Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Jesus and the Scandal of Particularity

Today my church study group -- Theology 101 -- will look at the person of Jesus. As Christians we ask the question -- who is Jesus? That is a question rooted in the gospels itself. Jesus asked the disciples -- who are the people saying that I am? The disciples gave all number of answers, and then Jesus asked -- well who do you say that I am? And Peter answered in famous tones:

You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God (Mt. 16:16).
After that bold confession, Jesus goes on (in Matthew) to give Peter the keys to the kingdom, or so it seems.

What that confession does is place Jesus at the center of the conversation. As Christians, we are followers of Jesus, the one who is the Messiah and who is Lord. If you've read John Dominic Crossan or Marcus Borg, you know that the titles of Jesus have political connotations. That is, the early Christians were making political statements by suggesting that Jesus was Lord and Son of God -- for these were titles given to the emperor.

There is another aspect to this conversation and that has to do with the scandal of particularity. That is, if Jesus is as Colossians suggests "the image of the invisible God" (Col. 1:15), does his gender or ethnicity have some definitiveness to it? Could God have been just as easily incarnated as a woman? Or some other ethnicity?

On the second issue, we must be careful, because over time anti-Semitism did creep into Christian conversations, and Jesus' Jewishness was diminished. That has been restored.

But as for the maleness -- what does it say about Jesus, about God, and about humanity?

Elizabeth Johnson, a Christian feminist theologian, writes:

The gender of Jesus has been taken to be the mode or paradigm of what it means to be human. This is interpreted literally to mean that maleness is closer to the human idea than is femaleness. Proof of this attitude can be seen in reactions to the hypothetical question about the incarnation. The Word became flesh: God who is beyond gender became a human being. Could God have become a human being as a woman? The question strikes some people as silly or worse. Theologically, though, the answer is Yes. Why not? If women are genuinely human and if God is the deep mystery of holy love, then what is to prevent such an incarnation? But taking for granted the implicitly inferiority of women, Christian theology has dignified maleness as the only genuine way of being human, thus making Jesus' embodiment as male an ontological necessity rather than a historical option. (Elizabeth Johnson, Consider Jesus, Crossroad, 1990, p. 107).

So, if Jesus reveals God to us -- how do we take his maleness?

Note on the picture -- this statue of the crucified woman by Almut Lutkenhaus-Lackey is found in the garden at Emmanuel College, University of Toronto.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A City on the Brink? The "Crisis" of Troy Michigan

I've decided to keep raising my voice, until I get some response!

Troy, Michigan is a Detroit suburb. It is relatively affluent and known for its schools and services. It has made its climb in part due to the fact that it is home to a number of corporate headquarters. This isn't a manufacturing community, it's a management community. It is relatively diverse in its population -- though its City Council is completely white. It is also fairly conservative. And that conservativeness has been expressed in an aversion to taxes. Thus, even though it has one of the highest tax bases in the state, it's actual tax rates are among the lowest. Nearby Clawson, a little community, isn't thinking about closing its library, it's going to expand it -- and the people supported it. Indeed, people of Troy, Clawson is shaming us with its sense of community spirit!

So, why is Troy in such a predicament? Or, as this morning's Detroit News headline puts it:
"Troy spirals into a financial 'crisis'."

My sense is that there is a lack of political will to do the right thing. There is no reason why the Council can't say to the community, we need you to pay $200 a year more in taxes so that we can keep our police force at proper strength (we are, after all one of the safest cities in the nation) and the services that make this a livable city. Think about it, $200 is less than a dollar a day, less than the price of a cup of coffee, per household.

There need be no crisis in Troy, if only there is sufficient leadership in this community! The answer to our problems as a state and as a city won't be solved by simply cutting taxes. If you cut taxes, you cut revenue. If you cut revenue, you have to cut services. You can talk all you want about fat and waste, but ultimately, if you cut too far, you cut into the meat. And I thank that's what we're doing!

Monday, September 28, 2009

Walking a Fine Line in the US Catholic -- Sightings

Martin Marty commends the US Catholic as a good example of a religious publication, one that walks the fine line between putting the faithful to sleep and raising the ire of the Catholic hierarchy. It's an interesting reflection on the place of the religious press, especially as it interacts with the "secular world."


Sightings 9/28/09

Walking a Fine Line in U. S. Catholic

-- Martin E. Marty

“Sightings” usually draws on secular news and opinion sources as part of its mission to deal with religion in American public life. However, religious periodicals and blogs deal as much with secular life as they do with ecclesiastical themes. For years I’ve hung out with and promoted products of the Religion Newswriters Association, “seculars who ‘do’ religion,” and the various “religious” journalists who “do” secular public things.

With that in mind, this week I’m sampling an issue of a religious journal. The U.S. Catholic, a perennial prize-winner, is on my mind and in my heart, because for exactly forty years this October its publisher, the Claretians, has been publishing my fortnightly newsletter Context. This is not an advertisement, at least not an overt one, for U.S. Catholic, but instead is a visit to the pages of the October issue, to see how such a periodical negotiates life in turbulent times. Render a magazine docile, as house organs were tempted to be, and you put readers to sleep before you influence them. Make it radically critical, as some journalists think such periodicals should be, and you wake up Catholic hierarchs of certain sorts who crack the whip if they suspect experiments that might turn heretical. U. S. Catholic walks a fine line.

What prompted this week’s notice is the “Editor’s Note” by Kevin Clarke, who is saying “so long” as he is “on the verge of moving onward.” He sayeth not where, but his “pen will remain active in these pages.” His farewell is fond, as he recalls stories he wrote or edited that caused him to weep – for example, over priestly “sexual abuse,” which the magazine covered accurately and sorrowfully. He has cheered his colleagues on as they dealt with drastic social issues that the church best addresses when prompted by its critical journalists. He closes off with words of thanks to such colleagues, hoping they make a difference.

The main editorial calls on the church to find better ways to welcome Catholics who divorce. In it, managing editor Bryan Cones takes a well-deserved swipe at a nationally televised church wedding where the couple boogied down the aisle to the anti-climactic scene at the altar. Religious “family” journals have to tend to nurture; this time this one suggests how to select books for readings by children. It’s hard to make news with such articles, but if a good and well read book collection does its job, a sign above a library door at ancient Thebes speaks well: a place with books is “truly a ‘Healing Place’ of the Soul.” For grown-ups who need soul-healing there’s a profile of and interview with Esther de Waal, a strong influence on the non-glib “spirituality” front.

Geographically- and hagiographically-minded Catholics and others get taken on an extensive tour of Los Angeles street names and a visit with folks like “Saint Julian,” “Santa Clara,” “San Ysidro” and others who deserve more recognition than a mere street sign can give. Brian Doyle in “Death Comes for the Book Club” playfully takes readers on a serious author tour of who’s in and who’s out – or who should be – among readers who gather and reflect. Then there’s an agonized reflection on whether “a simple Act of Contrition” by a dying patient “can reach the ear of God.” (Conclusion: it can.)

“Don’t Be scared of Hallowe’en” is timely and sensible. There’s also a good critical article about misfiring biblical criticism and badly-aimed defenses of various readings of the Bible. None of this may seem earth-shaking, but it can be soul-moving. So tip a hat, if you have one, to the religious press, while we still have one.

Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, publications, and contact information can be found at

This month in the Marty Center's Religion and Culture Web Forum, Marlene Tromp examines the ways in which narratives of communion and "the flesh," which she engages through feminist food studies and traces especially through a discussion of nineteenth-century Spiritualist mediumship, contribute to a better understanding of gender roles (and their disruption) in Victorian Spirtualism. Formal responses by Gail Turley Houston (University of New Mexico) and Daniel Sack (University of Chicago) are forthcoming.

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

Considering the Common Good of Troy Michigan

Yesterday I posted a copy of an open letter to the Troy City Council, which I wrote for a group of local clergy. We hope that the Council Members read it, but we also hope that some of the local media will pick it up. I tried not to editorialize in that post, because I didn't want to add too much too what my colleagues had agreed to say.

But, now I'd like to say a few words about the local situation.

I understand that these are difficult economic times. People struggle with paying bills. But, even as we look at our own lives, we need to look outward, at the broader community and its needs. I must confess that while I don't enjoy paying taxes, I also don't understand the "cut taxes first, ask questions later." As best as I can tell, the city of Troy is in a financial crunch because it has boxed itself in with tax cuts and sill charter amendments that give it little room to maneuver.

We are a city of 80,000 people and we have a volunteer fire department. We have fine schools and parks, but no real downtown. The main drag is Big Beaver Road, but it is mostly corporate buildings and expensive restaurants. Oh, and 2 churches, one of which is mine, and both stand at the far west end of the street.

The community has a reputation for safety and services, and yet now we face the possibility of a loss of all of that -- for what? For a couple of hundred dollars a year, maybe less.

I agree completely with the sentiment provided by editorial writer Peter Mauer of the Troy-Somerset Gazette, who writes:

Years of budget wrangling and ultraconservatives who were more concerned with saving a few dozen dollars on their property tax bills than they were looking out for the welfare of the general population has forced Troy into the uncomfortable position of massive -- and I mean MASSIVE lay-offs and elimination of many public services - or - gulp! - having to raise taxes via a millage vote.

What we have here in Troy and elsewhere is a "penny-wise, pound foolish" attitude. But there comes a day when we will have to pay and pay dearly. When Troy becomes a place no one wants to move to, when houses sit vacant, and when the property values fall, then we'll all be in a mess.

My hope is that the City Council, tonight, will open its eyes and see what is really happening, and concern themselves with the common good of the whole community. May they have the courage to do what is right!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Open Letter to the Troy Michigan City Council

My new hometown, the community in which I live and work, is facing a major budgetary shortfall. There are a number of reasons for this, including political shortsightedness. A group of clergy, of which I'm a part, decided to write a letter to the Council, calling on them to take the step of communicating the reality of this crisis and what can be done. That letter is as follows, with no other editorializing on my part.


To the Members of the Troy City Council:

As religious leaders who are privileged to serve congregations that have a deep and abiding concern for the community’s welfare, and who enter conversations concerning matters of state with great caution, we believe that we must raise our voices in response to the proposed cuts in city services. We raise our voices at this time, because we believe in the common good of all who live and work in this city that we call home. We recognize the seriousness of the projected revenue shortfalls, and recognize the Council’s duty to address them in wise fashion. As clergy we understand this issue all too well, for our own congregations have to deal with the economy’s effect on our communities of faith.

Nonetheless, we believe that the proposed cuts in services and personnel are short sighted and detrimental to the health of this community. This is a community that prides itself on being one of the safest and most diverse communities in the state. It is noted for its schools and its services. The Troy library is a bustling center of activity. Its parks are full of activities for people of all ages, but especially for its children and youth. The Community Center, Nature Center, and Museum offer other important opportunities to gather as community and to explore the history and environment of the area. As for the Community Affairs office, which has already been stripped of personnel, it is a key point of communication between the city and its constituents.

When we look at the city of Troy, we see a rather young community, one without a traditional downtown. And thus, the very sites being considered for closure are the very places that bind the community together. It is the very sites that face closure that provide the space for us to come together as a community in all of our diversity. Without these common settings this city becomes less attractive to business and to families seeking a place to live. Home values will decrease, and the possibility of crime will increase, especially among the young who will no longer have the kinds of programs that keep body and mind busy and growing.

Indeed, we are concerned that the contemplated cuts will strike deep into the ethos of this community. While some of these services could be privatized or picked up by other entities, once they are gone they will be lost. Once gone, the community will lose the kind of common ownership that civically provided services offer. We come back to the fact that we are a diverse community and it is the city government that provides the glue that holds us together. We pray that this is not lost.

There are, of course, alternatives, but these will require political will. It is often impolitic to broach the issue of increased taxes and fees, especially during economic downturns. But we believe that if the issues before us are clearly explained, and that the people of this city were to understand that the long term value of their community is at stake, then they will be willing to take the step of providing support.

Therefore, we wish to encourage the City Council to do all due diligence, but then take the necessary steps to bring the community together to maintain and develop the kinds of programs, services, and opportunities that make for a safe and healthy community. As religious leaders we pledge ourselves to do what we can to further this goal.


Rev. Robert Cornwall

Central Woodward Christian Church

Rev. Hal Weemhoff

First United Methodist Church

Rev. Lynda Liles

Fellowship United Methodist Church

Rev. Jack L. Mannschreck

Big Beaver United Methodist Church

Rev. Judy McMillan

First Presbyterian Church

Rev. Johnny Liles

Fellowship United Methodist Church

Pastor Talitha Pennington

Community of Christ, Troy Oaks

Rev. Charlotte Sommers
Northminster Presbyterian Church

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Worship as Intentional Assembly

I will reflect again on worship, as I read Brian Wren's small, but insightful study of hymns. In a chapter entitled Worship, he shares a Charles Wesley hymn that speaks of assembling in Christ's name.

Wren notes that in Wesley's hymn worship is not intended to be an escape from life, but is undertaken in the hope of hearing Christ's voice in the midst of our worldly ways -- hoping to turn away from them.

Since the point here is an examination of modern hymns, he goes on to make this statement:

For most Christians, public worship is like breakfast: essential, familiar, frequently unexciting, occasionally enlivened by tasty variations. Like many a piece of furniture, worship comes with a notice saying "Assembly required." In continuity with Wesley, ("assembled in thy name"), today's hymns assume an intentional assembly, potentially life changing to all whom God gathers in. (Wren, Hymns for Today, WJK, 2009, p. 33).

I do think there is great truth in that statement -- it can be familiar and unexciting, but do we not gather in the hope that our lives will be changed by an divine encounter?

Wren points to a hymn we just sang last week by Marty Haugen. It speaks to what we hope should happen as we gather:

Here in this place, new light is streaming,
now is the darkness vanished away.
See, in this space, our fears and our dreamings,
brought here to you in the light of this day.
Gather us in -- the lost and forsaken,
gather us in -- the blind and the lame.
Call to us now, and we shall awaken,
we shall arise a the sound of our name.

Do we come hopeful that God will act in our lives as worship? Or has it become too familiar?

Hymns -- Expressions of Faith

We still sing hymns. We sing ancient hymns and modern ones. Some are fairly deep, and others not as deep. Some we know very well, others we're learning. We have a blended service, so we're adding in "contemporary" songs as well.

There is a trend in Christian worship to move away from hymns, to focus more on choruses. That is, rather brief, often heart felt, but usually not theologically rich pieces. Personally, I think there is a place for both, which is why I try to include all genre's in my planning.

The reason for this post is that I'm reading Brian Wren's new book Hymns For Today (WJK, 2009). I need to note that he begins the book by pointing out the possibility that some would think that the words hymn and today might be an oxymoron. The reality is that there has been a wonderful renaissance of hymn writing, of which he is a major contributor.

In the book, Wren focuses not on the music, but the words, the lyrics. And here is the point I want to make -- or the point he makes:

Hymns don't discuss faith. They express it. (p. 7).

Because hymns are poems, there is a different quality there than what we find let's say in a sermon. A sermon is declarative. A sermon discusses faith. There is a place for that. But, if that is all we do, then what we have done is attend a lecture.

So, here's my question. Looking at modern or contemporary worship, which usually begins with 30 minutes of music, followed by 45 minutes of speaking. A series of events that can look a lot like a concert followed by a lecture, is this worship? And, following that, has the congregation expressed the faith in this context?

Friday, September 25, 2009

What is Ethical Consumption?

I've finished reading Julie Clawson's Everyday Justice, (IVP, 2009), a review of which I hope will appear on the Theolog blog in a few weeks. But I'm digesting the book and its implications.

Julie speaks of "ethical consumption." What she means by this is: that our decisions on matters of food, clothing, driving, etc., have consequences. And so, if we are to live justly, then we must address those consequences. And if we are to live justly, then we must recognize that we may just be be complicit in injustice -- something God would rather we not be involved with.

She writes:

Ethical consumption implies that we will apply our moral values and ethical standards to our consumer habits. We don't opt out of a necessary system, but we attempt to redeem it as we live by a more consistent ethic. (Everyday Justice, p. 26).

She recognizes that this isn't easy -- we may not know that we are complicit in injustice and we may not know what the alternatives are. The good news here is that "Justice is a journey that is different for every person, and it proceeds at differing speeds" (Everyday Justice, p. 26). So don't panic just yet. But do try to make some changes!

Although you may not yet have read Julie's book, perhaps you might offer some possible ways of ethically consuming!

Practicing Justice

I'll be writing more about this book later, but I wanted to share a passage from Julie Clawson's new book Everyday Justice (IVP, 2009). It speaks to the core of what justice means:

The true practice of justice thus moves away from retribution (punishment) and toward restoration. We restore broken relationships, we restore families torn asunder, and we even restore damaged land so that life may survive and flourish. To live justly in our own lives means living so that this restoration can happen. Justice, understood as exclusively in terms of punishment, involves tearing people down, but justice, understood as righteousness and restoration, results in helping people rebuild -- both perpetrators and victims. (p. 23)

Justice isn't just something someone else engages in. Justice is something that involves each one of us. It is, in fact, a question of how we live our daily lives. The question then is -- what does this require of us?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Seeking Moral Clarity in the Fight Against Sex Trafficking -- Sightings

Today's edition of Sightings raises the issue of pragmatism and moral discernment in dealing with issues where there is the possibility of common cause, but differences on approach. The question here is ending sex trafficking, that is the enslavement of people, both female and male, and often children, for the purposes of the sex trade. The question is whether opposition to prostitution is a requirement for partnership. The US position is that no moneys be given to groups that don't oppose prostitution, but many European nations have considered regulating/legalizing prostitution. So, what should we do? What approach is the moral one?

Barbara Barnett addresses these questions. I invite you to read and respond to her offering. You may have to decide which is the greater issue for you -- slavery and exploitation or prostitution.


Sightings 9/24/09

Seeking Moral Clarity in the Fight Against Sex Trafficking

-- Barbra Barnett

Last week Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a speech to kick off a conference on the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe, in which she addressed the urgent need to combat sexual slavery, forced labor, and other forms of exploitation by cracking down on human traffickers. Combating human trafficking is an integral facet of Clinton’s overall foreign policy agenda. She has expressed that human trafficking represents a profound moral crisis that must not be sidelined or ignored.

While persons are trafficked and coerced into diverse forms of forced labor, the largest segment involves individuals, mostly women and young girls, who are trafficked for purposes of sexual exploitation. A broad array of interest groups, from liberal secular feminists to conservative evangelical Christians, worked together to enact the 2000 Victims of Violence and Trafficking Protection Act, which established the State Department Office on Human Trafficking. The ability of such a motley crew to collaborate may inspire optimism. Reverend Jim Wallis views the urgent need to stop human trafficking as an issue on which both liberal and conservative Christians can potentially agree: “When I talk and write about finding common ground and shaking off the old categories of left and right, liberal and conservative, this is what I am talking about. Conservative Christians have sounded the alarm about our culture's sexual depravity tearing at the fabric of our society. This is one of those issues. Liberal Christians have decried male dominated public policy that results in oppressive and abusive structures for women and just plain bad policy. This is one of those issues.” However, while all parties may agree on the evil of forced sexual exploitation, the relationship between human trafficking and the commercial sex industry has made such a moral consensus unstable.

Cracks in the coalition include contention over the provision of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2003 that restricts anti-trafficking funds only to those groups that express opposition to prostitution. While there are secular and religious organizations that see eradicating prostitution as a necessary component of combating human trafficking, some secular anti-trafficking activists argue that defunding humanitarian organizations that do not explicitly call for the abolition of prostitution hampers both efforts to help trafficking victims, and HIV/AIDS prevention activities. In February 2007, a District of Columbia appellate court upheld the provision as applied to an organization seeking USAID funding for its efforts to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS. The government had decided that the effective means for countering the spread of HIV/AIDS include speaking out against legalizing prostitution and fostering behavioral change. The court ruled therefore that the funding restriction is not a violation of the First Amendment rights of groups requesting funds. The government is entitled to take steps to ensure that its message is not distorted, especially on matters with foreign policy implications. In the court’s view, the government was not compelling the organization to share the government's position; it only required that if the organization wanted to receive grant funds, it had to communicate the message the government chose to fund.

The endeavor to combat human trafficking (like efforts to combat HIV/AIDS) is tied up in moral debates about human sexuality and the sinful nature of prostitution, and pragmatic debates about the most effective solution. These pragmatic debates may invoke questions about whether the best approach to combating sex trafficking involves cracking down on the commercial sex trade, legalizing and regulating sex work, or decriminalizing prostitution by enforcing anti-prostitution laws against traffickers and purchasers of commercial sex rather than the purveyors of sex themselves. Pragmatic considerations also involve questions about which types of organizations ought to receive federal funding for their efforts. For example, who is best situated to address the conditions of trafficking victims: the labor-rights-focused International Union of Sex Workers or the faith-based International Justice Mission?

The State Department position is that the demand for commercial sex is a leading cause of human trafficking and that prostitution should not be legalized or regarded as a legitimate choice of work for any human being. However, it is unclear at this point how Secretary Clinton’s recent remarks will be received by those European nations that favor legal or government-regulated prostitution as a more effective model for building international consensus and combating exploitation and abuse. In Europe today, countries such as Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, France, and Italy are experimenting with legal regulation of prostitution. Any attempted rapprochement with these nations on this issue may either raise the ire of states and groups who seek to address exploitation, abuse, and the spread of AIDS without condemning sex workers, or invite moralistic outrage from those who are fearful that working with nations in which prostitution is legal not only amounts to a foreign policy that effectively promotes prostitution abroad, but is at cross-purposes with the aim, often religiously framed, of combating sexual depravity.


Jim Wallis’ comments, from January 27, 2009, can be found at

Jennifer Block, “Sex Trafficking: Why the Faith Trade is Interested in the Sex Trade,” Conscience, Summer/Autumn 2004.

Dkt Int’l, Inc. v. USAID, 477 F.3d 758 (D.C. Cir., February 27, 2007).

“Trafficking in Persons: U.S. Policy and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, July 2, 2009: citing U.S. Department of State 2008 TIP Report.

Barbra Barnett has a PhD in Ethics from the University of Chicago Divinity School and teaches at Elmhurst College.


This month in the Marty Center's Religion and Culture Web Forum, Marlene Tromp examines the ways in which narratives of communion and "the flesh," which she engages through feminist food studies and traces especially through a discussion of nineteenth-century Spiritualist mediumship, contribute to a better understanding of gender roles (and their disruption) in Victorian Spirtualism. Formal responses by Gail Turley Houston (University of New Mexico) and Daniel Sack (University of Chicago) are forthcoming.

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

Facing Death with some Dignity

The recent hullabaloo about "death panels," distracted us from an important conversation about how life ends. Too often older people (especially) die in a hospital, hooked up to tubes, incubated, and sedated. And this is all well paid for. But little provision is provided for supporting the kinds of care services that would cost much less but allow people to die at home, fully alert, but pain managed. I'm not talking about assisted suicide. I'm just talking about making it possible for people to die, like they used to die.

There is a piece in today's NY Times by Timothy Egan that focuses on the family of former Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber. It notes how the system is unable/unwilling to pay for home care, but will hook you up on a machine. The article notes that the people have been having a conversation many of us are unwilling to have.

I realize that there is great fear of death and that death is not something we easily talk about. I also understand and believe that we should protect life -- but prolonging life on a machine is not protecting life. Not only is it costly, it is inhumane. But, until we can start having this conversation in our own homes, churches, communities the necessary steps won't be taken.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

"With Liberty and Justice for All"

It is with these words that the Pledge of Allegiance concludes: "With liberty and justice for all." But is that the way it is in America? More specifically, is that the way it is in Michigan?

Yesterday afternoon, I moderated a conversation about Michigan's failed public defense system. This was sponsored by the Michigan Campaign for Justice, and was entitled: "Faith and Justice: The Need for Community Public Defense."

The forum consisted of a presentation by Ann Mathews, a criminal defense attorney with the Bronx Defenders, a New York City based agency, who explained their system, which is intriguing. We heard from Stephanie Chang, the Deputy Director of the Campaign, and then I moderated a conversation that included four other panelists, all representing religious traditions. Besides me we had a Protestant, a Catholic, a Jew, and a Muslim (so the Abrahamic religions were represented). Each of the panelists noted that their traditions lift up both the cause of justice and concern for the poor and indigent. Both the biblical text and the Koran make this clear.

I must say, that I was appalled at what I heard about the Michigan system, which is a patchwork of 83 county run and funded systems. There are no state standards, no requirements, no parity. The Constitution of the United States states that "In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right . . . to have the assistance of counsel for his defense" (Amendment 6). While the Michigan system may barely squeeze under the minimum required (and that is questionable), it is clearly not equal justice.

Now, to have a system that is funded, supervised, regulated, and designed to represent the accused fairly might cost money, but surely the current system is inefficient and dangerous. Consider that if someone is wrongly convicted, that means the perpetrator remains free.

From my perspective as a person of faith, as a religious leader, and a follower of Jesus, I am reminded first of all of what the Prophet Micah had to say:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

And as we were reminded yesterday, the King James renders the words "love kindness" as "love mercy." I think that this is an appropriate rendering.

I am also reminded that Jesus was put on a cross by the state, and that he did not have proper counsel.

And I am also reminded that In Matthew 25, Jesus speaks of judgment -- our judgment -- and in that pronouncement, Jesus asks whether we visited him in prison and noted that we had done so, when we attended to the needs of the "least of these."

I appreciate the work being done here in Michigan to raise the consciousness of the people. May we encourage our leaders to do the right thing -- so that there might be "justice for all."

And, let me add that this is a bi-partisan effort, that includes support from the Unitarian Universalists to the evangelical Prison Fellowship, from the Council of Islamic Organizations of Michigan to Citizens for Traditional Values." And as I said, most Michiganders claim to be people of faith, surely we can't let this system remain unchanged.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Bible and the Ecumenical Mind

I have been posting excerpts from Ronald Osborn's The Faith We Affirm, (Chalice Press, 1979), the book I'm using for my Theology 101 class at the church. Tomorrow we'll be talking about how we hear a word from God. For Disciples, historically, that has meant first and foremost listening to the word of Scripture, and more specifically the New Testament. In previous postings I've talked about a reasonable, empirical, and a pragmatic mind -- all definitions provided by Osborn.

Ronald Osborn was a leading Disciple historian/theologian of the 50s, 60s, and 70s. He was also active in the ecumenical movement. Therefore, it shouldn't be a surprise that he would add a fourth factor to our reading of Scripture -- "An Ecumenical Mind." Thus, he writes that Disciples seek to "read the biblical message in the light of the common judgment of the whole Christian community and for the sake of the whole church." (Osborn, p. 21).

He goes on to note that Disciples didn't decide what went into the Bible, and so we must listen to the voices of the historic church. While we have argued that each Christian has the right to read the Scriptures for his or herself, he makes this important caveat, one that I think many Disciples have evaded.

Over against this right, however, we have balanced the admonition: No prophecy of scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation" (2 Peter 1:20). We need to listen to the "common mind" of the church before we make up our own individual minds. (p. 21).
With that in mind, he points to the phrase in the Preamble to the Design -- the faith affirmation that stands at the beginning of the "constitution" for the Disciples:

"Within the universal church we receive the gift of ministry and the light of scripture."
It is here that the Disciples have taken to heart the wisdom of the so-called "Wesleyan Quadrilateral" -- Bible, reason, experience, tradition. Indeed, Osborn in his own way has set out something similar. But I will argue that in a separate posting.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Navigating Religion News -- Sightings

The cover story of this week's edition of the Christian Century, which I received last week in the mail, focuses on religion news in a new media environment. How is it produced, distributed, and received?

Martin Marty, who has been in the business for some time, offers his take in that "print" article, but offers his thoughts on what the other contributors to the conversation said.

As you read this, I'm wondering -- how do you get your news?


Sightings 9/21/09

Navigating Religion News

-- Martin E. Marty

Tomorrow’s (September 22) Christian Century cover features “Navigating the News.” Assuming that many readers of Sightings read that magazine and wishing the rest of you did, I don’t often reach to it for sightings of religious news and features. This time, let me do a kind of in-house column – “in-house” because I’ve been affiliated, from tyro through senior to “contributing” over fifty-four years, and depend on it still. The “Navigating” feature was to help us readers get some grasp on the workings of the people whose news-writing and opinion columns on “public religion” we read. Learning about it might help more of us navigate among the navigators. We’ll skip my own short contribution and generalize about others.

All of them have added internet surveying to their own career-long attachments to print media, which were and are their natural home. Mark Silk heads a Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Hartford. His local paper is withering, but he “does” the New York Times, as all seem to do, and the Washington Post, mainly on-line. And he logs blog upon blog. He does not scorn opinion columns; they help bring focus to the bewildering variety of news events covered elsewhere.

Loving what she does as much as Silk does, Margaret O’Brien Steinfels of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture, like many of the others, cites NPR and PBS, for example, Newshour with Jim Lehrer. Auto-less, as I am, she does little tuning in to radio and does not Twitter. Much of her work has to do with Catholic policies, events, and spins, and she works through a maze of Catholic-specific sources.

Stephen Prothero, with feet on the ground but also in the avant-garde among historians of American religion, says he’s “pretty old-school” and worries about the decline of print media for reportage on religion, which blogs and internet cannot cover so well. He finds that Rupert Murdoch has not yet destroyed the Wall Street Journal, which often pays attention to religion news and trends. He admits to watching the younger generation’s TV favorites, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, both of whom – have you noticed? – often “do” religion, if a bit noisily. Overall, he says, “I’m a little bit here and a little bit there,” which is what people in his profession have to be.

Melissa Rogers at still another “Center for…” (hers at Wake Forest) gave away her TV, but finds “only a click away” on the internet anything that would have been needed or useful from TV. None of these writers are Neanderthal or Luddite about the internet and its role. Her print-media list is long, and it was nice to see an “of course” in her reference to The Christian Century. She does see that her work and play breed addiction to the internet, and needs and take sabbaths from it, but “would never go back to the old days.”

Jeff Sharlet, “who writes about religion for Rolling Stone,” still prefers print media, and is not afraid of the heavy load of ideology of all stripes in columns on religion. His array of sources is too vast for me even to seek out and mention the highlights. And J. Brent Walker of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, like all the rest, deals with and contributes to blogs, reads Kindle books, admits to being of the “vanishing breed of media consumers who prefer newspapers.” Like I do, he contributes to and reads the On Faith blog of Washington Post/Newsweek, and others.

In sum: Prothero’s “here and there” use of sources pretty well describes the approach of all contributors who do news. That’s not new and never could be. Good.

Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, publications, and contact information can be found at


This month in the Marty Center's Religion and Culture Web Forum, Marlene Tromp examines the ways in which narratives of communion and "the flesh," which she engages through feminist food studies and traces especially through a discussion of nineteenth-century Spiritualist mediumship, contribute to a better understanding of gender roles (and their disruption) in Victorian Spirtualism. Formal responses by Gail Turley Houston (University of New Mexico) and Daniel Sack (University of Chicago) are forthcoming.


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

A Pragmatic Faith?

How do we read the Bible? I've been raising some questions about the way in which we approach the Bible, reflecting on suggestions by the late Disciples historian/theologian/church leader, Ronald Osborn. Osborn's book The Faith We Affirm (Chalice Press, 1979) was intended as a primer on the basic beliefs of the Disciples of Christ -- keeping in mind that we're a non-creedal people. He spoke of a reasonable and an empirical mind -- both of which suggest that from the beginning in the 19th century the Disciples have tried to come to the Bible with an open mind, seeking the truth. This is very much a modern approach.

The third principle, a "pragmatic mind," is an interesting idea. We hear a lot today about practical Bible teaching. These are claims made for preachers who infuse their sermons with psychology and then proof-text with Scriptures that supposedly affirm their proposition. These are considered biblical, not because the preachers wrestle with the biblical text, but because the preacher quotes a lot of scriptures.

By pragmatic, however, Osborn has something different in mind. What Osborn has in mind is this -- the Campbells and Barton Stone assumed that we should put our beliefs into practice. We test it, and if it doesn't work, then we ask why.

This statement is also sort of a riff on an old Disciple slogan -- "Where the Scriptures speak we speak, where the Bible is silent we are silent." Over time Disciples of Christ folk began to discover that even though they might start with the New Testament, it was silent on a lot of elements of church life and practice. And so something called the "law of expediency emerged.

Osborn writes:

This meant that congregations have to use common sense and reflect on the lessons of experience. When the scriptures point to something we ought to do, but do not tell us how to do it, congregations need to decide on a course of action which seems most expedient. (The Faith We Affirm, p. 20).

Isn't this what we all do? The problem we face is that sometimes we forget that even when it seems to point us in a direction, the context is two millennia old. And so we have to be even more pragmatic as we seek to translate into the modern world.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

An Empirical Faith?

The definition of faith found in Hebrews 11:1 would seem to suggest that the title of this post is an oxymoron: "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (NRSV). If faith is concerned with things hoped for and not seen, then it would seem to contradict the idea that faith could be empirical. The Campbells, however, were concerned that faith had become so focused on feelings/experience that people lacked certainty of God's forgiveness and grace.

Ronald Osborn, whom I turned to in an earlier post on a reasonable faith, offers this observation.

Many people ask: How do you know you are saved? Disciples insist that religious assurance is not a matter of feeling. Rather they contend that God has promised salvation to all who confess Jesus Christ and are baptized in faith and repentance. The highest form of spiritual experience offered by Christian faith is positive and objective, rather than mystical and charismatic. It centers in a public act, a corporate act, a visible action -- the breaking of bread by the congregation gathered about the Lord's table. (Osborn, The Faith We Affirm, Chalice Press, 1979, p. 19).

Now, Osborn points out that some of the ideas of the Founders are no longer adequate, but he pointed to the honesty of their minds and their reasonableness. But what is interesting here, and suggests why the Disciples practice believer's baptism, is that you have a very objective experience to point to -- you were baptized in obedience to Christ's call. That is the "proof" that you are a disciple.

Where their views may no longer hold up include their view of the New Testament being the "divinely given constitution for the church." They simply took the things written in the New Testament, especially in Acts, at face value and assumed that this represented the practices everywhere in the first century church. But, if we follow their example, we will seek out the truth, seeking to honestly ask questions of our faith, and establish this faith not in reaction to science and history, but in relationship to it.

Called to Service -- Core Values, Sermon 2

Matthew 25:31-40

Jesus’ disciples were having an argument about who was the greatest among them. When Jesus heard what they were arguing about he told them that whoever wants to be first, must be a servant. And with that statement, he pulled a child to himself, and said: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” Who is the greatest – it is the one who serves the child. Now, this statement would have made little sense to Jesus’ disciples. While our culture places a lot of value on children, they didn’t. Children were at the bottom of society – at least until they became productive. Children, back then, were among the “least of these.” (Mark 9:33-37).

Last week we began a six-week exploration of our Congregational Core Values. These six values help define what it means for us to be a missional church, and the first value we explored was compassion. Now, we move on to a second core value, one that emerges out of compassion. That is the call to be a servant.

Since service, like compassion, defines what it means for us to be missional, it may be helpful to hear another definition of what it means to be missional. Consider this definition given by Douglas John Hall. A missional church is:
“Not only a church with a gospel to proclaim – not only an ‘evangelical’ church; it is also a church that itself tries to understand and conduct itself according to that Gospel.” (The Cross in Our Context, Fortress, 2003, p. 184).

To be a missional congregation we must not only share the good news, we must also live it, for as Edgar DeWitt Jones put it many decades ago:

“The most perplexing problem of Christianity is the discrepancy between the ideals of its Founder and the practice of its Followers.” (Jones, Blundering into Paradise, Harper & Brothers, 1932, p. 13).

He goes on to say that too often, when confronted by this discrepancy, the church buries itself in tending to the institution. He writes that we bury our ideals, and concern ourselves with statistics, and cease worrying “about the failure of Christian teaching to captivate and transfigure society” (Jones, p. 14). So, what does it mean for us to live out our calling to be disciples of Christ? Doesn’t it mean that we should serve the least of these?

1. Serving Jesus, Serving the Least of These.

There is no more powerful picture of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, and to answer the call to service, than the picture found in Matthew 25. According to Matthew’s narrative, this scene comes during the middle of Holy Week. Jesus has already entered the city in triumph, riding on a donkey. That argument about who is most important is in the past. Jesus has already cleansed the temple, told parables of the kingdom, and now he begins to speak about the future. The text takes on an apocalyptic tone. The Son of Man is going to come and judge the nations, which have gathered at his feet. The question is, on what basis will he judge them?

Will it be a matter of ethnicity? Orthodoxy? That is, right belief. How about, one’s status in society? No, none of these seem to matter. Instead, the judge asks: Did you feed me when I was hungry? Give me something to drink, when I was thirsty? Did you welcome me when I was a stranger? Did you clothe me when I was naked? Did you care for me when I was sick? Did you visit me when I was in prison? It will be on this basis that the judge will divide between sheep and goats, between the justified and the condemned.

Some in the crowd took the judge quite literally, and wonder when and if they had ever been put in such a position. When was that, they wondered? And the judge answered, you did it to me when you served the least of these my brothers and sisters. That is, when you welcomed the little children, the homeless, the disabled, the working poor, and indeed, those who are struggling with life itself. This call to service is born out of the compassion of God.

2. Service in the Shadow of the Cross.

As we hear the word of judgment, we may be wondering – what would it look like to live this way? To be a servant. To whom might we look for guidance? Is Jesus not the one who reveals to us the nature of God? Doesn’t the Colossian letter say that Jesus is the “image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15), and so if we want to see what it means to serve God, then won’t Jesus reveal what that means in his own life? If this is true, then surely the cross defines what it means to serve others. Remember that this passage falls between the triumphal entry and Good Friday. If the discrepancy between the ideal and the reality is to disappear, will we not have to take up the cross and lay down our lives for others?

Clint Eastwood’s powerful movie, Grand Torino, which was filmed on location in Detroit, offers a poignant picture of what it means to serve others. Walt Kowalski, played by Eastwood, is the primary character in this movie. Walt might not be the kind of figure that we would normally equate with Jesus, but, despite the crustiness and the apparent bigotry of this character, there is another side to Walt Kowalski. He is willing to lay down his life for another, so that the other might live. In this he becomes a most unexpected redemptive figure.

The cross reminds us that our God is a suffering God. If Jesus is the “image of the invisible God,” then surely God experiences our lives through his life. Through his suffering, God tastes our suffering. In Christ, God becomes the suffering servant.

Jurgen Moltmann spoke of two crosses, one being the cross of Golgotha. The other is the cross of Constantine. One is a cross of service. The other is a cross of conquest. Too often we choose the second cross, but that is not the cross of Jesus. To bear that cross means living a life of service to the most vulnerable among us. It may not require of us physical death, but it will require of us our lives.

3. Living the Call to Service

As we hear the call to service – whether in the picture of receiving that little child or the picture of judgment – each of us must discern how and where this will lead us. Last week I spoke of two ministries that are already present in the congregation, both of which offer compassionate care to those in need. This morning I’d like to mention two ministries that are in the process of being born.

The first has been under discussion for some time, beginning with a conversation between Pastor Eugene James and me, and then in conversations late last spring that included Diana, Chris, Eugene, another leader from Eugene’s church, and myself. We’ve been talking about a partnership between our two congregations to reestablish a computer center at Eugene’s church. This center would offer the people living in that neighborhood in Northwest Detroit opportunities to learn computer skills, along with access to computers for their own use. Although we’re only at the beginning stages of this project, we have great hopes that this will be a fruitful partnership of service.

The second project has come to light even more recently. From the moment I knew I was coming here to Troy, I’ve had a burden for the city of Detroit. I understand why we moved from the city to the suburbs thirty years ago, but while you can take the church out of the city, you can’t take the city out of the church. While I believe that we’ve been called to minister to the immediate community that surrounds this building, I also believe that a concern for the greater Detroit area is deeply rooted in our ethos as a church. Even as the partnership with Eugene’s church would offer an opportunity to minister to people in need, so would this other new venture.

While I appreciate those who take the time and spend the money to go on mission trips to New Orleans and other places in the country, I’ve wondered why no one seems to be coming to Detroit. After all, Detroit is a city in deep and desperate need of help. It needs to experience some love. What I discovered is that there are ministries to the city of Detroit, and we can, if we choose, partner with them. So, this past Thursday I met with Carl Gladstone, the Director of the Motown Mission, which is housed at Metropolitan United Methodist Church in Detroit. This mission hosts mission trips, just like the ones that go to New Orleans. We talked about ways in which this congregation, our region and Disciples from across the country could partner with Motown Mission to bring a little life and hope to the city of Detroit by rehabbing houses and planting urban gardens, just to mention two possibilities. By doing this, we can help transform the city of Detroit, the city in which this congregation was born.

We discerned that God is calling us to be a people of service. May we discern how best to live out this core value, for if we are to be faithful to our mission, then aren’t we called to serve “the least of these”?

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
17th Sunday after Pentecost
September 20, 2009
reposted from Words of Welcome

Saturday, September 19, 2009

A Reasonable Faith

In the Theology 101 study I'm leading for the church, we're reading Ronald Osborn's classic (for Disciples) The Faith We Affirm: Basic Beliefs of Disciples of Christ (Chalice Press 1979). Osborn is an old-style liberal Disciple, and one of the key leaders when the Disciples went through what we call re-structure in the 1960s. Basically, we became a full-fledged denomination just as denominations were going out of style!

In the first chapter of the book, entitled "The Light of Scripture," Osborn suggests that the Disciples mind is biblical, reasonable, empirical, pragmatic, and ecumenical. I'd like to consider the second of these modifiers of the Disciples mind -- the idea that ours is a reasonable mind.

Although he suggests that this commitment of ours to reason doesn't eliminate all mystery, for Disciples the key to faith is understanding. That is our goal. Thus, he writes:

Disciples have taken pride in advocating a common sense religion. We seek an approach which is sane as well as biblical, rational as well as practical. Here is an understanding of the faith which our pioneer leaders could be readily explained to ordinary folk, and which they could embrace with their intelligence as well as their hearts. Sometimes we have made our little systems too tight, too simple. But the genius of the Disciples mentality has held that we do not love God as we ought unless we examine the claims of religion with rational minds. (Faith We Affirm, p. 16).

That idea of common sense religion goes back to the philosophical foundations of the Campbells and Barton Stone -- a perspective that was very popular at the beginning of the 19th century. At times rational religion can become stale and rigid, but having spent some time in the Pentecostal tradition, I've seen the other side. Ultimately I became a Disciple in part because I felt the need to keep my head in the game.

The Disciples tradition is an exemplar of Enlightenment faith -- but if we are moving into a post-Enlightenment phase, does the mind matter like it once did? I hope so, but I raise the question.

Remembering Mary Travers

Growing up in the 60s I remember listening to Puff the Magic Dragon by Peter, Paul, and Mary. Every once in a while I'll run across a PBS broadcast of a Peter, Paul, and Mary concert. The three of them have over the years left a grand legacy of music, mostly folk music, that rings in our ears.

The other day, Mary Travers died of leukemia at the age of 72. We will miss her powerful voice. Of course, growing up I didn't know the social implications of their music. But since Chuck Currie posted a folk anthem for justice on his blog, I'll re-post that song here "If I had a hammer." Maybe it's a good anthem for today -- that we might stand together and build a world of justice and peace.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Three Fold Word of God

Karl Barth, who is by most estimates the pre-eminent theologian of the 20th century, and who has had a significant influence on me -- though I would say that other theologians, especially Jurgen Moltmann, have pushed me beyond being a simple Barthian -- but that's for another day.

Perhaps the most profoundly influential idea, for me, has been Barth's view of the three-fold Word of God.

1. Jesus Christ

Barth understanding of the Word of God, which is the revelation of God, begins with the affirmation that Jesus Christ is God's Word to humanity. Thus, the word is not first and foremost a verbal statement, rather it is a person. Barth looks to those passages that see Jesus as the Logos of God (John 1:1-14), and thus, Jesus becomes God's preeminent mediator of revelation (Mt. 11:27; Lk 11:9; Jn 14:1-10). Even as the author of Hebrews points out, God chose to revel himself finally and fully in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ (Heb. 1:1-2; cf. I Cor. 1:30).

2. Scripture

Scripture becomes the Word of God when it bears witness to that preeminent Word, which is Jesus Christ (Jn 5:39). Barth makes the point that Scripture is the Word of God only derivatively. Scripture is the Word of God because God has chosen to speak in and through them.

When we speak of revelation we are faced with the divine act itself and as such, which, as we had to remember in the past, is the ground and the limit, the presupposition and the proviso of what may be said of the Bible and proclamation as the word of God. (Karl Barth, Dogmatics, in Hugh T. Kerr, ed., Readings in Christian Thought, 2nd ed., Abingdon Press, 1966, 286-87).

3. Proclamation.

Not only is Scripture the Word of God as it bears witness to Christ, but when preaching faithfully proclaims Jesus Christ, it too can become the Word of God. Preaching is Word of God in the sense that it takes Scripture and through the proclamation of that word, it bears witness to God's preeminent revelation in Jesus Christ. Scripture, however, also serves as the criterion upon which we may discern whether the preaching is truly God's word. We can see some examples of this form of the word of God described in places like Acts 4:31, where we find the church filled with the Spirit and speaking the "word of God with boldness." Then in Acts 6:7 we read that "the word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith." Then in Acts 15:36 we find Paul telling Barnabas that they should revisit the cities where they had "proclaimed the word of the Lord."

In Barth's description of the relationship between the three forms of the Word of God we can begin to see how preaching functions as Word of God.

The proclamation that speaks to us and is heard by us as God's Word promises the future revelation. By really attesting revelation the Bible is the Word of God, and by really promising revelation proclamation is the Word of God. But the promise in proclamation rests upon the attestation in the Bible the hope of future revelation upon faith in that which happened once for all. (Karl Barth in Kerr, Readings in Christian Thought, 28)

From Barth, I take this -- Word of God is an expansive term. But first and foremost it speaks of a person and only derivatively of a Book or Proclamation.

Word as Sacrament

I was asked, by a church member, to comment here on Ben Witherington's provocative post, entitled "Feed on the Word" suggesting that the Word should be seen as a Sacrament. In Protestant circles we often talk about Word and Sacrament, by which we mean the Eucharist and Preaching. But, could the Word itself be a sacrament, and what does that entail?

Witherington is an evangelical Methodist biblical scholar. I expect his theology is to my right, but he isn't a Fundamentalist. In this post he has a somewhat expansive understanding of Word -- it is living -- but he also firmly links it to the Bible. While lifting up the role of preaching -- which in most Protestant churches happens more often than the Eucharist is celebrated -- he doesn't limit it to preaching. Indeed, he notes that each of us can and should feed on the Word, by which he means the Bible.

The biblical texts that he mentions as support for a more sacramental understanding of Word, such as this from Paul, seem to refer to the Gospel message, not the text of Scripture:
"And we constantly thank God because when you received the Word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as it actually is--the Word of God which is at work in you who believe." (1 Thess. 2.13).
As to why it should be considered a de jure sacrament, rather than just a de facto one, he writes:

The term sacramentum in the Latin has had various definitions over the ages of church history but perhaps the most familiar one is 'an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace' or more simply, a means of grace. If a sacrament is a means of grace, by which is meant a means of divine influence and change in a person's life, then surely the Word of God and its proclamation, reading, hearing learning, memorizing is a sacrament. We just don't tend to call it that. Consider however what is said about the Word of God in the NT at various junctures. The Word of God is seen as something living which dwells richly in the believer once received, probing and changing the person inwardly.

I do find the idea interesting and useful. But of course we need to keep in mind what we mean by Word of God. On that there is likely some debate.

As a preacher I have to be careful as not to claim too much for what I do in the pulpit, but at the same time I do believe that the Word preached, when carried to the heart and mind by the Holy Spirit can be life changing. I hope and pray that what I do in preparation and in the pulpit is not mere words, but is life changing -- otherwise, why bother. My call is to preach the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, not to dispense common sense wisdom that one can just as easily get from Dr. Phil or even Oprah.

This, Witherington encourages:

I do not say this because I think we should neglect the other sacraments. I say this because we actually need a more sanctified view of the Word of God. The Word of God, when faithfully preached and openly received is far more than just preaching, or a good life lesson, or an edifying discourse. It is the unleashing of God's transformative power in the human life. In short--the Word does things to the recipient that the recipient might well be unaware of at the time, much like taking a medicine the effects of which take time to be noticeable. There is of course a corollary to this-- the less one consumes the Word, the less grace, the less spiritual health, one is likely to have. In an age of Biblical illiteracy even within the church, it is no wonder that the church is sickly and open to all sorts of false teaching and its bad spiritual effects.
So, back to the definition of Word. My own understanding has been greatly aided by Karl Barth's three-fold division of the Word. I'll mention it here and then post a bit more fully on it in another posting.

Christ as the Word (Logos) revealed.

The Scriptures as the Witness to that Word

Preaching -- when rooted in the Word written -- bears witness to the Word Revealed (Christ).

So, if the Word is Sacrament, in what way and how is it received? As a Disciple, my own sacramental experience is a bit different from many Protestants, especially evangelical Protestants such as Witherington. We celebrate the Lord's Supper every Sunday -- and more often than that if needed or possible. But the point is well taken. Is the Word, however it may be received, a means of grace that transforms lives?

Race in the Mix

Let me state up front that not all opposition to Barack Obama or his policies is race related or racist. That being said, a significant element in this opposition is rooted in racism. Jimmy Carter's statements might be impolitic, which is why the White House disavowed them and insisted that race involved. Obama has to walk a thin line here, so as to be the President of all the people.

But, race is still part of the equation. From Glen Beck's assertion that Obama hates white people to Limbaugh's claims of white victimization, race is continually being inserted by those who for some reasons believe that their country is being taken away from them.

Jonathan Walton has written an important post for Religion Dispatches that lays out some of the issues. There is an argument that we would be a color blind nation, if only minorities would stop inserting their differences into the conversation. In other words, issues of race and ethnicity fall at the feet of the minorities, not whites. The assumption in this is that white culture (whatever that is) is normative. Whites are the real Americans.

Yet President Obama’s enormous success in life, whether as a highly educated community organizer or as America’s commander-in-chief, exposes the paradox this sort of faux post-racialism presents. It’s a one-sided deal for people of color as “post-racial” in effect means post-black, post-brown, post-red, and post-yellow, while leaving the normative racial framework of whiteness intact. Race is the challenge people of color must confront and dare I say, “get over.” But a post-racial America does not demand the same of those who identify with, and claim the social construction of, whiteness and perceived privileges and cultural superiority therein.

This is why, it would seem, Barack Obama’s body standing behind the American presidential seal has a critical segment of America losing its hold on reality—a reality, I would argue, few have ever been forced to acknowledge up to this point. Whether it’s the birthers, tea-baggers, deathers, indoctrinators or “You lie!”-ers they have neither veiled their racial animus nor cloaked their white nationalism. The prevalence of racist images of President Obama brandished by protesters juxtaposed with calls of “taking our country back” are reminiscent of D.W. Griffith’s fictional America as depicted in Birth of a Nation. And the pride with which this segment of society has rallied the troops around its shared sense of whiteness reveals that their skin color is the one true object of pledged allegiance and determinant of professed patriotism. [See Unregulated Capitalism and Christian Fervor: Report from the 9/12 Rally at the Capitol, Sept. 17, 2009].

For some, Obama's success serves as an unwelcome challenge to their own sense of superiority. Thus, he must be demonized as a Hitler, an unwelcome presence that signifies the demise of one's own identity.

Race won't stop being an issue until those of us who are white recognize that we are people of color ourselves. And in many parts of the country, we will soon be part of the mix of minorities, no longer a majority of the people. This will change the culture. But isn't that the point of our national ethos -- e pluribus unum -- one nation and many peoples.

So, what does the present moment tell us? Walton writes:

I believe this applies to our current president and his most vocal critics. If he is framed as the foreigner, incarnate evil and indoctrinating Nazi, many won’t have to acknowledge that he may just be smart, sophisticated and a devout patriot. God forbid. And if he is, what does that make them?

So, who are we?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Ethical Wills in Inter-Religious Dialogue and Research -- Sightings

With Sightings back in business this week, I'm again being introduced to new concepts and ideas. I've never heard of ethical wills, but apparently this is an ancient practice that could provide important information about cultures and religions -- especially their ethical understandings. Joshua M. Z. Stanton a Rabbinic student and Co-Editor of the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue offers us some insights as to how such a document might be of use in inter-religious conversation. I welcome your thoughts.

Sightings 9/17/09

Ethical Wills in Inter-Religious Dialogue and Research
-- Joshua M. Z. Stanton

“Have you ever had a life-altering experience or an experience that changed your life?” I was stuck on question eight and still had fourteen to go. Seated across from me was a junior at Wellesley College, with a friendly gaze and a tone indicative of her interest. She was my partner at a training session for Lessons of a Lifetime™, an intergenerational program at the Hebrew Home of Greater Washington. How should I respond? Was the center point of my life when my brother taught me to read? My first trip to Jerusalem? Though I was only a college student at the time, I was recording my ethical will and wanted every answer to count.

Unlike their legal counterparts, ethical wills are documents that contain the hopes, insights, and experiences that a person wants to share with future generations as a legacy of values. The origin of ethical wills is often attributed to the Biblical period, when Jacob expresses his hopes for each of his sons’ futures. Up through the Middle Ages, they remained reasonably well known among the intelligentsia of many Jewish, Muslim, and Christian communities, both in the Middle East and Europe. After declining in use for four centuries, ethical wills have been ‘rediscovered’ in the last decade and become an increasingly popular way to provide moral guidance in an age of great change.

As I found out for myself, the process of recording an ethical will with another person can be challenging and emotional. When we set out to create our ethical wills, we are forced to look back on our own lives and size up our successes, failures, and deeply held beliefs. More importantly – and more successfully than in many other forms of dialogue – ethical wills and the process of recording them lead to meaningful and even profound interchanges about the values that each of us hold. Precisely because of the personal and theological significance of ethical wills, they may provide an effective tool for inter-religious dialogue. Through them, we can talk about our beliefs without degenerating into the platitudes or generalizations that can otherwise encumber inter-religious interchanges.

There may also exist the potential to use ethical wills to study the values that different religious groups hold. A recent article entitled, “Wisdom of Generations: A Pilot Study of the Values Transmitted in Ethical Wills of Nursing Home Residents and Student Volunteers,” uses qualitative statistics to analyze ethical wills not only as personal legacies but as documents filled with useful and enlightening information about the beliefs of two groups – in this case youth and the elderly. Researchers determined that “The 22 Questions for Ethical Wills© is a useful methodology to elicit meaningful discussions of values and life lessons in persons both young and old.” It would seem that such research could hold clear applications in the study of values that practitioners of different religions maintain. (Full disclosure – I am co-Director of Lessons of a Lifetime™ and fourth author on the research study.)

Too often we make assumptions about of the belief systems of others: “Christians believe in the importance of love” or “Jews believe in the importance of study.” Without examining – in a detailed and organized way – the values that members of different religious communities personally hold, we cannot maximize the impact of inter-religious dialogue and collaborative efforts for the common good. Even the most effective inter-religious initiatives may be underperforming because they are operating with inadequate information about the groups with whom they work. If it turns out that Jews and Muslims, for example, both care deeply about the elderly, then why do we continue to focus our energies solely on dialogue about the Middle East? If Catholics and Hindus believe in the need to care for the environment, then why focus solely on the challenges facing Indian Catholics? Fortunately, as the new study indicates, within ethical wills we may find a new means to gather the information we need about each other’s beliefs, all the while engaging in meaningful dialogue. Though we need not always agree, we must work to at least understand.

Stanton, Joshua and Hedy Peyser “Ethical Wills as Tools for the Interfaith Movement.” February 2009. The Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue.

Jiska Cohen-Mansfield, Natalie G. Regier, Hedy Peyser, Joshua Stanton. June 2009. The Gerontologist.

Joshua M. Z. Stanton is founding co-Editor of the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue™ , co-Director of Lessons of a Lifetime™, and a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College.

This month in the Marty Center's Religion and Culture Web Forum, Marlene Tromp examines the ways in which narratives of communion and "the flesh," which she engages through feminist food studies and traces especially through a discussion of nineteenth-century Spiritualist mediumship, contribute to a better understanding of gender roles (and their disruption) in Victorian Spirtualism. Formal responses by Gail Turley Houston (University of New Mexico) and Daniel Sack (University of Chicago) are forthcoming.

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