Saturday, June 30, 2007

TRUE FREEDOM

I ordinarily post my sermons at my sermon blog -- Words of Welcome -- but with the topic being freedom and relating to the upcoming holiday, I thought I'd post it here as well.


Galatians 5:1, 13-25


Oh, to be free, really free, so that I could do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted!! Wouldn’t that be wonderful? Do you ever have such thoughts? I do!

Well, since we’ve come to that time of the year when it’s mandatory to celebrate freedom, maybe it’s appropriate to think about such things as freedom and liberty. You do know that the 4th of July Holiday is just a few days away? I know the 4th is about barbeque, fireworks, parades, and summer sales, but still . . . Maybe it would be a good thing to talk about freedom, especially at a time when some of our freedoms seem to be in danger.
Back in 1941 – I know some of you were alive back then -- President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared in his State of the Union Address his unswerving support of four freedoms, freedoms that should be for everyone, everywhere.
  • Freedom of speech
  • Freedom of Worship
  • Freedom from Want
  • Freedom from Fear
When he spoke these words the United States had not yet entered World War II, but war was raging in Europe and in Asia, and it wouldn’t be long before our nation entered the war. It was a time when freedom around the world was in jeopardy, and yet Roosevelt spoke with great optimism about the future.

That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called "new order" of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.

The dictators of his day would, he believed, be turned back, and they were, at great cost, but unfortunately new ones took their places in many parts of the world. Most of those freedoms he spoke of so eloquently sixty-six years ago remain more a dream than a reality, even here in the United States.

It’s good to celebrate the freedoms we have as Americans and to be proud of our country. And yet, I always find it difficult to preach on the Sunday before the 4th, because it’s too easy to merge nationalism and faith. It’s too easy to think of ourselves as the New Israel and to believe that we’re so special in God’s eyes that we deserve special blessings. But the truth is: God is God of all the Nations and all the peoples and God loves us all equally. And as far as freedom goes, Paul understood quite well that true freedom had nothing to do with political freedom.

We are free in Christ and therefore, no matter the circumstances, we’re to stand firm in that freedom and never again submit to any “yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1). It’s good to remember that Paul wrote this word of encouragement to people living under Imperial Roman rule, and so he has in mind a spiritual freedom that transcends all other forms of freedom. Of the four freedoms that President Roosevelt outlined, the one that is most related to what Paul has in mind, is the “freedom from fear. Don’t let others enslave you with their opinions and their rules and their regulations, because it will be fear that will enslave you to their views.
If we are to be truly free, then what does that mean? Paul makes several points worth hearing today on the eve of Independence Day!

1. Freedom to Serve

It may sound a bit contradictory, but Paul says you have been set free so that you might choose to serve. Paul understood the lure of self-indulgence; that urge to gratify our desires no matter the cost to others or ourselves. Consider for a moment, the buffet table; the ones you can find in Las Vegas. The choices are overwhelming, and you have to try everything. This makes it really hard to stop, because you want to get your money’s worth, even if you pay for it later by getting really sick. This isn’t the kind of freedom Paul has in mind. What he has in mind is freedom from legalism. In this context he tells the Galatians that it isn’t the circumcision of the flesh that saves you, but rather it’s a transformation of the heart.

Because you’re free in Christ from the bondage of legalism, choose to serve your neighbor. It’s your choice; you can do otherwise, but if you’re truly free, you will serve and love your neighbor as yourself. Now in this country of ours, if we follow this call to freedom, then our acts of service will have definite political consequences, because we will put others before ourselves.

2. The Fruit of Freedom

There’s a reason why we have laws – we seem to be inclined to indulge ourselves rather than serve our neighbors. Paul tells us what freedom gone to seed looks like, and it’s not pretty. Freedom gone bad produces such things as idolatry, anger, strife, jealousy, factionalism, carousing around, and things like that.
When freedom is rooted in the Spirit of God, we bear fruit, against which there is no law. The fruit of the Spirit’s movement in our lives is things like love, joy, peace patience, kindness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. Instead of focusing on not doing the first batch of items, Paul encourages us to focus on the things of God by letting the Spirit transform our lives.

3. Freedom and Responsibility

If we truly want to be free, then we’ll need to pay special attention to the ninth of these fruit of the Spirit. Freedom without self-control is anarchy and it will cause everyone, including ourselves, a lot of grief.

You might find it a bit ironic, but without freedom there can be no responsibility – If I’m not free how can I be responsible – and yet the more freedom I have, the more responsibility I have. As Paul says elsewhere: “All things are lawful, but not all things are beneficial” (1 Cor. 6:12). If self-indulgence is our goal, we won’t stop to consider how our choices affect others. When that happens our freedom – whether as individuals or as nations -- becomes destructive.

Yes, it’s a good thing to celebrate our freedoms as Americans, and it’s appropriate to defend those freedoms, but more importantly, it’s imperative that we remember that to be truly free is to serve our neighbors in love, and that goes way beyond being an American.


Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Lompoc, CA
5th Sunday after Pentecost
July 1, 2007

Dangerous VPs -- Burr and Cheney


There is a growing movement calling for the impeachment of Vice President Dick Cheney for all manner of abuses of power. For decade upon decade the Vice Presidency was a pretty cushy job, unless of course the President died in office -- then you'd have to work for a living. But that has been changing of late. Al Gore had taken on increased roles during the Clinton administration and since 2001, Dick Cheney has hoarded to himself all kinds of powers and has sought to distance himself from any kind of accountability and oversight.

Eric Rauchway in a New Republic on-line piece compares Aaron Burr and Dick Cheney -- both were seekers for power and were not shy about mixing business and politics. Burr would be indicted for treason for allegedly trying to conspire to create an empire for himself out of the western parts of the North American continent. He would of course, also kill Alexander Hamilton in a duel. He was to be sure -- cold blooded -- a Machiavellian conspirator and after Burr's near steal of the presidency in 1800 Congress made sure that the VP would not be an ambitious sort.

The personalities are similar but the powers are not. Cheney has learned well how to evade scrutiny and to place his stamp on American life, especially it's foreign policy. If war does happen with Iran (which I pray Congress will keep from happening) it will be because of his efforts.

Rauchway suggests that rather than wrangle over whether Cheney is the worst VP ever, that we consider the prospect that he gives Aaron Burr a run for his money as the nation's most dangerous VP ever. I think that this is likely the better interpretation of the facts.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Theological Proclamations Meme

Being that I’m a preacher and I like any preacher love to beg, borrow, and steal an idea or two, I’m jumping on the bandwagon to move from theological confessions to theological proclamations. Proclamations are by their very nature bolder and yet worthy of challenge. So here go my nine proclamations.
1. I proclaim that love maybe an overused and fuzzy theological concept, but it is the glue that holds Christian faith together. The problem is not that we talk too much about love, but that we have yet to try it!

2. I proclaim that James is right – faith without works is dead. The problem isn’t with James, it’s with our equation of action with moralism and legalism.

3. I proclaim that Dietrich Bonhoeffer may be misused and overused, but you have to attend to his own proclamation: “When Christ calls a man (or a woman), he bids him (her) come and die.” It’s not an idea taken lightly, but it is the point, isn’t it?

4. I proclaim that equality in church and society is at the heart of the gospel. Therefore, to forbid women from taking their proper place of leadership in church and society stands contrary to the gospel (Gal. 3:28).

5. I proclaim that Eucharist is the center of Christian worship. It alone symbolizes the call to live together as the body of Christ. When we come to the Table we become Christ to the world and are compelled to become one – if we take this seriously.

6. I proclaim that faith is political – that is, if you follow Jesus you will be compelled to enter the public realm. But, if you follow Jesus you will not become captive to the powers that be.

7. I proclaim that Jurgen Moltmann is the man!

8. I proclaim that Marcus Borg is right – the heart of Christianity is transformation. “At the heart of Christianity is the way of the heart – a path that transforms us at the deepest level of our being.” (Heart of Christianity, p. 225).

9. Finally, I proclaim that jazz is the language of faith! (Although Neil Young has to fit in there some place!)

    Ten Theses on Dietrich Bonhoeffer




    Over at Faith and Theology, Ray Anderson, emeritus professor of theology at Fuller Theological Seminary (I took one class -- Theology of the Family -- from him many years ago) offers ten very intriguing theses on Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

    Bonhoeffer remains an intriguing and enigmatic theologian and example of Christian life these many years since his martyrdom, yes he was a martyr even if he would never claim the title for himself. He was a man who lived his faith on the edge and showed us that true faith could not be cautiously lived. You have to simply get out there and trust in God's grace -- but to be a person of faith is to be a person who acts.

    I provide just one of the theses for you to read, but I think this sums things up well:

    9. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a maverick theologian. John Maverick was a 19th-century Texas rancher and legislator who received a herd of cattle in payment of a bill and turned them loose on the range without a brand. When one of them turned up without a brand, it was assumed to be one of Maverick’s. Many have tried to mark Dietrich with their own brand, to no avail! He slipped away from the death of God theologians when they realized that the same man who wrote from prison about living in a world without God was the one who invited a Russian atheist fellow prisoner to participate in a final communion service just before being executed. Pacifists put a claim on him but felt betrayed by his admission that he would kill Hitler himself if the lot fell to him as a member of the conspiracy. Evangelicals like his talk about Jesus but wish Bonhoeffer had been more concerned about his unsaved relatives and friends. Social activists applaud him for his concern for the oppressed but are embarrassed by his orthodox Christology. Even in death, as in life, he remained unbranded.

    Thursday, June 28, 2007

    Pastoring a Sock-Puppet Church

    I read with just a bit of glee Diana Butler Bass's ditty on modern VBS programs (which are so glitzy that we small congregations can't compete and usually so conservative that they're not usable without considerable tweaking -- I'm sorry but trying to get 5 year olds to confess their sins and accept Jesus as their savior is just simply silly!!!).
    Diana moves from a discussion of the changes in VBS programs from when she was a child (I'm just a tad older than Diana so we were VBS'ers at similar times in our lives -- though across the country) to what these programs say about how we do church. There are all kinds of programs out there and church growth hucksters promising their own version of "VBS in a Can" that will make our churches more efficient and effective -- in just 40 days (and for $39.95)!
    She writes:

    Lately, I have been reading Bill McKibben’s fine new book, Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. McKibben argues that growth—based on “hyper-individualism”—does not create human happiness, health, and wholeness. Rather, local community and close connections make us happy. We must shift away from a Wal-Mart economy to what he calls a “deep economy,” defined as “the economics of neighborliness.” Less stuff, he suggests, will create more connections by transforming the human economy and makes a “durable future” for the planet.

    Although McKibben writes of economics, his argument carries over to faith. Successful American churches are Wal-Mart type congregations, built on the idea that bigger-is-better, hyper-individual faith, and entertaining programs meet an infinitely expanding religious market. That vision creates a culture of religious sameness across the country—indeed, across the globe—that subsumes local cultures in its wake. Want your church to grow? Attend the latest
    pastors conference offered by a celebrity minister. Do 40 days of purpose or seven steps toward mission. Put on a dazzling Christmas spectacular. Buy Vacation Bible School in a can. You, too, can have a successful church if you lay out the cash.

    Ah, yes, isn't that what we want, especially we pastors of "wee little churches"?
    And so she goes on:

    I no longer want to belong to an efficient church, a big one, or even a successful one. I just want to be part of a good sock-puppet church. And, as I have traveled this year, and spoken to many thousands of Christians, I had heard them, too, longing for sock puppet church, a deeper congregation, a community that stitches memory from scraps, one that (as McKibben says) “rebalances the scales” of our religious economy—and, in the process, may well transform the
    world.

    Diana, you're always welcome at my "Sock-Puppet Church"! We're not efficient or spectacular, but we are committed to being a place where God changes lives so the world might be transformed!

    Torture and the Polls

    When I think of torture and the Christian faith I immediately think of Jesus -- who according to the gospels underwent considerable suffering at the hands of his Roman executors. I think too of the historical record, where Christians -- leaders and non-leaders suffered in the Roman arenas -- crucified, burned, thrown to the lions or the gladiators --
    Of course there is the Inquisition -- I need say no more. There is, indeed, a very mixed record on our part.
    Well John Green, of Pew Research, has written an article for The Review of Faith & International Affairs (Summer 2007), that shares some recent polling data that is -- at least to me quite disturbing.
    When it comes to torture -- white Evangelical Protestants are the most permissive, with 51.6% believing that torture can be justified, at least sometimes, while only 29.2% say it is never justified. Before we Mainline Protestants begin to think too highly of ourselves, it is worth pointing out that only 44.1% say at least sometimes it's justified and 33 % never justified.
    Black Protestants are similar in to White Protestants -- except they are less likely to say that it's often justified (9.5% versus 18.8%).
    Overall weekly worshippers have a more restrictive view of torture than less regular ones, but still . . .
    A much better predictor is political affiliation:
    66.8% of Republicans have a permissive view of torture, while 33.6% of Democrats take a permissive view. At least I can take solace that I'm in good company with my fellow liberal Democrats -- but that religion makes such a little difference is alarming, especially with all of the recent statements by Evangelical, Catholic, and Mainline Protestant leaders condemning it.
    Fear, yes fear, is the driver here!

    A Senate with its Head in the Sand -- Immigration Bill fails



    The proverbial ostrich with its head buried in the sand is a good analogy for the US Senate's most recent inability to deal responsibly with the immigration issue. So like the mythical depiction of the flightless bird our leaders, pushed preeminently by Conservative Republicans urged on by conservative talk show hosts, have chosen to ignore the issues before them -- they are in a major state of denial!
    According to the AP Story, by a 46 - 53 vote Republicans and Democrats chose to ignore the issues here. So there will be no border enforcement nor will there be a path to citizenship. There will be no incentive for employers to comply with the law nor will there be incentives for undocumented persons to come out of the shadows. And it appears that nothing will happen for the foreseeable future -- at least not until well after the 2008 elections. If you think things will get better, then you have joined the ostrich brigade.
    It's unfortunate that the President -- who for once was on the right side of things -- had such little clout with his own party that he couldn't bring them aboard. This is really a disappointment, but probably not unexpected.

    Political Shifts in the SBC? -- Sightings

    Baptist Pastor and Columnist James Evans offers a word of insight into the possible directions taken by the Southern Baptist Convention, most specifically politically. The Fundamentalist controlled SBC has been a GOP stronghold in recent years, but that stranglehold is being to loosen. There are signs that people are broadening their understanding of the definition of a social issue and there's concern that politics has dampened the mission of the church -- flattened membership/baptisms. The future, therefore, is both open and intriguing!


    **************************

    Sightings 6/28/07

    A Political Shift for Southern Baptists?
    James L. Evans

    For the past three decades Southern Baptists have been, for the most part, faithful political conservatives. Like other believers on the religious right, culture war issues have made them reliable supporters of the Republican Party. This party loyalty has been especially evident during the annual Southern Baptist Convention, with visits and calls from sitting presidents having become routine. This year President Bush was beamed in via satellite.

    In spite of all that, however, this year's convention could mark the beginning of a subtle shift away from party loyalty and toward political independence. A group of moderates within the fundamentalist ranks of Southern Baptists is seeking to move the denomination to become less political.

    Take Frank Page, for instance. Page is serving his second term as president of the 16.5 million-member denomination. In his first term he moved the denomination slightly away from the rigid fundamentalism that has characterized the group since the late 1970s. His appointments to boards and commissions included Baptist leaders outside the tight inner circle that has virtually dominated convention politics. This year he appears to be doing the same thing about national politics.

    Because of Page's role as convention president, Republican presidential candidates are calling on him. Everyone in the race on the Republican side knows they cannot win without evangelical support, and Baptists are the largest body representing that group.

    And Page is meeting with candidates. In an interview with the Washington Post, Page told reporters that when given the opportunity he would be glad to talk to candidates about their salvation. But he said there would be no endorsements. Noting that he also wants to talk to Democratic candidates, Page said, "The nation's leaders need to hear a Christian viewpoint."

    If Baptists are moving away from blind partisan loyalty, it could seriously jeopardize Republican chances of keeping the White House. The margins in the last two elections were razor thin. The defection of a voting bloc the size of Southern Baptists would be catastrophic for them. Republicans will obviously be working hard to keep these sheep in the fold.

    If Baptists adopt a more moderate stance on social issues, the temptation for Democrats will be to mimic Republican candidates of the past few years and cater to evangelicals. We are already seeing some of this with Democratic candidates speaking freely about their faith. For example, in a recent CNN debate where religion was the specific topic, John Edwards was asked about the biggest sin he had ever committed.

    If Baptists choose to stay on their present path of partisan loyalty, they will continue to politicize their faith. The politics of denominationalism has already de-railed a major mission thrust that began in the '70s and was intended to carry the message of Jesus to the whole world. Now the rancor of politics and religion is beginning to affect growth: membership numbers have flattened out for Baptists in recent years. And why wouldn't they? After all, who wants to be baptized into the Republican Party?

    Only time will tell if the pendulum is swinging back toward the middle for Baptists. They will certainly remain conservative theologically. But if they broaden their social concerns to further include matters such as poverty and the environment, they could greatly help political discourse in this country move in a positive direction. They may even improve their own image in the process.

    James L. Evans, a syndicated columnist, also serves as pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Alabama.
    ----------
    The current Religion and Culture Web Forum features "Christian Responses to Vietnam: The Organization of Dissent," by Mark Toulouse. To read this article, please visit: http://marty-center.uchicago.edu/webforum/index.shtml.
    ----------
    Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

    Wednesday, June 27, 2007

    Gangs in Lompoc -- Finding Solutions

    My friend Joyce Howerton, a former mayor of Lompoc and a community activist, has put together a series of forums dealing with the issue of gangs in Lompoc. Lompoc is a relatively small town (50,000), off the main highway, but home to an Air Force base and a complex of federal prisons. It has a small town feel, conservative in many ways, and yet gangs are a presence here.
    As we began our evening together we watched the Drama Kings, a group of young men incarcerated at the Los Prieto's Boys Camp, a juvenile detention facility tell their story and their hopes of a new life. I do pray for them, that this will be a turning point. Theirs is a story told well, a story that is heart breaking, and a story that holds out hope!

    So, how to deal with the issue? That's a good question. Law enforcement has a role, but it's not sufficient. Schools -- yes -- and schools willing to provide a variety of programs that will inspire young people to stay in school, attend to their studies, and do what is right. It is a community issue that requires community solutions. That there were 150 or more people gathered on a nice June evening in a school cafeteria to listen to fellow citizens share ideas and solutions and ask questions was great.

    I had the privilege of participating in the event -- I got to lead the discussion. I was pleased that people stuck to the topic and brought ideas and challenged the city (as a government entity and as a community itself) to raise money and spend it in ways that will bring our young people together for the common good. We heard last night from former gang members and from people who had been in prison, from parents of gang members, all hoping to find ways of changing the status quo. That the mayor wasn't there, that the school superintendent and the high school principles weren't there, that few clergy were there, is disappointing.

    But those who came will be the pillars. I hope my own congregation can and will be, despite our smallness of size, a part of the solution.

    You can read the full story in a Lompoc Record article by clicking here.


    With the Senate again taking up the important Immigration Reform package, here is an alert and call for action from Church World Service, an outreach of the World Council of Churches. It's important that we deal with the immigration issue and soon. This is some recommended actions in regard to it.


    Action Alert: From Church World Service

    Comprehensive immigration reform bill


    Phone your Senators and ask them to support this bill

    The U.S. Senate today voted to resume debate on the Secure Borders, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Reform Act (S. 1639). After considering a series of amendments, the Senate could take final action on the bill on Friday.



    Take five minutes now to phone your two Senators and ask them to support:


    Provisions that protect family unity. No family-based visa application should be tossed out merely because of the current large backlog. Rather, those applications should be processed expeditiously. Any “point system” for awarding visas should complement rather than replace family-based visas, so U.S. citizens and permanent residents can be joined by family members as is currently immigration law.
  1. A safe and fair worker program. Much undocumented immigration results from the shortage of adequate, appropriate avenues to live and work legally in the United States. The temporary worker program in S. 1639 is not the solution. Workers should not be forced to leave the United States every two years. They should be able to renew their visas and bring their families. Their employee rights must be protected fully.

  2. A purposeful, rather than punitive, earned legalization program. Applicants should not be forced to “touch back” in their home countries; many eligible immigrants would fear separation from their families and not participate, and U.S. embassies in many countries lack the capacity to implement the program as written. Also, fines should be reasonable, not overly punitive.

  3. Smart, targeted enforcement. Our national security should be enhanced through workplace enforcement, more accessible legal ports of entry and earned legalization, rather than policies that have failed in the past such as fences and the militarization of the border. Reforms should enable employers to verify applicants' immigration status and hold them accountable for hiring undocumented workers. Enforcement provisions should not serve as "triggers" that will delay other necessary reforms.

  4. A mandate that police ensure the safety of all, not serve as immigration officials. Urge Senators to resist amendments to S. 1639 that would mandate state and local police to serve as immigration officials – a specialty that demands proper training. Such amendments would discourage immigrants from reporting crime, leave them targeted by criminals, and divert police efforts from combating crime.

  5. Safeguards for asylum seekers. Penalties for using false documents would be increased under S.1639. However, many asylum seekers fleeing persecution resort to document fraud as the only way to leave their country. Under international law, most asylum seekers cannot be penalized for these acts if they admit to and turn in the documents within a certain time frame. Senators should amend S.1639 to strengthen protections for asylum seekers against penalties for using false documents while attempting to flee persecution.
  6. Tuesday, June 26, 2007

    Out of the Closet Meme



    Just to begin things -- that title doesn't mean what you might think it means!!

    What follows are my theological confessions. Ben Meyer, over at Faith and Theology, posted a series of theological confessions and invited the rest of us to do the same. I’ve read confessions at a couple of other blogs, and it appears we have much to confess -- I'd suggest most especially Michael Westmoreland-White's confessions -- many if not most of which I concur with.

    So, here are a few of my own.

    1. Being that I am about to begin my tenth year pastoring a small Mainline Protestant church in Southern California, a place where the esoteric and the non-traditional are as attractive as anything orthodox or traditional, where self-help and do-it-yourself religion reigns, I confess that theological debates that are remote to practical pastoral questions have increasingly less interest to me. Yes, there are esoteric questions that are fun to debate, but I simply find that I have less and less time and interest in pursuing them.
    2. I confess that my own personal experience colors the way I read and understand theology (that should come as no surprise considering the first confession). To give an example, let me point to one of the most divisive of modern questions – that of homosexuality. Like many I had grown up with the idea that homosexuality and Christian faith are incompatible. I’d read all the biblical texts and knew what they said and what they meant for the church – then my brother came out and confessed he was gay. That confession forced me to re-examine my theology and my practice. You can deny the influence of experience, even suppress it, but it will raise its head and you’ll have to come to terms at some point.
    3. I confess that when it comes to reading and applying Scripture, I do pick and choose. I choose to embrace the picture of God that is compassionate and welcoming over the picture of God the wrathful judge. Perhaps this is why I’m increasingly attracted to Marcus Borg.
    4. I confess that people come first – that is I believe that God is more concerned about people than getting everything right – whether it’s doctrine or liturgy or church order. This maybe why I’m part of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a tradition without creeds, books of order, or official liturgies – though we do practice weekly communion with a passion.
    5. I confess that I struggle with how to explain/understand doctrines such as the Trinity, the Resurrection, and “stuff” like that. I am comfortable confessing God to be one in three, but I think the 4th and 5th century formulations, so dependent on forms of Platonism are more and more problematic. With that said, I still stumble over confessions of God that go I believe in God the Father/Mother – I don’t believe God has gender, but some language is so ingrained that it’s difficult to “re-imagine” God confessionally. I’ll leave the Resurrection to another time and place.
    6. I confess that it’s no longer possible for me to insist that Christianity is the sole depository of divine truth. Again I do struggle with this – For I do believe that it is in Christ that God reconciles the world and makes all things new(2 Corinthians 5). But, my encounters with people of other faiths has broadened my outlook considerably.
    7. I confess to be caught between two worlds – between my evangelical past and my mainline Protestant present. I think I’m a wannabe progressive. I want to retain a high of Scripture -- I’m not ready to jettison it as being out of date – and yet I feel compelled to listen carefully to the critical evaluations of Scripture.
    8. I confess that Jurgen Moltmann is the theologian who most speaks to me (it used to be Bonhoeffer, but Moltmann gets to more issues and questions), though it was Karl Barth who freed me to listen to Scripture anew.
    9. I’m increasingly impatient with those who are unwilling to give due respect to reason and to science in their theological ponderings.
    10. I confess finally that this is a journey that is yet to be completed, a journey of discovery, where old ideas are reconsidered and if necessary abandoned. It is a journey, I believe that I take in the company of the God I have encountered by the Spirit, in the person of Jesus. It is to him that I look for guidance and sustenance in the days to come.

    Loss of Confidence in Organized Religion

    People tell me they don't believe in organized religion and so I like to ask them if they prefer disorganized religion!
    The reality is that institutional forms of religious faith are finding that life is difficult. Yes there are those big mega-churches that get bigger and better every day, but by and large religious groups are struggling and the percentage of people involved in religious organizations is getting smaller.
    And so the reports are out that tell us that only 46% of Americans have confidence in organized forms of religion. In truth, I'm surprised it's that high. With all the recent scandals and the seeming apathy about involvement in a religious community, that may be a higher number than expected -- but the only year that it was lower was in 2003. In 1975, when Gallup asked this question, confidence stood at 68%.
    Of course, as bad as things are for the church, they're not as bad as confidence in the presidency or the Congress -- both of which stand at 25% or below.
    Is there a solution to this? Fewer scandals might help -- but in reality this is an issue of a loss of confidence in institutions as a whole. People are interested in spirituality, but they prefer do-it-yourself varieties. God to Borders or on line at Amazon, pick up a couple of books and you're set -- no overhead. Now that's not good for a person like me who derives his living from religious institutions -- but maybe I can be an online pastor. The only problem is that I believe in the importance of community. And so we come back to the root of the problem -- can you have community without some sense of institution?
    For more of the story go to Ethics Daily here.

    Monday, June 25, 2007

    Reading the Bible With Openness

    Krista Tippett has written a wonderful book -- Speaking of Faith (Viking, 2007). I've been putting out some quotes for your consideration. These are I think very thoughtful statements. Here she talks about her encounter with Scripture -- how she reads it.

    "The Bible, as I read it now, is not a catalogue of absolutes, as its champions sometimes imply. Nor is it a document of fantasy, as its critics charge. It is an ancient record of an ongoing encounter with God in the darkness as well as the light of human experience. . . . In the Christianity of the modern West, we've largely left the vivid storytelling of the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, in Sunday School. We've consigned it to the world of childhood figuratively and literally. And in our time a superficial Christian rendering of these biblical texts underpins false dichotomies that plague our public life -- chasms we've set up between sacred text and truth, between idealized views of the way human beings should behave and the complex reality of the way they do." (pp. 56-57).

    If you read Richard Dawkins, the only parts of the Old Testament he seems to know of are the depictions of a God of wrath, the one Marcion seems to have rejected, without recognizing that there is a more nuanced depiction of God found there. Then of course many of his Fundamentalist opponents latch on to the same descriptions, giving support to his conclusions. Krista, however has caught hold of the breadth found in Scripture. This is just a piece of the pie! Get the book and read the whole thing. In fact, click here to order.

    The Barack Obama Story

    Check it out -- a new video piece from Barack Obama.


    Torquemada II -- Dick Cheney's embrace of Cruelty

    When is torture torture? Apparently it's when severe cruelty goes to the point of being extreme. That sounds like a very fine line!!!
    Dick Cheney is a man who loves power, secrecy, and apparently isn't squeamish when it comes to inflicting pain -- all in the name of national security. According to Washington Post reporters, back in 2002, the CIA came to the White House and asked to define the limits on what was acceptable in coercing information. The response was a directive from the President that left enough ambiguity to permit just about anything. This line of thought, we're told, was influenced by the Vice President's own counsel, David Addington.
    We're told that Addington was an advocate of pushing the limits and essentially exempted the President from treaty obligations:

    The vice president's lawyer advocated what was considered the memo's most radical claim: that the president may authorize any interrogation method, even if it crosses the line into torture. U.S. and treaty laws forbidding any person to "commit torture," that passage stated, "do not apply" to the commander in chief, because Congress "may no more regulate the President's ability to detain and interrogate enemy combatants than it may regulate his ability to direct
    troop movements on the battlefield."

    In time techniques utilized by the CIA, including "water-boarding" migrated to the military, despite reservations by some of the legal persons involved.
    Since then Cheney has continued to push the envelope on interrogation practices and claiming that neither courts nor Congress can limit the President's "war making" authority. In other words, he's the decider and no one can say different. Cheney's position has been turned back several times by the Supreme Court, but he's not changed his mind.
    He believes dangerous times require such things, my view is that his positions have made the world more dangerous and they undermine the nation's moral authority!
    And so once again I say: Dick must go!!

    Looking Over India -- Sightings

    Our vision of the world tends to be parochial, often fed by anecdote and bits and pieces of news. Stereotype and our own self-understanding contribute to a fairly narrow world view. There is, in that vein, a natural inclination to assume that one's own religious community is peaceful and just, while not being so sure about others. Here in the United States there is an underlying current that at least assumes a Christian foundation to society. Because of current military adventures, there is an assumption by many that Islam is violent and an enemy to America. For some, probably because our introductions to Islam are Americanized versions that have little or no nationalistic connections -- consider Yoga or maybe Hare Krishna movements. But reality isn't quite as it might appear.
    Martin Marty, in this week's Sightings piece, points us toward India as a parallel situation to our own, a sort of watch what you ask for, you might get it. By looking at India we discover that Islam isn't always the Bogey and Hinduism isn't necessarily this dreamy utopian nonviolent religious force. As usual Marty offers a concise and to the point commentary.


    Sightings 6/25/07

    Looking Over India-- Martin E. Marty

    Sightings can too easily overlook India's public religion scene, so far away does it seem. But Sightings also has to look over India rigorously, so near are its issues to those we perceive at home. India further provides a comparative model that deprives Islam of its unique bogeyperson status in the eyes of our citizens who have coined and use the term "Islamofascism." Third, since many romanticize Hinduism as an innately non-violent alternative to the warring madness of "peoples of the Book," studying Indian extremism may foster some de-romanticization. And finally, such observing may lead some locals to be more cautious about legally privileging Christianity or religion-as-such in our own constitutional republic.
    To begin at the end: nervous American patriots of certain sorts want to legally privilege religion over non-religion and, more subtly, Christianity over other faiths. Ironically, some of them express regret over assaults on secular constitutions (like our own) in India or Turkey. Studying India also suggests that religious militancy and hatred is ecumenical or potentially universal. Muslims are not the only agents and victims of such aggression in the name of God or gods.
    And now to India, thanks to Pankaj Mishra's review of a new book by Martha Nussbaum. Nussbaum writes that India is "increasingly controlled by right-wing Hindu extremists who condone and in some cases actively support violence against minorities, especially the Muslim minority. Many seek fundamental changes in India's pluralistic democracy." Central to such moves is the BJP (Indian People's Party), whose members demolished a historic mosque in North India fourteen years ago, an act that led to the death of thousands.
    Then in 2002 Hindu mobs lynched over 2,000 Muslims and left 200,000 homeless. Low-caste Dalits and rich upper-caste Hindus coalesced in acts that led to women being raped and tortured, and children killed with their parents. Nussbaum calls this "genocidal violence," and wants to end "American ignorance of India's [violent] history and current situation." She also worries that "the current world atmosphere, and especially the indiscriminate use of the terrorism card by the United States, have made it easier" for Hindu nationalists to use the stratagem of making their attacks on Muslims "seem part of the US-led war on terror."
    The goal of such Hindus, as with fundamentalist Muslims in some nations, is the quest for "a culturally homogeneous [in this case Hindu] nation-state .... Most Americans are still inclined to believe that religious extremism in the developing world is entirely a Muslim matter." No, we do not have here a "clash of civilizations" since, Nussbaum writes, the real clash exists "within virtually all modern nations -- between people who are prepared to live with others who are different, on terms of equal respect, and those who seek the ... domination of a single religious and ethnic tradition."
    Nussbaum sees some hope within the Gandhian heritage in India, and in a women's movement that is not merely "theory-driven," but that contributes to common-sense support for religious pluralism and republican constitutional existence. And she hopes on these bases that Indians will "cultivate the inner world of human beings, equipping each citizen to contend against the passion for domination and to accept the reality, and the equality, of others."

    References:
    Pankaj Mishra's "Impasse in India" (New York Review of Books, June 28) can be read online at:
    http://www.nybooks.com/articles/20339.
    Martha C. Nussbaum, The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India's Future (Belknap/Harvard).
    Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.
    ----------
    The current Religion and Culture Web Forum features "Christian Responses to Vietnam: The Organization of Dissent," by Mark Toulouse. To read this article, please visit: http://marty-center.uchicago.edu/webforum/index.shtml.
    ----------
    Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

    Sunday, June 24, 2007

    Obama on Faith and Politics

    I've not seen the video feed or read a transcript of Barack Obama's speech yesterday to the UCC General Synod. From reports I've read so far, he criticized the Religious Right for trying to corner the religion market. He also spoke, apparently, of an activist faith, one that is of course in line with the UCC (a denomination of which he's a member).
    The New York Times report can be found here.

    Keeping Focused in a Culture of Distraction

    Faith in the Public Square
    Lompoc Record
    June 14, 2007

    Critics of religion like to point to religion’s potential to distract us from the realities of life. Karl Marx called religion the “opiate of the masses.” By promising “pie in the sky in the bye and bye,” Marx claimed that religion placated people and allowed those in power to control them. Unfortunately, there’s some truth to this charge, which is why authority figures have sought to ally themselves with the leading religious forces of the day.

    Consider Constantine: he understood quite well the value of an alignment with the growing Christian community that had prospered in spite of persecution and proscription by the imperial government. If you can’t stop it, then why not join it and try to control it?

    It’s possible that Constantine was a true convert – I’m in no position to judge – but it’s clear that he understood the political benefits of such an alliance. It’s also clear that after generations of persecution, many Christian leaders were only too eager to comply. Bought off with promises of state support and protection, they in turn kept the masses focused on the heavenlies. It could be argued that the tax benefits that religious organizations (like all nonprofits) receive in America suppress our criticism of the reigning authorities. The result is that we contribute to a culture of distraction.

    But complacent religion isn’t the only distraction around. Although the Romans sought to control the masses through an alliance with religion, they also knew that the crowds could be easily distracted by spectacle – such as the well attended gladiatorial battles -- and occasional distributions of free bread. If you keep people entertained, you can keep their minds off the business of state.

    While I don’t believe the American government controls the media, the attention given to the continuing sagas of Anna Nichole Smith (even in death), Britney Spears, and most recently the “unfairly imprisoned” Paris Hilton, should give us pause. We may be involved in a divisive war abroad, face concerns about such issues as poverty, exploding health care costs, immigration, and energy consumption at home, but we let ourselves be distracted by these tales that fill the airwaves. And then there’s American Idol, which draws more voters than our presidential elections.
    Then there’s consumerism – if things get you down, then go shopping! Consider that in the days following the tragedy that was 9-11 the President encouraged us to get on with our lives by going shopping. Yes, what better way to say no to Osama Bin Laden than to fill the coffers of America’s corporate giants? That’ll show them!
    Whether it’s religion, sports, entertainment, or consumerism, we seem easily distracted. There may even be some value in this, as constant bad news can be destructive to the psyche. But still, we seem too easily distracted for our own good.

    So what’s the answer? How do we keep our focus in times of trial and not become overwhelmed by those trials? Buddhists talk about “mindfulness.” This is a sense of calmness that allows a person to see things as they really are. It’s an awareness of what’s going on inside and around us. This sense of “mindfulness” can lead us to engage in acts of compassion and healing. Buddhist writer Thich Nhat Hanh writes that “when we are mindful, touching deeply the present moment, we can see and listen deeply, and the fruits are always understanding, acceptance, love and the desire to relieve suffering and bring joy” (Living Buddha, Living Christ, p. 14). Jesus said it differently, but no less clearly, in the parable of the sheep and the goats. On the Day of Judgment the people will gather before God’s throne and to their dismay they find that they’re living outside the kingdom of God. Why? Because they didn’t see Jesus in the least of society’s citizens. In other words, they hadn’t been paying attention (Matthew 25:31-46).

    Yes, religion can be an opiate and a distraction from the realities of life. It can, however, also challenge our complacency and call us to action. What faith provides, I believe, is a sense of hope. If religion is to be something other than a distraction, then we must be mindful of the voice of God calling us to action on behalf of the voiceless, the hungry, the hurting, and the imprisoned, both here at home and around the world.

    Dr. Bob Cornwall is pastor of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Lompoc (www.lompocdisciples.org). His blog can be found at http://pastorbobcornwall.blogspot.com and he maybe contacted at lompocdisciples@impulse.net or First Christian Church, P.O. Box 1056, Lompoc, CA 93438.

    Saturday, June 23, 2007

    Possibilities of Peace and Justice


    Before Krista Tippett started hosting radio programs about faith, before she went to Yale Divinity School, she was a political aid at the US consulate in West Berlin. This was before the fall of the Soviet Union and East Germany. She discovered there a sense of spiritual desolation, and discovered "that transcendent goals like peace and justice are always made possible, or rendered impossible, by the patterns of the human heart."

    What is the human condition?

    The human condition is the reality around which political life revolves --and upon which it falters. Even the highest levels of diplomacy and geopolitical strategy are about treating the symptoms of humanity on the loose. This fact is made more complex, not more transparent, in our era where religious passions and identities overtly fuel political conflict -- where , in other words, the human heart is openly, wantonly involved. (p. 47).


    She writes that her current involvement as a journalist, "probing for human and spiritual dynamics beneath the present surfaces of rancor" is enabled by what she's learned since leaving Berlin. What she's learned is that when taking religion seriously, she's able to "see its substance and its weight in the world and its meanings in human life, both light and dark."

    Krista Tippett is host of Speaking of Faith and author of the book of the same name -- Speaking of Faith (Viking, 2007).

    A Might Heart Brings Faiths Together


    I've yet to see A Might Heart, the movie based on the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl by al Qaeda and Taliban fighters and starring Angelina Jolie as his wife Mariane, but a screening of the film in LA brought together members of the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim community to talk about the movie, the events surrounding Pearl's death, and how people of faith can work together to bring reconciliation.

    Paneklists included Rev. Peter Laarman, Executive Director of Progressive Christians Uniting, Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak of JewsonFirst, and Hussam Ayloush, Ex. Dir of the Council of Arab Islamic Relations in Southern California. Events like these can't solve all our difficulties, but they can help us sort out the issues and bring people of good will together.

    A President Above the Law

    Yesterday we learned that Dick Cheney was exempt from an executive order concerning oversight on dealing with classified documents because he's not part of the executive branch, at least not completely. Well, now we learn that this justification isn't needed. The White House says now that both Tricky Dick and GW are exempt from oversight. The executive order applies to everyone else, but not to these two cats.
    The evidence of an imperial presidency is everywhere.
    Read about it here in the LA Times.

    Friday, June 22, 2007

    Fundamentalism: Defensive Grasps

    We hear much about Fundamentalism, especially in regard to conservative Christianity and Islam. But what fuels the turn to Fundamentalism? I like the definition of Fundamentalism given by Krista Tippett of Speaking of Faith.
    She begins:

    I define a fundamentalist as anyone who not only has the answers for himself, but has them for all the rest of us, but has them for all the rest of us too. Fundamentalism is a peculiarly potent form of flight from modernity, usually by turning the tools of modernity -- technology, communications, travel, weapons -- back on themselves. It is always a reaction, born of a perceived assault on one's most basic identity and values.

    And where does it come from?

    But I've come to understand it as an extreme manifestation of a more basic instinct alive in our culture, mundane and universal -- the defensive grasp at certainties stoked by the bewildering complexity of the age in which we live. Moral libertarians and secular analysts can be as derisively dismissive as religious moral conservatives. A fundamentalist temptation, both secular and religious, accompanies twenty-first-century tumult and runs across the spectrum of our beliefs. (Krista Tippett, Speaking of Faith, Viking, 2007, pp. 14, 15).

    I may find fundamentalism as an untenable belief system, but it is helpful to understand where it comes from and why. Krista Tippett has listened well and provides a most useful definition.
    My review of the book can be found here.

    Cheney's Gambit


    Dick Cheney loves secrecy. During the early days of the Post-911 crisis, it became almost a joke that the VP was in an undisclosed location. He held energy hearings, which he has kept secret -- claiming executive privilege. He's part of the executive branch, so he's privileged. Well guess what, when it suits his fancy he's not part of the executive branch, he's part of the legislative branch.

    Apparently there is a federal act first signed by Bill Clinton and then reauthorized by GW that requires a reporting on all classified materials being held by one's office -- as a way of keeping track of things. Well, Tricky Dick II says he's not required to do this since he's part of the legislative branch.

    What he has done is basically remove himself from any oversight. This is a man out of control and yet he has significant influence over our nation's policies and activities.

    I do believe it may be time to start impeachment processes not on GW, but on Dick, the dark shadow behind the empire.

    For more about this, click here for the Washington Post report.

    Thursday, June 21, 2007

    Enemy Combatant? Is your freedom in jeopardy?



    When I think of John Whitehead and the Rutherford Institute, I usually think of the Religious Right, but lately I'm discovering that he can be right on target -- and such is the case with his posting on GW Bush's use of the Patriot Act and increasingly imperialistic presidency to infringe our liberties -- all in the name of the "war on terror."

    Whitehead quotes GW as saying "There should be limits to freedom." Now there may be truth to that statement, but what does the President mean by that. Whose freedoms and how are these limits determined. Whitehead makes this very cogent comment that is really worth considering:

    In a world where the president has the power to label anyone, whether a citizen or permanent resident, an enemy combatant and detain that person indefinitely without trial, no liberty exists and everyone is potentially an “enemy combatant.”


    He writes this in the context of a discussion of the fate of Ali Saleh Kahlah Al-Marri, a legal alien residing in Illinois, who was scooped up in a raid, held for 4 years without charges, his family unable to contact him for more than a year. Why, because the President had deemed him an enemy combatant and thus without rights? Why? Because that's what the president said, and what the "decider" says, goes.

    He writes:

    This issue is bigger than Al-Marri. It’s even bigger than the Bush Administration and its so-called war on terror. The groundwork is being laid for a new kind of government where it will no longer matter if you’re innocent or guilty, whether you’re a threat to the nation or even if you’re a citizen. What will matter is what the president—or whoever happens to be occupying the Oval Office at the time—thinks. And if he or she thinks you’re a threat to the nation and should be locked up, then you’ll be locked up with no access to the protections our Constitution provides. In effect, you will disappear.


    I want to live securely, but I surely don't want to see us become a police state, with my life in the hands of a capricious authority. With the current occupants of the White House and considering the rhetoric of some, like Rudy G., it isn't that far from the possibility that we could face real tyranny. Is this overblown? It's possible, but the rhetoric of security does pose dangers to our freedom!

    To read the whole piece, click here.

    Happy Birthday Reinhold


    It is the birthday of America's greatest 20th Century theologian. He was our "public theologian," a man consulted by the powerful and whose thought remains influential. Barack Obama quotes him as does Krista Tippett. In fact, he is a favorite of politicos from left to right. This despite his having died in 1971 (I was 13 at the time).


    Michael Westmoreland-White has provided a very fitting memorial to Niebuhr -- although Michael doesn't share all of Niebuhr's views (Michael is a committed pacisfist).
    For further information and links check out the Niebuhr Society page.

    Challenges for Progressive Muslims -- Sightings

    Just as Christianity isn't a monolithic entity, neither is Islam. With 1.6 billion adherents, Islam is growing and it is finding that making its way through this era of rapid change and globalization has not been easy.
    In today's edition of Sightings, from the Martin Marty Center, Omid Safi, a professor of Islamic Studies at UNC --Chapel Hill, explores the challenges that stand before Progressive Muslims -- a movement that is a continuation of but departure from Liberal Islam of an earlier era.
    This is an interesting piece that calls us to consider further the present realities that are Islam.
    ***************************

    Sightings 6/21/07

    Challenges for Progressive Muslims-- Omid Safi

    It is a commonplace today to begin a discourse on Islam with the theme of "crisis." It is not my intention here to add to that unrelenting discursive assault. Instead, I would like to describe the salient features of Muslims who self-identify as progressive, and comment upon the challenges they face in struggling to realize the full potential of the progressive movement.

    Who are progressive Muslims? Progressive Islam both continues and radically departs from the 150-year-old tradition of liberal Islam, embodied by 'Abduh, Afghani, Shari'ati, and others. Unlike most earlier modernists, progressive Muslims are consistently critical of colonialism, both in its nineteenth-century and in its current manifestations. Progressive Muslims develop a critical and nonapologetic "multiple critique" vis-à-vis both Islam and modernity.

    And again distinct from their liberal forefathers, another feature of the progressive Muslim movement has been the equal level of female participation and leadership, as well as the move to highlight women's rights as part of a broader engagement with human rights.

    Progressives measure their success not in developing new and beatific theologies but rather by the on-the-ground transformation that they can produce in Muslim and non-Muslim societies. This movement is characterized by emphasis on a number of themes: striving to realize a just and pluralistic society through critically engaging Islam, a relentless pursuit of social justice, an emphasis on gender equality as a foundation of human rights, a vision of religious and ethnic pluralism, and a methodology of nonviolent resistance.

    The majority of those who have engaged in the Muslim struggles of social justice, liberation, and gender equality have hitherto lived outside North America, in such places as South Africa, Iran, Malaysia, Turkey, and Egypt. An exciting trend in this nascent global Muslim progressive movement is that progressives everywhere are seeking out each other and cross-pollinating. We in North America -- both Muslims and non-Muslims -- must once and for all give up the notion that the axis mundi uniquely passes through this continent. Progressive Islam seeks to stand in opposition to all forms of economic exploitation as well as imperialism, including today's most dominant variety: American.

    That's a sketch of what progressive Islam looks like now. There are, I believe, other features progressives in North America will need to exhibit more fully, and which thus stand before them as challenges. First, progressive Muslims must seek to transcend antagonistic attitudes toward mainstream Muslim communities. There is a substantial difference between being an alternative to the conventional Muslim discourse on some issues and being antagonistic to the mainstream Muslim community. Second, progressives can become every bit as rigid, authoritarian, and indeed dogmatic as the conservative and dogmatic movements they so readily criticize, so they must struggle against these tendencies within the movement. Third, one hopes to see engagement with the multiple intellectual and spiritual traditions of Islam. A progressive Muslim agenda should be both progressive and Islamic, deriving its inspiration from the heart of the Islamic tradition. It cannot survive as a graft of secular humanism onto the tree of Islam; ultimately, it must be rooted in the fertile soil of Islam.

    Further, progressive Muslims will need to invigorate the spiritual core of the reform movement; there is no way to transform society without simultaneously transforming the hearts of those within it. A meaningful progressive movement must therefore combine the transformation of the world into a just world with the transformation of the human self into a compassionate and selfless being. Finally, recovering courtesy and spiritual manners will be important for progressives. It is imperative for the lofty social ideals of progressive Muslims to be reflected in the ethics and spiritual manners (akhlaq and adab) of their interpersonal relations. Some of the Sufi ethics of dealing with fellow human beings should characterize progressives' relationships among themselves and with others, seeking to reflect the Divine Presence and qualities.

    Some might call this vision of progressive Islam romantic and idealistic. Yet without some measure of idealism, as well as a passionate love for the Divine and humanity, I believe we have no hope of becoming ever more fully human. On this point, as on so many others, Gandhi offers a keen and apt observation: "As soon as we lose the moral basis, we cease to be religious. There is no such thing as religion overriding morality."

    As a parent, I tend to think of movements in terms of growth stages. There is something of a toddler in the present stage of the progressive movement (with its frequent protests, temper tantrums, and falling), and something of an adolescent (with its awkwardness and identity crises). But I, for one, hope that with time, patience, love, and true intellectual jihad (struggle), this movement can mature into a force that embodies the teachings of compassion and justice that stand at the very heart of the Islamic tradition.

    References:
    For a full articulation of progressive movements in Islam, see the volume Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism (2003), edited by Omid Safi.

    Omid Safi is Associate Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and co-chair for the Study of Islam Section at the American Academy of Religion.
    ----------
    The current Religion and Culture Web Forum features "Christian Responses to Vietnam: The Organization of Dissent," by Mark Toulouse. To read this article, please visit: http://marty-center.uchicago.edu/webforum/index.shtml.

    ----------
    Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

    Wednesday, June 20, 2007

    Marcus Borg speaks on Iraq

    Marcus Borg has become an important Progressive Christian voice in our country and in an On Faith (Washington Post/Newsweek) posting, he has tackled the Iraq War. He calls it as it should be called, an "unjust war." Pointing out that there have been just two Christian positions on war -- pacifism (which reigned among Christians until Constantine) and the "Just War" theory, of which Augustine is the preeminent theorist. On both counts, the War in Iraq, which was a "pre-emptive war" or a "war of choice" is illegitimate from a Christian perspective. That our President, who has justified the war, is a Christian and that a majority of those supporting the war are Christians, suggests that we have as yet failed to understand the meaning of a "just war."
    Like Marcus, I opposed the war before it started and continue to oppose it, because it was entered into, from a Christian perspective, illegitimately. I am tempted by pacifism, but my realism, as faulty as it may be, keeps me from embracing this path. So, I'm stuck with Just War theory. I just wish we'd learn it well and follow it!
    Marcus offers some suggestions about how we might make the best of this bad situation.
    The first thing we must do is repent, we must say we did wrong. This wasn't the proper choice.
    The next thing we must do is ask for help from the international community. If we'll admit we've done wrong, maybe other nations will decide to help stabilize Iraq. An unstable Iraq isn't good for anyone!
    Borg writes:

    I have no idea if we can still “rescue” the situation in Iraq. It may be beyond our ability to do so. But we can imaginatively consider options other than the ones we are pursuing. We are presently spending about two billion dollars a week on the war. What if the same amount were genuinely used for the rebuilding of Iraq? What if we actively sought the aid of Iraq’s neighbors and our allies in working on a solution?

    But for us to continue on our present course because we want to avoid the humiliation of admitting that we made a terrible mistake is not only foolish, but decidedly unchristian.

    What do you think?

    Our Reluctant but Effective Ambassador


    In the minds of many Islam and terrorism are synonymous. Many Americans look at the Middle East through us vs. them lenses and for see ongoing holy war. Many speak of this in cosmic terms -- no longer east versus west but now Christian/Jewish versus Islam. On the other side of the coin many see the US as the Great Satan.

    In to the middle of all this steps Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN). A freshman congressman he is being closely scrutinized, with people watching to see if he's "sleeping with the enemy." I have written before in support of him on this blog and elsewhere, and from what I can see he's done his job well.

    He'd rather not be our roving good will ambassador to the Islamic world -- he'd instead like to work on protecting people from predatory lenders and represent the people of his district -- Muslim and non-Muslim. But at a time when America is deeply embedded in two wars in Muslim lands, it is not possible to simply focus on such things.

    An article at the Politico website details his good works -- though as you read the comments you will see that bigotry against Muslims runs strong in this country of ours. But Keith is doing the right thing the right way!

    A Bit of Clergy Humor

    This is from my friend Brett Younger, pastor of Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth, TX:

    "In groups of more than five pastors, someone inevitably asks, 'How's your church doing?' The answer is often something like 'We're okay, but we're starting the summer slump, I hope the giving doesn't fall as much as last year.' A few ministers answer, 'The Holy Spirit is really at work. Our church is on fire.' Those ministers have trouble getting other ministers to sit with them." (Brett Younger, Who Moved My Pulpit? A Hilarious Look at Ministerial Life, Smyth and Helwys, 2004, page 129).

    Stem Cell Veto

    Once again President Bush is delaying the inevitable -- the federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. Again a bi-partisan bill will go to the president, unfortunately they are just short of the necessary number to over ride the veto.
    The science is against the President and the fact is these embryos, most of which are unused leftovers from IVF procedures will be destroyed anyway. This is in my mind silly and he is simply not paying attention. That something could possibly ease the pain and bring healing to millions is being held up to protect frozen embryos that will never see life, is unconscionable and immoral!
    So, if you're for change of policy -- vote for change in 2008!

    Tuesday, June 19, 2007

    When Does America stop Being America?


    The Statue of Liberty stands in New York Harbor welcoming the world's huddled masses. Now the House GOP, apparently led by Elton Gallegly, the representative from the area in which I pastor though not where I currently live (I think you know how that works).

    It is draconian and ultimately unworkable. It focuses on deportation and essentially closing borders. It takes away wage supports for agricultural workers and other supports that allows workers to live. It essentially denies any hope for legal status for the 12 million undocumented persons currently here.

    Other aspects of it, including the declaration of English as the national language go against our national history. Conservatives talk a lot about the Founders, well had the Founders wanted, they could have declared a national language, but they didn't -- just as they didn't establish a national religion.

    It won't go anywhere, but it does suggest that the GOP is being tempted by our worst xenophobic instincts. George Bush has gotten a lot of things wrong in his presidency, but at least here he's on the right side of the issue.

    To read more from the LA Times click here.

    Monday, June 18, 2007

    Migration and Integration

    As most of us know, immigration reform is back on the table. Whether something gets done depends on whether a sufficient number of our members of congress can come to terms with a bill and then overcome that vocal but stubborn minority which will stop at only mass deportation and wall building.
    Although immigration is a raging issue, Gregory Rodriguez, writes today in the LA Times about what happens when immigration has reached its peak and we begin to move to the next stage of life experience. Apparently, for the first time in decades the city of Los Angeles has seen the percentage of foreign born residents decrease. The question is, what happens in the second generation, the ones born here and educated here, who have feet in both worlds and yet are ethnic-Americans not immigrants.
    In recent years great efforts on the part of the media, business, and religious groups have been devoted to providing resources that are ethnically/language related. But what happens as integration happens. I know from listening to my son who is an ethnically diverse high school there is discussion within communities about how to maneuver through American culture.
    Rodriguez offers this assessment of how 2nd generation people make the transitions:

    Often bilingual, this second generation tends to play the role of mediators for the first. While less-educated immigrants can spend their lives acclimating to this country, the second generation actively negotiates the gap between their parents' home culture and the American mainstream. Raised on Britney and Buffy and schooled in English, it is this cohort that begins to go beyond the cultural enclave. They are not immigrants but ethnic Americans. And for all the talk of trans-nationalism, they wouldn't quite fit back in Sinaloa, Uttar Pradesh or Surat Thani.

    In other words, if the second generation that is coming of age today is anything like previous children of immigrants, they will not settle for outreach but will increasingly demand full inclusion in their country of birth. This will require us all to develop a more holistic notion of diversity, one that incorporates rather than segregates difference and emphasizes cross-ethnic ties over group-specific appeals. The rise of the second generation should remind us that "community" doesn't just refer to ethnic and other minority groups but to the people who live together in any given geographic location. It is a sense of solidarity and common purpose among neighbors that we now have a greater chance to rebuild.

    The column is intriguing and important to consider as part of the broader conversation about who we are as a people and as a nation. So, click here and read!

    Secularism in America -- Sightings

    We hear a lot about the challenge of secularism and book after book written by militant atheists have made their way to the top of the best seller lists. We know about the almost complete secularization of Europe -- something the current Pope seems determined to stop -- but what about here in America? We're supposed to be such a religious place. Martin Marty writes today about a brief article by Ross Douthat that suggests that secularization of America has begun. But interestingly enough it's not from the challenge of the atheist, but simply indifference. Among the young it is this indifference to religion that is paramount.

    I can say that this is true on the West Coast, where more progressive/liberal faith groups have a harder time making a place in the community. The natural constituency, again especially among the young, simply doesn't care. So, I give you this week's posting from Martin Marty, which offers a brief but important commentary on today's situation.

    Secularism
    Sightings 6/18/07

    Monitoring Mass Secularism
    -- Martin E. Marty

    "Anything anybody can say about America is true": this seems to be as true now as when countercultural philosopher Emmett Grogan said it decades ago and when I applied it to American religion in this cyber-space four years ago. Ross Douthat inspires my return to that theme with his recent pithy (two-page) article "Crises of Faith" in the Atlantic Monthly. Given the choice of a half-empty or half-full glass vision of American religiosity he chooses the half-empty, evaporating vision. But he ends with a caution to himself and readers: the trends on which he reports "shouldn't be exaggerated. America remains a deeply religious nation and its secularists an embattled minority," while the opposite is true in Europe. "But both continents may be drifting into a zone where religious belief is likely to be a persistent source of tension, rather than a commonplace or a curiosity."

    He documents this notice with reference to the dialectic of waning Christianity and waxing Islam in Europe, and the growth in very recent years in America of what he calls "a mass secularism that looks to Europe and sees a model for America to follow." The religious statistics gap between the continents, he notes, is declining. He observes that during the half-year in 1966 when God was dead, as a Time cover story had it, this "death" was mainly a matter of stir among elites -- and he deals with elite culture now while noting the "hard secularism" of several best-selling atheist authors. He does better with what is happening among the population at large. European faith did not fade so much because of Darwin, Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud as when ordinary Europeans did their own thinking about where God was, and asked, Did the church matter through two World Wars or, perhaps more fatefully, in the relatively good times marked by consumerism, materialism, hedonism, and a few other pop-"isms"?

    It may well be, as Douthat hints, that the very prosperity of assertive but adaptive religious groups in America has led them into similar fates. He pays attention to polls that suggest that more of the young are indifferent to or disdainful of religious institutions, which demand commitment; and he cites other polls that show some rise in the number of those who identify with no faith or faith community. That is the front that has most concerned religious leadership monitors and those wishing for change. Let the atheists and the fundamentalists argue, but church leaders suggest that the real enemies are indifference, apathy, and distraction.

    Douthat also notices that groups highly adapted to pop culture and the economy of markets, media, and consumption -- movements that are usually cast, and sometimes miscast, as Evangelical -- may paradoxically be unwitting recruiters for the non-religious and anti-religious. "If the association of religiosity with political conservatism continues to gain strength," suggests the sociologist Douthat cites, "then liberals' alienation from organized religion [might] become, as it has in many other nations, institutionalized."

    Envisioning trouble ahead, Douthat posits that "America has long avoided [the trap of religious vs. secular clashes] by enjoying near-universal piety; Europe, at least lately, has escaped the trap by cultivating near-universal skepticism."

    Those two "near-" phrases may be overdrawn, but the trends bear watching.

    References:
    Ross Douthat's article "Crises of Faith" (The Atlantic Monthly, July/August 2007) can be read by Atlantic subscribers at: http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/prem/200707/religion.

    Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.

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    The current Religion and Culture Web Forum features "Christian Responses to Vietnam: The Organization of Dissent," by Mark Toulouse. To read this article, please visit: http://marty-center.uchicago.edu/webforum/index.shtml.

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    Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

    Can Homosexuality Be Cured? Growing Doubts

    The question has long been -- is homosexuality a choice or is it something some people simply are? And if there is a biological component, what does that mean? Especially if you're a Christian?
    There are a number of Christian "ex-gay" organizations, such as Exodus International. What has been interesting to watch is the number of leaders of these organization who are unable to stay "straight." Now it's being reported that Exodus International's director, Alan Chambers, is disavowing the idea of being an "ex-gay." The idea that one can be cured is becoming untenable -- at best one can learn to control/manage one's desires, but the idea that they go away is problematic -- in large part because there is a growing understanding of the biological basis.
    This doesn't mean we're near a break through that will change the debate, but things are changing. And, hopefully we will come to that point where this isn't any longer a matter of debate!
    Take a look at this interesting LA Times article by clicking here.

    Sunday, June 17, 2007

    Speaking of Faith -- A Review


    Krista Tippett, Speaking of Faith. New York: Viking, 2007. xii + 238 pages.

    There are books that are important, useful and helpful, but difficult to read. There are also books that are a breeze to read, but of little use. Then there is Krista Tippett’s Speaking of Faith, which was simply a joy to read. It’s not a difficult read, but it’s an important book none-the-less. A product of love (of matters of faith), that love shows on every page. And at a time when shrill voices both decry and defend the faith, it is good to hear a voice that is gentle and inviting. A voice that is humble and gracious.


    That is the voice one finds coming from Krista Tippett, a theologically trained (Yale Divinity School) journalist and host of the radio program of the same title – Speaking of Faith. She is by birth and by profession of faith a Christian. As she engages her guests and us in conversation, she does not shy away from that profession – but at the same time she recognizes that there are other voices that need to be heard. Her book offers evidence that she knows how to listen and that she’s willing to elicit from her conversation partners confessions of faith that are just as humble and inviting.


    The book is composed of six chapters that are at points auto-biographical and at others analytical. She begins at the beginning with a chapter entitled “Genesis: How We Got Here.” This chapter is an exploration of the idea of faith and religion – which we discover are not always the same thing. It is here that she affirms the vibrancy of faith today, but reminds us there are pitfalls to watch for. Fundamentalism she insists is “that defensive grasp at certainties stoked by the bewildering complexity of the age we live in” (p. 15). The definition of faith she wishes to give voice to is one that is open and positive, and it is in search of this kind of faith that she embarks on the conversations that are found on her radio program and in this book.


    Chapter two is entitled “Remembering Forward,” and it is here that we’re introduced to her own story that begins in a rigid Southern Baptist home but leads in time to a period of struggle with questions of faith and whether God exists or is meaningful to her life. It is in Berlin, after college, serving as a journalist and as a political aid that she comes face to face with her doubts and the possibility of faith. Her reflections on her journey are aided by the words of people like Reinhold Niebuhr, Ellie Wiesel, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and it is Bonhoeffer’s “religionless Christianity” that especially catches her attention.


    With this starting point of wrestling with faith – both in the past and moving into the future – we come to a chapter (3) that asks what truth is. In this chapter entitled “Rethinking Religious Truth” she grapples with the text of Scripture itself, and she uses as her guide the story of Jacob wrestling with God. She shares how Bonhoeffer and her Yale teacher, Leander Keck influenced her views. She advocates a middle road between the intolerances of secularism and fundamentalism, and offers as an example of how this works by pointing us to the issue of creation and evolution. Darwin’s own struggle with both the beauty and the brutality of nature serve as a starting point, and she introduces us to conversation partners like John Polkinghorne. She concludes that both science and religion are more about the questions than the answers. It is not, she suggests that these two disciplines offer different answers to life’s questions, it is instead that they offer different questions altogether.


    Chapter four takes the book’s title as its own, and here she speaks of faith, a faith that is informed by time spent working in an Alzheimer’s ward and in a children’s day camp, where she learns faithfulness. She also learns to speak of faith in the Benedictine monastery at Collegeville, Minnesota. There she learns to invite others to share as she learned to share first person stories of faith, thereby humanizing doctrine. It is in this context that a radio program is born in 1999, a program that took on new life after 9-11, especially as increased attention was given to Islam. She makes the important point that we don’t hear Islamic voices because they are different from Jewish and Christian ones (p. 144-46). Our ability to hear these voices is strained by hubris and by meanness. She points to a quote from Martin Marty that suggests that the divide isn’t between conservative and liberal but between mean and not mean (and these can be found at both ends of the spectrum). I appreciate her observation that to see the world the way God does requires “grieving in places the world does not notice. It could mean, therefore, to live with a patience that culture cannot sustain, and with a hope the world cannot imagine” (p. 177).


    The fifth chapter is entitled “Exposing Virtue.” Here we learn more about living faithfully through the eyes of her religious conversation partners. She points out that different religious groups seem to have aspects of truth, but they tend to take those pieces and then absolutize them (p. 179). Borrowing a phrase from Miroslav Volf, she points to the difference between thin and thick religion. Thin religion is religiosity reduced to a formula that lends itself to violence. Instead of this think religion, she looks for a “clear-eyed faith” that is willing to look inside and see one’s failings and also looks around for signs of creativity, so that one can engage in “repairing the world.” It is here that public theology becomes important, and with globalization we are brought in closer contact with each other, but the question is, can we learn from each other? Quoting Manuel Vasquez, she points out that religions offer “very personal strategies for coping with chaos” (p. 195). In this there is virtue.

    The book ends by “Confessing Mystery.” She writes here in the sixth chapter that this book was written as a way of answering the question of how her own faith progressed and developed. This is a very confessional book that allows us as the reader to enter her own search for understanding as a person of faith. Each experience, including a difficult divorce and subsequent bout of depression, offer points at which faith is explored and deepened. She finds help in therapy but also discovers that the Bible is truly “psychologically savvy” (p. 216-17). In affirming the place of mystery in our lives, she notes that life is paradoxical and that while science is helpful, life is bigger than science. And so she finds intriguing what she calls “full-bodied religion.” Religious traditions such as Islam and Pentecostalism are, unlike much Western religion, more than simply intellectual exercises. It isn’t that the intellect is not important, but that faith must not be limited to the mind (pp. 222-224). And, she confesses that while knowledge is good, love is higher than knowledge!

    By emphasizing mystery she does not wish to short circuit the pursuit of truth or fall into relativism. What she insists upon is that we recognized that we do not have all the answers – whether we’re scientist or theologian. Thus, our pursuit of truth must be engaged in humility (235-236). So, when we speak of faith “we speak because we have questions, not just answers, and our questions cleanse our answers and enliven our world” (p. 238).


    This is the kind of book that can be handed to anyone searching for faith. It is so gracious and inviting that anyone can benefit from reading it. It is personal in tone and eloquent in speech. It doesn’t offer answers so much as it offers a way of asking useful and productive questions. I agree with the sentiments of Martin Marty that are found on the back cover of the book:


    “The brilliance of Krista Tippett’s idea is trust people to use the first person singular, to commit themselves with passion and clarity as they enlarge our urgent national conversation.”


    What better guide can we find than in this wonderful book?!