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The Magic of Moving Mountains and Cursing Figs

Magical thinking has troubled Christians for two thousand years. It’s the idea that if one knows the right words and says them in the right way God, like Aladdin’s genie, will serve up answers to wishes. It shouldn’t be a surprise. We love magic. We love magicians and magic shows, we love Harry Potter, Bewitched, and Merlin. We love the idea that with just a little effort we too could make things happen for the good, always for the good.

Scripture itself tempts people in that direction. For instance, Jesus told Peter that, if he had enough faith and no doubt in his heart, he could make a mountain jump into the sea (Mk.11). Paul, in his letter to the Romans, said “all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8). It’s led some to make faith, the right kind of faith in the right amount, the key to unlocking godly magic in all things, especially things like healing and prosperity.

There are times I wish Jesus, or possibly Mark, had been less disposed to use hyperbole when making a point. Too many of us don’t get it, and take it literally. I imagine Jesus offering a wry smirk as he tried to help Peter understand he would never move mountains, and the little faith he had would be enough. As Mark tells it, the faith talk occurred the same day he drove vendors out of the temple and cursed an innocent fig tree. It was also a few days before he would be crucified, so he may not have been in the best of moods. As an aside, I think the fig tree incident was an object lesson for the disciples about the power or prayer for good and ill, so be careful. Jesus was hungry and wanted a fig from the tree, but it wasn’t the season for figs, so he cursed it and it died. Don’t be so cavalier about damning any person or thing. It has consequences. It’s as much a prayer as one seeking a blessing. But I digress.

In John’s gospel, Jesus said that he would do whatever is asked in his name (John 14). It’s been interpreted to mean that one only has to ask, provided it’s with enough faith and in the right words, and Jesus will deliver what is good for us. And we’re pretty sure we know what good is: a new car, a job, a place to live, romantic love, a good parking spot: it’s all magical thinking. God knows we need the things of life, but seek first the kingdom of God (Matt 6). Yes, but didn’t Pauls say, “all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose”? If you just let it be known how much you love God, and how you are among the called, why not go for it?

Paul would be confused about how misunderstood he could become. For him, there was a lot of nuance in “all things work for good” having to do with good as that which gives meaning, weight, and value to something. All things working for good, as Paul understood it, had to do with God’s purposes being worked out through disciples proclaiming the good news. Like others, he suffered hardship, disease, and an ignoble death, and it was good. Putting Paul’s intention into contemporary English, he might have said: “God’s purposes are being worked out through those who love God and do the work God has given them to do.” In like manner, I imagine Jesus saying something like: “You have no idea how powerful prayer can be when it’s in communion with God’s purposes, and don’t worry so much about getting it right, just a little bit of faith is adequate.”

Understanding it that way removes the magic, and opens the way for intentional participation with God for God’s purposes. It creates opportunity to experience the breathtaking power of prayer in the lives of those who pray, and in the lives of those for whom prayers are said.

July 4th Will Be Different This Year: Perhaps For The Better

July 4th is going to be different this year. COVID-19 has canceled the city’s community wide celebration in Pioneer Park and its Main Street parade – real life versions of a Norman Rockwell painting in this picturesque small city. The park would have been filled with bands, dance groups representing anglo and hispanic heritage, scores of food and craft vendors circling the bandstand, displays for every political party, interest group and government agency. The Main Street parade would have been everything expected of a small city parade. Neighborhood parades would have featured trikes and bikes decorated in red, white and blue. Dusk would have brought the fireworks, official and unofficial, legal and illegal. We’ll still have the fireworks, at least the illegal ones.

July 4th has celebrated the best of America’s past, both the real and the mythological. It’s been joyfully patriotic, proud of America’s history of equality for all, and the unalienable right to pursue life, liberty and happiness. It’s also been blithely unaware of realities that have prevented the full measure of rights and equality from being shared by all.

George Floyd’s murder changed all that. I don’t know why it was the catalyst when so many others had preceded it without the same effect. It may be due to nearly real time sharing of videos recording the entire incident. Eight minutes and forty-seven seconds is a long time to watch the life being squeezed out of a person by an officer sworn to protect and serve. Perhaps even that wouldn’t have been enough but for four years of Trump’s record of inciting racial violence, criminal acts, lying, ignorance, incompetency, and aggrandizement of executive authority approaching autocracy. He gave urgency to public remembrance of cruel injustices that have accompanied the American dream throughout its history; memories conveniently overlooked when it’s summer time and the living is easy.

This July 4th, the paper will feature the usual reprints of the Declaration of Independence. There will be some talk of the Constitution, explaining once more to an ill informed public that the two are not the same. A few writers will throw in references to speeches by Washington, Lincoln and Eisenhower. But this July 4th will also feature a stronger voice for black lives, demands that the story of America’s slave economy be made an important part of our history, recognition of women’s rights, awareness of genocidal suppression of Indigenous peoples, and more. They are not voices and stories well received by those who believe they betray the mythology of America’s melting pot exceptionalism. They inspire anxiety that something of importance is being taken away. What and from whom?

What is threatened to be taken away is comfortable satisfaction that the United States lives up to and into the fullness of equal rights and equal opportunity for all. To take that comfortable satisfaction away is somehow seen as disrespectful of sacrifices made to protect rights and opportunities. There is a sense that it takes away from those who have enjoyed the fullness of them, giving it to those who haven’t worked for it. It’s not the dreaded redistribution of wealth, but the more dreaded fear that redistribution of rights and privileges for some to get more, means others must get less. In a more subtle way, there’s a realization that it means surrendering power and status, something few of us want to do.

Is all of this a racial thing? Perhaps not exclusively, but for the most part yes it is, and it demands of white Americans that they recognize it as part of what is called systemic racism. It’s humiliating to admit that so much of what one has celebrated as true about America has been mythologized, and that reality paints a much different picture. No one likes being humiliated; no one likes being accused of misdeeds committed by previous generations; no one likes discovering they’ve believed in too many fairy tales. It’s understandable that there’s resistance.

The American ideals celebrated on July 4th are not less worthy for it. They remain ideals to guide us, and to be lived into. An American story more solidly grounded in reality provides a place from which real progress can be made. It’s a good thing. It makes room for resolution of caustic divisiveness, and creates opportunities for new ways that remove long lived barriers to equality for all to enjoy the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness as each is able.

Cherished American ideals celebrated on the July 4th are worthy of remembrance. They deserve celebration with renewed commitment to live into them. In the words of Lincoln’s second inaugural: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for ‘him’ who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Why The Study of Old White Man European History Is Important For Today

Letters to the editor of the local paper continue to rage against a police officer’s tattoo that has an SS symbol embedded in it, something he got while serving in the Army as a Sniper Scout. It is an abominable symbol, and many letters have wondered where he was when the history surrounding it was taught. Therein lies a problem. It’s a history not taught in any depth, neither in high school, nor as a requirement in college. Twentieth century world history from an American perspective may touch on major events, the incidents that started and ended wars, on cultural touchstones such as prohibition, the Great Depression, and the early civil rights movements. What about the holocaust? Mentioned, to be sure, but not probed in depth. What most Americans of young to late middle age know about WWII has been learned from movies made for the drama of it, not the understanding of it.

Some adults, well after their formal education, may ask of how an entire nation could be seduced by the evils of Naziism, but they seldom answer it. Why? The sources of anti semitism that led to the holocaust are the same sources that led to a fascist police state of SS and Gestapo troops. It’s a story deeply rooted in European political history, it has undercurrents running through the Enlightenment, and it was most fully lived out in America’s slave economy. It helped educate Hitler, and contributed to the popularity of our own fascist movement, America First. That’s not something taught as a part in K-12 education. I’m not sure it could be. What about college? For the last decade or so, in depth study of European and American history has been devalued as the dated ramblings of old white men.

Traditional education has shortchanged Asian, African, black, indigenous, and women’s history. Making all a part of essential study is important, but diminishing the deeper study of European and American history avoids discovery of how we have come to this place.

Police Reform, Public Opinion & Trashing A Department Ahead Of The Curve

The nation has embraced a much needed movement to reform and restructure policing in almost every community large and small. The small intermountain city where I live is no exception. Local concern has been driven not by incidents of abusive tactics, but by the revelation that an officer has a tattoo from his army days bearing within it what looks very much like the Nazi SS symbol. From that, all the sins of police abuse in other places has been heaped on the local department, with calls for the officer to be fired.

I believe it has done a disservice to the city’s police department, in part because it’s among those that have invested years of training and restructuring to do much of what others are only now considering. They may not have it down as well as it needs to be, but they’ve been working on it for years. Nevertheless, ill informed public opinion has accused it of the same abusive practices witnessed in places like Minneapolis, Seattle, and New York, among others.

All agree the SS symbolism is an abomination, and should never have existed for anyone to get. It was incorporated into a pattern intended to honor members of a sniper group killed in combat. However well intended, having it inked was a poor decision by a young soldier, but what has been done has been done. That decision can’t be undone. In the meantime, the officer in question has kept it covered when on duty. Perhaps he will decide to have it removed. I hope so, but there is no magic eraser that will do it overnight.

Now the community has to grapple with reaction to it. When angry members of the public lead with emotions, sure of their own self righteousness, they’re likely to make unwarranted, unverified assumptions. Liberals and conservatives alike are guilty. They, we, do it all the time. Angry self righteousness looks for, and expects to find, targets of opportunity for their self righteous rage. Looking for a target, expecting to find a target, inclines one to assume objects bearing any resemblance whatsoever to a presumed target must be a target. Cops in many places have for decades been doing it to blacks and other minorities. An angry self-righteous public can do the same, and without thinking it through, they make difficult situations worse.

As it turns out, what’s known about the officer in question is that his record is a good one. Sans tattoo, he’s known as a person most people would like as a friend and neighbor. Whatever his personal prejudices and politics might be, they’re of the ordinary, normal, non-extreme kind. He works in a department that is a model for community policing that values and trains for deescalation and peaceful resolution – evidenced by a number of tense standoffs that could have been quickly ended with a justifiable police shooting. In twenty years, all but one have been resolved without death or serious injury to suspects, even when SWAT teams were needed.

I’m retired, but until a few years ago I served for sixteen years as a Walla Walla fire and police chaplain. I have been at the scenes of gang fights, murders, suicides, unexpected deaths, and highway accidents. Firm but civil control of the situation, deep compassion for the injured and bereaved, aid to help victims through the next few hours, those are the behaviors I have witnessed. I’ve been with officers who’ve paid a night’s lodging for those without, and bought food for the hungry. The department goes on holiday buying sprees, not for but with those who have special needs. National Night Out, Coffee with a Cop, July 4th in the Park, and police presence at neighborhood events have brought neighbors and neighborhoods together. It’s what the Walla Walla Police Department does. Is it enough? No. That’s why reform and restructuring are continuing priorities for the department.

To be sure, there are members of the public who despise and distrust the police. Some because they’ve been arrested, convicted, and somehow that’s not fair. Some because police practices in other places make it the social justice thing to do. And some are ticked off because they finally got caught running a red light, or the DUI they’ve long deserved. Most people in Walla Walla are grateful for and trust them. Does that include residents in “bad” parts of town or the non-white population? I haven’t seen any reliable data, but anecdotal observations suggest, with suspicious reservations, yes.

The Walla Walla Police Department has done a remarkably good job of establishing, training for, and maintaining high standards that have served the community peacefully and well. They’re not perfect. Reform and restructuring are always on the table, initiated and supported by department leadership. It’s the kind of department leading the way for others to follow.

Abe, Isaac & Our Child Sacrifices

This Sunday, liturgical churches are likely to hear the story from Genesis about God instructing Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac. Abe almost went through with it, but God intervened at the last moment to substitute a goat in Isaac’s place.

It’s a terrible story that’s generated accusations and excuses generally falling into two categories, each with many variations. One asserts that a god who demands a test like that isn’t worth worshiping. So chuck the whole thing, and look elsewhere. The other claims it’s a metaphor, a test of whether God will always be first in the hearts of believers. Abraham met the test, and so must we.

I think it’s about something else altogether. It’s certainly not an original idea, so I claim no originality in writing about it. I don’t believe it was ever intended to be understood as an historical event, and it’s certainly no metaphor for testing personal faith. It’s a parable. It was put into Abraham’s narrative to make it foundational for the people of Israel, something predating, more basic than the laws of Moses, and applied universally to all peoples, for all times. It’s a terrible story so that it would grab attention and be unforgettable.

And what is its lesson? Child sacrifice is an unacceptable abomination. It’s hard to believe, but it happened, even among the Israelites. Scripture records that it was practiced by other peoples of the Ancient Near East, and non biblical sources tell us it existed elsewhere in the world as well. The bible gives the name of Molech to the god who demanded child sacrifice. Consider the Levitical laws condemning those who sacrificed children to Molech. Solomon was chastised in 1 Kings for building a place of worship to Molech. The reforms of Josiah recorded in 2 Kings include destruction of a place where sons and daughters had been sacrificed to Molech. Isaiah and Jeremiah condemned those who had paid homage to Molech. Reports of child sacrifice extend from the time of Judges to the Babylonian exile. Uncommon though it may have been, practiced by those who had drifted away from God to worship other gods, it happened, and it was an abomination.

The story of Abraham and Isaac makes clear that it’s not God who demands the sacrifice of children, faith isn’t tested by it, nor is God’s favor gained by it. The incident is placed early in Israel’s story to certify that it’s always been an abomination.

It leaves two questions. One is, why any sacrifice at all? The answer is complicated. God, as we know God revealed in scripture, needs no sacrifice, and frequently says so. It’s people who need to make sacrifices: symbolic offerings of costly things testifying to their faith. It’s a way of affirming there’s no cheap grace. Discipleship is costly, one way or another. Sacrifices of animals and grain may seem primitive to us, but there is something in the human psyche that’s compelled to propitiate the gods with sacrifice. Every culture in every time has had its sacrifices. But who or what are the gods? The sacrifices our God established were not bribes to get on God’s good side, but thank offerings for the blessings they had received, and sin offerings recognizing moral failure and the forgiveness that was theirs through God’s abounding and steadfast love. They were ended with the destruction of the temple in 70 c.e.. As the psalmist put it, the sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken and contrite heart (Ps. 51). It continues to be the sacrifice we offer. When, at the altar, we say “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us,” we are both remembering his death and resurrection and offering the bread and wine to become the holy food and drink of new and unending life. We’re asking God to make something holy, not killing a cow to make things right with God.

We would like to think we’re far beyond primitive ways, but are we? When we have injured another through our own fault, and feel guilty about it, don’t we want to do or give something to make it better? When we receive a gift of something quite special to us, don’t we want to say or do something to express our gratitude? We’re not likely to toss a virgin into a volcano, but we have whole vocabularies for our sacrificial behavior that extend from common courtesy, good manners, and loving care through the sins of rudeness, sycophancy, and feuding. Relationships are often constructed around the principle of reciprocity: giving me something obligates me to give something back. It’s powerful. It’s why fund raising mailings enclosing a dime or page of labels are successful. Sadly, it’s also why Nigerian prince schemes work well, including ones taking the form of prosperity gospel mega churches. We’re not so far from goats, oxen and sheaves of grain as we might think.

The second question left hanging is about sacrificing children to Molech. Is there a Molech of our day, and does any one sacrifice children to it? Certainly not in our sophisticated Western culture. What about the god of border security that incarcerates sons and daughters stripped from their parent arms? What about the sacrifice of children to hunger, poor health, and domestic abuse to propitiate the god’s of social Darwinism and laissez-faire government? What about the gods of sex tourism and pedophilia? We have too many ways of sacrificing children to the gods of our egos, politics, fears, and delusions.

In the story of Abraham and Isaac, God established that child sacrifice was an abomination. That was four-thousand years ago. It’s still an abomination, and today it hides from us in plain sight.

Restoring Trust In Government: did we ever have any?

There is nothing like a good writer’s prompt, and Heather Cox Richardson’s question of the week was “How can we restore trust in government?” I wondered if we’ve ever had trust in government. It’s complicated. It depends in part on what one believes government should or should not be doing. What are the essential functions of government? A hard right libertarian will answer one way, a hard left socialist will answer another. Extremists seem to think the political world is made only of one or the other, but between them lies a broad distribution generally lumped into those who lean toward laissez-faire, and those who lean toward liberal democracy. Whichever group is in power at the moment will have greater trust in government than the group not in power.

The history texts of my youth told a story of unified faith in a new kind of national government, a democratically representative republic. We learned of occasional disagreements, but they were always resolved with unity once more established. Even the Civil War was explained through the lens of reunification. To juvenile minds it gave the impression that trust and faith in American government was the American way, the American thing to do. It was, as Superman said, a matter of truth, justice, and the American way of life.

Wondering about these things, I poked through Pew Research files to see what they might reveal about trust in the federal government. From Eisenhower through the early Johnson years it was high, in the range of 75-80%. Yet they were years in which extreme right wingers were actively undermining it. Apoplectic about communism, hating all things New Deal related, and suspicious of uppity blacks demanding equal rights, they incited doubt about how trustworthy “big government” could be.

It’s been a downward trend ever since, with spikes of approval followed by plunging confidence. Reagan never got out of the 40% range. Early Clinton sank to around 20%, but late Clinton surged to 50%. Obama hovered in the 30% range, while Trump is around 20% and sinking. They’re not measures of presidential popularity, but of trust in the federal government as a whole. Ups and downs are heavily influenced by presidential actions, but they’re also influenced by other powerful politicians, domestic and foreign events, and thought and opinion leaders who advocate for different political ideologies. It would be hard, for instance, to dismiss the ability of talk radio and cable news personalities to move public opinion.

Public trust in federal agencies and programs is another variable. Recent Pew research suggests the Post Office is highly regarded by around 90% of the public. ICE, on the other hand, is trusted by only 46%, and non-white Americans trust it not at all. Social programs initiated by FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson and Obama are highly regarded, even as conservatives express concern about creeping socialism, fearing the government will take away rights, intrude on daily life, and tax ordinary people into poverty. Liberals, on the other hand, see the federal government moving away from democracy toward oligarchical authoritarianism that undermines the rights, freedom and opportunities of ordinary people. And no one likes a bureaucracy that is more about mindless enforcement than customer service. One can have little trust in a department, but have high regard for its programs. A conservative farmer friend has contempt for the Department of Agriculture, but loves its Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) that compensates farmers for putting excess acreage into prairie restoration. What it means to trust the federal government depends entirely on what questions are asked.

So how can we restore trust in government, given the conditions we have to work with that appear to form an abstract mosaic of economic classes, racial groupings, and geographic differences in all their complex intricacies?

At the most fundamental level, we must teach American history and civics in a more comprehensive and honest way. It’s far past time to give up the sanitized mythology of unsullied American virtue imbuing an entire continent with its goodness. It doesn’t mean belittling or condemning our history. We can hold decision makers accountable for the what they did within the context of what was known and understood in their time, not our time. But we can also be honest about the effects those decisions have had to both build and corrupt. It means knowing our history in a more comprehensive and realistic way. It’s the only way to develop a greater public consensus about how we got to where we are, and how we might get to where we want to be next.

Libertarians of my acquaintance are convinced that big government is communist style socialism, and the autonomous self sufficient American is the epitome of the American democratic ideal. They believe the federal government should get out of the way, and stay out. Social welfare programs serve only to disincentivize personal responsibility and encourage dependency. Forty years ago Reagan claimed that the federal government is the problem, not the solution to America’s social ills. It stuck. Several decades of nothing but Beck, Limbaugh & Co. have sealed it. For them, everyone not with them is a liberal left wing socialist. Those claiming to be centrists are either lying or deluded. It doesn’t help that puerile outrages from the left confirm their worst fears.

Overcoming that momentum requires more than renewed history and civics K-12 education. Not that it’s too late. Adult versions could become fodder for social media. A more immediate need is a way to help libertarians, especially Western libertarians, be made aware that it is the federal government that has provided the rights and resources to enjoy their autonomous self sufficiency. Therefore, government is not the threat but the guarantor, and the same is due to others who have been denied the opportunity. How to do that is a problem. My guess is it has to be done through a massive program of social media instructive but entertaining content that can be easily shared. Think of it as something Prager might do, but with class, wit, and truth.

Two obstacles remain. Emotionally outraged left wingers are the kind who would destroy the village in order to save it. They make their passion for social justice clear, but their willingness to attack everything in their path is self defeating. It infuriates them when liberals and centrists take the worthy gems they offer to apply them in pragmatic ways. They don’t want restructuring, reform, or progress. They want revolution. History demonstrates that, given the opportunity to succeed, they have no idea what to do next. Despite their calls for equality, they are as exclusive, segregationist and elitist as any right wing oligarch. They have a right to their voice, and it must be heard for the good it offers, but the government upon their shoulders would be a disaster, not unlike the floundering mess our current would be autocrat has engineered.

The second obstacle is related to terms I’ve used: liberal, conservative, libertarian, tea party, left wingers. We lump people into categories, assigning generalized characteristics that fit no individual. We make gross assumptions about others, entitling us to shove them into the category of our choice, and never let them out. We have to be more careful. It entices us vs. them thinking, with us being right and them being wrong. That doesn’t absolve us from making moral judgments, but they must be made provisionally, based on verifiable observations.

Unsettled Times. Social & Economic Justice. The Call To Prophetic Preaching & Teaching

Many people attend their place of worship to hear comforting words that help them navigate the daily trials of their lives. The message of how faith can help in one’s personal life can be much needed when community life is reasonably stable. It’s then that personal trials can seem to overwhelm one, while everybody else appears to be doing just fine. Many Psalms, for instance, appeal to God for relief from personal difficulties that have separated the psalmist from the good life going on all about him/her.

Comforting words inspiring the entire community to courage may be needed when it is attacked by outside forces, its future in jeopardy. Think Britain in WWII, or the United States after Pearl Harbor and 9/11. Again the Psalms are rich with pleas for God to save ‘his’ people from enemies who threaten it, or have already invaded its most holy precincts.

Comforting words, encouraging words, are important words, but not the only words God intends for ‘his’ people to hear. Sometimes God’s words are uncomfortably accusatory, challenging, and instructive. Though the psalmist may allude to them, it’s the prophet who is tasked to carry these words to the people. They are the words of Amos, Hosea, Micah, Jeremiah, and Isaiah. They are God’s words delivered when the community has failed to provide equitable justice to the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the alien. They are God’s words of condemnation when the wealthy organize everything for their benefit, depriving the lower classes of opportunity, even seizing what little they have. God says nothing about forms of government, nor of modern business systems. God has much to say about oppression, standards of justice, and the ethics of doing business.

Issues of injustice and oppression within the community can lie hidden in the routine of daily life, invisible to all but those who suffer from them. It’s suffering those in authority can dismiss as the wages of bad decisions, laziness, or innate lack of necessary abilities, and certainly not the fault of the way the community is organized and ruled. It is the prophet who must declare God’s word of judgment, and call the community to repentance: a repentance not of guilty remorse but of faithful, courageous change. Experience informs us that few pastors are likely to willingly bear the prophet’s burden, although they’ll listen with sympathetic ear. No, they’ll feel compelled to continue offering words of comfort, even encouraging comfort, but not challenging words of God’s of judgement against the community. They’re not averse to using godly judgement to condemn particular sins of personal behavior, real or imagined, but not corporate sins of injustice and oppression that infect society. It would offend too many of their flock.

When issues of injustice and oppression unleash civic instability, pastors must take up the prophet’s staff and speak, in God’s name, to the issues. Holy Scripture, the tradition of the Church, and the vows of ordination demand it. One cannot be called into ordained ministry and duck it. To follow Christ Jesus requires it. And therein lies a problem. It’s bound to make some good, faithful church going people uncomfortable. They may leave, never to return. Yet what is discomforting and challenging to some, are God’s holy words of counsel that, if followed, will lead to a better, more abundant life for all. And those are comforting words.

We are in such a time now. The current administration has made clear that it favors a society in which the relative few who control most the wealth are best suited to manage the government, that the economy should be organized to give priority to their interests, that the lower classes can be easily patronized with grand promises, that the middle classes are well enough off to not care, and that a limited laissez-faire white led nationalistic government is what makes America Great.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced us to use crude, old fashioned tools of physical separation and closure of gathering places because they were the only ones we had. A bumbling start caused more illness and death than might otherwise have taken place, and it revealed wide spread perversion of values assigned to the elderly, low paid but essential workers, health care providers, and others deemed expendable. Others, following the lead of the president, simply ignored the seriousness of the disease, ridiculing those who did. The struggle to find a balance between suffering caused by illness and death, and suffering caused by economic dislocation, reopened old debates about the moral responsibility of government to assure the greater good of the community, and who is to be included in the calculation.

Then came George Floyd’s murder. He wasn’t the first. His death wasn’t even exceptional, but it was the first to be recorded from start to gruesome finish at the hands of an officer sworn to protect and serve. It illuminated the truth about dozens of other recent killings as nothing else had been able to do. It reminded us of a long history of killings, lynchings, bombings and burnings. It reopened long avoided issues of systemic racism kept hidden under normative social practices overlaid by a veneer of laws prohibiting them. Many pastors have known the stories, but as long as relative calm prevailed, it was best not to disturb things too much.

Relative calm has not prevailed. Enough of the American public now believe that systemic racism is real, they have a decent idea of what it is, and they have a renewed commitment to America’s high moral standards of equality and justice for all. Some things can be quickly and easily done to help make them a greater reality. The federal government needs to enforce the laws now on the books. More importantly, state and local governments need to clean up the laws and ordinances now on their books. Organized efforts to suppress votes, and manipulate votes once cast, must be exposed and confronted. Corporate and community practices that have favored discriminatory practices have to be excised. And personal attitudes and beliefs must be more honestly examined. It is no longer a matter for civil rights activists making noises on the fringe of public awareness. In a strange way, it’s become a matter of national pride. To borrow a slogan, it’s become the way to make America great.

For Christians, it’s more than that. It means encouraging civic practices to more fully reflect the standards God has firmly established, and that Jesus certified as authentic. It does not mean making America Christian. It means Christians influencing America to live more into God’s standards of justice. They have a great deal to do with economic justice and integrity of relationships. Distractions about sex and reproduction lead to dead end alleys where issues of systemic inequality are forgotten and nothing happens.

The familiar words of caution from congregations are to keep politics out of the pulpit. What that means is it’s not the pastor’s role to challenge the social standards congregants believe are normative and good. Electoral politics don’t belong in the pulpit. But politics is more than elections. It’s the process by which communities decide the rules under which they will live together. And God is quite clear about the moral standards of justice expected of them. They’ve been clear for 3,000 years. Jesus added an exclamation point and seal of authenticity. Our ability to understand them in the circumstances of our age has been a work in progress, one that we have engaged in through inconsistent fits and starts, lack of interest, and an amazing ability to twist God’s words for personal and social benefit, ignoring the very issues of injustice and oppression that God plainly meant. Christians are called to do what they can to move society in a godly direction. Pastors are sometimes called to bear the prophet’s burden. This is that time.

Finding A Way Out: a few thoughts on rebuilding America

(Warning: my editor is otherwise engaged, so I’m going this alone again. Beware of typos)

As a way to generate conversation, Heather Cox Richardson recently asked what might be needed to rebuild the nation. It’s been on my mind for some time, enough to sketch out a few thoughts. No doubt you also have some thoughts on it. The problem is, none of mine are new. They’ve been around but never seriously acted on. Maybe now is the time to get serious.

The Declaration of Independence and the Preamble to the Constitution establish the high moral values we’ve always claimed for the United States. That they were sometimes limited to adult white men of property, and extension of them to others has been slow, painful and inconsistent, is notwithstanding. They remain the standards we claim for ourselves. It’s time to rededicate the nation to their fuller realization.

It’s hard to get started with serous intent to change our ways, partly because it’s often seen as coming from a radical unAmerican fringe, and partly because people of influence and means are distracted by their desire to maintain an orderly life free of disruption. Getting them to refocus on issues of injustice isn’t easy. Past experience suggests concern over destruction of property leads to vague agreements that something needs to be done, but not until things settle down. By then enthusiasm for change has waned. A tricky piece of right wing propaganda abets waning enthusiasm by attributing property destruction to outside left wing agitators. No one seems to notice that rioting reinforces the right’s intent to keep things as they are.

Systemic racism is deeply embedded in society, but a surprising number of acquaintances deny it, or claim it’s not that serious. We can’t address it if we don’t know its history. We must teach K-12 history and social studies in a way that includes a more honest truth about America than the mythologized versions most of us grew up with. For example, a local friend with multiple advanced degrees learned only recently, while on a trip to Tulsa, about the 1921 Tulsa Massacre. That should not be.

New teaching doesn’t have to heap moral culpability for historical sins on contemporary persons. It can be done in a way that presents a greater reality that illustrates a more complete story of the good, the bad, and the slow struggle to meet the high standards we set for ourselves. It may be uncomfortable, but it can’t be ducked anymore, and there remains much to be celebrated in our history.

The new way of teaching history must also address the genocidal conquest of American Indians, the nation’s betrayal of every treaty, and the continued failure in our own day to live up to commitments made to the tribes. In fact, the whole story of the American West has to be something better than Daniel Boone and John Wayne. Again, amidst the tragedy there remains greatness to be honored.

We already have constitutional protections and reasonably well written laws intended to remove obstacles preventing the proclamation that all persons are created equal from being fully realized. Lax enforcement has made them easily evaded. That can change if we want it to change. It will take more than voting for the right people to lead us. It will take something like a mass marketing campaign to sell the American public on why it will be better for those most threatened by change, and those most in need of change. Those in opposition are gifted at it. Those in favor are not.

Constitutional protections have seldom been extended to immigrants, documented or otherwise. Most agree the immigration system is broken, but few know what it is or how it works. As in the past, opposition to immigrants is based on racial prejudice, fear of job losses, and conviction that immigrants are a public burden. Our lack of a simple, easy to understand immigration process has led to a large number of undocumented immigrants, which has made it easier to demonize and criminalize them. Complicating it is the growing awareness that white Americans will soon lose their majority status. We will become a nation where there is no racial majority. Since race alone has been the white claim to the right to set standards for who is an American, the prospect of losing that right is frightening. Clearly, the nation needs a new immigration system, one that is simple, efficient and expedient. It won’t be easy to overcome white suspicion and fear.

Federal grant and loan programs for housing and community development are not well managed. They’re loaded with unnecessary, duplicative reporting requirements that have been loaded on top of one another. The effect is to suppress efficacy of programs intended to help those most in need. I suppose it’s meant to satisfy political suspicions about their use, so administrators try to solve outlier problems by applying additional requirements to the entire system. Community loan and grant programs are among those needing to be restructured to answer a simple question: How can best practices of customer service be implemented?

Meeting the needs of those at the bottom of the socio-economic scale, the most vulnerable and the most oppressed, is what leads to national prosperity for all. It runs counter to laissez-faire individualism and supply side economics, but millennia of historical evidence supports it. What social welfare means changes with conditions, and what it means for us now is universal health care not dependent on employment, access to low income affordable housing equipped for the technological age we live in, and social service programs to educate and assist families that lack social and educational resources to participate fully as responsible citizens. It’s a tricky issue. As a gross over generalization, conservatives believe the lower classes are able to be self reliant if they want to, but they don’t. Liberals believe they want to but aren’t up to it, and need paternalistic social baby-sitting. Most people want to be self reliant, and have the ability. Treating them paternalistically is demeaning, but they still need help, and the nation can provide it without being paternalistic. We must. Call it socialism if you want, we still must.

While national laws get the most press, local and state laws have more impact on ordinary daily life. Many of them, even with good intent, work to maintain patterns of discrimination, and must be amended or replaced. Among them are local zoning ordinances and urban development plans that cement economic and racial segregation, often with no recognition that they do. A significant problem has been permitting land use according to highest and best use measured only by return on profits from development and future rent value. It can also be measured by community standards of quality of life. Gated compounds for the more wealthy do exactly that.

Speaking for myself, I’m committed to quality public education that excludes or short changes no one. I’m suspicious that charter schools are a detour that can’t provide what they claim, and are often excuses to maintain social class distinctions. Moreover, as a member of the Christian clergy, I am unalterably opposed to public funding of parochial education, with a minor exception of aiding transportation and feeding for those that meet acceptable non-discrimination standards.

Restructuring the police function has been a hot topic, one seemingly addressed by little more than competing bumper stickers and emotional fervor. That it must be done, and now not later, is not debatable. But how? I appear to be a lone voice arguing that police work is social work. Training, structure, and organizational culture need to be managed to reflect it. It doesn’t remove law enforcement from policing, it redefines it.

So those are a few thoughts roughly divided between national and local actions that could be taken, but in no special order. You have your own, and I would like to know what they are.

Required Reading: The Sermon on the Mount

(The Following is published without the editor’s review, so beware of typos)

Country Parson readers are likely to be well informed, and may feel this column is too basic, but I’m often reminded by my very well informed wife that some things need to be repeated frequently. With that in mind, I hope the following will be helpful or useful.

Liturgical churches, from now until Advent, will be reading from Matthew’s gospel, and it discourages me that the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) is not a consolidated lectionary reading. It’s divided into parts distributed in odd ways throughout the year. It seems to me it is core to more deeply understanding everything else in Matthew’s gospel. I encourage that it be read, marked, learned and inwardly digested, because we’re going to be in Matthew for the next six months.

It’s not a sermon in the usual sense; it’s a collection of short teachings that beg for more to be said. No doubt more was said in the hours Jesus spent with his disciples wandering about Galilee. The Sermon on the Mount is more like lecture notes the writer of Matthew grouped together because they are the heart and soul of God’s word, for God’s people, as delivered by God’s Word made flesh. I fear it’s too often read in ways that separate it from 21st century conditions, and the ordinary ways we lead our lives. In like manner, I wonder if it isn’t too easy to project its teachings onto others rather than recognizing them as godly instructions for us.

The familiar Beatitudes are a case in point. Consider that they are double edged. One proclaims God’s particular favor on the poor and oppressed. The other calls his followers to become agents of blessing among those whom God would bless, as also in need of them. I have to recognize myself among the poor in spirit and accept the blessing offered, if I am to be an agent of blessing for others. Jesus called his followers to be humble, merciful, peacemakers, etc. That’s what it means to follow him. The Church has a lot to say about the importance of the way of love. The Beatitudes are instructions for how to walk in it.

In the Sermon, Jesus told his followers not to hide their faith, but let it shine in a way that others are invited to give thanks to God. Thank God by all means, but don’t we also want a big share of thanks for ourselves? It’s not easy. Displaying faith without being an obnoxious bible thumper is complicated. It’s uncomfortable for some to even admit they are Christian, given the bad press it’s been given. Someone said to me recently that she was not a Christian, by which she meant she was not a judgmental, narrow minded bigot who believes in superstitious magic. That’s what a Christian is to her. It’s a perception that doesn’t make it easy to let the light of Christ shine through what we do and say. Jesus never promised it would be easy, he just said to do it.

Jesus dared to change the meaning of the law. Who has the authority to do that? Jesus does, and Jesus did, so we had better pay attention to it, working out what it means for each of us, and for the communities in which we live. It forces us to painfully exam whether the meaning of the law has been dictated by the social standards in which we were raised, or is God’s Word challenging the veracity of our assumptions.

How can we know if we’re not in conversation with God? Jesus invited us to pray not with dedicated church words used only on Sunday, or practiced phrases we’ve been told God likes. We’re to pray in the ordinary words we use in every day conversation with those we respect and trust. God asks for conversation, and we we submit grocery lists hedged with flattering adjectives. And let’s be honest, we hardly ever listen.

Of course we need the things of daily life, and we want a reasonable helping of success and security. God knows that. It’s not wrong to need and want them, but Jesus said we should first work on following him on the way of love, and not worry so much about the rest. That’s hard to do. You and I know that from personal experience. But God is persistent. Follow Jesus, it’s the way, not to riches, but to abundance of life. Hard to believe, but if Jesus said it, it’s so.

Judging others is a favorite human pastime, and Jesus said we’re not very good at it so knock it off. Judging puts people into pigeon holes, it endorses prejudice, and justifies class differences. It would be better to be brutally honest about judging ourselves. We judge others anyway. Can’t seem to help it. Besides, judging is sometime necessary. At least we can be gentle about it, admit we could be wrong, and try not to make things worse.

There are people who mislead others by using Jesus’ name. Be careful. Measure everything by the laws of love. Does it show love for God? Does it show love for others, especially for those not like us? Does it show love for self? Does it reflect the way that Jesus loves us? Jesus was clear that those who misuse his name will be held accountable.

Following Jesus won’t make life easy. There will still be storms and floods, but a life built on faith in God will endure. The way of the cross is not an easy way, but it is the way of life and peace.

When Jesus had finished these words, the rest of Matthew’s gospel went on to explore how they got worked out as he taught the disciples about the way of love. That’s why reading, marking, learning, and inwardly digesting the Sermon on the Mount is important.

D Day & Today: Reflections on D Day, Protests, and Our Political Future

I’m writing this for June 6, the anniversary of D Day. Last fall we were on the D Day beaches and at the American cemetery. I had not known what to expect. The 75th anniversary year was important; a year ago today there had been a large remembrance event attended by world leaders and broadcast world wide. Americans and Brits came in small groups to pay homage all summer long; there were 186 of us in our group, four were Brits, the rest Americans. It was an emotionally wrenching day. The books I had read, movies I had seen, and stories I had heard from those of my parents’ generation, had created in my mind an almost romantic image of what happened that day. Walking the rows of grave markers, reading the list of the unrecovered dead, and seeing the remnants of military emplacements left intact as monuments to slaughter, stripped away any romantic notion.

Seventy six years ago today began the slow, brutal process of liberating Western Europe from the grasp of fascist dictatorship. Out of the war that had engulfed the entire world, the United States emerged as the singular leader of Western democracy and industrial might, a generous benefactor to allies and former enemies alike.

It’s been a rocky seventy-six years for America. We’ve endured more wars and armed conflicts that never should have happened, and an internal struggle, sometimes violent, to live up to the promise of a more perfect union in which all persons could say they were equal citizens with equal rights and opportunity. Economic growth, technological progress, and world wide respect made the American Dream an achievable hope for many, and a longed after hope for many more. So today, and our upcoming Fourth of July celebration of independence and democracy, should be a time of joyful celebration, but it isn’t.

We’ve been racked by the unexpected political success of right wing libertarian distaste for liberal democracy, and more particularly, the election of a president intent on authoritarian rule combined with narcissistic ineptitude never before seen, or imagined. Backed by a core of committed believers, he appears to have set the nation sliding toward the very fascism the D Day dead gave their lives to defeat. That it could happen here, of all places, has dismayed and frightened the entire democratic world, and emboldened other wielders of authoritarian rule. Curiously, he has the support of libertarians who adhere to an ideology of autonomous individualism having little use for government in any form, and is especially distrustful of anything to which the label of socialism can be attached.

Nevertheless, there are significant differences between Europe of the 1930s and the United States of today. We have a free press, however battered, that refuses to knuckle under. We have institutions of thought and opinion leadership who cannot be controlled by would be autocrats. We have a federal system of government that distributes authority among fifty states and thousands of local governments, with constitutional restrictions preventing them from surrendering to centralized national rule, and the political intent to keep it that way. It’s been our strength and weakness. The Constitution reserves all rights of governance to the states, except those specifically given to the federal government. It’s built, in a sense, a fence around the possibility of national totalitarian rule. On the other hand, states’ rights has enabled them to limit the individual rights and freedoms of large portions of their populations. It’s also made it difficult to use the federal government to address problems and issues having no respect for state and local boundaries.

The nature of the modern world has inexorably moved the balance of power toward the federal government, making it possible for it to act on social, economic and infrastructure problems having local impact. Libertarians, fearing the loss of too much autonomy, seem to have opted for a form of oligarchical authoritarianism that promises to guarantee their individualistic values. How that makes sense is beyond me, except that it promises there will be no government support for social welfare, which they see as a good thing.

However wobbly at the moment, the Constitution has stood the test of 200 years of challenge, including a bloody civil war. Giving it new energy is a nation wide awakening to how close we have come to giving it all up. Amidst a global pandemic that has forced physical distancing and the shut down of community life, the killing of one black man, George Floyd, ignited a new flame. There have been many extra legal and indefensible killings of black men and women, and each of them has ignited local revulsion and protest, mostly in the black community, and white tut-tuts lasting until the end of the news cycle. For the most part, the white community has been sympathetic but passive. There was something about watching the near live streaming of a slow, painful, murder of a black man at the hands of white police officer in a progressive northern city that triggered something not even mass school shootings have done. The predictable revulsion, outrage and protests included the white community. Not in one city, but in many cities large and small in all fifty states. Not in America only, but in Europe and elsewhere where systemic racism has been long entrenched.

It’s not George Floyd per se that has aroused the white community. His death was the catalyst that illuminated the reality of systemic racism long hidden and denied. His death shed new light on the recent deaths of two others: Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, gunned down while jogging; and Breona Taylor in Kentucky, gunned down in an unwarranted raid on her home. They had sparked local protests, momentary media attention, and complacent white sympathy, but videos of the events were not made public as was the coverage of George Floyd’s death. With his death, their deaths gained new meaning and new attention. Forming a strange trinity, they’ve become icons representing the same thing happening to others without consequence for hundreds of years. They’ve added greater illumination to the reality of systemic racism that has infected our country, yet could be tolerated as long as it didn’t interrupt the tranquility of the status quo.

It has awakened, at least for now, the attention of the white community in what is hoped to be a new way, and a new commitment to dismantle the systemic elements of racism.

The president’s response had, I think, an unexpected consequence. He was already under fire for mismanagement of the COVID pandemic. He treated the killings as if they were unimportant interruptions to other, more important matters. He reacted to the growing wave of protests, and the destructive rioting that accompanied some of them, as threats to be quashed by overwhelming military force. He threatened to usurp state authority to deal with them. He violently appropriated religious symbols of morality for his own use by his own authority, assuming for himself the place of divinity.

The door that had been opened by the deaths of Mr. Floyd, Mr. Arbery, and Ms. Taylor, was opened wider to reveal the true nature of his dictatorial ambitions, his cowardice, his affection for white supremacy, and the depth of his ineptitude. Thank goodness for his ineptitude.

He, as much as the deaths of Floyd, Arbery and Taylor, may have awakened the nation to rise and defeat the threat of fascism before another D Day is needed. There is hope.