Monday, June 30, 2008

Final Hours in SB

Sunday evening is drawing to a close. This time tomorrow we'll be on our way East. We head out on a grand adventure, with hearts and minds open to the leading of the Spirit of God. We worked hard today getting things ready for the movers, and tonight shared a meal with friends above the Santa Barbara harbor. We went to Brophie Brothers, a famed restaurant, for the first time. Yes, we've been thinking of doing this for years, and finally made it. Sitting outside, on a lovely Santa Barbara evening, watching the boats, enjoying the vistas, we wondered why? Of course the answer is -- the upward call of God. But still, saying goodbye is not easy!

But heaven is, as they say, where the heart is. As we look forward into the future we know that as difficult it might be, there is no looking back. We must look forward into the future, for our call is to lead a congregation full of promise, into the future.

And of course, the blessings of God are to be found everywhere!

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Witness in Palestine -- Review

Anna Baltzer, Witness in Palestine: A Jewish American Woman in the Occupied Territories. Revised Edition. Boulder: Paradigm Press, 2007. 399 pages.

The story of the Palestinian people rarely gets told in the West – at least not in a positive way. Israeli’s tend to frame the conversation, and American politicians have followed their lead. Palestinians are seen in the popular mind as unrelenting violent terrorists intent on driving Jewish Israeli’s into the sea. It is also assumed that Palestinians are Muslims, but while a majority are Muslim, there has always been a significant Christian minority, and many are secular. It is assumed that the current conflict is an ancient one, but in many ways the current conflict is of recent vintage that is rooted in the arrival of Zionist European Jews late in the 19th century. But, again the Palestinian story remains largely untold.

The Palestinian story is a complex one – and must take into consideration both the Arab Israelis, who are citizens of Israel but live limited and regulated lives, and Arab Palestinians (Muslim, Christian, secular) living under Israeli occupation in Gaza and the West Bank. It is the residents of the Occupied Territories that comes into view in Anna Baltzer’s book Witness in Palestine. Baltzer is a young Jewish American woman who first encountered the Palestinian people during a visit to the area while a Fulbright scholar in Turkey in 2003. What she found that first visit was very different from what she expected. That visit led to a vocation – that of advocate for non-violent change in Palestine. Over the next several years she would return again and again working with the International Women’s Peace Service. Working with this group, she not only discovered the realities of Israeli occupation and found ways to be an advocate for Palestinian rights and freedoms, but she would use her unique vantage point as a Jewish woman, to tell their story through text and pictures.

The text is arranged as a diary – recounting her encounters with Palestinians, telling the story of the daily inconveniences and dangers of checkpoints, road blocks, and settlements. She recounts her encounters with both settlers and with soldiers. Through her accounts, we hear the story. But perhaps more important are the pictures. Throughout the book we see the roadblocks and checkpoints, bulldozed olive groves and houses, and the faces of Palestinian people – men, women, children. We also see roads reserved for Israeli’s only, settlements encroaching on Palestinian communities, and a “security fence” that looks a lot like a very imposing wall – 25 feet of concrete fit with watch towers, and more. We discover people cut off from hospitals and their lands.

Even if one might question an interpretation here or there in the book, the book remains a powerful statement. Yes, some of her resources might be considered on the fringe – Noam Chomsky is a highly controversial character – and her views of the political situation might be at least a topic of conversation, but the pictures and the stories should push us to look at both sides of the story. She’s Jewish, but she’s an anti-Zionist. Her advocacy of the Palestinian cause suggests one need not be anti-Jewish to support a just and fair resolution to the Palestinian situation.

Whether you agree with her interpretations, her most important advice is simply to check things out. If you don’t believe her, then do your own research. Look at all sides. Listen to all voices. Maybe what you’ve heard isn’t the whole truth. And if your research opens your eyes to a different reality, then perhaps you too will become an advocate.

The book is composed of diaries, pictures, and maps. The first edition was published after visits in 2003 through 2005. The most recent edition came out after a summer 2007 visit. It includes several appendixes that range from what one might do, a list of resources, a time line, a recounting of myths, and a collection of quotes that will give a different cast to the story.

As depressing as the story can be at times, Anna is optimistic that peace can occur. She’s not naïve, she understands that the solutions won’t be easy to attain. She recognizes that some Palestinians have turned to terrorizing violence to advance their cause – but she chooses not to focus on that. What she wants us to see are the nonviolent responses and the debilitating effects of an illegal occupation.

Because we live in dangerous times, it is important that we know the full story. It is not anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish to raise questions about Israeli policies. It is appropriate to ask the question of whether it is possible for a nation to be a true democracy, but limit the rights of some of its citizens. Then there are the settlements – which continue to expand, limiting the territory available to Palestinians. While not popular, it is also appropriate to consider whether the Israeli occupation has similarities to apartheid.

Anna’s story won’t be popular with many Americans. Her own community – indeed members of her own family have difficulties with her choice – but again, one need not agree with her at every point to have an eye opening experience as one reads the book. But, I think that every American would benefit from reading this book.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Gay Presbyterian Pastors?

There are Gay Presbyterian pastors, just like there are gay Methodists, Catholics, Disciples, and Baptists. In many cases it's not allowable to reveal oneself, but I guarantee you that they're there. Indeed, there are likely gays among the pastors of Pentecostal and Bible churches, but they stay in the closet.
The news is that the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly, meeting in San Jose, California, has voted to allow the ordination of gays. But this is only the first step, now a majority of regional Presbyteries must agree -- which might not be possible (yet). As the LA Times article quotes a delegate -- this is increasingly a generational issue. If it's generational, then it's only a matter of time. The Presbyterians will lose churches, but likely not that many.

But, again, it's a matter of time.

Packing Time

If you happen to stop by on occasion, you may have noticed that I've not been posting much these last two days. Well there is a reason, I've been engrossed in packing up the house for the big move. We've been here in Santa Barbara ten years. They call this paradise, so leaving paradise seems odd. But if we believe that God calls us to ministry, then this move, that on the face of it seems strange, is most appropriate. What lies ahead remains unknown, at least to some degree. I know that there will be challenges. My challenge is to learn to listen closely to the various voices that are in the church.

We leave Monday, so as I'm able I'll give some commentary. Of course I'll try to stay up on the news.

And the news isn't getting any less interesting. The Presbyterian General Assembly has voted to ordain gays, Barack and Hillary got together in Unity, NH, while John McCain seems to be tracking further and further to the right. But, I'm not as able to keep up as usual!

Thursday, June 26, 2008

America and its Iconic Bible

Faith in the Public Square
Lompoc Record
February 25, 2007

A controversy concerning the use of the Koran in Congressional oath-taking ceremonies raised the question of the Bible's place in American life. Radio host Dennis Prager laid down the gauntlet in a much publicized column when he said, “Insofar as a member of Congress taking an oath to serve America and uphold its values is concerned, America is interested in only one book, the Bible. If you are incapable of taking an oath on that book, don't serve in Congress.”

If the Bible is America's Holy Book, what exactly does that mean? It's true that the Bible is regularly used in a variety of public ceremonies, from swearing in of witnesses to oath-taking by public officials. It's believed that using the Bible in such a way guarantees truthfulness, although there's little evidence that such use prevents either corruption or perjury.

When we talk about the Bible as America's Holy Book, we're not talking about its content; we're talking about its symbolic status. Indeed, that's Prager's point. Therefore, since the Bible is essentially an object of veneration, we dutifully trot it out whenever we deem it appropriate. If necessary, we'll read it selectively in support of our pet projects. Take for instance the Ten Commandments: Many venerate them, but spend little time examining their meaning.

The Bible's iconic value is connected to America's mythical “Judeo-Christian” heritage, something that's apparently now under siege by pluralists and immigrants alike. Reference is often made to the nation's golden age when that heritage is assumed to have reigned supreme. However, a close reading of America's history suggests that the story is much more complicated than that. Besides, there are dark shadows that lay across our nation's religious heritage, from slavery to segregation.
Nonetheless, the Bible is often regarded as synonymous with American life. The tradition of using the Bible to take the Presidential Oath of Office dates back to George Washington, who used his Masonic Bible in that ceremony. We've had presidentially-decreed “Years of the Bible,” while speech writers pepper political speeches with biblical allusions, often taken out of context.
To give but one example: President Bush, in a speech following 9-11, said “the light shines in the darkness. And the darkness will not overcome it.” He was referring to America, but the passage (John 1:5) refers not to our nation but to Jesus' entrance into the world. The iconic stature of the Bible, Mark Toulouse writes, “subordinates biblical values to whatever American political thought might need at the moment” (“God in Public: Four Ways American Christianity and Public Life Relate”).

Upwards of 93 percent of us own a Bible, and somewhere around 82 percent believe it to be divinely inspired. No wonder so many people embrace Creationist views. Unfortunately, there's also significant evidence that Americans know very little about the Bible's content. To give an example, in a Gallup poll only 49 percent of Americans could name the first book of the Bible (Genesis) and only 34 percent of us knew who delivered the Sermon on the Mount (It's Jesus by the way).
For the Christian, however, the Bible should be more than simply a national icon that we venerate but ignore in our daily lives. Instead, it should inform our faith and our practice as Christians. The same could be said for religious Jews as well. It should challenge us to walk with God and walk humbly and peaceably with our neighbor (Micah 6:8). And so we who wish to take the Bible seriously need to heed this reminder by Mark Toulouse:

“When the nation uses the Bible in iconic fashion, the nation honors the book as a symbol instead of taking the book seriously for its content. In this context, politicians, and even ministers and Christian social activists, can easily slip into the political misuse of the Bible's content to suit their own purposes.” (“God in Public”).

God hasn't made special covenant with the United States of America. Whatever covenants God has made transcend national boundaries.As one who finds the words of the Bible to be enriching and challenging, I believe its words must be interpreted carefully and very seriously. To do otherwise, especially if the Bible is read or used in a politicized way, could be dangerous. Therefore, I'll take my Bible seriously but not as a national icon.
Dr. Bob Cornwall is pastor of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Lompoc (
Feb. 25, 2007

Building Bridges Between Science and Faith

Faith in the Public Square
Lompoc Record
February 11, 2008

Go outside and look around, you'll be amazed at what you see. From the beauty of a sunrise to the buried living treasure under a log, the world is abundant in beauty and diversity. Although the majority of species that have inhabited this world are extinct, our planet remains an amazingly complex and diverse world. From the tiniest microbe to the mightiest elephant, these creatures are a testament to the wisdom of an evolving creation.

I'm not a scientist, but I have great respect for their work. Their tenacity in seeking answers to seemingly unanswerable questions needs to be commended and encouraged. Seemingly undeterred by apparent blind alleys or overwhelming challenges, when one solution doesn't work, they look for another. To be a scientist requires great curiosity, persistence, and patience; this is because the scientific method assumes that there are no easy answers to life's questions.
As a pastor and theologian, I look at the world from a different vantage point, but I, too, recognize that life's questions rarely involve easy answers. When it comes to observing the natural world, the scientist starts with a commitment to methodological naturalism, which means they proceed with their work without assuming God's presence, looking only to nature for answers. I, however, can and do speak of the hand of the Creator in this effort, and therefore I'm able to celebrate the Creator's handiwork.

Even before Darwin's time, theologians tried to understand God's relationship with nature, but Darwin's theories posed special challenges to theology. For the first time there was a natural explanation for the diversity of the Earth's species. Some within the religious community resisted his proposals, but many welcomed his contribution to the discussion. As we are still learning, such a discussion, if it's to be fruitful, requires humility and a willingness to learn and listen.
Recognizing that tomorrow's discoveries could fill in today's gaps in knowledge, neither scientist nor theologian should embrace a “God of the gaps” perspective. Rejection of the idea of a “gap filling God” doesn't, however, preclude the theologian from reflecting on nature or the scientist to contemplate God's presence. Owen Gingerich, a distinguished Harvard astronomer and devout Christian, points to a distinction made long ago by Aristotle between efficient causes and final causes. Science looks at the former, while theologians look at the latter. Efficient causes have to do with the way things work and how they have come to be - this is the realm of methodological naturalism, the search for answers to questions that have possible answers. Final causes, on the other hand, have to do with questions about why we exist and what's expected of us. It's the distinction between physics and metaphysics, and metaphysics is the realm of faith and reason. With Gingerich, I believe it's appropriate to speak of design and purpose, but such talk must always be done with humility and tentativeness.
It's possible to speak of the truthfulness of both natural selection and design, as long as we recognize their inherent differences of perspective. One is scientific, the other is philosophical. Both are reasonable and compatible. I speak, therefore, as a theologian who sees the wisdom of God at work in the universe. From my perspective, I see balance and purpose, and I hear an invitation to participate in maintaining and furthering that balance and purpose.
Today my congregation once again observes Evolution Sunday, an idea that on the surface seems quite secular, but isn't. It's simply an effort to build a proper and respectful bridge between science and faith. I realize not everyone believes this to be possible. Some believe you can't be a true scientist and also be religious, others believe that if the scientific consensus contradicts a literal reading of Scripture, then science must be wrong. In one case science trumps God, and in the other God trumps science.

To my mind, the wise choice is the middle path, the one represented by Evolution Sunday. Such a path calls on people of science and people of faith (recognizing that many are both scientists and people of faith) to work together for the benefit of humanity. In this spirit, I invite you to join us in celebrating the wisdom of an evolving creation by observing Evolution Sunday (
Dr. Bob Cornwall is pastor of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Lompoc (
Feb. 11, 2007

Is Religion Bad for the Universe?

Faith in the Public Square
Lompoc Record
December 17, 2006

I consider myself to be a pretty decent person. As for my religious proclivities, I can't find anything in my life and theology that's particularly dangerous. As a pastor of a Mainline Protestant church I try to present to the world a faith that is welcoming, generous, gracious, and that seeks the transformation of the world.

When I think of bad religion I usually have someone like Osama Bin Laden and Fred Phelps in mind; on the other hand, I expect that they might say the same thing about me. So, maybe it's really a matter of perspective.

We religious people want to believe that our religion is good, and we're not always sure about anyone else's. Maybe this is why I find Sam Harris' bestseller Letter to a Christian Nation (Knopf, 2006) so disconcerting. Harris is, if you don't know already, a very vocal atheist. In his mind religion may have had some evolutionary value, but whatever benefit human evolution may have gained from it is outweighed by its downside. In his words: “That religion may have served some necessary function for us in the past does not preclude the possibility that it is now the greatest impediment to our building a global civilization.” Yes, our continued insistence on raising our children to be Christians, Muslims, or Jewish, needs to be recognized as “the ludicrous obscenity that it is.”

Now, as I read this brief, even breezy, diatribe against religion - one that places special emphasis on the dangers posed by Christianity and Islam - I didn't recognize myself. That shouldn't surprise me, says Harris, because he's not talking to me. His conversation partner is the “true Christian,” the fundamentalist who takes every word of Scripture with absolute literalness. I could take comfort in the fact that I don't recognize myself in his depiction of Christianity, except that he has effectively excommunicated moderate and liberal Christians like me from the Christian community.

Harris' problem with religious moderates and liberals is that they, in his estimation, give cover for “true believers.” These are religious folks who are so convinced they're right in their beliefs that they'll choose violence, if necessary, to further their aims. Of course, he has plenty of historical ammunition: the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Salem witch trials, among others to choose from. Since religion is essentially irredeemable, Harris concludes that the only solution is the eradication of religion. Whatever redeeming qualities religion might possess are far outweighed by the damage it does to human society.

If I'm honest, I must grant him the dark side of religious history, but is religion all bad? I'd suggest that one could easily argue the other side and demonstrate that people of faith have been a blessing to society. They've given more to it than they've taken from it. Hospitals, schools, orphanages, homes for the elderly, builders of homes for the poor, and more, are provided by religious communities. Though one needn't be religious to engage in such actions on behalf of society, religious people have generally been in the forefront of efforts at social change. Besides, one could easily point to Maoist and Stalinist attempts at creating a religionless society as counter examples.

Although I don't find Harris' arguments compelling enough to consider abandoning my faith, his challenge is worth looking at. That this book, as well as that of biologist Richard Dawkins, is a bestseller should warn us not to take too much comfort in the extraordinary number of Americans who supposedly believe in God. Obviously, there are great numbers of people out there who are disenchanted with the existing religious options. Additionally, he's within his rights to challenge the anti-intellectualism that can be found in many religious communities.

Sometimes we need to pay close attention to our harshest critics, because in their challenge we may find words of wisdom, even if they're unintended. Harris finds hope in the possibility that religion might be eradicated. The resurgence of religion in China, Russia, and other formerly communist nations suggest that religion isn't headed to the dustbin of history just yet. But peace in the world does require a moderate tone and a commitment to respectful conversation between people of every religion. Then, perhaps, the negatives of religion will be far outweighed by the positives.

Dr. Bob Cornwall is pastor of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Lompoc (
Dec. 17, 2006

What is it about Homosexuality?

Editorial Note -- this column was published in 2006, after the revelations about Ted Haggard. While Haggard isn't a story any longer, homosexuality continues to be an issue. --

Faith in the Public Square
Lompoc Record
November 26, 2008

On the eve of our recent election, scandal rocked America's religious world. A prominent and politically connected evangelical leader resigned amidst charges of hypocrisy and “sexual immorality,” and pundits wondered how the election would be affected by the fact that Ted Haggard, pastor of New Life Church of Colorado Springs and president of the National Association of Evangelicals, had been involved in a long-standing relationship with a male prostitute. It's unlikely we'll ever know the true impact of this revelation, but the story on the front page raised an issue most religious people would rather not discuss.

By the time the dust settled, Haggard had resigned in disgrace and the Religious Right seemed to have suffered a major defeat. But there's more to this story than politics and scandal. As I contemplate one pastor's fall, I'm aware of my own moral frailty. Christians teach that humans are liable to err and that forgiveness and reconciliation is available.

The story has a political angle because Haggard was politically connected and used these connections to lobby for issues important to the conservative Christian movement, including a ban on gay marriage. There is, however, a more compelling human angle that draws my attention. This is about more than politics and culture wars; it's about who we are as human beings.

Clearly, our nation isn't of one mind when it comes to homosexuality. Like the nation itself, many of our religious communities are divided on this issue, making opportunities for open, calm, and thoughtful discussion rare. The role religion plays in this debate is influenced in large part by the fact that our authoritative religious texts tend to frown upon homosexuality, making the interpretation of these sacred texts the focal point of the conversation. But this isn't simply an academic exercise, because human lives are at stake.

Despite the initial denials, Pastor Haggard finally admitted to a long-term struggle with homosexuality. Believing these inclinations to be sinful, he tried to suppress them. I understand why he chose this route. He felt called of God to serve the church, a calling that what would be thwarted if he admitted to what was going on inside him. Yet, what was going on inside contributed to the contradictions that made him who he was. He spoke of the need to overcome sin and offered the possibility of healing. He campaigned against gay marriage, and yet he could on occasion be welcoming and supportive to gays and lesbians.

Before this scandal recedes into the dust bin of history, maybe some good can come of it. Maybe it will give us an opportunity to discuss this issue that polarizes our nation. By all accounts, there is a growing acceptance of homosexuality in our culture, and yet there is also strong resistance, much of it coming from within our religious communities. Perhaps it's time to have the difficult but necessary conversation about the place of homosexuals in church and society.

With questions about civil rights serving as the starting point of our conversation, I think it's appropriate to say upfront that whatever our personal views of homosexuality, we should affirm a principle of equality that grants gays and lesbians their legal right to things we all take for granted, like housing, employment, and visitation of loved ones. For the religious community, the issues go deeper than civil rights and require thoughtful discussion, for these discussions focus on matters such as marriage, ordination, sin, and salvation, and what it means to be a person created in the image of God. Churches talk about being welcoming, but the question remains, whom are we willing to welcome?

This question leads us back to the ways we interpret our sacred texts. A century-and-a-half ago, devout Christians stood on opposing sides of the slavery issue, with partisans arguing their point from Scripture. Today few Christians would argue that slavery has divine approval. Another issue that turns on our interpretation of the Bible is the role of women. Even today many Christian traditions believe that women should not teach or hold authority in the church, even as my own denomination is now headed by a woman and the Episcopal Church has installed a woman as its Presiding Bishop.

Many will argue that homosexuality is a different issue, but the debate still centers on how we read the Bible. Although my congregation has yet to have an in-depth conversation on this issue, and I take some risk in sharing my views, I believe the Bible has within it the seeds of liberation and offers a way of welcome for gays and lesbians. As with my view of women in the church, personal relationships have played a role in how I view this issue. Even as friendships with gifted and called women pushed me to re-examine Scripture, the discovery that my brother is gay has forced me to re-examine what Scripture says about homosexuality. What had once been an academic question became a very personal one. Once, I believed that homosexuality was a choice, but further study suggests otherwise. I had to face the question: If the scientific viewpoint is correct, how should the church relate to gays and lesbians?
As for Ted Haggard, I grieve for his family and his church. I hope for the best, knowing that this scandal has had a lot of collateral damage. Yet, his fall and confession might lead to a much needed conversation about sexuality, civil rights, and the role of religion in our nation. Of course, driven by fear, these revelations could further polarize our country. But, being driven by hope, I believe that a turning point has come and we will have this needed conversation. If we don't, then others may suffer a fate similar to that of Pastor Ted, and that would be a tragedy.
Dr. Bob Cornwall is pastor of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Lompoc (
Nov. 26, 2006

Am I My Brother's Keeper?

Faith in the Public Square
Lompoc Record
November 12, 2006

The credo of partisan politics is: Do what's best for the party, even if it's not what's best for the nation. And the credo of nationalism is: Do what's best for our nation, even if that's not what's best for the world as a whole. Politicians know that if they take care of their party members, their constituents, and maybe even on occasion their fellow citizens (of their nation) they will be rewarded for their service to the narrow good.

All of this is rooted in an individualistic philosophy. It's a world view that suggests that we have to look out for ourselves, because no one else will. Therefore, I'll do what's best for me, and my neighbor - that's their problem. The opposite of such a philosophy is a commitment to pursue the common good. Commitment to the common good sounds wonderful, but it seems out of place in an increasingly partisan, sectarian, and nationalist era. Rarely do we hear these days that rallying cry of John Kennedy: “And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” And thinking even more broadly, Dwight D. Eisenhower could say: “This world of ours ... must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be, instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect.” And then there's this statement by Barbara Jordan, the late Congresswoman, which reminds us that “A nation is formed by the willingness of each of us to share in the responsibility for upholding the common good.”

Cain asked God, “Am I my brother's keeper.” God's answer is “Yes, you are.” I believe that a case can be made for the premise that the world is better off when we pursue the common good. But pursuit of the common good requires us to balance our own personal needs with the needs of others. It requires the majority respect the rights and needs of minorities. It involves recognition that the acts and decisions of one nation often impact the lives of other nations - global warming for instance, transcends boundaries. Therefore, commitment to the common good may require of us at least a degree of self-denial and self-sacrifice.
If I'm my “brother's keeper,” what are the practical implications of this idea? Well, consider a couple of case studies. Some might question the value of paying taxes to support a public educational system when they don't have children in the system. Perhaps their children are grown, or for whatever reason they don't have children. Why pay to educate someone else's child?

There are a number of answers to this question, but consider the benefits of having a knowledgeable and productive workforce, reduction in juvenile crime and violence, and maybe even population stabilization. Now not everyone is equally gifted, but if we're committed to the common good, then a child should at least be given a chance at success.
Medical care is another area of common concern. The current system does a great job of serving those who can afford good insurance. But what about the millions of people who are uninsured or underinsured. What of their welfare? And, if they're not able to receive proper health care, what might that do to the health of the broader community? It's impossible to totally wall ourselves off from the health issues of the broader world - consider the possibilities of a bird flu epidemic.
Even when we don't receive a direct benefit of our contributions to society, we receive benefits indirectly. That's the blessing of considering the common good. I might not get everything I want, but I'll be better off living in a world where the community as a whole has good health care, strong educational opportunities, public safety, and cultural opportunities. If ever we understood the need for a strong government, it was during Katrina. Because the nation's emergency preparedness was left in the hand of an unprepared political appointee, hundreds died or were left stranded during a devastating storm.
Ultimately, we're all in this together. What affects you will ultimately affect me, and the world will be better off when we finally learn this lesson. So, the truth is, I am my brother's and my sister's keeper.
Dr. Bob Cornwall is Pastor of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Lompoc (
Nov. 12, 2006

Post-Zionism or Post-Judaism? --- Sightings

I've been reading Anna Baltzer's Witness in Palestine, the diaristic account of a young Jewish-American woman who discovers the horrors of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Anna is definitely post-Zionist. She's also a secular Jew. Today's edition of Sightings is an engagement of two recent films, one a comedy and the other a drama, that seem to give voice to a post-Zionist vision. Brian Britt introduces us briefly to post-Zionism and raises the question of what it means for Israel, Israeli's and Jews. On the other side of the coin is what all this means for Palestinians.


Sightings 6/26/08

Post-Zionism or Post-Judaism?
-- Brian Britt

Two radically different new films, the American comedy You Don't Mess With the Zohan and the Israeli drama Restless, tell remarkably similar stories of Israeli soldier-assassins who start new lives in New York. By normalizing the image of soldiers and patriots leaving Israel, The Zohan and Restless (like Steven Spielberg's weightier Munich [2005]) both normalize the difficult questions of post-Zionism.

Restless, directed by Amos Kollek (son of the longtime mayor of Jerusalem), depicts the reunion of Moshe, a down-and-out Israeli poet in New York, and Tzach, the son he abandoned as a baby, now an elite sniper discharged from the Israeli Defense Forces. The Zohan, starring Adam Sandler (who also co-wrote and produced the film), resembles such willfully vulgar satires as Talladega Nights and Superbad. A renowned soldier and lover, Zohan gives up fighting terrorists to follow his dream of styling hair for Paul Mitchell in New York. When that fails, he goes to work for a Palestinian-owned hair salon across the street from Israeli shops. Like an inversion of the biblical Samson (a popular figure in Israeli culture), Zohan eagerly provides "silky smooth" hair and back-room amours to the aging women who line up for his services.

Both films conclude with father-son reunions. When Tzach's mother dies, he finds and angrily confronts his Moroccan-born father, who fled Israel's wars and ethnic discrimination twenty years earlier. After a standoff at gunpoint, Tzach and Moshe reconnect over a bowl of homemade soup. Zohan's father, who earlier mocked his son's hairstyling ambition, finally asks his "faygele" son for a haircut. Away from Israel, the sons and fathers preserve their families and some sense of group identity.

But this group identity includes neither Zionism nor Judaism. Our protagonists do not reflect the biblical warriors David and Samson so much as Joseph, the diaspora hero who succeeds on the basis of good looks and skill. Exiled by choice, these fathers and sons retrace the steps of earlier immigrants to New York, networking and seducing their way to housing, jobs, and social support. Zohan, Moshe, and Tzach escape their warrior culture in un-warrior-like moments of weeping, cross-dressing, and heartfelt poetry; but they have given up their stakes in a Jewish homeland.

They are not alone: New York turns out to be full of Israeli-Americans. In Restless they gather to hear Moshe's bittersweet poetic rants about their homeland, and in The Zohan they sell electronics and fast food. The films thus replace the myth of aliyah (immigration, literally "ascent," to Israel) with the trope of New York as home of the American Dream. It is a secularist (and pre-9/11) dream, one that recalls Al Jolson's 1927 Jazz Singer, though neither Restless nor The Zohan pays as much attention to Judaism as the earlier classic.

For a society of immigrants where the experience of military service is nearly universal and culturally central, the films' focus on émigrés (sometimes pejoratively called yoredim, "those who go down") suggests not all is well with Zionism. Post-Zionism, a term made familiar in the 1990s by Israeli intellectuals, was denounced by some after the attacks of September 11, 2001, but the term continues to describe a range of positions in Israeli culture and politics. Sociologist Uri Ram credits post-Zionism with raising the problem of whether Israel will be Jewish or democratic; historian Tom Segev regards post-Zionism as a new phase of Israeli history; Middle East scholar Meyrav Wurmser warns that post-Zionism threatens the security of Israel by challenging Israeli nationalism and Judaism itself.

Both films deal with the question and quandaries of post-Zionism; but it is telling that the films, like much public discourse, depict a crisis in Zionism while ignoring Judaism (apart from a recitation of Kaddish in Restless). As Gershom Scholem argued almost a century ago, Zionism cannot be either severed from or reduced to Judaism; long before Slavoj Žižek and Talal Asad, Scholem challenged the division between "religion" and "secularity," a problem that haunts most political and religious crises today, especially in the Middle East. Secularized Post-Zionism is just as shallow as secularized Zionism: Secularist clichés of New York, romantic fulfillment, and father-son reconciliation offer nothing new to the displaced Israelis of the films. More highbrow than The Zohan, Restless takes itself too seriously and descends into melodrama, while the mass-marketed Zohan, with its ridiculous gags and stereotypes about hummus, sex, and the Middle East, refuses to be taken seriously. Both films signal the need to cross the boundaries between Israeli Jews and Palestinians, but neither offers meaningful ideas on how to do so. The Zohan and Restless are significant as indicators of the current state of Zionism, but without engaging Jewish tradition and regional politics, they remain celluloid fantasies of sex and the city.

Brian Britt is Professor of Religious Studies at Virginia Tech. He received his Ph.D. in Religion and Literature from the University of Chicago Divinity School.

This month, the Marty Center's Religion and Culture Web Forum features an essay by S. Brent Plate of Hamilton College: "The Altar and the Screen: Film making and World making" Commentary from Crystal Downing (Messiah College), Jean Bethke Elshtain (University of Chicago), Robert Johnston (Fuller Theological Seminary), and William Paden (University of Vermont) can be found on the forum's discussion board, where readers may also post responses.
Access the discussion board at:
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Who Is America's God?

Faith in the Public Square
Lompoc Record
October 22, 2006

Polls suggest that almost 90 percent of Americans believe in God. These are significant numbers, especially when compared to Europe. Despite state-supported churches throughout Western Europe, the continent is largely secularized. America, on the other hand, lacks a state-sponsored religion, but is almost “God-intoxicated” in comparison, at least, on the surface.

The question isn't whether Americans believe in God, it's what they believe about this God they claim to believe in. The details behind these gaudy numbers suggest a diversity of understandings. We may believe in a higher power, but our definitions vary greatly.

You could try to discern the nature of America's God by checking the yellow pages, but this could prove misleading. You would likely conclude that most “believing” Americans belong to one of many Christian denominations. But it's just as likely that a good American will embrace some non-institutionalized and undefined deity. And, in spite of our supposed religiosity, it appears that a good many Americans either ignore God or don't think God is very interested in their daily lives. We may turn to God in times of crisis, but when things are going OK we'd rather go it alone. Though few of us are true atheists, many are functional atheists.

A Baylor University study entitled “American Piety in the 21st Century” was released in September, and it provides a unique look at America's theologies. It not only confirms that Americans believe in God, but it also gives significant details about the god(s) we embrace. Although a plurality of Americans embraces Christianity, there are significant differences even among Christians. In fact, there are four distinct views of God that cross religious and denominational lines. The definitions relate to our perception of God's engagement with creation and God's anger.

The most popular God among Americans, with 31 percent of the vote, is the Authoritarian God. This God is definitely engaged in our lives, but “he” is also angry and in control. Smaller numbers of us embrace a Benevolent God (23 percent). This deity is also engaged but not as inclined to anger as the Authoritarian God. At the other end of the spectrum are the gods who remain aloof from human experience. The Critical God (16 percent), for example, is angry with us, but is inclined to postpone justice until the next life. And then there's the Distant God who is almost as popular as the authoritarian one (24 percent of the vote). I can see why many people find this God appealing. This deity is benevolent and yet in general leaves us alone so we can do our own thing.

Women prefer an engaged divinity, with a slight preference for the Authoritarian God, while men prefer deities to be either detached or authoritarian. The male predisposition toward the Distant or Critical God may help explain why fewer men than women belong to religious groups. What surprised me was that younger people (18-30) are more likely to prefer an authoritarian God than do older people. Middle-aged folk like me seem to prefer a Benevolent God. Coastal dwellers like non-engaged deities, while Southerners vote overwhelmingly for an Authoritarian God. This may sound like Red State/Blue State politics, but the reality is that even within ethnic, gender, or geographic groups, there is little unanimity.

When it comes to religious identification, Evangelicals, biblical literalists, and African-American Protestants go for the authoritarian God, while a plurality of Jews, Mainline Protestants and Catholics choose the distant one. And not surprisingly, the more you pray or attend religious services the more likely you are to prefer an authoritarian deity.

Because I'm interested in the relationship between religion and public life, I was intrigued by the political implications of these four theologies. Apparently, the more we pray, read the Bible literally, or go to services, the more conservative we are politically, and the more likely we are to support increased military spending, harsh punishment of criminals, funding of faith-based organizations, and prayer in school. The more we embrace a benevolent or distant God, the more likely we are to oppose the death penalty, support business regulation, and be concerned about protecting the environment. Again this is all a matter of degree, but it does suggest that what we believe about God influences our behavior and our political convictions. This is assuming that we're one of the 90 percent who believes in God.

Dr. Bob Cornwall is Pastor of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Lompoc (
Oct 22, 2006

James Dobson Pontificates on Obama's Theology

Two years ago Barack Obama spoke to a Sojourner's sponsored rally. At that rally he spoke of his faith and how it influences his moral and political decisions. It was, at the time well received. He spoke of the importance of faith -- opposing those who feel that faith has no place in the public square -- while making sure that any politician or politically active person understands that religion by itself can't be the argument. You have to use reason as well. Indeed, moral statements need to be set forth in broad terms, because this is, after all, a diverse nation.
For some reason James Dobson just discovered the speech and has denounced Obama. Dobson says that Obama distorts the Bible and offers a "fruitcake interpretation of the Constitution." Now, Dobson, who is by training a child psychologist, has no theological training nor legal training. Really, we shouldn't have to even be dealing with this "johnny-come-lately" attack. What has Obama done to warrant Dobson's wrath? He suggests that to simply claim the Bible as support for public decisions is difficult. Leviticus, as he points out, supports slavery and condemns the eating of shrimp among other things, while the Sermon on the Mount might prove problematic for the Pentagon. So, he asks, which texts should we make preeminent? As for the Constitution -- Obama's crime is simply to uphold the idea that church and state are two different entities.
Why the attack? Well, many Evangelicals are looking closely at Obama. Dobson is afraid that Obama will break apart his two-pole platform (anti-gay rights/anti-abortion). He fears a broadening of the conversation because a broader conversation makes it more difficult to cultivate a zealous, narrowly focused coalition.
Will it work? I think Dobson's days as an influential political force is in the past. At this point, no one's listening! And so, maybe the press should stop focusing attention on him.
The problem with Dobson's views -- and those of his cohorts -- is simply this. They have hijacked the Bible and the church and insist that if one doesn't read the Bible in the same wooden way as they do one isn't a Christian and is distorting the Bible. My belief is that it's they who distort it by not taking it contextually and historically. Reading the Bible and interpreting the Bible are two different things.

Dark Side of Certainty

Faith in the Public Square
Lompoc Record
October 1, 2006

There's something to be said for clarity. When the times require decisiveness, it's good to know what you believe and why.
In such life and death moments, time is usually of the essence and you can't second-guess yourself. Needing to act quickly, you have to put off the analysis. It would be great to pause a moment to consider all the ramifications, but you don't have time. Some of your decisions may come back to haunt you, but that's life. After all, you're only human.
Clarity is one thing, absolute certainty is another. If you think you know the truth, and you have no doubts at all, then you're experiencing absolute certainty. Unfortunately, such certainty can keep you from listening to other voices, including voices of experience and wisdom. When you think you - or your group - have all the truth, it's easier to let this certainty lead to untempered zeal and even violent fanaticism.

In a book written by Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence, “Captain America and the Crusade against Evil” (Eerdmans, 2003), this provocative statement appears: “Common to every contemporary movement that promises salvation through the destruction of others is the doubtful warrant of intense certainty.”

This book, written post-9/11, serves as a warning to any who would embrace absolute or intense certainty. When you believe with intense certainty, you may become not only passionate but reckless. You may come to believe that the end justifies any means. If, for instance, you can save some lives, then certainly a little torture is justifiable. Or, is it?
We live on an increasingly diverse and interconnected planet. There are few unlinked corners of the earth. To be sure, there are remote outposts in the world, but they become fewer by the day. This increased interaction brings us into contact with ideas, practices, and beliefs that may be markedly different from our own. They raise questions, such as: How do you know your way of doing things is the right way? Is there scientific validation for your culture and values, or do you take it all by faith? Sometimes, as we intermingle, we may discover that the ways of the other are preferable, and so we choose to adopt this other mode of life. This process is called conversion.
Our interactions can be compromised, however, by stereotype and ignorance of the whole story. Of course, life is easier and more certain when we can live in isolation, whether it's chosen or not, but in the end it's unfruitful and it can be dangerous.

As I look out at the world and see the confusion and conflict, it appears that the world is experiencing growing pains. We're maturing, but in many ways the world has only reached adolescence. Children tend to see things very concretely. There aren't any abstractions, just black and white, which is why Rousseau said it's pointless to try to reason with a child. But with experience and education, we can see the world in broader colors and categories. Adolescence is a period of conflicting emotions and experiences. They're caught between the concrete world of childhood and the abstractions of adulthood.
In the concrete world of the child, there's no room for interpretation, but as we mature we begin to see that things aren't always the way they appear. You have to reason things out and interpret things. Such reasoning makes certainty less viable. There may be objective truth, but it's unlikely that you're an objective observer. Your interpretations are influenced by traditions, society and culture, as well as your own experiences.
Ultimately, you make choices in faith, hoping that you have all the information you need to choose wisely. Still, in the end it's a matter of faith. The information may come through trial and error or from listening to others; but whatever the source, life has become less black and white.
Jewett and Lawrence caution against embracing intense zeal, but they encourage a modest zeal, or what they call “pilgrim zeal.” Such zeal allows for an acknowledgment of the limits to our understanding. It reminds us we're on a journey that hasn't ended. But, such zeal keeps us from falling into indifference and apathy. It's not enough to simply be nice. A better tomorrow demands more of us than that.
Dr. Bob Cornwall is Pastor of First Christian Church of Lompoc (
Oct. 1, 2006

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Talking Religion in Public

Faith in the Public Square
Lompoc Record
September 10, 2006

I know it's not polite to talk about religion or politics in public. Unfortunately I'm both religious and politically-minded, and except for sports and music, there aren't many topics of greater interest to me than these two. More than 20 years ago Richard John Neuhaus wrote a book called “The Naked Public Square” (1984), a manifesto that challenged the alleged secularization of the public square. He contended that the religious voice, which he believes is the foundation of civic life, was no longer welcome in public, doing damage to the American way of life.
I mention Neuhaus' book, not because I want to deal with it or his arguments, but because the possibility that the public square could be naked is quite real. There are many countries that deny religion any place in the public square, and there are, of course, other nations where just one religion dominates the whole of public life.
Though it often seems like there are only two alternatives - theocracy or “godless” secularism - from its earliest days the American republic has walked a third middle way. Religion has always played a significant role in American public life; this is why I decided to call this column “Faith in the Public Square.” I believe in the separation of church and state, but this isn't the same thing as the separation of religion and public life. The first is institutional, the second is personal. I can't separate my faith from my public life, because my faith involves everything about me, including my politics.
The problem today isn't that there are no public religious voices; the problem is that too many of them are strident and self-serving. People grieve the demise of western Christendom, as if the end of a triumphalist Constantinianism is the end of Christianity. As a follower of Jesus, I find it difficult to connect his life and teachings with a Constantinian view of the relationship between church and state. Remember, Jesus died at the hands of the same Roman government that Constantine later lead. Though I reject the Constintinian view of church and state, I don't believe that you can keep your faith private. In this, I'm of one mind with Neuhaus and Jim Wallis, of Sojourners, though my views are much closer to those of Wallis than Neuhaus.
I began writing this column, which has a decided public edge to it, because I believe that religion (faith) belongs in the public square. My “moral values” and my faith professions influence the way I live and the way I vote, but I also know that my values and my professions of faith aren't shared by everyone. That's why I believe that we must share the public square with each other.
American society - especially California - is quite diverse. Diana Eck's book “A New Religious America” (2001) carries a subtitle that says everything we need to know about modern America: “How a “Christian Country” Has Become the World's Most Religiously Diverse Nation.” Whereas once America's religious life could be summed up with Protestant, Catholic, and Jew, today mosques and temples of all kinds dot the landscape. In theory, everyone's voice is welcome in the public square. This may be why, as a recent “Time” column suggests, America's Muslim community, unlike Europe's, hasn't become radicalized.
A civil and productive conversation about religion and politics must begin with the admission that I may not have all the truth. It'll also help if we remember that God is neither Republican nor Democrat. In fact, we need to remember that God isn't an American. I cringe when our political leaders claim that God is on our side. How do they know? After all, Osama Bin Laden believes that God is on his side.
Because I like talking about religion's place in public life, I'd like to invite you to participate in a more personal conversation about the great issues of our day. Sponsored by First Christian Church and the Lompoc Record, I will host a forum entitled “Faith in the Public Square: A conversation about religion, politics, culture, and more” in the Grossman Gallery of the Lompoc Public Library, 501 E. North Ave. Please join me for some conversation and cookies at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 27 (2006!).
Dr. Bob Cornwall is Pastor of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Lompoc (
Sept. 10, 2006

Forgiveness is the Foundation of Civic Life

Faith in the Public Square
Lompoc Record
August 27, 2006

In a perfect world there would be no need for forgiveness. Reality, however, demands it, at least if we're going to live in peace with each other. People have dreamed utopian dreams of a world that's egalitarian, harmonious, and peaceful. While this is an attractive dream, especially at a time when conflict rages around us, history isn't optimistic about its chances.
There was a time when the boundless possibilities of the American frontier inspired such dreamers, but most of these ventures were small in scope and short in duration. The idea is good, but in practice it doesn't seem to work out as planned, and those who dream big utopian dreams, like Mao and Pol Pot, usually fall prey to totalitarianism.

If utopianism is merely a dream with nightmarish consequences, what are the alternatives? One “realistic” alternative with a long historical pedigree is the principle of an “eye for an eye.” If you hurt me or my family, I'll hurt you and your family. Attack my country, we'll attack yours. Such tit-for-tat solutions only lead to ongoing cycles of violence and destruction.

There is a third way. It might not seem realistic, but it's the only alternative that offers the hope of reconciliation and peace in a less than perfect world. This is the path of forgiveness, a path that recognizes the humanity's imperfections but also offers the hope of a new beginning. In a zero tolerance age, forgiveness isn't always a popular notion, but when you consider the alternatives, is there any other way to go?

It's important to remember that forgiveness has a partner called justice. Justice is important, because it reminds us of the need for accountability and responsibility. Unfortunately, it's not easy to hold justice and forgiveness together, but a lasting solution to the world's problems requires that they be kept together.
Forgiveness seems to be a message found in most religions, and Jesus told his disciple Peter that we should forgive an offender not just seven times, but 70 times 7 (Matthew 18:21-22). In other words, forgive until you can't keep track of the offenses. As hard as it is to hear such a word, is there any other way to get beyond the endless cycles of blame, hatred, and violence? To forgive doesn't mean that offenders aren't held accountable for their actions, but forgiveness does offer the hope of a new beginning and it sets aside the need to get revenge.

Consider for a moment the immigration debate. Critics of the now dormant and admittedly less than perfect Senate immigration bill charged its sponsors with offering “blanket amnesty” to illegals. But as I read it, it tries to balance accountability with forgiveness. It seeks to reduce incentives for immigration while recognizing the facts on the ground. You can criminalize immigrants, or you can find a way for them to become citizens. To me, that sounds just and forgiving, which is really a humane solution.

Forgiveness isn't easy, because it forces us to face the truth about ourselves and about our neighbors. Consider the efforts taken in South Africa to bring black and white together to build an integrated and peaceful society. The results aren't perfect, but the principle behind this effort brings together truth-telling and forgiveness. Compare for a moment South Africa and Zimbabwe. One nation has experienced unimagined stability, while the other remains in chaos. South Africa took the path of forgiveness, Zimbabwe didn't.

Fred Craddock, a preacher from my denomination, wrote that “there can be no forgiveness without standards and values being violated, without persons and relationships being hurt, without a loss so deeply felt that efforts at restoration are pursued.'' The willingness to forgive and start again is the key to a peaceful future. That in itself may seem utopian, but the weapons of today make the wars of tomorrow an apocalyptic nightmare. The hope of our world requires that we pursue the path of forgiveness. It's a path that begins with my making the first move; if I wait for you, I may wait forever. If we're going to construct a society that is just and harmonious, a society that isn't polarized and marred by violence, then we must begin by embracing the divine call to forgive one another.
Dr. Bob Cornwall is pastor of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Lompoc (
Aug. 27, 2006

Not so religious in California

There's a new Pew Survey out. I've not yet had a chance to look at it, but I've heard a little. Today, though, there's a piece in the LA Times that looks at the report's findings about California. Would it surprise you that we're much less religious than the nation as a whole?

A majority of Californians have some religous inclinations but we're our numbers are about 8-10% below national averages. And, if you were to take out the Central Valley, they'd likely be even lower. None of this surprises me. I've been pastoring in Santa Barbara County the past ten years, and while Lompoc is much more conservative than Santa Barbara (the city), even it is much less religious -- at least in terms of institutional religion.

From day 1 I've found that Santa Barbarans are more likely to be involved in spiritual traditions than institutional religion. The Unitarians do fairly well here (2 congregations). There's a Vendanta Temple and Buddhist organizations. Traditional Christianity struggles here.

Of course, on Monday I begin a trek to the great upper midwest. I expect the people are more religious there than here -- at least in the traditional sense -- but is California bucking the curve, or just slightly ahead of it?

Monday, June 23, 2008

Extremism -- A 21st Century Ideology

Faith in the Public Square
Lompoc Record
August 20, 2006

“If totalitarianism was the great problem of the 20th century, then
extremism is, so far, the great problem of the 21st.”

This is our future, says, Newsweek editor Jon Meacham. Recent news reports would seem to support his analysis. Jihads, crusades, and culture wars dominate daily conversation, while ideology polarizes us. You're either for or against us, and either red or blue, with no room for purple.

While Hitler, Mussolini, Mao, and Stalin dominated the last century, religious and cultural extremism now grab the headlines. Osama seems more driven by religious fanaticism than desire for power, with his followers willing to sacrifice their lives for the cause through suicide bombings.

Though it's easy to point the finger at an Osama Bin Laden, he's not alone. I might be comparing apples and oranges, but listen for a moment to Pat Robertson. Zealotry is very much part of his ideology, as seen in the encouragement he gave (despite a later apology) for the assassination of a foreign head of state and his prayers for “miraculous” openings on the Supreme Court. Though Robertson's followers haven't strapped on bomb-laden vests, there is a violent tendency to his rhetoric. And if we think that our own religious tradition is incapable of violence, then a close reading of Mark Juergensmeyer's “Terror in the Mind of God” is urgently needed. He demonstrates that the impulse to extremist violence is present in every religious tradition, not just Islam.

But what is extremism? Barry Goldwater once said “that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And ... moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Now, if moderation means acquiescence to injustice, then surely extremism might be the better course of action. Ironically, years later the late senator from Arizona decried the extremism he believed had overtaken his party: “When you say ‘radical right' today, I think of these moneymaking ventures by fellows like Pat Robertson and others who are trying to take the Republican Party away from the Republican Party and make a religious organization out of it. If that ever happens, kiss politics goodbye.” (Washington Post, July 28, 1994)

In his day, Martin Luther King, Jr. was considered by many to be an extremist. So extreme was he that the FBI kept him under constant surveillance. Writing from his Birmingham jail cell, King defended his extremism: “The question is not whether we will be extremist but what kind of extremist will we be. Will we be extremists for hate or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice - or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?”

The definition of extremism would appear to be a matter of interpretation, with the times and context influencing our definitions; remember that to most people in England George Washington was an extremist. Strong opposition to injustice and oppression can be seen by some as fanaticism, and it's easy to paint advocates of change with the charge of extremism, but true extremism emerges from a narrow and polarizing ideology that can easily become coercive and even violent. Whereas the last century's ideologies were often rooted in radical secularism, this century's radicals are too often motivated by religion.

We all know about Muslim extremists who blow themselves up pursuit of their cause, but there have also been extremist Christians who show vulgar intolerance and even violence in pursuit of their causes. Anti-abortionist Paul Hill felt driven to kill a physician while Fred Phelps offers up hate-filled messages to gays and lesbians. These may not be run-of-the-mill Christians, but they claim the name and justify their views and actions by turning to the Bible.

There is nothing wrong with being committed to one's faith, but if one's zeal turns into a fanaticism that threatens to tear apart the fabric of human society, then things have gone too far. For, instead of being the glue that holds society together and the voice that challenges injustice, religion becomes a centrifugal force that drives society apart in the name of God. Religion should fight for justice, but it should also build bridges and cement disparate elements of society. The hope for the future requires us to chart a middle course.
Dr. Bob Cornwall is pastor of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Lompoc (
Aug. 20, 2006

What Wall of Separation?

Faith in the Public Square
Lompoc Record
July 30, 2006

The First Amendment grants Americans the right to freely exercise their religious preferences and prohibits government establishment of religion. Unique at the time, it's become a model of religious liberty for the world. Recently, however, our interpretation and application of the First Amendment has inspired much debate.

History shows that we've never been consistent in our interpretations and practices. Though most American children no longer pray or read the Bible devotionally in school, we still have congressional and military chaplains and pledge allegiance to “one nation under God.” The words “in God we trust” are imprinted on our currency and Protestantism has long appeared to have a quasi establishment as the national faith. Whatever the nature of the alleged wall of separation between church and state, it appears that the wall is quite porous.

It's true, as many are quick to point out, the Constitution doesn't mention a wall of separation, but, as others rightly point out, Thomas Jefferson's response to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut (January 1802) does speak of such a wall. The Danbury Baptists sought clarification from the president, because they weren't experiencing the promised religious freedoms in Congregationalist dominated New England. Jefferson responded that the First Amendment had erected “a wall of separation between Church and State,” and that “religion is a matter which lies solely between Man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions.”

While the phrase “wall of separation” doesn't appear in the Constitution, it's clear that Jefferson and others among the founders believed that the First Amendment had erected a barrier of sorts between church and state. Jefferson's close friend, James Madison, was the primary author of the Constitution, and he wrote in his “Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments,” that each person has the unalienable right to exercise their religion as “conviction and conscience” directs. Regarding the establishment of religion, Madison asked, “Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects?”

Jefferson and Madison assumed that the Constitution created a barrier separating religion and government, but they also believed that both religion and the government would benefit from this wall of separation. History has shown that their understanding of the church-state relationship is correct, no matter how porous the wall has proven to be.

Even with this wall in place, however, religion continues to have a place in the public square. Witness how politicians from Jefferson and Madison and on to George W. Bush have invoked Providence and God in speeches and writings; at the same time, religious leaders from Henry Ward Beecher to Martin Luther King have stood in the public square and have offered a prophetic voice on the issues of the day from the abolition of slavery to civil rights.

Though some believe that Jefferson's wall is impermeable, effectively eliminating every religious voice from public life, this wasn't the intent of the First Amendment. While courts and legislatures will likely continue wrestling with the interpretation of the First Amendment, their rulings neither should inappropriately favor religion nor should they exclude religion from the public sphere.
When we talk about separation of church and state the central issue concerns coercion. Establishment is by its very nature coercive even when accompanied by edicts of toleration. Our problem today is that we're not sure when religion becomes coercive.

The recent fracas at the Air Force Academy, where school officials appear to have inappropriately interjected religion into the life of the school, is illustrative. School sponsored prayers and devotional Bible reading can also be coercive, while a student-sponsored religious club that gathers to read the Quran or the Bible shouldn't be, as long as all religions are treated equally. Other points of contention, like the phrase “under God,” are harder to get a handle on.Ultimately, the key to resolving the debate is learning how to share the public square with dignity, civility, and respect. If we can do this, then we will have lived out the core values of our nation.
Dr. Bob Cornwall is Pastor of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Lompoc (
July 30, 2006

Can there ever be peace in the Middle East?

ed. note -- This was written at the time of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. That conflict has ended, but peace remains elusive


Faith in the Public Square
Lompoc Record
July 23, 2006

The newscasts are abuzz with stories of death and destruction. Lebanon is burning and Hezbollah rockets rain down on northern Israeli towns. In many ways there isn't anything new about this current news cycle. For much of the last half century, Israel, the Palestinian (Occupied) Territories, and Lebanon have been the scene of war and regular acts of violence. That Jerusalem means “city of peace” carries great irony.

Who really knows when the current cycle of violence began, but the intensity of this cycle coincides with the killing and kidnapping of Israeli soldiers by a Hamas aligned group, which led in turn to harsh Israeli retaliation.
A northern “front” opened when Hezbollah guerillas based in southern Lebanon crossed the border and kidnapped two more Israeli soldiers. This act of aggression led to a massive Israeli response that has laid waste to much of Lebanon, threatening the viability of an already fragile democracy. All the while, the world stands by watching the violence escalate and the death toll on civilians, whether Israeli, Palestinian, or Lebanese climb. As an ineffectual United Nations attempts to find a solution, the United States has chosen to remain on the sidelines, leaving it to others to find that solution.
As a Christian, I have a personal stake in this region. This is, after all, the land where Jesus walked. Too often we think of this as simply a Jewish/Muslim conflict, but in doing so we forget the ancient Christian community that lives in the region - though these numbers have been greatly diminished by emigration during the last half century. Although I've never been to the region, I remain connected.
I join with Christians, Jews, and Muslims, Israelis, Palestinians, and Lebanese who wish to see a permanent end to the violence. Peace can be had, but people on all sides must choose a different course of action.
The National Council of Churches has issued a statement that calls on our government to join with the world's other governments in working to bring an end to the current hostilities and then engage in the difficult work of resolving the deeply rooted issues that have prolonged the violence.
It also calls on all the parties in the region to immediately end the hostilities and look to nonviolent strategies of engagement. But it doesn't just speak to governments; it speaks to the religious communities in the region and beyond. To the religious communities closest to the violence it calls on them to advocate for and teach the way of peace.
Finally, it calls on member churches to pray “for all those who have suffered and died as a result of this violence, and their families and communities, and to engage in humanitarian and advocacy actions for peace.”
The path forward will be difficult and fraught with dangerous roadblocks. Many don't want peace. Hamas and its allies (including Iran) are committed to the destruction of Israel. A small coterie of Israelis, together with their evangelical supporters, look to the restoration of greater Israel. Either course will lead to the displacement or death of millions. It's a course that the vast majority of Israelis and most Palestinians don't support, but there are enough partisans to keep the conflict hot for the foreseeable future. In the meantime innocent civilians, Jewish, Muslim, and Christian suffer loss of life and property.
We've reached an impasse - the chosen course of action isn't working and it never has. There is some hope in the course suggested by the National Council of Churches, which includes a call on each of us to do our part.We can start by being informed about the conflict and the parties who are involved in it. We can make our voices heard in the public square, and we can pray that peace will prevail. Perhaps you, like me, feel that your loyalties are challenged by this crisis. My Jewish friends want me to back Israel, while Muslim friends encourage my support of the Palestinian cause. It's truly a complex issue. As I write this I don't know where things will be come Sunday morning, but I'll continue my prayers that peace will come to the City of Peace and to its neighbors.
Dr. Bob Cornwall is pastor of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Lompoc (
July 23, 2006

A unique balancing act: religion and politics in America

Faith in the Public Square
Lompoc Record
July 16, 2006

Religion has become a polarizing agent in American life. Partisans use it to score political points and gain recruits. Some insist that the United States is a Christian nation and others say that it's completely secular. The truth lies somewhere in the middle.

In my search for a compelling and thoughtful guide to the relationship of church and state I came across Jon Meacham's “American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation” (Random House, 2006). This book is just the tonic we need. As a history of the relationship of church and state, the book takes us on a whirlwind tour of American history, from Jamestown and Plymouth to the Reagan presidency, but the heart of the book is Meacham's reflections on the nation's founding generation.

Whatever their personal beliefs, the founders understood that the new nation would be ethnically, religiously, and politically diverse. The nation's long-term future, therefore, required that they create structures and culture that would allow this diversity to exist in peace. Christianity (especially its Protestant forms) might dominate, but the success of the nation required more than mere tolerance of other forms of religion (or no religion). Success required granting people true freedom to practice their faith as they choose. They also recognized the value of giving religion some role in civic life, but to do this they would have to balance the wishes with those of minority views (because of the diversity of Protestant churches in the new nation, no group really could claim majority status).

What ultimately emerged is what Meacham calls a “public religion,” as distinct from “private religion.” Public religion is broad in scope, assumes the existence of God and the value of religion to society, but unlike private religion it doesn't define the nature of God nor does it prescribe how God should be worshiped or served. The personal distinctives of religion - whether Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, or Buddhist - lie beyond the purview of the state and are issues of the individual conscience.

Now there have been from the beginning of the nation's history those who have wanted to declare the United States a Christian nation. What needs to be remembered here is that every effort to do just this has been rebuffed. Indeed, even though the Declaration of Independence speaks of a “Creator” and of “Nature's God,” the Constitution never mentions God - despite efforts to introduce God into its pages.

Now, American presidents have a penchant for mentioning God, but on most occasions they speak in a manner consistent with America's “public religion.” When God is mentioned, it's assumed that most Americans, whatever their religious preference, can give an affirmation to the statement. The border separating religion from the state has been blurred on many an occasion, but even if there isn't a high wall, there has always been a barrier of sorts.
Debates over the place of prayer and Bible study in public school, the teaching of creation and evolution, abortion, and gay marriage all involve the religious communities. But if we listen closely, we will discover that the responses aren't uniform. Unfortunately, what we hear are the extremes: advocates of a Christian America versus those who would have no religion in the public square. Somewhere in between these extremes we find the founders and most Americans.
We who are religious can be grateful that the founders created a system that allows religion to have a place at the table, but we must remember that it's only one place among others. George Washington offered a welcome to the oppressed of every land, no matter what their religion might be. In doing this, the first president reminded us that we've been blessed with a common sense solution to problems that have plagued the world from time immemorial.

The “American Gospel” or “good news” is that while religion has helped shape American life, it hasn't strangled it. America by design is pluralistic, a fact that allows persons of every faith tradition and those of no faith commitment to live together peacefully and productively. It's fortunate that we have such a lucid and straightforward guide to this story in Meacham's “American Gospel.” So read it as soon as possible.

Dr. Bob Cornwall is pastor of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Lompoc (
July 16, 2006

Freedom: a privilege and a challenge

Faith in the Public Square
Lompoc Record
July 2, 2006

It's been 30 years since our nation celebrated its bicentennial and, as nation-states go, we're still quite young. Our national experiment remains unparalleled in the world; with the breadth of freedoms we enjoy the key to our uniqueness. Freedoms of speech, the press, and religion are all enshrined in the Bill of Rights. Freedoms cherished by the founders were considered inalienable rights and the gift of the Creator. Come Tuesday, the nation will gather for parades and fireworks, all in remembrance of an act of rebellion that changed the world.

Believing that the rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are inalienable, we expect our government to protect these rights or we will make a change in that government. Freedoms that Thomas Jefferson and the signatories to the document sought were understood to be the product of divine providence, but particular governments did not possess divine ordination.
Governments exist at the consent of the people, so if the people conclude that a particular government has failed to protect the rights of the people, then the people can and should make a change. Since the founders believed that the colonial structures didn't allow for such a peaceful change of government, they chose revolution, something that didn't just change the government, it created a permanent breach in the relationship between governed and governor.

An examination of American history shows that it has taken time for the nation to truly understand the meaning of the Declaration of Independence. Indeed, many of the men (remember, women couldn't vote or hold political office) who signed the declaration, including Jefferson, were slaveholders. When the Constitution was adopted a decade later, it counted African-American slaves as less than a human being. Until the passage of the 14th Amendment in 1868, slaves counted as only three-fifths of a person. It took a bloody and divisive civil war to end slavery in America, but even that war didn't change the entrenched attitudes that kept African-Americans “in their place” for another century. Native Americans were continually pushed off ancestral lands and placed on reservations, at least until that land was deemed more useful to the now dominant Anglo population, and during World War II Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast were forced into concentration camps. Women would wait until the early 20th Century to receive the right to vote, and laws remained on the books until the 1960s in many parts of the country that were designed to keep African-Americans and other minorities from voting. We have a wonderful history, a history worth celebrating, but this history has its dark side and its shadows. Too often we celebrate the triumphs without taking heed of the failures. This fact keeps us from truly understanding what it means to be free.

In fact, we continue to wrestle with the meaning of freedom. Immigration reform, warrantless surveillance, questions of gay rights, handgun regulations, abortion rights, restrictions on the press, and even challenges to voting rights, stand before us as issues of concern. This means that the job of living out the principles enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution is not complete. We live at a time when we are being asked to balance the freedom of the individual against the security of the nation. The question is, how far can we go in making the nation secure before we have overridden hard-won American freedoms?

More than ever, religious voices can be found on all sides of the day's issues. Some are strident and divisive (on both the right and the left), while others seek to build bridges. We are blessed to live in a country that has enshrined the value of freedom and is committed to living out these ideals, but the task isn't complete. At times I'm not proud of America's (and American's) actions, but I'm proud to say that I'm an American and wouldn't want to be anything else.

There is, of course, one exception to that statement. Believing as I do that we humans are all children of God, my ultimate loyalty transcends the nation that I love. Therefore, whatever rights are mine by divine providence are not limited by national boundaries.

Dr. Bob Cornwall is Pastor of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Lompoc, CA (
July 2, 2006

Fallen Soldier's Faith Goes Unrecognized

Ed. note -- the following was like others I've been posting recently was published earlier at the Lompoc Record. In this particular column I take up the cause of a Wiccan soldier who died in Iraq, but whose religion wasn't recognized by the Pentagon and thus his grave couldn't carry the Wiccan symbol. I wrote to the Secretary of Veteran's Affairs, but I don't know the current state of the case -- or others like it. But the point here is one of religous freedom in America.

Faith in the Public Square
Lompoc Record
June 25, 2006

In a nation that recognizes the freedom of religion, it seems odd that an Army widow would have difficulty getting a grave marker that carries her family's religious emblem.

Military graves carry crosses, Stars of David, and Islam's Crescent, the Buddhist wheel of righteousness, and even a symbol of atheism. However, the Department of Veteran's Affairs refuses to grant the widow of a fallen soldier, one killed in combat in Afghanistan, the right to place the pentacle, the symbol of Wicca, on her husband's grave. You see, it's not among the thirty approved “emblems of belief.” Without approval from the proper authorities, nothing can be placed on a memorial plaque in a veteran's cemetery.
The story of Nevada National Guard Sgt. Patrick Stewart is one that raises questions of how broad religious freedom really is in America. Though the Army recognizes Wicca as a religion, it refuses to acknowledge its symbol. Although Sgt. Stewart died in September 2005, his widow continues to wait for a long-delayed decision from the Department of Veteran's Affairs. That this decision has failed to garner much attention may be due to the religion in question. The faith of Sgt. Stewart, the recipient of a Purple Heart, Air Medal and Bronze Star, is one shrouded in mystery and misunderstanding.
Certainly, Wicca is very different from my own faith and its understanding of the divine is also quite different. Like many Americans, I really know very little about Wicca and Neo-paganism, but from what I have learned - largely through a conversation with a Neo-Pagan as the result of my earlier Harry Potter article, these religions which are both ancient and modern, are thriving and growing rapidly in our midst. It's quite possible that your neighbor practices Wicca without you even knowing this to be true.

Most large book stores offer multiple shelves of books on metaphysics, tarot, and other expressions of Wicca and Neo-Paganism. While Dan Brown's “The DaVinci Code” not only raised questions about the Christian faith, it celebrated the pagan religious impulse - especially the celebration of the divine feminine or the goddess. It seems there is something attractive about Wicca and its emphasis on the oneness of the human with nature. In many of its forms it has an environmentally-friendly message, it tends to be egalitarian, and it gives voice to a spiritual need that is non-institutionalized.
What I discovered from my conversations with my pagan friend, is that he doesn't fit the stereotype - he cares about his country, its freedoms, and the world in which he lives.

And so, upon being reminded of Sgt. Stewart's story, I've decided that I need to speak out in his behalf. I will admit, I've been uneasy about the war in Afghanistan from the beginning, and I've long believed that the war in Iraq was ill- advised and not in keeping with our traditional understandings of “just war theory” (as if any war truly fits these ancient principles).
In spite of my deep discomfort with the war in Iraq, I do believe that these young men and women who have given their lives for their country need to be recognized and affirmed. I also believe it's really quite silly that the Department of Veteran's Affairs refuses to allow the use of the religious symbol of a recognized religious tradition to mark the grave of a fallen soldier. It would seem to dishonor the memory of this man and it also raises questions of fairness.
I'm a Christian and I benefit from the majority status that my faith possesses. It's easy to take this status for granted and assume it will always be there, but if one religion is slighted, then aren't all religions in danger of being slighted? Whatever I may think about the theology and practices of this religion, it's a religion practiced by a significant number of Americans. Because the Constitution of the United States protects religious freedom, then this would seem to require recognition of its “emblem of belief.” Anything less would be un-American.
Therefore, I urge you to raise your voice in support of Roberta Stewart by contacting the Secretary of Veteran's Affairs, the Hon. James Nicholson, in Washington and encourage him to quickly resolve this problem.
Dr. Bob Cornwall is pastor of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Lompoc ( -- Now Central Woodward Christian Church of Troy, MI
June 25, 2006