Country Parson does not feature guest columnists, but I am making an exception today.  My friend and colleague the Rev. David Sibley sent a powerful letter to his congregation that has to be read by a wider audience.  Here it is.

Beloved in Christ,

In two days, we will celebrate Ascension Day at St. Paul’s. In the Acts of the Apostles, just as Jesus is about to ascend into heaven, he says “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and you will be my witnesses… to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

Ascension Day reminds us that God entrusts God’s work to our hands. It also reminds us that God promises us the power of the Holy Spirit to do the work God gives us to do. And what is God’s work? Jesus says he comes “that [all] may have life and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10) Today we witness again tragedy that reminds us that the image of abundant life for all remains painfully out of reach in our society. 

“A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.” (Jeremiah 31:15)

Earlier today, at least nineteen children lost their lives at the hand of a gunman at a school in Uvalde, Texas. It comes only one week after a gunman, inspired by racial hatred, animus, and prejudice killed ten people at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York. 

I was in eighth grade when a gunman opened fire at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado in 1999. I had just graduated college when thirty-two people were killed at Virginia Tech. I was a newly ordained priest when a gunman murdered twenty children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012. I hadn’t even celebrated my second wedding anniversary when seventeen were murdered in Parkland, Florida.  Now, with my daughter scarcely 8 months old, we weep for more lives lost to an epidemic of gun violence. For my entire adult life, gun violence and mass shootings have served as memorable milestones just as much as any other moment. This paragraph alone contains the memory of 108 lives lost to gun violence in schools and universities.

“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)

It is tempting to seek to explain away the many lives lost to gun violence in the United States each day. We wish to ascribe the fruits of our very American addiction to violence to failures of mental health and crazed personalities. It is often argued that the solution to an epidemic of gun violence is simply to arm more people. As we make these excuses and the years pass, the lives of more and more children like those who died today are sacrificed upon the altar of our desire for power, violence, and control. They are martyrs to our very American addiction to guns and violence, and their lost lives profit us nothing.

Beloved, the Gospel is not silent in moments like these. If we claim to follow Jesus, we must deny ourselves and pick up our cross – we must give something of ourselves up so that something more of God may fill our hurting souls. We must understand that as Christians, we are called to give something of ourselves that others might live. In moments like these, the things we have to surrender to God’s holier purposes actually doesn’t entail a sacrifice of all that much. We can do something as simple as asking a person to wait 48 hours longer before acquiring a firearm that can expend 48 rounds in a minute. We could take up common sense firearm restrictions, understanding that the freedoms guaranteed to us in secular law cannot be of more value than the lives of our children; that our weapons cannot be of more value to us than our future. And as Christians, shaped by the gospel, we can advocate for them.

“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and you will be my witnesses… to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

Many people would prefer their clergy to stay out of politics. But the Gospel is political – Jesus was executed by the Roman state, and politics, at its heart, is about how we live together as human beings and order our affairs. Beloved, in this moment, I cannot be silent. You may disagree with me in this moment; yet my charge as your priest is that I will care alike for young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor, and by my words and life proclaim the Gospel. In this moment, the Gospel to which I have vowed my life is not silent.

And that Gospel is this: Christ came that all might have abundant life. If we would come after him, we must deny ourselves and follow him And we, and we alone, are his witnesses to the very ends of the earth.

Last Sunday at St. Paul’s, we were urged to be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves (James 1:22). We heard that pure religion is to care for the orphan and widow in their distress (James 1:27).  On this day in which weeping is heard, once again, in Ramah, it is my prayer that we will have the courage to be Christians not simply within the walls of our church, but outside of it as well. It is my prayer that we will be found worthy of our calling, and be doers of the word, not merely hearers.

As we weep and mourn, and then as we answer the call of Jesus, what will our witness be?

Fr. David+

The American Story & White Hegemony: replacement theory

Theory is a word that has been abused by attaching it to almost any idea that pops into one’s head.  It’s especially egregious when attached to ideas based on fear and prejudice.  The currently popular Replacement Theory falls into that category.

The idea is that there is a well organized and funded liberal socialist plot to overwhelm white voters with non white immigrants who’ve been allowed to get citizenship overnight.  These people don’t have the cultural values that have made America great, and will be manipulated by liberal and other non white Americans to impose radical left wing socialism on the nation.

Their evidence? Many thousands are fleeing toward the US border in pursuit of opportunity, freedom and safety.  For no reason other than repetitive assertions, the theory holds that Democrats want to open the border allowing entrance with no regulation.  Look what’s already happened: There are millions of undocumented immigrants who have been here a long time leeching off tax payers. We can’t get rid of them and Democrats want to let them become citizens.

On top of that, it’s now clear that within a few years it will not be possible to divide the nation into discrete categories of color or ethnicity with whites in the proven majority. The non-dominant white scenario raises fearful anxiety based on strongly held prejudices. The conspiracy believers suggest that it wouldn’t be happening if it wasn’t well orchestrated, and in the end, the people who made America great will become an oppressed minority in a country no longer their own.

When it’s phrased that way it almost makes sense.  I don’t think theory adherents reject the idea of America as a melting pot, but that pot was supposed to melt everyone into the ethos of white middle class culture, vaguely Protestant, and content with a right leaning republican democracy.  Whatever other history might be taught, the principle theme should be the story of white settlers and their hard working pioneer spirit that built the nation –  with others playing supporting roles as slaves, servants, and enemies to be conquered.

It’s a narrative that will be hard to dislodge because it is so deeply rooted. It helps explain the hysterical outcry against teaching a more authentic American history to children. The related fearful anxiety explains why out of control screaming at boards of education meetings are too common.

I have no clear idea about how to remedy this growing theory, but I stumbled onto a year old study from the U. Of Michigan reported on by Christiane Amanpour that may hold some clues.   It examined the demographics and beliefs of persons arrested for the violent attacks on the Capitol, and others who were passive supporters.  It may shed some insight on the mindset of those most fearfully concerned about how the American story is taught.  The study concluded  that about 4% of the adult population are willing to personally engage in right wing violent protests against the government, with as many as 10% willing to be passive supporters. (Note: no doubt the U. Of Michigan has also examined left wing protests, but they were not the subject of the report I heard summarized.)  Most of the 4% are from urban areas experiencing rapidly shifting demographics and power structures where white dominance has been taken for granted.  Most are over 34, with almost half of them educated, middle class business and professional men. The usual suspected youthful and rural libertarians are missing in large numbers. Massive public campaigns, to help the fearful unwilling to let go of their anxiety about unstoppable change, have worked in past decades.  Maybe that could work again. 

In the meantime I cannot write as Country Parson without saying something about the necessary role of Christian leaders. Pastors and theologians are compelled to proclaim the gospel in ways that strengthen the courage of the faithful to walk boldly as bearers of the light of Christ and agents of healing reconciliation into an unknown future.  One cannot both follow Christ and defend white supremacy.  I know there are some so called Christian leaders preaching the gospel of anxiety ridden white supremacy.  They are  not Christian no matter how often they shout Jesus’ name, and would be wise to stop claiming they are.

Redefining Self Interest &Mother Earth

It’s taken a couple of decades, but public opinion overwhelmingly agrees that climate change is real, serious and dangerous – somebody needs to do something.  What?  Science and engineering offer workable steps that would require new norms for the way we live, but we like the way we live.  Passionate environmental activists demand that we do it all now. The doubtful and reluctant say not yet,  the cost is too high, the outcomes too uncertain, we’re not ready, let’s study more. The religious fringe believes the end times are here, so who cares.

Large corporations, even the most polluting, are happy to mouth platitudes of support as long as things move so slowly not much will change anytime soon. And why not?  With billions invested and huge profits to be had, why kill the golden goose?  Just to drive the point home, their profits and share prices underwrite pension funds, 401ks and IRAs securing retirement for millions of ordinary working people.  Farmers and ranchers are the stewards of agricultural land, but they don’t want to change the ways they raise crops and livestock without solid evidence they can make a decent living while feeding the nation.  Giant agribusiness firms running industrial farms and ranches will do anything not blatantly illegal to cut costs and increase yield.   

Independent retailers just trying to make a living sell the usual things that we believe we need, and almost anything we want, whether we need it or not.

What about you and me?  Millions work for the very companies dragging their feet.  Employees are well versed in why the nation needs to do something, but “my” employer is doing what it can, it’s the others who need to step up.

We want to live as comfortably as we can afford, fitting into the way things are done around here.  For many that means well watered green lawns fortified with lots of fertilizer and pesticides.  Our grocery carts are loaded with overpackaged, plastic wrapped stuff, but what can we do?  It’s supposed to be recyclable:  we know it isn’t.  Unless you live in the center of a densely populated big city, the desired standard is one car for every driver.  We, each of us, is deeply invested in a way of life in desperate need of new norms that seem like tectonic shifts well beyond our reach.

To be sure, there are people who have made dramatic changes in the way they live.  They’re featured in magazines and on reality t.v. shows. Good for them. Very entertaining, very commendable, but if you think I’m going to live like that, think again.

What about our political leaders?  They dither.  Dithering is what they do best, and when it comes to the environment, they’ve honed dithering to a fine art while spouting acceptable platitudes inn abundance.

It comes down to self interest above all other interests.  That’s human nature, and it isn’t pure selfishness.  Dedication to the greater good requires first that one take cake of one’s self so that one is able to dedicate what is needed for the greater good. It goes bad when self interest displaces the collective self interest of the greater good community and the earth that sustains and feeds it.

The American virtue of self reliant individualism tends to create  competing self interests making it hard to achieve cooperative effort for the good of the whole.  Perhaps the most important thing we need to do is work on a new culturally accepted way of defining self interest, one that would be a shift in direction, though not an enormous shift.

Although there have been decades of movement toward greater protection of the environment, each step forward has been opposed by those who  use, or want to use, the earth’s resources in parasitic ways, often with solid economic reason to back them up.  Parasites can do well only so long before their hosts have no more to give, and both die.

The revised virtue of self interest wouldn’t mean we stop harvesting the riches of the earth to meet our needs. It would mean that unless I play some part in sustainable fecundity of earth, my own self interest is in jeopardy.  Sincere individuals can’t do much on their own, there must be a shared conviction that the American ideal of self reliance can prosper only if it embraces an American ideal of working cooperatively to care of the earth and its creatures.

As with any cultural ideal, it will vary widely in how it’s understood and what should be done.  There will be outliers and destructive deviants but the collective decisions will always be in the direction of improving the health and welfare of mother earth.

Bird Songs and Jesus: learning to listen in a new way

Recently we went birding at a local waterside park not far from home with a small group led by two ornithologists. The group wasn’t there to watch birds but to be introduced to the art of listening to them. The park is on our normal morning walk, so we’re familiar with the bird sounds there. We even recognize a few of the calls.  Mostly though, the woods and water are filled with unrecognizable chatter we are unable distinguish one from another.

What we learned on the outing was no more than a basic introduction to the differences between calls, songs, and begging.  the lead instructor interrupted herself in the midst of her talk several times to name a bird and its call, a call that none of the rest of us could even hear.  Standing in silence for five minutes, we were asked to say how many different calls we each heard.   Most of us heard four or five. The two ornithologists had their own count of almost thirty.

Learning to separate the cacophony of bird tweets into individual sounds and name the species is hard to do and takes years of practice. That practice doesn’t begin with bird names or the memorization of sounds. It begins with learning to listen in ways that one has never listened before.

I’ve always been a bird watcher, not a bird namer, so in spite of my increasing blindness it’s unlikely I will ever become an adept bird listener. For one thing, my mind kept wandering from bird calls to how learning to listen to birds was like learning to listen with understanding to God’s words, as we know God in Jesus Christ.

The Hebrew scriptures are filled with the record of stiff necked rulers and people unable and unwilling to listen to the word of God.  And why their stubbornness? God spoke through the prophets with unfamiliar, unsettling calls, and songs that conflicted with the accepted norms of the day and more primary concerns about food, shelter and safety.

If the prophet messages were unfamiliar and unsettling, the words of Jesus the good shepherd were even more so.   He said his sheep would hear him, know his voice, listen to his call and follow him.  He implored those gathered around him to listen, but what he said was even more unfamiliar and unsettling than the prophets’ words.  His challenges to the accepted norms of the day must have sounded like the indecipherable warbling of too many birds and drowned out by the even greater noise of daily life.  It took his closest followers three years to get just the basics, and the rest of their lives to become adept at listening with discernment and understanding. I wonder why we expect it to be any different for us?

Jesus’ words remain as distant, upsetting, and disorienting as ever.  They provoke us to hear and listen to new calls and songs that will lead us into a deeper and more profound understanding of what it means to follow him – if we are willing and able to listen.

We are surrounded daily by more noise, from more directions, with greater velocity and volume than any time in history.  Voices compete regularly against each other claiming to be the better way to knowledge and wisdom. Some of them are. More than a few are the voices of other gods and false prophets.  

It’s hard to find a quiet place to hear and listen to Jesus’ call to walk in the way of love. It’s all the more difficult when the words are unfamiliar and unsettling, challenging accepted norms, even those said to be Christian.  It took a lifetime for the disciples and apostles to learn to hear and listen to Jesus’ voice, to separate it from all other voices, and to discern its meaning for them.  Following Christ today requires the same life long work.

Humanity’s Story Told In A New Way

We are a violent species.  Other species are known to attack and kill others of their kind, to conquer and defend territory, but none can reach our high standard of warfare decimating populations and demolishing property as cruelly as possible.  We claim human rights, enact civil rights, and easily ignore both for the most selfish of reasons.  Still, our religious traditions and national ideals celebrate harmonious, peaceful coexistence.  If we are ever to become a more civilized and peaceful species, we’re going to have to understand the story of humanity from a history that isn’t constructed around sequential lists of wars and empires, glorious and heroic.

When Americans study history in school, they generally start with the wars of the Ancient Near East, work their way through Greek and Roman warfare then into Europe’s many wars, ending the first chapter with the conquest of the Americas.  Asian history is a footnote about Mongol Hordes. Arabian history has something to do with Islam and the Crusades.  Whatever we know of India we’re told by Rudyard Kipling.  Africa is called the dark continent because we never looked to see what light might have been burning there.  As for indigenous Americans, we learned it mostly from John Wayne movies.

United States history is likewise told as a sequence of wars: Revolutionary, 1912, Mexican, Civil, Spanish, WWI, WWII, Korean, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan.  Some years ago I looked into the number of named wars and armed conflicts in our history and came up with something around 150, half of which were wars of Native American conquest.

Wars are wars and we can’t ignore them. They do change the direction of history but the cost to humanity is heartbreaking.  Just War Theory tries to establish moral boundaries for the conflicts, but is easily twisted to fit immoral intent. At its roots, war is the product of greed, lust for power, and stupidity.  The world faces many evils that come from nature and individual malfeasance, but wars are wholly the product of greed fueled by emotionally manipulating populations to patriotically go along.

History taught as a sequence of wars somehow makes war seem normal, even righteous.  Wars are a part of history not to be ignored, but how would history be understood if it was taught as a story seen through a lens of the arts and sciences?  

Wars have changed the face of the world, and yet they tell us nothing about developments in morality and technology that are the foundations of civilization we know and desire. Historical stories of agriculture, tools, transportation, social mores, politics, art, literature, theology, philosophy, biology, astronomy, mathematics, chemistry, and physics are far more important to understanding who we are and how we got here than is knowing a list of wars embroidered with heroic deeds.

Nevertheless, state legislatures are replete with bills to restrict history to glorifying patriotic (white) nationalism,  expunging anything deemed unflattering to a preferred mythology.

History as the story of humanity’s development is told in fits and starts in English Social Studies, and the Sciences, where important moments in human development are taught as episodes of importance to the discipline, but not as part of a comprehensive history of a people.

What would it look like if history was taught from the point of view of human development?  It might look like Jacob Bronowski’s 1972 book, The Ascent of Man, that doesn’t avoid the importance of war, but has more important matters to cover: the origins of agriculture, the impact of the arts on civilization, how questions of public morality have changed, what technological developments have meant, etc.  It might also look something like a James Michener novel that begins with primal ooze and works its way through the centuries in the lives of ordinary human beings. 

History taught that way might guide us more directly to become the people and civilization of our ideals.