Confession & the Congregation: New Beginnings

Most liturgical traditions include a general confession in the service of Holy Eucharist. Each, in slightly different words, confesses that ‘we,’ meaning the collective we of all present, have sinned against God by what has been done and not done through failing to love God, neighbors and selves. It asserts to be sorry and repentant. It begs God for mercy and forgiveness that will help them delight in God’s will and walk in God’s ways. There are variations on the theme, of course.

I suspect it’s recited more by rote than anything else, and for many worshipers is understood to be their individual voices of personal confession joined together in one great data dump laid at the foot of the altar. My suspicions are that most can’t think of anything special about which they should confess, at least not in that particular moment. While it’s nice to have clergy pronounce God’s forgiveness over them, they’re unsure about what they are being forgiven. I confess that I’ve sometimes felt that way, and I’m supposed to know better.

I confess and regret that, in my years of active ministry, I failed in sermons and teaching to invite the congregation to slow down at the confession, allowing time for reflection on what is truly being confessed, which is our common sin, the sin of the church to be sure, but more especially the sin of the particular congregation at worship at that moment. It’s a serious question. What has the congregation done, or not done, that has failed to demonstrate love of God, neighbor, and itself as a community of the people of God who follow Jesus Christ?

Some congregations are complacently satisfied with the good works they do, but are disinterested in asking how it proclaims the gospel in ways others can apprehend. Some can’t see much difference between them and other social service agencies in town. Some are comfortable being a club of like minded folk who gather each week for worship and coffee. Some take pride in being “Cardinal Parishes” rich in liturgical self adornment, or local standing as the church to belong to. Too many are attended by people who have never been adequately educated in what it means to be Christians who worship in the ways of a particular tradition. Some claim such poverty of existence that they see little purpose for themselves beyond mere survival.

For all in the mainline (Catholics included) there is far too much whining about declining membership, the desire for more young families, and the need for more sophisticated marketing. There is far too little determination to proclaim the gospel in ways that strengthen and challenge congregations and congregants. In some congregations there is too much reliance on clergy and staff. In others, clergy shirk their duty, in the name of the priesthood of all believers, overwhelming the laity with burdens they cannot carry.

The general confession speaks to each of these and more. It’s not meant to shove congregations into pits of self pity, fits of worthlessness, or congregational self-flagellation. But it is to be taken seriously as a discipline of regular, ongoing, self examination with the intent to constantly improve. Constant improvement is accomplished not by adding more onto an already heavy load, but by saying farewell to programs and activities that have served their purpose, adding new ones to address emerging needs, seeking constant small improvements in ongoing basic services, moving on from recognized mistakes, and above all, constantly remembering that all is to be done to the glory of God’s name so that “others will see your good works and give glory to their Father in heaven.” (Matt. 5) To make that more clear: so that others will see your good works and give thanks not to Saint Swithens in the Swamp, but to God Almighty.

The general confession demands an answer to two questions. Who are we? Why are we here? The general confession, understood in this way, will bring many, not all, but many congregants to their personal reflection on what it means to be a Christian in this congregation, what’s expected of them, and to their own confession of repentance, turning to enter in new or renewed ways into the life of Christ in community.

Truth is Often in Bad Taste

I was chastised recently by a Trump voting friend for posting a copy of an editorial cartoon implying that Trump’s committed base has traded the babe in the manger, for an evil imitation messiah.  It was, he said, in bad taste, especially at Christmas.  He was right, in a way.  It was in bad taste, as truth is often in bad taste.  I complained to a friend that being a priest who writes about politics has its downside.  These last four years have sometimes made me feel less like a bearer of the light of Christ, and more like John the Baptist crying “you brood of vipers.”  It’s not comfortable, it appears in bad taste, especially in Christmastide.

Some have asked why I write about politics at all.  After all, Jesus never said a word about the legitimacy or illegitimacy of Roman rule, or how the Sanhedrin was organized.  He was neither a capitalist nor a Marxist, and it’s impossible to pin him down with modern terms like liberal or conservative.  People who try to make him into a radical of their choice always push it too far to hold.  Why not leave it alone.  Let Jesus stay in churches saving those who accept him as their personal savior.  What he says about good and bad, right and wrong, is for each person’s private life.  Leave politics out of it.

It’s not just that I’ve spent too much of my adult life working in the political realm to leave it behind.  It’s not just that politics is the art of deciding how we will live together in community, and those decisions should be important to each of us.  It’s much more than that.  Holy scripture proclaims that God has standards of justice ‘he’ expects of political decisions, and for which ‘his’ people will be held accountable.  As for my experience, there were a few brushes with centers of power, but mostly it was concerned with how main streets and rural interests might provide greater opportunity for more people, how corporations could do well without surrendering moral obligations to the communities in which they operated, and how local public policy decisions could be made with greater concern for the commonweal.  The gap is wide between what people want to hear, and what they’re willing to do.  Yet, God kept interrupting when bosses and clients were talking, and at some point I had to begin listening to what ‘he’ had to say about politics. 

The gospel record of Jesus’ life, teaching, death and resurrection cannot be fully understood except in the context of fulfilling all the law and prophets.  It cannot stand apart from what we call the Old Testament, the only scripture known to Jesus and the first generation of his followers.  Jesus, the Word of God made flesh, is the source and inspiration that guided its writers and editors.  What he taught during his earthly ministry clarified and punctuated its message with ultimate authority, under which all other authority is subordinate.  Nowhere in scripture is anything said about democracy vs. monarchy, liberalism vs. conservatism, or socialism vs. capitalism.  Yet issues of godly justice with a bias for the poor and marginalized, and judgment critical of systemic disparities between the rich and poor, are central themes for how God holds governments and governors accountable.  Whatever form governments take, God has established standards and boundaries for how they are to serve the people.

It is sometimes argued that the Old Testament concerns only what was going on with Israelites and their neighbors in the ancient Near East.  With Jesus all that came to an end.  It fails on two points.  First, the ancient Israelites were given the job of bearing the light of God’s word to the whole world.  What they experienced, what God had to say, and what the Jewish scriptures attest to is more than theological allegory or metaphor, it is the light that instructs us as it did them.  It is the story of unfolding revelation that continues to unfold to this day.  Second, Jesus’ life and teaching defined what personal responsibility means in the life of community regardless of time, place or condition.  He established by word and example how Christians are to bear the light of Christ that contains the fullness of godly justice into whatever world they live in. In every place it must stand for what is just against what is unjust, and that engages Christians in politics.  What is just, or more particularly, what is godly justice, may be just out of human reach, but it’s always in the direction of loving God (and no other god) with all one’s heart, soul, strength and mind; loving neighbors near and far, like and unlike, breaking down barriers of separation; and loving one’s self as a beloved child of God, no matter the flaws.  

To follow Jesus is to rule out individualism’s ethic that defines the highest good as personal freedom to act in one’s self interest.  To follow Jesus demands personal responsibility and accountability for the greater good of the community.  It demands that Christians do what they can to influence public policy (community decisions) that are just, equitable, non discriminatory, more inclusive than exclusive, and that oppose every form of oppression and persecution.  It doesn’t claim that personal freedom to act in one’s self interest is wrong or bad, but that it is always subordinate to godly justice.  To follow Jesus doesn’t rule out inequality between persons, it rules out systems that enforce inequalities.  It rules out power used to oppress and deny opportunities generally granted to others.  It rules out private actions that impose onerous costs on society. 

As the ancient scriptures present us with an unfolding story of God’s self revelation, and the people’s struggle to apprehend what it meant to them, so Christian engagement in whatever political arena  they find themselves is an uncertain unfolding of what it means to follow Christ with whatever resources are at hand in the midst of those who follow other ways.  It demands courage, perseverance, the willingness to admit error, and a determined effort to love others as God in Christ Jesus loves the world.  Because they are only human, Christians can never claim to be absolutely certain about their public policy advocacy.  Of Jesus, they can be absolutely certain; all other truths are provisional.  Fair warning: following Jesus in this way will often be condemned as in bad taste.

A New Normal Begins To Take Shape

Vaccines are beginning to make their appearance.  It’s wonderful news as we face the greatest surge of infections and death to date in this year long plague.  When we can return to whatever a normal life will be remains to be seen.  It depends in part on the willingness of the people to be patient, not try to rush things, and to continue the crude but effective safety measures that protect us all.  I have only modest confidence that enough will be so willing. 

In any case, it appears that a “new normal” is on the horizon, and we can expect to be here in due time. “New normal,” that’s the term trotted around the talking head circuit on television, and finding its way into news and opinion columns.  I would rather we had a better term.  Normal is understood in too many unique ways to be broadly shared.  This year of COVID restrictions has interrupted the normal we were used to, but a new normal implies that it will be much like the old one with a few minor changes.  That seems unlikely.  What we call normal is really a sense that society is in equilibrium with enough predictability to confidently plan ahead.  That equilibrium was shattered by COVID, the disruption exacerbated by the government’s inability to provide helpful leadership.

Equilibrium will return to society, but it will be unlike the former state of equilibrium.  It will have new expectations for what is considered normal, and therefore acceptable.  But like the old equilibrium, it will be predictable enough for us to plan ahead to socially engage in relative freedom.  We’ve been through this before, not in the distant past, but in our own era.  The First World War and the 1918 flu epidemic created enormous disruptions in society that seemed to demolish all the social standards Americans took for granted.  Together with Prohibition, they ushered in the Roaring Twenties in which, as the song says, anything goes.  Some thought it was a new normal, but it was only a bubble, an economic and moral spasm leading to a new, unwanted equilibrium established by the Great Depression.  

The Great Depression was an equilibrium of shared poverty, hard work, low pay, and slow change for the better that came in modest steps leaving some to wonder if there had been any change at all.  Times were stable if not desirable. They were predictable enough for planning ahead, even if under impoverished circumstances.  That equilibrium was shattered by WWII.  Being able to plan ahead for the long term was put on hold for the duration.  The post war years brought a new equilibrium, one that became so stable it was called normal, the way normal was supposed to be, the American Dream come true.  It’s the normal of nostalgic desire for the way things used to be.  Good paying jobs were plentiful.  New technologies made communication, travel, home life, and business more efficient and entertaining.  Next year would always be a better year – yearly new car models promised it.  Many hope the new normal we look forward to will be like that one.  It won’t. 

The Vietnam and Civil Rights era put an end to the post war era (so did Reaganomics, but that’s for another time).  Suddenly our wars weren’t always just.  Black people, who had always known their place, rose up to declare they wouldn’t take it anymore.  The institutions of government and business were challenged, as were long held ideas about sex, marriage and family life.  In the years that followed we struggled to accommodate new ways of more freedom for more people into an acceptable equilibrium, and a new understanding of normal.  Then 9/11 hit.  

The nation went into shock under tight military controlled lockdown.  For months, we did not know what would happen tomorrow.  Fear and restrictions eased; we learned how to make TSA a new normal of sorts.  The civil rights threatening Patriot Act became just part of the background noise of daily life.  We could plan again, but with more constraints, more awareness of threats, and greater cognizance of what was going on in other parts of the world.  We got used to an economy engineered to transfer wealth upward and keep wages and salaries static.  It seemed normal if not comfortable.  At least it was predictable.  

Then the biggest of all bubbles burst.  The Great Recession crashed down on us.  It took the last year of one administration and the first year of the next to put a recovery plan into place.  In the meantime, nothing was normal, plans that had been made were unraveling, and there was nothing one could do about it.  The recovery plans worked, and for eight years there was slow but steady growth in all sectors.  Once again we were in equilibrium, plans for the future could be safely made, because the future looked predictable.  But how normal was a black president?  What happened to the American Dream of the post war years?  How did China become the world’s second largest economy, and likely to be the largest in a few more years? What happened to the old balance of power with the U.S. dictating policies to the rest of the world?  Tax and Spend Democrats were the ones making the nation fiscally responsible.  Fiscally conservative Reagan Republicans were the ones driving up deficit and debt.  It was all backward from what many had been led to be true.   One way or another, it lead to Trump.  

The oddity of Trump’s election, and the bizarreness of his administration seemed more like distractions than serious threats to our equilibrium.  All “sound and fury signifying nothing,” but Birnam Wood was moving ,and its name was COVID.  A plague more deadly than the 1918 flu that paid no attention to presidential tweets, and for which he had no plans to do anything about it.  No nationwide lockdown this time, the virus went where it would while states and localities did what they believed best for their people.  Travel stopped, businesses were shuttered, hospitals overflowed, 300,000 (so far) died, many who recovered found they carried long term after effects.  Many learned to wear masks wherever they went.  Many did not.  Social distancing became the new rule.  Many ignore it.  Unemployment skyrocketed.  Schools began teaching by Zoom – for kids who had access to high speed internet and modern computers.  Zoom?  Zoom didn’t exist a few years ago.  Now the nation runs on it.  While the stock market rose to new heights, the economy was in near free fall.  It didn’t make any sense.  We found ourselves in an unpredictable Alice in Wonderland world made more unpredictable by the uprising of black and brown people whom white leaders thought had been satisfied with the generous but unfulfilled promises made to them back in the 1960s.  To add to the confusion, a surprising number of fascists came out from behind tea party banners to confront the nation with threats of violence.  Then they turned against the very pillars of American democracy in pursuit of retaining a would be autocrat in the office of president that he lost, bigly.

Vaccines have arrived.  A new administration is soon to be sworn into office.  There is light ahead.  How far ahead remains to be seen, but it’s predictable.  People are calling for a new normal, what they’ll get is a new equilibrium in which what is normal will grow, and it will be as different from its predecessors as each new normal of the past hundred years has been.  I have a few guesses.  Mask wearing will be more common, even after the pandemic has ended.  Jobs will return to offices, but not all of them, and to offices in more dispersed locations.   Zoom, and things like it, are here to stay.  If business travel is not essential, it won’t happen.  A national infrastructure priority will be assurance of high speed internet in every place, no matter how rural.  Cybersecurity will be our highest defense priority.  Renovation of the nation’s physical infrastructure  will accommodate new technologies that reduce demand for cars, trucks, and traffic flows, but will not restrict access to cars and trucks for anyone who wants or needs them.  Guns will be regulated, not taken away.  Gigantic cruise ships will be scrapped.  Midsize and small ships will do a good business.  Airline travel will rebound, but we might see more passenger friendly skies – I hope so.  Unions will gain strength and status, but not like the old days.  The U.S. will again be a leader among nations, but not the only one.  China will not be an enemy like Russia was, but it will be our fiercest competitor, and tensions will always be high.  Globalization will return, but with greater respect for national integrity, and concern for American workers.  The tax code will be modified to make the playing field more level, encourage low and middle income growth, restrict super salaries, and remove the imperative for CEOs to make shareholder value their highest/only measure of success.  As increasing numbers of non-white persons become more prominent in national leadership, the old normal of white (male) hegemony will slowly dissipate, but not without struggle.  

Can you rely on my predictions? There used to be a celebrity fortune teller named Jean Dixon whose annual predictions made front page news, at least in the tabloids.  I predict that my predictions will be as accurate as hers were.

Hush the Noise and Cease the Strife

What an odd Christmas we are about to have. Most of us will abstain from the usual round of social gatherings, family visits, and gala Christmas Eve church services overflowing with packed pews, familiar carols, heart warming pageants, and maybe even a good sermon.

It doesn’t seem right. It isn’t right. On the other hand, the Christmas story is set in the dark of night, far removed from family, under uncomfortable circumstances. In spite of medieval claims that Mary had a painless birth, I suspect she endured what all mothers endure in childbirth. No doubt Joseph was about as helpful as most fathers, which is not much. Matthew said they fled to Egypt as Herod’s forces sought to kill them. In Luke, they returned to Nazareth as soon as Jesus could be circumcised, and Mary could sit on a donkey for several days of travel. Neither says Merry Christmas.

In this year, when our lives, and ways of life, are restricted and threatened, we might both listen to the Christmas story and participate in it with Mary and Joseph. Like them, we’re in places we’d rather not be under conditions we’d rather not endure. We could join with the shepherds in wonder, curiosity and doubt. In the subdued quietness of this Christmas, the angels from on high might be more clearly heard. “It came upon a midnight clear” contains the line, “Yet with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long; beneath the heavenly hymn have rolled two thousand years of wrong; and warring humankind hears not the tidings which they bring; O hush the noise and cease your strife and hear the angels sing.” The noise of Christmases past has been hushed. This is a quiet Christmas. Listen for the angels.

It’s been a year of strife: political and economic strife with limits on our freedom of movement. Too many put their hope in authoritarian leadership. Too many are living on or over the edge of hunger, homelessness, and unemployment. Too many are losing all they’ve worked for. Too many are grieving the death of loved ones. Too many fill hospitals to overflowing. Too many belittle the seriousness of he pandemic. It’s too much strife.

It’s been a dark year, but it’s provided an unusual and unasked for opportunity: time and space to hush the noise and cease the strife and hear the angels sing. Of the father’s love begotten lies the king of angels, a helpless baby, given human life by the flesh and blood of his mother, dependent on Mary and Joseph for everything. That flickering light of new life cannot be overcome by darkness. He is the Word of God made flesh.

Deprived of the social connections we want and need, we may have a greater opportunity to hush the noise and cease the strife and hear the angels sing. Come with the shepherds to the manger. Leave bearing the light of Christ, not for ourselves only, but for the whole world.

The Texas Fantasy & How We Got There

In a chain of correspondence, a friend wondered, “What is the ultimate fantasy at work in this Texas appeal…?”  It’s a good question that took some reflection before writing back, which led to this column.  The ultimate fantasy, I think, is to overturn the election and establish Trump as a Putin like strongman pretending to defend democracy.  If Trump was as smart, wily, and experienced as Putin, we could be in real trouble, but he’s not.  He’s basically a flimflam artist with the instincts of a street fighter, and not much else, which raises another question.  How did we get to this place?

I think we have to go back to the America First movement of the late 1930s and early 1940s.  On one hand, it was a single issue isolationist antiwar movement.  On the other, it braided strands of cherished American individualism with elements of anti-Jewish white supremacy, fear of socialism, and economic anxiety.  It was a fascist oriented populist movement that endorsed much of Germany’s Nazism as the aryan antidote to FDR’s New Deal, cheered on by the usual oligarchical suspects.

It ceased to exist shortly after December 7, 1941, but it established the modern setting from which arose McCarthyism, the John Birch Society and Goldwater.  In a nutshell, they favored radical libertarianism in which government would be prohibited from regulating business and industry, taxes would be minimal, and government’s main job would be aggressive defense of American interests.  It opposed to any form of civil rights legislation, and saw every social welfare program as a slippery slide toward communism.  It was far too radical for the mainstream of American society, even for the Republican Party, until affable Ronald Reagan normalized it as just good old patriotic Americanism.  For all the loudly proclaimed patriotism and love of the Constitution, the move put the GOP on an un-democratic path toward surrender of the libertarian individualism it cherished to the authoritarian control of political leaders and a relative handful of oligarchs.  It sounds like a second rate script for a failed tv series, but it’s not far off the influential guidance of  the Nobel prize wining economist, James M. Buchanan.    

We’ve seen it played out at the local level through appeals, very effective appeals, to the economic and social anxieties of vulnerable folk.  They’re often characterized in the press as working class, or non-college educated whites, which may be true but is often said in a smugly condescending way.  It’s enough to enrage hard working, well educated (but maybe not college educated) folks only a few paychecks from dropping into the lower classes.  They believe in the individualist credo.  They’re truly patriotic.  They’ve been sold on the welfare queen story.  They understand politics, economics, and the Constitution in vague yet concrete ways.  Thanks to Reagan, they’ve been convinced that conservative is good and liberal is bad.   So they’re conservative, even if everything they want and need is part of the liberal agenda.  In the end, it makes them vulnerable to skillful manipulation from the fascist wing of the GOP.  Did I say fascist?  Yes I did.

So what about the Attorneys General who jumped on Texas Attorney General Paxton’s snake oil wagon?  Without ceremony, the Supreme Court took the wheels off of it.  The AGs aren’t stupid, they knew it would happen that way.  And what about the 100 plus Members of Congress who say they support the case?  They’re all well educated.  They know the Constitution is more than Article II and the Second Amendment.  What’s going on?  Reports indicate Paxton, who is in serious legal difficulty, might be trolling for a pardon, but his move has gotten out of hand and taken on a life of its own.  It’s become a lynchpin holding together the diminishing hopes of Trump’s core.  I’m guessing the AGs and MCs are pandering to them as a means to secure their reelections.  Some may be true believers, but more, I suspect, are simply finding it difficult to give up the Reagan myth on which they were raised.  

Weaponizing the Way of Love in a Weaponized Society

We live in a weaponized society. It’s not only about guns, it’s also about the language we use to weaponize political disagreements, economic and social class differences, consumer marketing gimmicks, and personal relationships of every kind. Good church going people sometimes defend our weaponizing ways with appeals to scripture that praise swords, breastplates, helmets, shields and such. It’s often couched in undertones of confrontation, daring anyone to question one’s right to weaponize whatever is at hand to defend one’s self against perceived threats, real or imagined. When Paul’s letter to the Ephesians comes up, sermons often focus on the armor Paul says we should wear, because it’s what draws the attention of listeners. Everyone wants to know about the armor. What could be more cool than holy armor? Knights Templar will rise again. When the passage from Luke 22 is read (“…the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one.”), it’s taken literally and updated to mean a 9 mm Glock. It can lead to claims of Christian endorsement for the worst of weaponizing propaganda.

We’re so easily distracted by, and attracted to, this kind of stuff that the key message of scripture can get lost. What are the adjectives that describe the armor and weapons? Light, Truth, Righteousness, Peace, Faith, Salvation, Love, Hope, and the indwelling Power of the Holy Spirit. Not what anyone would call knightly armor. Not a Glock in sight. But it’s what Christians are to wear, carry and use as followers of Jesus on the way of love. They’re not weapons of violence and revenge, but tools of godly power to heal, reconcile, and bring a greater measure of godly justice into the world. They’re swords beaten into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks, so that nations and people shall not lift up sword against each other any more. (Isa.2, Mic.4, and yes I know about Joel 3)

How have we come to such a place that even Christians have fallen into the ways of weaponization that make it so hard too follow Jesus in the way of love? The answer may lie partly in our chosen entertainments. Action movies and tv shows celebrate violent revenge as the epitome of justice that restores equilibrium to the lives of good people. That can be appealing in a time of social and economic upheaval, but it’s justice meted out not by the community’s rule of law, often portrayed as corrupt, incompetent, or cowardly, but by courageous outlaw heroes who wreak total destruction on their enemies. A steady diet of that stuff may inspire the macho posturing of people who believe they are threatened by a rapidly changing world over which they have little control, and which, in their eyes, has left them behind and forgotten.

It inclines them to turn against those most committed to their long term well being, whom they cast as the institutional enemy. Worse, they turn for justice to those who consider them politically malleable, and little more than expendable commodities. Economic, class and racial prejudices make them easy targets for political predators who promise restoration of all they believe they’ve lost. While it’s a phenomenon adhering mostly to the tea party right wing, left wing zealots are not immune. Centrist, right and left, are not above the fray, and too often allow themselves to be passively tolerant.

Following Jesus on a path paved by light, truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, love, hope, and the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit, is also a path that boldly confronts injustice by naming it, and proclaiming what is needed for a more godly way of justice to be had. It’s never an easy path. It can be coopted by persons using Jesus’ name to justify their prejudices and promote their social values. It’s an evolutionary path along which God continues to speak and create. Our ability to understand and absorb what is new is limited, slow to apprehend, and suspicious of being misled. It’s not helpful that we thirst for concrete answers, and God keeps changing both the questions and the answers. It’s a path that will never satisfy political hardliners. It will always make the comfortably complacent, uncomfortable. Speaking only for myself, it’s a path that always ends in doubt before it’s revealed that the end is yet far away, so there’s nothing to do but go on in “faith seeking understanding.”

Advent & Christmas: Seasons of Announcements

Advent may be a time of waiting, but it’s also a time of announcing. An angel appeared to Zechariah announcing that he would have a son who would go before the Messiah to proclaim his coming. Zechariah’s son, John the Baptist, announced the imminence of the Messiah who would judge the world. An angel appeared to Joseph announcing that Mary’s pregnancy was of divine origin. The angel Gabriel appeared to Mary announcing that she has been chosen to bear the Messiah. Angels from on high announced the holy birth to shepherds in the field. A lot of announcing fills birth narratives of scripture, and in our own day, a lot of announcing fills the weeks leading up to Christmas.

Every store is decorated for the holidays. Holiday music fills the air. Television is overflowing with Hallmark Christmas movies. Carols are broadcast over every medium. Each in their own way announce a special time: a time of joyfulness, of generosity, of unrestrained consumerism, of love, of hope, of harmonious togetherness. It’s all a bit pagan, and we love it, but it raises questions.

What are we Christians announcing, and to whom do we announce it? The remembrance of all the announcing of Jesus’ arrival is warming, comforting, soothing. It’s wonderfully promising that the Prince of Peace has arrived, and all will be well. With carols filling every public space, adorable pageants, and decorations everywhere, It’s tempting to sink sentimentally into the story of two thousand years ago, with renewed hope that the time of long awaited peace will finally be ours. Not to be too cynical, it’s a feeling that fades by New Year’s Eve, even as some of us try to keep it going until Epiphany. Either way, the questions of what we are announcing today, and to whom we announce it remains unanswered.

For one thing, who says we’re supposed to announce anything? We are the consumers of Christmas hope, not its purveyors, are we not? We are not. We are called to be the stumbling, mortal angels of today. Whatever else an angel is, it’s a messenger of God’s word – an evangelist. Just to be clear, ’we’ isn’t a place holder for amorphous somebodies other than you and me. It’s especially true for those of us who have made, and regularly renew, our baptismal covenant to “…proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.” (BCP 305) Jesus said to his followers,”What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.” (Matt. 10) Luke put it another way: “Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops.” (Luke 12) In Matthew, Jesus instructed his followers to actively proclaim the good news. In Luke, Jesus warned his followers that whatever they say or do will proclaim something about what Christianity means. It can’t be avoided.

The entire story of God’s people in Hebrew and Christian scripture is about announcing God’s word. It’s not the exclusive job of prophets and pastors. In fact, clergy are mostly responsible for preparing ordinary, everyday Christians to go out on their own to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ. What better time to get to it than the Advent and Christmas seasons. It doesn’t require much. Just give some thought to allowing yourself to bring a little of God’s presence with you wherever you go and with whomever you meet. Relax. Let God’s Spirit do the work. When asked, tell the Christmas story. Charlie Brown and Linus did it well, and you can too. Don’t worry about it. It’s always a work in progress.

Income and Wealth Inequality & The Need for a New National Narrative

That there is serious wealth and income inequality in the U.S. is beyond dispute. Most of the nation’s private wealth is held by a relatively small percent of the population. Super salaries of top executives are hundreds of times greater than the bulk of their employees. Incomes adjusted for inflation have stagnated for the last thirty years, except for the top tier. The middle class has been collapsing since then: some have become richer, but most have fallen behind, or struggle to stay middle class. Opportunities for upward mobility have decreased. The old expectation that one would earn more than one’s parents did at the same age has been reversed. You can look the data up for yourself, and I commend as a reliable summary the Peterson Institute for International Economics report, “How to fix economic inequality.” (

Whether these inequities are a problem is disputed. The post war belief that hard work and a little luck is a surefire ticket to the middle class remains firmly embedded in the American psyche. If there’s a problem it’s that too many are unwilling to work hard. They’re lazy, entitled, willing to be dependent on others. A hard core of some at the top believe democracy controlled by oligarchs, with the working masses as machinery producing wealth for them, is the way the nation should work. Many in the lower and middle classes cling to the illusion that things are getting better, lower incomes are finally rising again. (My printed draft had a graph depicting income growth by quartile. Apparently WordPress doesn’t like graphs. If you want to see it, check out The Atlanta Fed Wage Growth Tracker)

They are objections deeply entrenched in nearly half the voting public who have been sold a steady diet of right wing individualism as the only true American Way since the Reagan era. The ideal of individual responsibility isn’t wrong, but it becomes destructive when it denies collective responsibility for the greater good, and undermines its own best interests by ignoring systems intentionally designed to tilt the economic playing field toward the wealthiest.

The Peterson report suggested a set of policy changes to help restore balance to the system, and open more reliable pathways to a large, strong middle class. They would require strong federal leadership, cooperation among the states, more substantial public investment, and revisions in the tax code. Precisely what conservatives fear, yet given the chance, precisely what would strengthen most of the values conservatives hold dear. Among their recommendations, the most important may be these:

1. Universal health care. It’s time. We can no longer let irrational fear of socialized medicine shove Americans toward third world health care status. A nation of people who are not burdened by health care debt is a nation that can be more productive at lower cost.

2. Fully funded public education from preschool through trade school and college. That means quality facilities and well paid teachers for every student no matter who or where. It doesn’t have to be the same for everyone, but a nation of well educated persons is a nation that can compete for success in an increasingly competitive global market place.

3. High marginal tax rates for super salaries and investment income from very high levels of assets. It would raise additional revenue from those most able to pay, reduce incentives to offer super salaries, and likely encourage lower level wage growth. It may be the most powerful way to begin leveling the playing field.

4. Raise and index the federal minimum wage. Howls about decimating job growth have never been true. The current system permits systemized poverty wages that trap too many workers in what can only be called indentured servitude, one small step from slavery.

5. Unions are a pain in the neck for management. How can you run a business if it’s always a battle with the union? On the other hand, where unions are strong, wages, benefits and working conditions are a lot better. There is a place for unions, but current law and practice mitigate against them. Restoring organized labor in more places of production will open more doors to the middle class, and create greater job security for employees. It can be done without returning to the bad old days.

Right wing ideologues will have none of this. For them, it’s not the socialist camel’s nose under the tent, it’s the whole damn camel. It’s predictable, and sad, because these modestly progressive (or liberal if you like) policies would fortify the foundation of some of their most treasured conservative values. Rather than create a nanny state of dependency bereft of individual initiative and responsibility, it would open opportunities to show initiative, assume responsibility for one’s self, take risks to try new things, and have confidence that government and society is working for you, not against you.

The argument should be convincing, but right wing ideologues have one powerful tactic remaining in their hands. These policies require the removal of every barrier and obstacle that has been placed in front of people of color and other so-called minorities. Right wingers will complain that the undeserving would be allowed to go ahead of long suffering white workers who’ve been waiting their place in line. They will refuse to acknowledge that some people have been prevented from ever getting in line, while others have been forced to the back of a line that never moved. They will raise fears of violence, cry reverse discrimination, and parade every stereotype of laziness, inferiority, and immorality they know will play to long held prejudices. It’s worked in the past – they’ll try hard to make it work again.

The argument, convincing as it is, requires a new narrative replacing the Reagan-Gingrich-tea party one that’s dominated the GOP and given us Trump. It’s not an easy task, but Trump’s defeat in the time of COVID may be the right opportunity to have a go at it. It will require consistent, forceful messaging from the new administration. That means overwhelming the media with the new narrative, including thought leaders willing to appear on every right wing media outlet that will have them, ready to stand firm and confront delusion with reality. One more hurdle remains. The entire bureaucracy, from top to bottom, must be reoriented to customer service rather than dehumanizing enforcement. It doesn’t mean easing up. It means dealing cooperatively with clientele to make laws and regulations work for the greater good.