Blog Feed

Following Jesus & Escalating Cycles of Disrespect

Black Lives Matter, Me Too and related movements have boldly confronted conditions embedded in American society that have made it difficult for non-whites and women to enjoy all the rights and privileges America epitomizes.  It’s been a century and a half since the Constitution was amended to extend our treasured “unalienable rights” to all persons; a century since women were included in all persons; nearly the same for American Indians; and over a half century since civil rights legislation was supposed to enforce what the Constitution had guaranteed.  Yet unalienable rights have been denied until those in authority were forced to cede them.

In the meantime, movements espousing white nationalism, white supremacy, and white militias tried to make common cause with conservative populists under the crude umbrella of Trumpism.  They have formed an anti-democratic, authoritarian coalition that endorsed storming the Capitol to incite an insurrection and upend a presidential election.  Sadly, many claiming the label of conservative evangelical Christianity have traded following Jesus for following them.  It’s been enough for some to question the liberal principles upon which the nation was built.

On the sidelines, folks steeped in the lore of American exceptionalism, proud of the communities they’ve built, and proud of their own hard work under challenging circumstances, have become deeply concerned about the moral degeneration they believe is all around them.  They’re perplexed about why being white and proud of hard earned accomplishments has become a bad thing.  Worse, they wonder why America’s dirty laundry has to be aired in public, displacing all the good things the nation stands for.

It’s created a cacophony of angry voices amplified by pundits and news media trolling for ratings, that relish doing what they can to keep it going with repeated calls to “Lets you and him fight,” punctuated with “Ain’t it Awful.”  Some media outlets have become megaphones for blatant falsehoods.  Are they part of the coalition of anti-democratic white nationalists, or are they just pursuing profits without regard to ethics and the public good?  It’s hard to tell.  Maybe both.  Media mouths claim innocence, point fingers, and vengefully attack whoever questions them. 

On Main Street, around the block, and in families, it’s come down to this: if I think you are disrespecting me, I’m going to disrespect you and then some.  Anything you get that’s more than I think you deserve is going to cost, and I’m going to make you pay dearly.  If you’re going to cause trouble, you’re going to get trouble.  It’s a dangerous perversion of school yard taunts waged with words and actions that can only lead to destruction of all we hold dear, unless the cycle is broken.  King, Lewis, Parks and others avoided the trap of exchanging disrespect with more disrespect, thereby gaining ground in recovering denied rights.  That was a long time ago.  Whatever the lessons learned by it were forgotten when the Trump era demonstrated you could get away with ever more aggressive mud slinging, accuse the other guy of starting it, claim first amendment rights, and build a popular following in the process. 

The only certain path to progress is to break the cycle of escalating, aggressive disrespect.  It can be broken while continuing to call out injustice and falsehood.  It doesn’t take everyone, but it takes enough to make a difference.  Breaking the cycle depends on following the principles of non-violence demonstrated by King, Lewis, et al.  Paul, in his letter to the Romans, advised: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.  If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.  Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’  No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals (shame) on their heads.’  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12).  God’s vengeance is never revenge; it’s always in the direction of healing and reconciliation.  

Paul’s counsel, wise as it is, is always subordinate to Jesus’ command to love one another as he has loved us (John 13, 15).  It’s a little too easy for today’s Christians to say they love Jesus in the context of familiar surroundings and the comfort of shared world views.  Claiming to love Jesus has little credence unless it’s lived out by following Jesus.  To live into Jesus’ command to love one another as he has loved us means to “…be doers of the word, and not merely hearers…” (James 1).  To be a doer includes, but means more than, engaging in good works that heal and restore those who are most oppressed and in need.  Every social service organization does good works.  Being doers of the word also means doing the work of orienting one’s beliefs, attitudes and behaviors in a more Christlike direction.  That requires commitment to godly justice that respects the dignity of every human being.  It means calling out without putting down.  It means refusing to engage in zero sum gaming.  It means recognizing that somewhere in the opposition’s most repulsive argument, there is a spark of truth that needs to be heard. It means those appearing most unjust may be the ones most in need of healing and restoration.  It means fearless self examination of one’s own tendency to claim unwarranted righteousness.  It means rejecting violence even when surrounded by it.  It means having the courage to face the consequences of standing firm, not in Jesus’ name, but as Jesus did.

Critical Race Theory: Why is it such a threat to the right wing?

My limited understanding of critical race theory is that it investigates the role and place of race at the intersection of law, social mores, and political power.  Not exactly a new thing, it’s been around since the 1970s.  It threatens right wingers partly by the assertion that race played a central role in structuring American society, and partly by academics drawing from Marx that social problems are more a function of social systems than of individual beliefs and attitudes. 

The right wing seems terribly threatened by something most people outside the academy have never heard of.  Trump issued an executive order in 2020 demanding that federal funds be prohibited from underwriting teaching critical race theory.  Arizona and Idaho have passed bills against teaching it in their public schools.  Right wing groups are apoplectic about it. Sen. Scott’s rebuttal to Pres. Biden’s speech to Congress asserted boldly that the United States is not a racist country.   It causes one to wonder what could be so frightening to them.

We can’t pretend that race is not a factor in American society.  No matter how much we desire to believe we’re all made of the same stuff, and that all lives matter, we have been diligent about prejudicially dividing the population into discrete groups according to skin color, countries of origin, and ethnic traditions.  Examining race in the context of law, social mores and political power requires understanding the experiences unique to each race.  Critics call it identity politics, and complain that it divides us into competing minorities when what we need is greater unity as Americans.  Michael Ramirez published an April 26 editorial cartoon in which the left side of the panel labeled “Liberals” listed dozens of race, ethnic and social subsets.  The right side of the panel labeled “Everyone Else” had only one category: American.  His point?  The left is dividing us against each other; everyone else sees only Americans.  His cartoon reflected a common belief that until recently there was a common narrative defining America and Americans that worked to unite us in common purpose.  Liberals are destroying that narrative.  In truth, it was a  narrative held in common only by portion of white America that assumed everyone else could easily assimilate into it if they wanted to.  If they didn’t or couldn’t, there was something wrong with them.  Never-mind that the legal structures of the nations worked against them. 

Moynihan called it benign neglect, but there wasn’t anything benign about it.  The old common narrative was blind to the history and social structures that prevented non-whites from assimilating; it reserved for itself the right to dictate terms and conditions for what assimilation meant; and it was disinterested in how the values and traditions of others might add to create a different common narrative.  So entrenched is the old narrative that even today there are efforts to enshrine Anglo-Saxon culture as the official definition of America and Americans. 

To its critics, critical race theory is a frontal attack on the glorious story of how Anglo-Saxon culture built the nation.  The attackers they point to are academics whose voices angrily accuse white America without mercy or desire for reconciliation.  But critical race theory is not a thing.  The many books that try to say ‘This is It’ can’t agree with each other on a common definition.  It’s a wide ranging field of study with no fixed dogma.  Academic work in critical race theory is an essential key that helps unlock a more complete and honest understanding of American history.  It focusses on the stories of each of our people, told in their own voices about the roles they played in the building of the nation.  

There are many strands to the story of who we are woven into the fabric that is American society.   Some fear that examining each strand will deconstruct the fabric so that it can never be put back together.   I think it will help us up better understand how the fabric was woven so it can be repaired where torn, and made stronger to last longer.  Shared knowledge of how the American fabric is woven is what can create a new common narrative that celebrates the dignity of each of us.  

Choices, Consequences, Obligations: What Would Jesus Say?

Questions came in this week that touched on Jesus at the intersection of individual freedom and community obligation.  Interestingly, some came from liberals and some from libertarians, none of whom claimed to be Christian.  Maybe they are, they didn’t say, but they did ask about Jesus.  The issues each raised had to do with personal choices that create public obligations, and whether bad personal choices should obligate the public to pay for them.  

My response will use community to mean any level of government from village, to state, to nation, and everything in between.  Also, libertarian ideology has replaced conventional conservative thought, so it might as well go by its own name.  One questioner asked about my politics, which are center-left, but they are always and everywhere subordinate to Jesus and guided by where he leads.  Jesus said the two greatest commandments were to love God with all your ability to do so, and love others as you love yourself.  On these two commandments hang everything revealed in scripture (for that matter, everything else anyone has to say).  Then he added a new commandment, love others as he has loved us.  So the question becomes, how did he show what love is?  The short answer is summed up in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7, which offers clear measures of how we are to be a loving blessing to ourselves and others.  It puts into perspective what God said through the prophets about the standards of justice communities are to have.  My favorite is Amos, who describes in some detail what it is that really ticks God off.  It’s all about justice, equity, and the public good.  God doesn’t have anything to say about what kind of government communities should have, but a lot to say about how they are accountable for being just and equitable.

Here were the questions.

Should anti-vaxers who get sick from preventable diseases create an obligation for the community to pay for their care, or should they be forced to pay for it out of their own pocket?  

Should college graduates who chose majors that don’t qualify them for jobs get free education, or help with student debt?  Why should the community be saddled with the cost of their bad choices if they can’t find a job?

Should tourists who’ve bee warned not to go certain places or do certain things have to pay for their own rescue when they act irresponsibly or illegally?  Why should the community have to pay for the cost of their bad choices?

What does Jesus say?  Would he say it’s morally wrong to hold people financially accountable for the cost of their own bad choices?

Each is a question about fairness and accountability for personal choices, but liberals and libertarians ask them from different perspectives.  Liberals wonder if it’s fair for the tax paying public to be saddled with costs generated by individuals who deliberately act in ways harmful to the public good.    Libertarians wonder if it’s fair for the community to take what is theirs to pay for undeserved public goods?  Libertarians argue that the public good is rooted in maximizing the rights of individuals to pursue their self interests without restraint by the government.  Liberals argue that what maximizes individual freedom is a just and economically sound community investing in public goods.  That is, government done right is a tool to build communities in which individuals can thrive.

It would be helpful if there was a graph that showed where individual rights to pursue self interest intersects with the community’s need to pursue the public good so that each would be optimized, but there isn’t.  Democracies can exist only where an acceptable meeting place can be worked out case-by-case and moment-by-moment driven by provisional answers to what is right and just.  It’s a messy process that leads many nations to prefer strong, single party rule that leaves little doubt about what the rules are.

What would Jesus think about all this?  He never answers the question.  He just tells parables about reconciliation and restoration for prodigal sons, despised minorities, the mentally deranged, unclean outcasts, and expects his listeners to draw their own conclusions.  He would turn the tables and ask two questions.  Does your conclusion demonstrate love for the good of the other?  Does your conclusion support justice and equity in the public good?  The two cannot be separated, nor opposed to each other.  They must work together.  The best I can offer to those who asked how Jesus would answer their questions, is my own opinion based on how I understand the path on which Jesus has led me.

With that as prelude, what about anti-vaxers?  The community must see to their care even though they have threatened the public good, but they must be called out for it.  Choices have consequences, and theirs is to be called out for their willing disregard for the well being of others.   Those who promulgate blatantly false information that jeopardizes public safety may be held criminally or civilly liable, but that’s a different issue.

What about higher education?  Free education isn’t free. It’s an investment of our collective tax money in the future of the community.  In a very real sense it’s a part of our infrastructure.  Being an old guy whose resources are a little dated, I refer you to John W. Kendrick’s 1974 work on total factor productivity.  Should we invest in liberal arts education?  A liberal arts degree is not a job ticket, it’s an education in how to be a critical thinker with a solid base of knowledge about humanity and its story.  It’s the essential carrier of our history, culture, standards, hopes and dreams.  Democracies can’t exist without it.  Job tickets come from quality trade and professional schools.  They too are part of the infrastructure, and equally essential to a healthy, thriving economy.   The two are parts of a whole not to be separated.

And the cost of rescuing people who get into trouble because they disregard laws and warnings?  Like the anti-vaxers, they have acted unethically with disregard for their own or the public good.  They made terrible choices without intending to cause harm to themselves or others, but the community is morally obligated to come to their aid.  The costs are high, too high for someone to pay out of pocket. Tourism is an economic asset for many communities, and they are obligated to make it as safe a possible, knowing that people off on an adventure seldom think anything bad can happen on vacation.

My response to the questions asked must be taken as rough guidance toward the path of following Jesus on the way of love.  Specific answers to specific questions about moral judgment are alway problematic because they lead to more questions about specific issues that easily morph into catalogues of approved dos and don’ts.  If taken as authoritative, the catalogues relieve one of the hard work of thinking things through to make decisions that must always remain provisional.  The church word for it is casuistry; it has a long, disreputable history.  When asked what the Lord required of people, the prophet Micah said, “…do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God”(Micah 6).  It’s not the easy way.  It’s a struggle, but it will not lead astray.

Remembering Teachers and Mentors

This morning a group of us retired clergy types got talking about teachers and mentors who made a difference in our lives.  I don’t mean parents or relatives, but teachers we had in school, or academic mentors who guided us.  I’ve been fortunate to have a few, but only two tumble into memory when the subject comes up.  One was Tony Nemetz, a philosophy professor who had a lot to do with me entering ordained ministry, albeit late in life.  The other was Sgt. Waldo Peterson of the Hopkins police department.  Waldo was probably the most educated person I’ve known.  Not having a Ph.D. of my own, I collect friends and acquaintances who do, so have an idea of how high higher education can go, and Waldo sat at the top next to Tony.

He was one of those small town cops who would rather talk through a problem than make an arrest. Not exactly Andy Taylor, but of that genre. As far as I know, Waldo never graduated from high school, at least that was the story. I got to know him in my early twenties when I worked for the City of Hopkins. He seemed old to me at the time, but probably wasn’t too far over fifty. In any case, he’d read nearly every adult book in the local library, had a deep understanding of what he’d read, loved to talk about any subject, and served on the library board longer than anyone else. Riding on patrol with Waldo, he tutored me through 19th century Russian history. Sitting in an empty jail cell, he walked me through early 20th century American history. He interrogated me about every class I was taking at the university. We argued principles of sociology, psychology, and political theory. A confirmed FDR Democrat, he was highly suspicious of Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam policies but was all in for his War on Poverty..

What he couldn’t figure out was why I was a Christian.  In Hopkins you were either Christian or Jewish.  Every one self identified as one or the other, but Waldo expected more than a label.  He expected them to have an intellectually defensible belief.  Christians, in his experience, didn’t show much Christlike in the ways they conducted their lives.  It wasn’t just in their personal lives, and in a small town, a cop like Waldo knew a lot about how they did that.  It was in the way that some well known community leaders treated their employees and customers that betrayed the Christianity they professed.  Wealth, he suspected, was their true religion.  At least that’s how he read it.  Maybe what bothered him most was when he asked Christians to explain their faith, they couldn’t come up with more than a few bromides and platitudes.  That was unacceptable to a philosopher like Waldo.   Jews did better, but not enough better to satisfy him.  I was forced to try to offer satisfaction.

Anyway, the time came for me to move on and up in the world.  Memory of time with Waldo Peterson faded.  Years would pass.  My higher education would get higher, my career path looked good.  I got to hang out with people of real power and wealth in places far removed from Sgt. Waldo Peterson.  Funny though, whenever the subject turns to teachers and mentors, it’s Waldo without a high school diploma that comes up along side Tony with his Ph.D.  Who knows if Waldo made a difference in any other’s life; he made a difference in mine.

The Episcopal Church & White Supremacy

The Episcopal Church is struggling, as are many denominations, with how to confront white supremacy and Christian nationalism.  Surveys, focus groups, committees and meetings have been employed to explore, think and propose.  Whether any of it leads to decisive action remains to be seen.

Assuming decisive action is intended, where might one look for guidance pointing the way? On April 16, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote a letter to local clergy while he was incarcerated in the Birmingham jail. That was 58 years ago. It’s lost no currency in all those years, and may offer the guidance needed. Using it as a template, here are some observations that may be helpful as the church decides what to do. King made it clear that no progress can be made unless the morally committed are willing to present their bodies as non violent agents of the moral right, and accept the physical and emotional cost of doing it. One of our Eucharistic prayers declares that we will “offer…our souls and bodies to be a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice unto thee…” Do we make that offering only at the altar, or as the earliest Christians did, are we to make it in the public arena also? King said that to confront injustice required direct action in the public arena, and that publicly confronting white supremacy would create uncomfortable public tension. Fear of tension is what keeps many good people, moderate in their ways, from doing anything. Creating tension, the right kind of tension, is the only way to “help people rise from the dark depth of prejudice.”

The people whom we must help rise from the dark depths are not the oppressed but the descendants of oppressors who are less aware than they need to be about the sources of their place and privilege. The church has tried, but decades of antiracism training were a waste of time. Attendees tended to be the already convinced spending a few hours self flagellating and pouring righteous moral indignation over the unenlightened who weren’t there and didn’t care. It didn’t work because the evils of white supremacism are systemic far more than they are issues of personal beliefs and prejudices. Citing Reinhold Niebuhr, King observed that individuals may see the moral light, but groups tend to be more immoral than individuals. Immorality embedded in groups is systemic racism, and it is the system, more than individual beliefs and prejudices, that must be addressed.

The 20th century’s leading expert on reforming systems, W. Edwards Deming, was adamant that it’s the system, not the individual, that has to change if progress is to be made. And that requires understanding the data that defines the system. The system of racism, of which white supremacy is a part, cannot be fixed without understanding its data – its history. As King noted, it’s a history that has been hidden from public view for too long. He said that it’s, “like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light.” The story of the systems of racism must be told, dispassionately, in public, to everyone, no matter how uncomfortable it may be. That includes elements of white supremacy that are a part of Episcopal Church history. They also need the natural medicines of air and light.

The same is true for the church’s unintentional connection to Christian nationalism, recognizing that the line between Christian patriotism and Christian nationalism is not well marked.  There was a time when the Episcopal Church was known for patriotism living side by side with the proclamation of the gospel.  The flag processed with the cross, and took its place of prominence at the altar.  Signs of it can still be found in some congregations where we “can see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be” (Mark 13).  The story of Christian patriotism needs to be told, celebrated, and firmly disassociated from Christian nationalism.  National symbols must be removed from the sanctuary that belongs to God alone.

White supremacy and Christian nationalism are related to the idea of American exceptionalism that has defined the nation’s self identity for over a century.  The story of exceptionalism cannot be told without praising America’s rugged individualism epitomized by pioneers and cowboys.  A central theme in the story is that all one needed to make a life for one’s self was the willingness to work hard and persevere, no thanks to the government, which was needed but not to be trusted.  American worship of individualism has become a political idol too often subordinating Christ in congregational life.  The entire history of our faith from Abraham to the book of Revelation is about the communities of families, cities and nations.  Scripture describes God’s expectations for justice in the public policies of communities; Jesus broke down walls of separation to restore the outcast to community; the Revelation to John ends with the healing of the nations.  Individualism, taken to extreme, separates the individual from the interconnectedness of community on which God says our well being depends.  The good of the individual cannot be found except in the context of a healthy, just community in which the dignity of every human being is respected.  Confronting white supremacy and Christian nationalism must focus on restoring a right balance between the virtues of individualism and the virtues of the good of the community.

There is another idol the church must deal with if it is to boldly confront white supremacy and Christian nationalism.  It’s the golden calf of numbers, of butts in the pews.  Church leaders are obsessed with declining numbers and how to better market the church.  It tempts some to genuflect toward the trendy mendacity of what sells best this year.  Others have given up, and are content to exist as inoffensive spiritual comfort stations until they fade away.  The golden calf of numbers must go if the Episcopal Church is to be serious about confronting white supremacy and Christian nationalism.  In its place, the church must boldly confront every practice that degrades human dignity.  Either we stand for Jesus Christ or we don’t.  King remind the clergy of Birmingham that Shadrach, Meshack and Abednego were willing to put their lives on the line rather than exchange the Lord God for a golden statue.  He said, Jesus was wiling to be an extremist for love opposing hate, and put his life on the line.  Bishop Curry has called us to follow Jesus in the way of love, and it’s hard to follow Jesus if one is too busy counting butts.

Once upon a time, the Episcopal Church was reputed to be the voice of genteel Christian paternalism relying on the inevitability of progress in good time.  Whether true or not, that was its reputation.  The Episcopal Church needs to build a new reputation of boldness as followers of Jesus.  Confronting white supremacy and Christian nationalism  requires heeding King’s warning not to become “…a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound.”

Letter from a Birmingham Jail

africa.upenn.edu

Want to Strengthen the Progressive Shift? Know the opposition voters.

National leadership from the White House has changed dramatically. Gone are incessant Tweets, bombastic macho posturing, fantasy spewing streams of consciousness, and all the rest that epitomized the former administration. In its place is calm, low key competency focussed on issues with bold initiatives to rebuild a foundation for the country’s future, and restore its place of leadership in the community of nations.

Good news? Not for everyone. There are millions of Americans who were fond of Trump and say they remain committed to his policies. Given the chaotic nature of his administration, it’s hard to know what is meant by his policies, but conversations here and there have boiled it down to a few key points that must be taken seriously if we are to strengthen the progressive shift in the political landscape.

Trump voters like his tough guy shoot from the hip posturing. They believe that’s how strong leaders act, and they want strong leaders. To them, Biden’s calm competency looks like weakness. They’re unaware that in politics and business, Trump style posturing produces only short lived illusions of success veiling inevitable failure. Corporations and countries alike self destruct, implode, under the leadership of blustering strong man rule. It’s inevitable.

Trump’s people are convinced that the federal government is the problem (thank you Reagan), so to them, mustering national resources to meet national needs is socialism in its most nefarious freedom crushing form. In their imaginations, an America with a small, powerless federal government would be idyllic. They can’t apprehend, much less comprehend, that rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure is an investment that will reap enormous returns for them and their descendants. All they can see is cost piling the burden of unbearable debt on tax payers. That health care, education, cyber networks, and the environment are part of the infrastructure makes no sense to them. They have an ill formed sense that somehow the private market can address needs, all on its own without government intervention. The idea that a massive public investment to rebuild our infrastructure will create private sector jobs, private sector investment, and make new technologies affordable for ordinary people is, in their minds, a non sequitur.

The majority of the population was born into a society in which the strength of the economy was based on consumption, not investment. Consumer spending has been the primary measure of economic vitality reported in the public media. The unemployment rate has been a close second, with no attention given to the kinds of jobs at what rates of pay and benefits. Various federal stimulus plans have helped pull the economy out of deep recession, and prevented others from taking root, but have done little for investment in the long term interests of the public good. Trump voters cannot conceive of taxes as the source of public investment in the collective future of the nation. Taxes, to them, simply take money away from more consumer spending, and that can’t be good.

What are the issues Trump voters believe are most important? They fear that hordes of brown, black and non-English speaking immigrants will overrun the white society that fought for and built America, no thanks to anyone else. They live in fear of WWII type invasions on American soil. They adhere to the myth of American individualism that treats government regulation as an infringement on their personal rights, except for the ones that protect their place in society. Their adherence to the myth is what convinces them that everything liberal or progressive is a move toward Russian style socialism. They believe government must be kept small and impotent if freedom is to be protected.

Trump made them feel he understood and that he was doing everything he could to address the issues they believed were important. They don’t believe he was a dictator in waiting, jeopardizing their cherished freedoms. Biden doesn’t act like a strong man, or speak their libertarian language, and he ignores their issues. Right wing super PACs representing libertarian oligarchy mine their fears with convincing propaganda. Disinterested in the welfare of the people, they only want Trump voters to return governing power to the properly dependable candidates who will rule, as instructed, for the benefit of an elite few.

Photo I.D.s & Electoral Integrity

Ordinary, everyday conservative voices ask: What’s so wrong about requiring a photo ID to vote?  Photo IDs are required for all kinds of things, why not voting?  It’s a reasonable question.  Those asking it are often unaware of the extent to which non-white and impoverished citizens have been systematically excluded from the right to vote, and not only in the deep South.  They’re unaware that, in 2013, the Supreme Court struck down a key element of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, making it possible for states to indirectly suppress voting by severely limiting the number of polling places, methods of collecting votes, time allowed for voting, ease of voting absentee, etc.  They’re unaware that photo IDs are one way to suppress votes, not by requiring them, but by making them more difficult for targeted populations to get.

It would be easy to assign this collective unawareness to the white population, but I suspect it’s more widely spread among all of us.  The point is, if one doesn’t know about the history of obstacles hindering the right of non-white citizens to vote, a simple thing like requiring an authorized photo ID seems trivial.  Collective unawareness has created a passive receptivity to accusations of rampant voter fraud, and why not?  Since the 1980s, the American public has constantly been fed a soft sell that election fraud is a serious problem whenever too many votes are cast by people of color and the poor.  Dozens of investigations have proven that, among votes cast, there is no wide spread election fraud.  Known instances have been sporadic and unintentional, with a couple of notable exceptions perpetrated by right wing operatives and quickly caught.  Soft sell turned to hard sell after Obama’s election.  Under Trump, white nationalism’s goal of keeping non-whites from voting was made blatantly clear.  It was a goal fitting nicely into oligarchical libertarianism’s intention to keep control of government in the hands of the few who could be trusted to serve the needs of their business interests.  Together they formed a monstrous alliance.

Taken by itself, the question of photo IDs is reasonable and solvable, but it can’t be taken by itself.  It’s one strand of a sustained effort to make it more difficult for people of color to vote, especially in urban areas where they are the majority or a large plurality.  What’s driving the determined opposition to greater voter turnout by people of color and the poor?  There’s no simple answer.  It certainly has to do with fear among portions of the white population that white America is losing it majority status, which it is.  The myth that non-white persons are unintelligent, lazy, dependent, and incapable of self governance, convinces a portion of the white population that if they don’t keep control of government, the nation is lost.  The myth that urban America cares nothing about the welfare of rural America, convinces a portion of the rural population that governments dominated by urban interests will destroy what’s left of small town America.  The myth that national issues addressed by the federal government through public/private partnerships will lead to Russian style socialism, convinces some people that keeping government small and in the hands of only a few will preserve American individualism.  The myth that taxation is theft, not investment, convinces some that too many people voting for liberal policies will bankrupt both them and the nation.  It’s complicated.  

The unrelenting chant of voter fraud that doesn’t exist triggers every race and class based fear and anxiety.  It’s a chant that can seem convincing when it’s been drummed into one’s head, year after year.  Perpetrators of voter suppression are violating a fundamental value of American democracy, and have a moral obligation to stop.  But fear of losing ruling power is stronger than moral obligations for too many.  They’ll praise Jesus with one hand, and suppress voters with the other, angrily justifying their actions by repeating lies about protecting the integrity of the electoral process.

Easter is One Thing – What did the Disciples do the Day After, and the Days After That?

Have you ever wondered what Jesus’ disciples did in the days following Easter? I wonder all the time. On Easter, they were confronted with the resurrection, which was nothing that made sense. It defied everything everyone knew about death and burial. Then they were confronted by Jesus himself, now fully revealed as God incarnate, which also defied every thing everyone knew about God and messiahs. According to John’s gospel, Jesus appeared to them on Sunday night in full fleshly materiality by entering a locked and shuttered room without benefit of opening the door. I cannot imagine any circumstance where any of this could make sense to the disciples. They completed Easter Day by experiencing multiple traumatic sensory shocks they could not possibly comprehend.

I imagine some lay awake all night trying to figure out what happened.  Others slept the sleep of sheer exhaustion.  What about Monday morning?  Did they gather at the local coffee house asking each other if it really happened, and if it did, what could it mean, and would Jesus come again, and would he knock this time?  Did some wander in a daze of private reflection?  Maybe some gathered in a living room to talk and talk trying to weave their shared stories into a narrative that might make sense.  I wonder if it was a sort of reverse Shiva with food and stories about death turned to life that can’t be explained, and who would believe it anyway?

The week would pass with each new day posing more complicated questions than the day before, and few answers. We’re told that Jesus showed up for fifty days, but we’re not told how often or what he said. My guess is the reality of what had happened, and was happening, slowly crept into the disciples’ understanding, and with it the recognition that they were privileged to have an intimate, in person, relationship with God which would make them messengers of God’s truth, no less so than the angels of holy scripture. Moses was never allowed to see God’s face. They were, in the face of Jesus Christ.

The massive cognitive dissonance they were experiencing could be resolved only by rehearsing everything Jesus had said and done, incorporating into it the stories they’d heard from Jesus’ family and friends who knew him before they did. How long would that take? With Jesus guiding them, would fifty days be enough? I guess it was, at least enough to get started proclaiming the good news. The gospel records are not in agreement about these days; John says the fishermen among them went back to Galilee to go fishing. Did they? It makes sense to me. If I made my living as a fisherman before following Jesus, I think I’d go back to what I knew best to help me think things out. Although the gospels agree that the women among Jesus’ disciples were the first to proclaim the resurrection, nothing is said about what they did next. We do know that Jesus’ dedicated band was a little over a hundred men and women. Did the core group of eleven instruct them as they themselves were being instructed? I wonder if Jesus stood in the background like a professor watching a teaching assistant take over a class. I wonder if Mary Magdalene paced back and forth enforcing discipline. A lot is missing.

How long did it take for the new reality to settle into a routine?  We need routines.  Lives lacking routine are chaotically out of control; lives of obsessive routine are locked in place, unable to move.  Routines have to be balanced to form the base for movement but not barriers preventing it.  The disciples needed a new routine, so new that it had no precedent.  What would balance look like?  No one but Jesus could show them the way.  How does one create a new routine for which there is no precedent?  I imagine it had to be built on established customs not inconsistent with following Jesus, and that meant continuing most Jewish religious practices that frame daily hours, weekly synagogue worship, and annual celebrations.  After all, Jesus was an observant Jew.  He didn’t throw out the law, he fulfilled it.

I wonder if the disciples got up each day feeling like they were students studying for their final exams before being sent out into the field.  I wonder if Peter, James and John began to feel the weight of authority.  Did it humble them, or did they assert authority others resented?  

The days following Easter are a mystery, and they cause me to wonder as I wander in my own days following Easter.

Birth & Resurrection: Bookends to the life of Jesus

The Easter season is upon us.  It’s often a time when the curious ask questions about Jesus and Christianity, sometimes in tones of skeptical cynicism.   Here are a few words that might be helpful in answering them.  Feel free to use it, making whatever changes you think appropriate.  They are simple words intended to make sense to people who know very little about Christianity, but are curious enough to ask questions.  A final note: I use ‘he’ in single quotes as a pronoun for God knowing that God has no gender.  God’s desire for intimate relationship with us, and our desire for the same with ‘him,’ demands a pronoun unavailable in English.  ‘She’ would work just as well, use it if you want.

A problem with Christianity is its unbelievability.  Two bookends bracket it.  One is Jesus’ birth, and the other is his resurrection.  Neither can be explained within the context of human knowledge or experience.  They are holy mysteries to be lived into, not solved.

Jesus is not a mythological figure. He was born in a real place at a real time in history; born of a virgin who had never had sexual intercourse with anyone at the time of his conception. To claim that God caused her to become pregnant is frequently met with ridicule, and reminders of fantastical tales about lustful gods who once upon a time sired demigods by seducing young women. However, God is the source of being and life, creator and sustainer of all that is, whether seen or unseen. ‘He’ is the God of history, not mythology. God is without form and beyond knowing, except as ‘he’ chooses to reveal ‘himself’ to us. Even the word God is only a placeholder for the holy name that no one knows. We don’t have language to explain the power of God to create and sustain all that is, so we use the ‘Word of God’ as another placeholder to substitute for what we are unable to name or understand. What we do know is that Jesus is the Word of God made flesh, born of the virgin Mary, which is not a very big deal for the one who brought the universe into being.

There’s no point in getting into a debate about exactly how Jesus is both human and divine.  Theologians have spent centuries trying to resolve it – in the end, it’s another holy mystery to be lived into.  Suffice it to say that Jesus is all of God that can be portrayed in human form.  St. Paul, writing to the new Christians of Colossae (in modern western Turkey) said that in Jesus “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” (Col. 1)  Jesus was equally a human being who experienced life’s joys and difficulties just as we do.  An observant Jew, he was born, grew up, and worked as a carpenter before engaging in his public ministry.

His resurrection is another holy mystery.  When he was about 33 years old, Jesus was tried for blasphemy and executed as an enemy of the Roman Empire.  He was buried in a sealed and guarded tomb.  That’s attested to by holy scripture and the historical records of the time.  Nevertheless, on the third day his tomb was found empty.  His followers, men and women, several hundred of them, reported that he appeared to them, talked with them, ate with them, he touched and was touched by them, but not as not the same Jesus they had known.  Now his godliness was fully revealed.

What’s the point? Why all the drama? Christians say that Jesus died for the sins of the whole world. There are many ways to understand what that means, but in the end, and in spite of our selfish, violent ways, God was determined to save us from the disasters and death of our own devices. By his death, Jesus submitted to the ignominious end of would be saviors whose memory is soon forgotten, a trouble maker gotten rid of. By his resurrection, Jesus demonstrated that neither the state nor death had power over him. His resurrection proved that nothing, not even death, can separate us from the love of God. Was all that crucifixion, burial and resurrection necessary? Yes, because without it we would not believe it. Some things have to be seen and experienced. The point is, God revealed ‘himself’ only in part through the prophets of Israel, but God was made fully known in Jesus because Jesus is the Word of God made flesh. He lighted the path to life in abundance that begins here and now, and leads through death to life everlasting. What makes Jesus different from other prophets and sages? He is the Word of God made flesh; his is the ultimate authority; there is no other and none higher. What he said and did is true because he is truth itself.

Sadly, it needs to be repeated that God is not only the God of the Jews and their gentile Christian step-siblings.  God, the source of all that is whether seen or unseen, is the God of all creation.  There are no exceptions.  Christians know with certainty that the Word of God made flesh is Jesus, there is no other, and that through Jesus all of creation will be saved from itself, but how he does that is not for us to know.  Therefore, we are not entitled to exclude any person or people from the saving acts of God.  We are simply called to proclaim the Good News of God in Christ Jesus, inviting all who are willing to walk with us on the path Jesus has set before us.

What that path looks like, and what we are to do as we walk on it, is contained between the bookends of Jesus’ birth on one end and his death and resurrection on the other. It is a path defined by love, healing, reconciliation, non-violence, and justice. And the Church? What is the Church, and why do we need it? Christians following in the Way of Love are called into communities of fellowship with one another. The Church, in its many forms, is the institution through which religious faith is expressed in community. As with any institution, it’s often failed and is always in need of reformation. Nevertheless, it’s persevered through the ages as the vehicle through which faithful people have carried the light of Christ that darkness cannot extinguish. Buildings and hierarchy aside, the Church is the community of those who want to follow Jesus. In the Church, they are nourished with whatJesus’ words, and strengthened for the journey with holy food and drink of new and unending life.

Holy Week in the Valley of the Shadow of Death

Are the times we live in good or bad, hopeful or discouraging? Signs of things getting better are often dashed by signs of things getting worse, making it hard to tell what to expect. In the immortal words of Roseanne Roseannadanna, “If it’s not one thing, it’s another.” In the midst of Holy Week, several correspondents have wondered where God is when it can seem that, if there is a God, ‘he’s’ allowed political, economic and social chaos to prevail.

It’s not a new worry, the psalmist wondered if God had fallen asleep and didn’t know what troubles hounded ‘his’ people (Ps.44). The ancient Israelites were perplexed about the matter, and alternated between trusting in themselves and foreign gods when things were going well, and wondering where the Lord God was when trouble got out of hand. God, speaking through the prophets from Isaiah through Zechariah, said the time would come when God ‘himself’ would save God’s people because it was obvious the people and their leaders were unwilling to follow God’s directions. In the prophets’ minds that meant saving from war, famine, social unrest, subjugation by foreign powers, and going into exile. In other words, they wanted the same things we want from God. Nearly three thousand years stand between the ancient Israelites and us, and every one of those years demanded the same thing from God as they plodded through times far worse than our own.

God had something else in mind. In Jesus, God fulfilled the promises made through the prophets that ‘he’ ‘himself’ would be the saving shepherd of ‘his’ people. Consider the 23rd psalm about going through the valley of the shadow of death and discovering a table of life restoring food and drink in the middle of it. The valley was still dark and dangerous, the journey still had a long way to go. Real enemies were present. But God had set a table in the midst of it where the traveler found rest, refreshment, anointment with oils of blessing. Assured of God’s protection and nourished with holy food and drink, the journey through the still dark and dangerous valley could be completed, ending in the house of the Lord where goodness and mercy abound.

Holy Week was the valley of the shadow of death through which Jesus led his disciples. He set a table in the midst of it, a feast at which he declared the bread and wine to be his body and blood, the sealing of the new covenant God had promised through the voice of Jeremiah many centuries before (Jer. 31). It was the holy food and drink of new and unending life. But the cross at the end of the valley did’t look like new life. It looked like death because it was death. It looked like failure. Jesus met the end we all meet – death and burial. It didn’t end in the house of the Lord where goodness and mercy abound. Was it the end of the story?

We know the valley didn’t end there. We know that in death life is not ended but changed. The disciples didn’t know that. They had no way of knowing it. It would take more than an empty tomb to convince them, and they got more. God Almighty came to them, ate with them, touched and was touched by them. Jesus, whom they had known as a carpenter turned rabbi with amazing powers, was fully revealed as God incarnate. The kingdom long promised existed in his presence, and his presence was with them always.

Their own journeys through many valleys of shadows of death lay ahead. Jesus would always be with them. There would always be a table of holy food and drink to strengthen and sustain them. When all the valleys of their days had been traversed, signs of the kingdom of God were left behind giving light in dark places; holy food and drink was left to nourish those who followed. The journey’s end was always in the house of the Lord where goodness and mercy abound.

We are their descendants with our own valleys to traverse. Jesus will always be with us. It’s the already but not yet living into the fullness of God’s kingdom. Holy food and drink will always be there for us. What we do and say will establish light in dark places that cannot be extinguished. It will help guide others. The last valley will always end in the house of the Lord where goodness and mercy abound.

Are things getting better or worse? The usual signs point in both directions. We are to be guided by an unusual sign. We are to plant a bit of the kingdom wherever we are. In its presence things will always be better, and unlike the usual signs, it will always point the way to fullness of new and unending life in the house of the Lord where goodness and mercy abound.