Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Be My Witnesses -- A Lectionary Reflection for Ascension Sunday (Acts)

In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” 
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11 They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

                The Easter season ends with the celebration of Jesus’ ascension into heaven. Ascension Sunday doesn’t get the attention of either Easter or Pentecost, but it is important enough that the creators of the Creeds took notice:
 He ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
      From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I realize that such a statement seems archaic and a reflection of an outmoded worldview. We no longer envision a three-storied universe, with God up and out there. We’ve been to the moon and back. We’ve sent space craft to the ends of the solar system. We’ve yet to find this heavenly realm out there. Yet, here we are with the story of the Ascension of Jesus staring us in the face. Now, it is true that only Luke tells this particular story of the Ascension, but does that mean it lacks importance? After all, only Luke tells the story of the continuing mission of God in the power of the Spirit (at least in narrative form).

Monday, May 22, 2017

Reinhold Niebuhr -- An American Conscience

As I watch the news, I am deeply disturbed by the chaotic nature of our political situation. Many Americans chose to throw a monkey-wrench into a broken system, perhaps hoping that it might reset things. In reality, that monkey-wrench has only made things worse. I watch as the nation I live in and love, becomes increasingly polarized. Partisans on both sides of the spectrum speak of the other in terms of good and evil. Perhaps it's my recent reading of 1 John with my Bible study group that has made me increasingly sensitive to this dualistic vision that is present in that letter, but is also present in our political debate. 

So where do we turn for guidance? I wish I could say that there were public theologians who could help us discern a better way, but there is no one with the stature today of a Reinhold Niebuhr. Whether you agree with him or not, he spoke to the great issues of his day, and his voice continues to echo into the present. The very fact, that we're learning that the now fired FBI director, James Comey, wrote his senior thesis at William and Mary College about Niebuhr, comparing his political philosophy with that of Jerry Falwell, is a good indication that maybe we should pay attention to his voice?

I finally got to watch the documentary that explores Niebuhr's life and message that has been broadcast on PBS stations. Ironically, it never got broadcast in Detroit, where Niebuhr got his start as a pastor of Bethel Evangelical Church. It was from Detroit that Niebuhr moved to Union Theological Seminary, 

In many ways Niebuhr is like Bonhoeffer, in whom one can find whatever one wishes to enhance one's position. While this is true, I believe that Niebuhr's realism is needed. Am I a Niebuhrite? I don't know. What I can say is that for sure, but I am paying greater attention to this former Detroiter! 

I direct your attention to the link below, which will take you to a full-screening video of the documentary An American Conscience at PBS. It should be available between now and September. Listen to figures such as Cornel West, Stanley Hauerwas, Jimmy Carter, Susannah Heschel, and David Brooks, among others speak of his legacy. Cornel West notes that Niebuhr's Moral Man and Immoral Society remains the most important book on religious social ethics to this day (and I've yet to read it -- I shall soon rectify that deficit).  Please take some time to view and then reflect on the legacy of this man who spoke to the reality of sin in human life. Then we might make better sense of our situation and find better ways of responding.  


Friday, May 19, 2017

Sessions, Drugs, Incarceration

In yesterday's Detroit Free Press opinion section, former U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade took up the U.S. Attorney General's new policy on drug prosecutions. This policy is a bit of a "back to the future" policy, in that the tough on criminals prosecutor wants to through the book at alleged drug offenders, going for the maximum penalties allowed by law. As McQuade notes, the policy failed back in the 1980s and 1990s to do anything about drugs, but it did fill up our prisons. If the policy is reinstituted it will once again fill up our prisons, often with elderly prisoners, costing the government millions of dollars. For what?

We tried the Sessions strategy in the 1980s and 1990s and it didn't work. Drugs are still prevalent.  The only difference is the number of people in prison. The federal prison population rose from about 200,000 inmates in 1970 to about 1.5 million in 2010. America is now home to five percent of the world’s population, and 25 percent of its prisoners.  What have we accomplished?  
By distrusting his own prosecutors, Sessions has set us on a course that is doomed to fail again. The drug supply will not abate, but the bills will keep coming due for generations. 
We have a mass incarceration problem in America. It especially affects communities of color, in part because the laws on the books often impact them more severely, and because the justice system still privileges those who are white, especially affluent ones.

So, here's my question: Will we make America great by filling our prisons with drug offenders,often throwing away redeemable lives and spending billions on policies that have failed in the past and will continue to fail? That is, unless we really believe in the employment possibilities that come from building more and more prisons so we can warehouse more and more of our citizens. As for me, I think there is a better way, one that deals with the demand side of the equation, empties the prisons, and allows lives and communities to be restored and redeemed. Thus, we need to say no to Jeff Sessions and say yes to the common sense vision laid out by Barbara McQuade, who during her term of office in Detroit was highly regarded (unlike the new AG in Washington).

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Democracy’s Darker Side - A Reflection

The following reflection appears in my book Faith in the Public Square, (Energion, 2012). This was written, as you can see, during the presidency of Barack Obama, but I think it speaks to what we're going through currently. I am, like many Americans, concerned about the current state of affairs. I don't think this is a partisan issue, it goes deeper than that. We are struggling to make sense of our national institutions. We are seeing the darker side of democracy, even as we hope for a better day.  I invite you to read and consider the message (and of course, I invite you to purchase a copy of the book, for it speaks to many of the concerns of the day.  (You can order from Amazon by clicking here).

I believe in democracy because despite its messiness it’s the best political system yet devised. In theory, it empowers us to take control of our lives, but if it’s to work we must take responsibility for our lives and actions. Freedom and responsibility are the two sides of the democracy, and an effective democracy requires that these two be kept in balance. Or, as St. Paul said: “‘All things are lawful for me’, but not all things are beneficial” (1 Corinthians 6:12).

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Living with Christ in the World

I am in the midst of a bible study series at church in which we are studying the Letters of John. Although 1 John does appear in the lectionary during Easter in Year B (and I've preached most of the texts), how often do we study these letters in any depth. There are wonderful passages in 1 John that declare that God is love and that we who love God should (must) love one another. These powerful statements about love, however, appear in a document that has strong dualistic tendencies. In fact, it is clear that one should not love the world. Instead, one should conquer the world.  
For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome,  for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith.  Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?  (1 John 5:3-5).
Reading 1 John leads me to the current conversations prominent in Christian circles, many of which advocate some form of withdrawal from the world (Benedict Option, etc.). This leads me back to H. Richard Niebuhr's classic study Christ and Culture.  One of the categories in Niebuhr's book is the "Christ against Culture" paradigm. In his discussion of this paradigm, Niebuhr discusses 1 John. He notes why this view emerged, why it has a necessary witness, and why there are problems with it. Thus, with John, Niebuhr asks us to consider what the proper relationship with culture should be? 
So Niebuhr writes:

The relationship of the authority of Jesus Christ to the authority of culture is such that every Christian must often feel himself claimed by the Lord to reject the world and its kingdoms with their pluralism and temporalism, their makeshift compromises of many interests, their hypnotic obsession by the love of life and the fear of death. The movement of withdrawal and renunciation is a necessary element in every Christian life, even though it be followed by an equally necessary movement of responsible engagement with cultural tasks. Where it is lacking, Christian faith quickly degenerates into a utilitarian device for the attainment of personal prosperity or public peace; and some imagined idol called by his name takes the place of Jesus Christ the Lord. What is necessary in the individual life is required also in the existence of the church. If Romans 13 is not balanced by 1 John, the church becomes an instrument of state, unable to point men to their transpolitical destiny and their suprapolitical loyalty; unable also to engage  in political tasks, save as one more group of power-hungry or security-seeking men. Given Jesus Christ with his authority, the radical answer is inevitable; not only when men are in despair about their civilization, but also when they are complacent, not only as they hope for a kingdom of God, but also as they shore up the crumbling walls of temporal societies for the sake of the men who might be buried under ruins.  [ Niebuhr, Christ and Culturep. 68.]

This witness is essential, but there is a flip side to this vision. Niebuhr, of course, respects the Christ against Culture vision, but rejects it as incomplete. While we need this witness, the truth is that we live in the world. We are partakers of culture. He writes that "Christ claims no man purely as a natural being, but always as one who has become human in a culture; who is not only in culture, but into whom culture permeates (p. 69). I could go on, but hopefully the point is made. We live in the culture as followers of Jesus, that provides important challenges. 1 John offers us an important word, but it is likely not completely adequate to the task at hand.

Thus, my question to those who read this: What should our relationship to culture be?