Monday, June 30, 2008
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
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.
Saturday, June 28, 2008
But, again, it's a matter of time.
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
February 25, 2007
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.
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).
“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.
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.
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.
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 (www.evolutionsunday.org).
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 (www.lompocdisciples.org).
Faith in the Public Square
November 26, 2008
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.
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?
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.
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.
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 ) 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.
Wednesday, June 25, 2008
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.
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 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?
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.
Tuesday, June 24, 2008
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Monday, June 23, 2008
August 20, 2006
“If totalitarianism was the great problem of the 20th century, then
extremism is, so far, the great problem of the 21st.”
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.
July 30, 2006
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.
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.
Faith in the Public Square
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 (www.lompocdisciples.org).
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
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.
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.
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).