand, I have no doubt his letters included in the canon of the New Testament reveal God’s word and truth.  On the other hand, they also reveal a man struggling to deepen understanding of his new found faith, and struggling even harder to guide Christians newer than he.  It means I’m in constant conversation with Paul, sometimes agreeing, sometimes arguing, and occasionally proclaiming he’s just plain wrong.  It doesn’t commend me to conservative evangelicals for whom what’s in the canon is God’s truth, period. 
Right now, as I work on a sermon, I’m in his letter to the Colossians.  It’s engaging me in conversation with Paul, with memories of questions raised in adult classes over the years, and with current social media comments.
Paul wants his new Christians to seek the things that are above, where Christ is,…not on things that are on earth… .  For some, it’s an invitation to claim a Thomas Kinkade like vision of Christian faith that has no room in the picture for the realities of life.  It’s all make nice, avoid conflict, and try not to talk about unpleasant things.  To me, if I’m serious about seeking the things that are above, I have to look for them among Jesus’ earthly words and deeds.  Isn’t that what his incarnation is about?  The incarnate Christ may have ascended, but he left the rest of us to carry on with the daily work of earthly ministry that he demonstrated for us.
Paul also wants the Colossians to clean up their act by giving up fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, greed (idolatry), anger, wrath, malice, slander, abusive language, and lying.  Conservative friends jump on anything related to sex, and tend to ignore the rest.  By his own admission, Paul had no need or desire for sex, and so may not be the best source of advice about it, but he clearly sees that irresponsible sex is an unhealthy attack on the sacredness of the most intimate act people can have with one another.  Given the sexualization of advertising and entertainment that saturates society, I can see how conversation can get hung up on it.
To move on, what about all these other things the Colossians needed to clean up?  They hit deep into the ordinary ways of everyday life in our day, as in theirs.  Some are good in decent measure.  Passion is an asset in work, friendship, marriage, justice, and things like that.  When passion becomes an obsession, and emotion turns its back on rationality, sanity turns to insanity.  
Anger and wrath are the stuff of every action and super hero movie or t.v. show.  Anger plus wrath equals vengeance, and we’ve normalized vengeance to define the popular version of justice.  God’s justice goes in another direction.  It’s restorative, not retributive.  Leave vengeance to God, and don’t assume you know what that means.  
We’ve unleashed anger and wrath as political tools to be wielded with abandon in tweets and talks.  Bullies use anger to intimidate their way through life, cruelly dominating others.  But there is true righteous indignation.  Jesus was indignant about things that oppressed, excluded, dehumanized, and marginalized.  Turning over tables and driving out crooks with a whip was not beyond him.  We’re called to name evil and stand against it, but beware.  There’s also a kind of self righteous indignation over things of which one does not approve, but are probably just fine with God.
Greed: that’s a tough one.  Gordon Gekko (“Wall Street”) says greed is good.  It’s what drives the stock market, monopolies, and gospel of prosperity preachers.  Private enterprise and capitalism don’t depend on it, don’t even need it.  It’s something like nitro fuel that gives ordinary cars an extra kick, but will kill the engine.  It’s the wedge that allows some people to separate their Christian life from their business life.  As idolatry, it replaces God altogether.  With what?  See the bigger barn parable in Luke’s gospel. 
Malice, slander, abusive language and lying.  They’ve been around a long time, distributed rather evenly over history and throughout the population.  None of it is good.  It’s all a choice, and anyone can choose not to engage in it.  We seem to have made the wrong choice.  Thanks to modern avenues of communication, they’ve become the standard for public discourse, led by the president of the United States.  
I posted a link to a friend’s column on abusive language to Facebook, and got an instant response that it was a good article until it pointed fingers at the president.  He should not be singled out, they said, it’s not fair to the dignity of the office, and besides, others are also guilty.  I’m singling him out as a disgrace to the office.  Yes, others are guilty of the same, but they’re not the president, they don’t command the bully pulpit from which he bullies others, inciting some to vile and violent action.  It exemplifies what Paul urged the Colossians to turn from if they are to seek the things that are above.

Having said that, am I guilty of malice, slander and abusive language?  Perhaps, but I think not.  There is nothing slanderous, malicious or abusive about stating what is observably, verifiably true.

Can Socialism and Capitalism Coexist? Yes, they can and do.

Socialism and capitalism: can they be mutually compatible, or are they like matter and antimatter, unable to coexist in the same place?  In the heated  climate of today’s political discourse, voices from the left condemn capitalism for all the ills of humankind.  Voices from the right assert all things liberal are socialist, which is Cuban communism in disguise.  For terms that generate such strong emotional reaction, one would expect them to be fairly well understood.  But ask any acquaintance to define what they mean, then stand by for garbled non sequiturs and vague obfuscations.  And why not?  Both have multitudes of meanings covering a lot of territory.  What interests me today is how people fill them with opprobrium to be lobbed into the public debate.
Vague, but strongly felt prejudices about capitalism and socialism come in part from popularization of ideas and phrases taken from works by people such as Weber and Schumpeter.  Weber’s 1905 “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” was skimmed by political science and sociology majors for what was likely to be on the final.  It contributed to the myth that Calvinism equated wealth accumulation with evidence of divine election thus driving the development of modern Western style capitalism.  Schumpeter’s 1942 “Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy” contributed to popular magazine articles and pamphlets warning about the Red Danger.  Students didn’t actually read Schumpeter – they read about him.  Echoes of each float around in the political ether infecting conversations of people who have no idea where they came from.  
For the record: capitalism and democracy are not the same thing; socialism and communism are not the same thing; capitalism and socialism coexist, more or less harmoniously, in every Western democracy.  Forms of capitalism profitably exist in nations claiming to be Marx loving communists.  Saying that doesn’t seem to penetrate very far into the understanding of those who prefer to believe otherwise.
For some people, capitalism is demonic oppression of the people, and needs to go.  But asked if it means they would do away with private property, private enterprise, mutual fund retirement accounts, and entrepreneurship, they’re aghast at the very idea of it.  What seems to enrage them is the amoral monopolistic power of giant corporations able to invade and control every aspect of life.  Add to it excessive inequality of income and wealth, and it’s not capitalism they dislike, it’s the injustice of conditions present in our democratic society’s private enterprise economy.  They want to change the conditions, not do away with private enterprise.
To other people, liberal ideology leads to socialism, which may not be communism but heads in that direction.  It puts private enterprise in straitjackets of heavy handed regulation, and over taxation that strips owners and managers of the freedom to make decisions they think best for business.  It subjects investors, savers, and entrepreneurs to the whims of greedy workers, government bureaucrats, and social do-gooders who have no skin in the game.  It appropriates hard earned wealth to provide benefits for those unwilling to provide for themselves.
There is truth in both views, but only partial truth.
Italian social philosopher Giorgio Agamben notes that capitalism, per se, is amoral and has no purpose other than for private hands to manipulate the flow of money in pursuit  of profit.  Borrowing from Walter Benjamin, he calls it a religion without dogma.  Business people, and businesses large and small, may be committed to socially worthwhile purposes, but capitalism, the ill defined skeleton within which they exist, is concerned only with maximizing return to invested parties.  It has no moral interest in what a business is or how it’s run.
Things falling under the equally ill defined umbrella of socialism do have a moral purpose.  Advocates believe they will make quality of life better, more just, and more economically rewarding for more people, especially those who are on the lower rungs of society.  They intend to open doors to self sufficiency that have been closed to many.  Within the context of American progressivism, the fundamental rights of private property and private enterprise are never in doubt, but the amorality of capitalism requires that it be regulated to protect the rights and well being of people, the environment, and the long term health of the economy.  
Libertarian advocates of capitalism often talk about the free market.  They believe free market capitalism, operating with very little (preferably no) government oversight, can rely on competitive markets to sort out inefficiencies and provide the best products and services at the lowest cost to rational willing buyers.  It’s an article of faith that ignores reality: markets are easily manipulated to hobble competition, and consumers are not rational.  Moreover, the myth of free market capitalism is uncomfortable accommodating conflicting public interests that jeopardize profit potential. 
Therefore, governments have always and everywhere intervened on behalf of the public good to regulate how markets are structured and business is conducted.  Greater complexities in markets, with increasing conflicts between public and private interests, require a more comprehensive menu of regulation.  It also means some services are better provided by government, or through public/private partnerships, because they don’t lend themselves to privatization that endangers some and excludes others to the detriment of the public good.  Conservative restraint is one thing, but obsessing about it becoming out of control socialism is rational only as a tool to incite fear for political gain. 
In like measure, liberal outrage against capitalism as such ignores its essential role in guiding the ebb and flow of money to meet the needs of a demanding public.  However imperfect, reasonably free market forces create opportunity for entrepreneurial improvements in goods and services that no other economic system has been able to match.  With them comes greater economic well being for more people.  Crafting economic policy to accomplish social goals that protect the environment, workers and consumers is not antithetical to capitalism.  Resolving issues like education, health care, and access to necessities of life with public financing is not free stuff for the undeserving.  It’s the nation’s collective investment in its own well being.

And what is there to say about hard core libertarians and hard core Marxists?  In my opinion, they have nothing useful to contribute to the conversation, but can be dangerous fomenters of anti-democratic violence.  The Marxists are a faint echo of a former time, but they still make useful bogeymen.  The libertarians have generated a powerful core of followers who think they have a man in the White House.  They don’t.

It’s time to get political in the pulpit

My preaching for the past several weeks has tried to show how following Jesus involves both individual and political obligations and expectations.  To put it another way, there are obligations and expectations about how individuals are to behave, but also about how societies, including nations, are to behave.
Individual obligations to love God and love one’s neighbors are well understood because they so easily fit into the myth of American individualism with its emphasis on self reliance and voluntary charity for those in need.  As they should, the parable of the Good Samaritan, and the new commandment to love one another as Christ loves us, encourage us to live in more morally responsible ways with one another.  It means our conversations about morals, or ethics, seldom stray from a focus on personal beliefs, attitudes and behaviors.  As essential as they are to following Jesus, they also contribute to a comfortable separation of discipleship from the political sphere, leaving it open for opportunists and religious charlatans.  
God, throughout scripture, has also laid down obligations and expectations for the way nations are to behave, and has a great deal to say about public policies that fail to meet them.  God does not endorse any particular form of government, but is crystal clear about what is expected of any nation’s public policies if they are to embody godly justice.  To follow Jesus, whom we proclaim to be the image of the invisible God in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell (Col. 1), requires us to be well informed about what God has to say through the ethical prophets of Hebrew scripture, because that’s where God’s political agenda is most clearly stated.  Amos intrigues me the most, but God’s words on public policy are also recorded in Isaiah, Hosea, Micah and Habakkuk.  Even the ancient laws in Numbers, Leviticus and Deuteronomy begin the process of limiting retributive justice, deescalating violence, and expanding human rights. 
The abundance of religious leaders flying the Christian flag, while promoting political agendas they claim to be biblical, are rarely in the same political arena as God.  The religious right is one example.  What they call traditional family values, with its suspicion of any deviation from the social-sexual norms they endorse, is an influential political force, however weak its scriptural warrant.  The religious left is less organized.  It lacks the coherence of the right, but it’s spawned its own array of political activists who wave the Christian flag with abandon, sometimes following Christ, and sometimes ignoring him.  In the meantime, lukewarm denominations happily mumble support for the way things are according to the social standards of their congregants.  Leaving politics to politicians, they stick with urging members to live good Christian lives.  To their credit, they also engineer impressive charitable works in the communities they serve, and of late, most have become welcoming and affirming of all.
In large part, predominantly white mainline denominations have sat out political engagement, leaving it to the black churches on one hand, and conservative white evangelicals on the other.  The latter, obsessed with sin and sex, appear to have become Jesus praising agents for secular right wing libertarian nationalism that seems to have little connection with godly justice.
It’s time for mainline preachers to be bold in Christ, fearless in bringing politics into the pulpit.  Not as Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals, but as prophetic voices proclaiming what God expects justice to look like in any society.
So, what does godly justice look like?  I touched on it in a recent column, but it bears repeating.  God expects international treaties and compacts to be honored; crops and food supplies to be off limits as weapons of war; weights and measures to be honest; foods to be unadulterated; civil violence to be avoided; legitimate civil authority to be respected; workers and the poor to be protected from manipulation into the bondage of debt; usury to be avoided; justice to be impartial, giving no preference to the rich; the poor not to be cheated out of opportunity and the necessities of life; the courts to be uncorrupted; monopolization of resources to be avoided; taxes to be fairly apportioned; and excesses of income inequality to be addressed.
It’s not an exhaustive list.  You might find a few more to add.  The point is, what God expected social justice to look like almost three thousand years ago continues to be as true today as it was then.  You want truth, absolute godly truth?  This is as close as you’re likely to come.  It stands up to examination through the lens of Jesus: love God with all your everything, love your neighbor as yourself, love one another as I love you.  For Christians, everything in scripture, old and new, hangs on these and is interpreted by them.  Prophetic words about godly justice are given even greater authority through Jesus’ words and deeds that break down barriers separating us from one another, heal and reconcile us to one another, and cry out for the oppressed and poor.

Conservatives who are nervous that this looks like a camel’s nose under the tent for a politically liberal agenda, it’s time to get over it.  For the lukewarm who would rather avoid conflict than face it, it’s time to take a stand.  Each has needed gifts.  Conservatives help keep things on track.  The lukewarm, gaining courage, help mediate toward agreement.  But God’s agenda takes precedent over all.

I Am Deeply Troubled

I am deeply troubled by a president who proclaims “if you don’t love it here, leave, get out.”  The old canard of America, love it or leave it, has never been used by moderates, liberals or traditional conservatives.  They’ve always been the threatening words of right wing ersatz patriots whose meaning is clear: if you don’t agree with me, you’re disloyal and have no right to be here.  And that’s especially true if you’re some color other than white.
I am deeply troubled when a senior member of the White House staff says liberals in general, and four Members of Congress in particular, represent the “dark underbelly of America.”  They are four women who have fought hard for the inclusion of the most marginalized into the fullness of all that America claims to be.   Demanding that the nation live up to the standards of justice it proclaims for itself, is not a dark underbelly but a guiding light.
I am deeply troubled by a leading senator who calls them socialists and communists.  He is a learned man who knows perfectly well that their liberal proposals fall well within our system that values individual rights and private enterprise.  He fully understands the bonfires of fear his incendiary remarks will light.  He is an arsonist of right wing authoritarian racism.  
I am deeply troubled by a Senate majority leader who has finally mumbled it’s time to restore a higher level of civility to the conversation, assuring us that there are bad people on every side, but the president is not one of them.  I can only assume he realizes the president has gone too far, but if he can spread the blame around thin enough it might not jeopardize the march toward remaking the nation in the tea party image of laissez faire opportunity for some, and repression for many.
I am deeply troubled by right wing media shouting that every “liberal” proposal is something from the radical left bent on destroying freedom.  Policies intended to improve the well being of communities, workers, the environment, and, yes, business and industry too, are not radical left.  Policies that would bring more fair justice into the lives of more people are not radical left.  Their endorsement of autocratic rule in the name of freedom is frightening.
I am deeply troubled by Facebook and Twitter sites that are replete with Americans (and foreign bots) who concur, joyfully concur, and believe that somehow this will lead to a restored America in which their future is secure, and those who trouble them will be removed one way or the other.  They really believe we’re being invaded.  They really believe asylum seekers are criminals and neer-do-wells.  They really believe the ACA has made health care worse.  They really believe Obama caused the Great Recession and blew the deficit out of control.  They really believe they’re not racists, but.  But immigrants from poor non-white countries are not wanted; but those who manage to get in (legally) must immediately assimilate, which means speak English and defer to your betters; but non-white citizens should quit whining about racism (the good ones who know their place are OK).  They really believe what they’re told about over regulation, about how the federal government wants to control their lives, and how liberals are all closet communists.  They are really blind to the authoritarian control over their lives they’re giving willingly into the hands of those who promise them freedom.

Pulpit, Politics & Amos

Whether the pulpit is the right place for political commentary is hotly debated.  My experience is that church goers don’t mind if what’s said is marginally related to God and generally in accord with their own beliefs.  It leads to politically segregated congregations with the liberal church at one end of town and the conservative church at the other.  In between are congregations with ministries that address favored issues while pretending they’re biblical, not political.  The constitutional separation of church and state has never found a meaning acceptable to all parties, which means the phrase has become a blunt instrument used to defend every possible interpretation while attacking others.  Ever wonder what God might have to say about preaching and politics?
The lectionary gives us a few weeks in Amos where I believe God has thundered with political judgment, holding preachers accountable for boldly proclaiming God’s expectations for society’s public policies.  To be sure, Amos was sent to the kingdom of Israel in the reign of Jeroboam II, which seems too remote from our 21st century republican democracy to be of any use.  But God appears to be disinterested in forms of government, yet has a great deal to say about standards of justice and equity transcending centuries of developments in governmental structure.  Moreover, I believe God’s ordained ministers are required to proclaim them in our day as was Amos in his.
What we are called to proclaim is not necessarily safe to proclaim.  It wasn’t for Amos who got kicked out of the kingdom, but there are ways to be diplomatically bold by avoiding party and candidate endorsements, and by showing respect for a broad range of points of view.  Nevertheless, no bold preacher has ever avoided controversy altogether.  It’s the price of being called to preach God’s word. 
What was Amos called to preach that also challenges us?  God condemned Israel and surrounding kingdoms for public policies that offended the standards of godly justice.  They included policies that betrayed treaties and covenants of friendship, engaged in ethnic cleansing, used food supplies as weapons, and sent whole populations into exile.  God was outraged at policies that manipulated the working poor into the bondage of debt, deprived the poor of the necessities of life, and imposed taxes favoring the rich.  Corrupt judges, incitement of civic violence, and disrespect for legitimate civil authority got God’s goat.  Those who lacked compassion for the suffering of others, and took undue pride in their status were an affront to him.  What was true 2,800 years ago is no less true today.
We no longer live in the time of kings like Jeroboam, for whom government and religion were one.  Now the world is filled with combinations and permutations of governments defying easy classification.  Our particular form of a democratic republic is unique and may not work for others, but we’re convinced that representative democracy, adapted to fit local cultures, is the best kind of government to optimize individual freedom and social well being.  As Americans, we say government should not establish or favor any form of religion, but should protect everyone’s right to worship as they please (with cautious suspicion that there may be limits to what’s allowed).  It hasn’t stopped some sectarians from asserting their rightful place as the U.S.A.’s only legitimate religious faith, but that’s for another column.  The point is that God’s expectations for what just public policy should strive for are universal truths that must be taken seriously.
I’m convinced it’s imperative that preachers do what they can to proclaim God’s expectations for just public policy, boldly confronting injustice, and teaching those to whom they’re sent to do the same.  There’s no one right way to do that.  Authentic and honest expressions of it may look conservative to some and liberal to others, but keeping God’s expectations at the center will help open ways to reasonable and workable, albeit imperfect, agreements.  


Bubble, lots of social bubbles. We all live in them.

Jesus went about breaking down barriers that separate us one from another.  The sick, outcast, and alien were enfolded in his healing and reconciling love.  We who claim to follow Jesus have been instructed to do the same, each as fully as able, constantly pushing the limits of ability.  Thousands of years before Jesus, the psalmist celebrated a time yet to come when God would declare that Rahab, Babylon, Philistia, Tyre and Ethiopia, strangers and enemies of Israel, would be counted among God’s own.  Paul, writing to the Galatians, declared that in Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female for all are one in Christ Jesus.  In our own time we sing “In Christ there is no east or west, in him no south or north, but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth.”  There are few sermons that fail to include a call to follow in the way of Christ outside the church in our ordinary daily lives.
None of it falls on deaf ears, but translating it into a more Christlike way of life isn’t easy.  Instead, these heartwarming words are likely to be received as wonderful and inspiring ideals of hope, but set aside by Sunday afternoon to attend to the immediacy of personal lives overwhelmed by needs, anxieties, customs and habits.  I think it has to do with the bubbles – social bubbles – in which all of us live.
I’ve been thinking about it given the example of several long time friends whose Christian faith is unshakable, but contained within social bubbles that if burst would destroy their sense of self.  Whatever Christian faith calls one to be, it must be contained within one’s established bubble.  Other long term acquaintances live in bubbles resistant to organized religion for the same reason.  Fear, prejudice, ignorance, habits, and lack of intellectual curiosity create bubble defenses difficult to penetrate.  It’s not true for every person.  Some, perhaps many, live in permeable bubbles, highly mobile bubbles, or bubbles defined by unrestrained curiosity about life in other bubbles.  One way or the other, we all live in bubbles.
So what’s a bubble?  
Sociologists have been studying social bubbles for a long time.  Bubbles are closed environments, bubbly human terrariums if you will, that sustain, defend, and give order to the meaning of life.  In them we find comfort and security.  Properly stocked, they are places of refuge against the “slings and arrows of outrageous fate.”  In one sense, individuals live in their own unique bubbles custom designed by each to fit their needs and desires.  In another sense, bubbles of like minded people interact with each other to form bubble colonies in which members can interact in mutual reassurance.  Individual bubbles, having degrees of mobility, might even belong to more than one colony.  
Bubbles are transparent, or at least translucent, so we’re not unaware of other bubbles about us, and we can know, or think we know, something about them. Even without verifiable knowledge about the other, we can assume things about them based on their similarity to, or deviance from, the norms of our own bubbles.  Better yet, colonies of like minded bubbles reinforce each other with shared assumptions taking on the appearance of reliable verification that we find reassuring.
Faculty members of our two four year colleges often talk about the college bubble that enables staff and students alike to exist in the greater community without actually being a part of it.  Since their bubbles have mobility, they can float through the greater community as curious onlookers, insulated in their bubbles from too much engagement.  I’ve experienced a like sensation on cruises where stops at exotic ports of call feature guided tours in mini bubbles before returning to the big bubble in the harbor where all is comfortably familiar. 
I live in a small city in the rural setting of the intermountain West where watching bubble dynamics is easier to do.  It’s a college town, a center for premium wine making, and the primary market place for a region of large farms and ranches.  The Corps of Engineers has a regional HQ here, and the state’s maximum security prison sits on a hill just outside the city.  It means there are lots of bubbles and colonies of bubbles that keep bumping into each other in ways that force inter-bubble contact.  It has a bubble watching advantage over large metropolitan areas where bubble colonies can be more easily isolated from one another  Neighborhoods of richer and poorer are not separated by much, sometimes by nothing more than a fence or hedge.  It’s an easy bike ride from the Symphony to the rodeo to the prison.  Farmers, old time families, newbies, country clubbers, blue collar workers, professionals, they all live in their bubble colonies, but they can’t avoid bumping into each other. 
Well insulated bubbles are like self created miniature universes in which residents live as their own imagined gods.  They may need transactions with the outside world for supplies and entertainment, but each transaction can be interpreted to exist for no purpose other than adding value to the self created universe of the bubble’s godly occupant.  Some bubbles are armored with strong prejudicial values acting like Star Trek deflection shields.  Others are capable of a limited range of interaction with members of other bubble colonies.  A few careen from one to another as if in search of home.  There are bubbles with permeable boundaries, and persons willing to leave them for a season to explore the outside world.  The point is that in a small rural city it’s possible to watch all of them at more or less the same time.
From what perspective?, one might ask.  From the perspective of the bubble I live in and the bubble colonies to which I belong.  “To know thyself” is an old and debated adage, but in this case it means to be honestly and critically aware of the bubble one lives in, of the existence of other bubbles, and of the nature of the bubble colonies to which one might be attached.  

Which brings me back to Jesus.  He continues  to break down the barriers that separate us one from another, inviting our bubbles to be more vulnerable.  He invites us to be among those who occasionally leave their bubbles altogether walking into the lives others as they experience it.  My guess is that many regular church attendees are unaware of the bubbles in which they live because they’ve become invisible in the ebb and flow of daily life.  It’s an act of disciplined self awareness to know one’s own bubble, and a leap of faith to trust in God to be present in one’s greater vulnerability if it becomes more permeable.  Venturing outside doesn’t mean others will be more receptive to the invasion of their lives in their bubbles.  Nevertheless, God invites us to give it a try.  Offer God’s peace.  Be agents of healing and reconciliation.  Then go back home to a more permeable bubble.