Sunday, October 31, 2010

Atheist Song - First hymnal for Atheists

This was sent to me -- a Steve Martin rendition of the First Atheist hymnal. Should be enjoyable to watch! Whatever your religious persuasion!

Don't Be Spooked: Stewardship Isn't That Scary

2 Corinthians 9:5-15

Considering that today is Halloween, and because the sermon title has a Halloween flavor, I suggested to Pat that the choir might want to sing “The Monster Mash” as an anthem. And in keeping with the spirit of the day and the sermon’s emphasis, I even thought about dressing up as a “TV evangelist.” After all, what’s more spooky than a TV Evangelist with that slicked back hair and smiling face asking everyone in TV land to fork over the big bucks so that God might bless the giver, while TV Evangelist adds another luxury car to an already crowded garage.

Alas, Pat didn’t think this anthem choice was a great idea, so he sent me an email suggesting that we might want to reconsider the idea, since he still needs employment. And so, as you heard, the choir sang something other than “The Monster Mash!” And without the Halloween anthem, there didn’t seem to be any reason to dress up in a costume.

But, in all seriousness, perhaps it’s fitting that we’re launching our month-long stewardship emphasis on Halloween. After all, stewardship can seem like a rather spooky topic, especially during these difficult financial times. Despite our uneasiness with talking about this topic, stewardship is an important spiritual practice. How we view our money has spiritual implications, as is seen in this week’s lectionary text from the Gospel of Luke. Luke tells the story of Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus the Tax Collector. That encounter proved to be life-changing. On that day Zacchaeus essentially gave up everything he owned and either gave it to the poor or paid it back in restitution, and Jesus said of Zacchaeus: Today salvation has come to his house (Luke 19:1-10).

Our reading from 2 Corinthians 9 has a different emphasis, but it also speaks of giving from the heart. In this case, Paul gives the Corinthian church direction, so that they can take up an offering to provide relief to the believers in Judea. He couches this call to give in spiritual terms, terms that remain helpful to this very day. The message is simple. The act of setting aside a portion of our income to give to the church is an act of spiritual discipline and an act of thanksgiving. It may seem like a spooky topic but really it’s not!

1. A God of Abundant Blessings

Every stewardship emphasis seems to have a theme, and this year’s theme isn’t Halloween-related. Instead, the theme is “More Than Enough,” which responds to the question: “How much is enough?” Our culture suggests that whatever we have now, is not enough. In fact, because we have a consumer-based economy, our income depends on people not being satisfied with what they already have. Now, I’ll admit that even though I’m a pretty frugal person, I can’t say that I’m completely satisfied with what I have. If nothing else, my book list continues to grow, and I really want Santa to bring me a Kindle for Christmas. Maybe that’s why we fall victim to what Walter Brueggemann calls the “narrative of scarcity. He writes in his book Journey to the Common Good:

The narrative of scarcity leads us to conclude that if you have something, then it must have come to you at my expense. And if I have something, then I’m going to protect it at all costs. This attitude makes it difficult for us to commit ourselves to the common good, since we’ve been led to believe that there’s never enough to go around. Therefore, since I have mine, I have no interest in helping you get yours.
It is our propensity, in society and church, to trust the narrative of scarcity. That is what makes us greedy, and exclusive, and selfish, and coercive. Even the Eucharist can be made into an occasion of scarcity, as though there were not enough for all. Such scarcity leads to exclusion at the table, even as scarcity leads to exclusion from economic life (Walter Brueggemann, Journey to the Common Good, WJK, 2010, p. 34).

There is, however, another narrative – the narrative of abundance. This narrative is deeply embedded in Scripture, including this passage from Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church. As I suggested earlier, Paul is heading toward Judea, but has planned to stop in Corinth, because he would like the Corinthians to make an offering to the believers in Judea. In part this gift will provide relief to people in need, but it will also cement a relationship between two very different congregations.

To get an idea of what Paul is up to, think in terms of getting a letter from Amy Gopp, which informs us that she’ll be in the neighborhood in the next week or so and that she’s taking up a collection for the people of Indonesia, who’ve suffered again from the combined effects of an earthquake and a tsunami. Her word of advice is that she’d really like it if we would have the offering ready when she arrived so that she doesn’t have to cajole us into giving. She wouldn’t want to turn to extortion to get some money out of us.

One of the key points in this passage is Paul’s appeal to the abundant blessings that God has poured out on this church. It’s not that this was a wealthy congregation, but he writes to remind them that “God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance” (v. 8) This statement is echoed in Ephesians 1, where the author of that letter says that the “God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” . . . “has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Eph. 1:3) In fact, we’ve not only been blessed with God’s abundance, but we are heirs of God in Christ (Eph. 1:11). Yes, our God is a God of abundance and not scarcity, and we are the inheritors of that abundance.

2. Therefore: Share the Abundance and Be Enriched

So, what should be done? It’s telling that Paul doesn’t say anything about how much the Corinthians should give. There are no formulas here, just words of encouragement that they should “give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” What you decide to give is between you and God, but it’s important to God that this gift is an expression of our love for God and God’s people. Although he doesn’t give a formula, he does suggest that if we sow sparingly, we’ll reap sparingly, but if we sow bountifully, then we’ll reap bountifully.

What does this mean for us? I think it’s an invitation to move from the narrative of scarcity to the narrative of abundance. It’s a reminder that there really is “more than enough” if God is involved with our lives. Therefore, if we’re willing to let go of the abundance that God has entrusted to our care, our lives will change for the better. For instance, we’ll probably become more aware of others around us. We’ll begin to see ourselves as part of a community and not as isolated individuals. When that happens, we’ll begin to let go of our fears and begin to live lives of faith and trust. Giving to the ministries of the church won’t make you rich financially, no matter what the TV evangelists tell you. But your lives will be enriched because you’ll begin to make connections with others and experience the blessings of working toward the common good. Yes, God has given us the seed and the bread to share, so that we might be a blessing, and as a result, as Paul makes very clear, we’ll be enriched by our generosity. As I said, it might not be financial riches that come our way, but we will be enriched.

3. Thanks Be to God!

Our text this morning ends with the words: “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!” This sentence serves as a reminder that whatever we give, whether in terms of time, talent, or finances, when done cheerfully, and not reluctantly or under compulsion, it is an act of thanksgiving. Therefore, it’s appropriate that when we end this Stewardship season a month from now, it will be on Thanksgiving Sunday. At that time, we’ll bring into the storehouse the commitments that we’ve made. Hopefully these commitments will be made in the context of prayer. Now, between this Sunday and Thanksgiving Sunday you’ll hear testimonies from members of the church about what stewardship means to them. You’ll receive a letter with an estimate of giving card from the Stewardship Ministry Group. You’ll likely read some articles about stewardship in the newsletter. And then, at the appropriate time we will bless these signs of our commitment to the common good with prayers and songs of Thanksgiving.

Stewardship is a spiritual discipline, but it is also a practical one. When we give of our finances to the church, we expect that these offerings of thanksgiving will be used wisely. These gifts may come out of God’s abundance, but that doesn’t mean the church should be wasteful. That’s why we have a budgeting process, and we have church leaders who are entrusted with keeping watch over their part of the budget. Let us then, commit ourselves to prayerfully considering the manner in which God is calling us to give to the ministry of the church. You may want to use as a goal the principle of the tithe. A tithe is traditionally understood to be the first 10% of one’s income. In ancient Israel, this tithe was brought to the Temple as an offering of thanksgiving. This is a good goal to pursue, but whatever you decide to give, remember that ours is a God of great abundance, and that we have been blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavens (Eph. 1:3ff). Therefore, whatever we give comes out of God’s largesse.

So, is that spooky or what?
Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward (Christian Church)
Troy, Michigan
23rd Sunday after Pentecost
October 31, 2010

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Coming of the Lord

Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4

2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12

Luke 19:1-10

The Coming of the Lord

Whenever preachers look at the week’s lectionary texts they tend to look for any common threads. Sometimes, in our eagerness to find the threads, we push the envelope, and I suppose that I could be accused of that in titling today’s meditation. Except that each of the texts, even the Gospel text, speaks of the coming of the Lord. It is true that in Luke’s gospel, the Lord is simply inviting himself over for dinner at Zacchaeus’s house, but it still has that “eschatological flavor” that is present in the other two texts. In the Lord’s coming, there is salvation. And salvation involves or leads to righteousness – a word that needs defining.

The Habakkuk text closes with the phrase “The righteous shall live by faith,” a phrase that is repeated in Romans 1:17 (not the lectionary reading for the week). This phrase proved troubling to Martin Luther, who saw in it the possibility of “work’s righteousness,” and so he wanted to emphasize the faith part of it, and insist that whatever righteousness is involved, that righteousness comes from Christ and not our own works. But that doesn’t seem to be the concern of Habakkuk. In these two brief selections from this so-called Minor Prophet, we hear the cry of a suffering people, who were witnessing in their midst violence, wrong-doing, and trouble-making. Indeed, considering the political bickering of the moment, these words stand out: “strife and contention arise.” The prophet is wondering when God will respond, going as far as declaring that he would stand at his watch post and keep watch until God answers his complaint. It is then that the Lord responds, telling him to write down a vision on a tablet that the runner can take around to the people. And the word that came to the people was this: “If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come. It will not delay.” And then comes the kicker – be sure to look at the proud, for their spirit isn’t right – but “the righteous will live by faith.” And what is faith? It is living by trusting God? What is righteousness? It is God’s justice – God’s commitment to the poor and the marginalized of society. It may not have been what Luther had in mind at the time, but that seems to be what was on Habakkuk’s mind.

The second text, the one that comes from 2 Thessalonians serves as a response to concerns that the “parousia” or the return of Christ had already come. To use the title of a recent series of “apocalyptic themed books” they were afraid they had been “Left Behind,” and so the author (presumably Paul, but there are questions about authorship) offers a word of assurance. Don’t worry, because before anything like that happens you’ll start seeing the signs of rebellion and the rise of the lawless one, who will seat himself on God’s throne in the Temple, declaring himself to be God. But, don’t get too concerned, and don’t be alarmed by any “spirit, word, or letter” claiming to be from us declaring that the “day of the Lord” is already here. The Lord is coming, but don’t believe everything you hear. But the word that we need to hear comes at the end, in verses 11-12, which offers a word a judgment against those who take “pleasure in unrighteousness.” That is, those who fail to believe the truth and follow the Lawless One by living lives of unrighteousness. And what is meant by unrighteousness? Surely the definition is rooted in the message of the prophets, who call on the people of God to act justly toward those who are poor, to the widow, and the orphan.

Finally, we come to the story of Zacchaeus, one of the best known stories in the New Testament. We know this story because Zacchaeus seems to always be the butt of “short-people” jokes. He’s so short, he has to climb a tree to see Jesus. But it should be noted that this story falls on the heels of the previous week’s lectionary text where the attitudes of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector are compared. The Pharisee is sure of his own righteousness and needs no help from God; while the tax collector humbly asks that God take mercy on him, for he is a miserable sinner. Now, in this text, which follows on that parable, we meet up with a real tax collector who is keen on seeing Jesus. And, as a result the Lord decides to come to his house. Although the “righteous” folks in town are scandalized that Jesus would hang out with a sinner, Zacchaeus, the chief tax agent in Jericho, is so pleased by Jesus’ willingness to come to his house that he vows to change his life. And how might he do this? He commits himself to giving half of his possessions to the poor (an act of righteousness) and will repay those he has defrauded four times the amount that he had taken from them (considering that this is how he made his money – the profit that lies beyond what he had to give to Rome, he was essentially doing what Jesus asked of the rich young man (Luke 17:18ff) – he committed himself to giving everything he had and in return Jesus says that salvation had come to this house. He had committed himself to live by faith and doing so had become righteous.

The two messages that are embedded in these texts are these: First, the day of the Lord is coming, so keep watch, because God is faithful and will come at the appropriate time. And second the “righteous shall live by faith,” which means that if we’re trusting our lives into the care of God, we should live in the interim period in such a way that the righteousness of God will be on display – a righteousness that is illustrated by the decisions made by Zacchaeus.
Reposted from [D]mergent

Friday, October 29, 2010

Religious Language and Women’s Rights in Afghanistan -- Sightings

One of the big concerns about the future of Afghanistan, especially if the Taliban and the current government reconcile to end the conflict is the impact on women.   If the current conflict is to end it will involve reconciling all parts of Afghan society, so what will happen to women, whose status at this time is rather precarious.  Helen Zeweri writes today about the way in which religious language can be used to affirm and lift issues of gender equity in Afghan society.  That is, if women are to take control of their lives they will need to make use of Islamic religious language, institutions, and texts.  Her essay reminds me of the way in which many evangelical women (and their male supporters) looked to biblical texts, examples, and language to create a pathway to equality.  Thus, texts like Galatians 3:28 were lifted up, as were examples of Deborah and Mary Magdalene.  The same can be true in an Islamic nation (remember that women have led Islamic states such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Indonesia, while the glass ceiling remains in place in the USA).  This is a most intriguing essay, which requires close attention.


Sightings 10/28/2010

Religious Language and Women’s Rights in Afghanistan

- Helena Zeweri

Taliban officials have been engaging in secret talks with the Karzai government to converge towards a prospective peace deal, according to a Washington Post report. In another report in the Toronto Star, Jennifer Rowell, head of policy and advocacy for Care International in Afghanistan expressed concern over the Afghan government’s possible reconciliation with Taliban militants, including the potential sacrifices of women’s rights in negotiations. She is not alone.

Almost nine years after the initial entry of American forces into Afghanistan, the condition of Afghan women’s rights remains precarious. Some of the fears that have re-emerged in recent weeks among Afghan women’s rights proponents might stem, in part, from the possibility of intense structural violence inflicted on women in the name of religion. In recent years, however, women’s activist organizations have come to realize that religion does not have to be a tool of oppression.

Religious language could be used to articulate one’s rights as an individual and a contributing member of society. Many Afghan women-run organizations, as of late, are encouraging the use of an Islamic language rooted in women's own religious worldviews, practices, and philosophies, to achieve long-term rights (i.e. the right to be protected from emotional violence and the right to choose one’s profession, among others) along with so-called “priority rights” (i.e. the right to security, the right to freedom of movement, among others).

For example, some Afghan women NGO leaders have vocalized in public conferences that education, economic development, and social mobility are hindered by the lack of public meeting spaces for women that would be conducive for political and social organizing. This has prompted activists to discuss the creation of women's mosques that could serve as spaces in which to discuss the relationship between religious rhetoric and democratic governance and women's roles within the family and larger society.

Women have also been increasingly enrolling in Kabul University to study law, Arabic, and Islam in order to develop the discursive equipment to potentially challenge prevailing attitudes about women's familial and other social roles. Engagement with religious texts and language has been channeled towards advocacy, fundraising, and awareness raising efforts, including the formation of mosque groups that gather women together for sermons on women's rights according to Islamic texts.

Using religious language to justify certain avenues for women's social advancement should be seen by activist organizations in Afghanistan as one part of a multidimensional approach towards better enabling Afghan women to transform how they perceive and practice their agency in different settings. According to a briefing paper released in 2005 by the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU), the symbolic participation of women in public institutions is too often positioned as a measure of success--the creation of physical space for women or the numbers of women present at public forums, such as shuras (local councils) are typically used to show progress towards gender equality, even though women do not necessarily play a greater role in such institutions' decision-making processes.

The use of religious language has proven, for some, to be an effective tool for justifying their ability to make decisions within these spaces, thus contributing towards a more tangible vision of gender equity rather than gender equality only. Activists have vocalized that the actions of Muslim women like Khadija, the Prophet Muhammad's first wife and 'A'isha, a later wife, serve as prime examples of women taking control of their economic lives and marital choices, and thus legal precedents for women’s agency in these realms.

The AREU report also suggests that some Afghan women perceive themselves as unfit for making decisions within local, social institutions due to a perceived lack of knowledge of community. More opportunities to increase women’s knowledge of Islamic texts may contribute to the development of a stronger sense of self and increased ownership over articulations of what progress means for them.

The use of religious language through both formal education in Islamic jurisprudence and the organization of more informal social spaces to discuss religious texts must be accompanied by more locally nuanced approaches by NGOs and top-down approaches that establish legislation that offers actual consequences for systematic violence against women. Positioning religious language as a mechanism to claim agency can be used as a way to tackle some of the more deeply entrenched challenges women face that infrastructure development and humanitarian assistance cannot directly affect--that of negative self-perceptions and adherence to systems of subordination, gender hierarchies, and family politics that are reinforced in realms in which laws do not always have direct impact, most notably the home. The use of religious language as an alternative paradigm for articulating rights should not be viewed as promoting the language of subordination or as an apologetic stance towards oppression, but rather as a way for women to assert power in a more easily legible and decipherable way within some local contexts.


Karen DeYoung, Peter Finn, and Craig Whitlock, “Taliban in Talks with Karzai Government,” The Washington Post, October 6, 2010.

Olivia Ward, “Alarm bells sound for women’s rights in Afghanistan,” The Toronto Star, October 6, 2010.

Margaret Mills and Sally Kitch, “ ‘Afghan Women Leaders Speak’: An Academic Activist Conference, Mershon Center for International Security Studies, Ohio State University, November 17-19, 2005,” NWSA Journal 18, no. 3 (2006): 191-201.

Masuda Sultan, From Rhetoric to Reality: Afghan Women on the Agenda for Peace (Hunt Alternatives Fund,2005).

Shawna Wakefield with Brandy Bauer, A Place at the Table: Afghan Women, Men, and Decision-making Authority (Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, 2005).

Helena Zeweri is Director of Research for Femin Ijtihad’s New York Chapter. She received her MA in Near Eastern Studies from New York University.

Correction: Monday’s Sightings incorrectly mentioned “the world’s 13 billion Muslims and 60 percent of the world’s billion Christians.” The Muslim population worldwide is about 1.57 billion and there are more than two billion Christians, according to 2009 reports by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and the World Christian Database.


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

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Is Voting an Act of Violence? Reflections on Election Process

Yesterday I offered up some thoughts on the upcoming elections.  The day before that I offered up a review of a book entitled Split Ticket: Independent Faith in a Time of Partisan Politics.  I have always believed that voting is not just a right, but a sacred privilege to be taken very seriously.  I have tried to vote in every election and I make it a point to go to the polls to vote.  I have taken my lead in part from Romans 13, though my interpretation might not be standard issue. 

In Romans 13, Paul tells the people to be "subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God."  In our country, which is a democracy, the governing authority is the voter.  Thus, I am to be subject to the direction given by the voters, even if I don't always agree with the majority on every issue or candidate.  Now I don't follow this lead blindly, but I understand that in our system we have the right to resist through the vote.  Because I believe that voting is important it has been my belief that if you don't vote then don't complain.  That's the way I was raised.

With that as the background I find quite challenging the premise that voting could be an act of violence.  In an essay in Split Ticket John Edgerton and Vince Amlin make this very claim.

Most of us think about voting for a President as choosing between candidates, deciding who is best suited for the position.  This is only part of the story.  We are also voting to place someone in the office of President.  This office, like any, comes with a job description, part of which is the role of Commander in Chief of the armed forces.  When we vote, we collectively decide to give one person control over the deadliest weapon in the world, the U.S. military, and authorize him or her to use it whenever necessary.  Voting in a Presidential election does more than simply express a preference.  Voting also affirms the broader political order of our nation, and that political order is not peaceful.  (Split Ticket, p. 59). 
Although I don't find the argument convincing -- maybe that's because of my own upbringing -- I think it is appropriate to consider the kind of political order we've committed ourselves to.  Remember that Paul was writing to people living under Roman Rule.  He suggested that government provided structure and order, but he didn't give his imprimatur on any particular form of government. 

Although I'm not sure that voting is an act of violence, I have become more and more convinced that the act of campaigning is verging on becoming an act of violence.  I realize that nastiness has always been part of the campaign process, but with the multiple forms of media available, and the huge sums of money available due to corporate spending on elections, they have become more and more polarizing each time out.  It is rare to see a positive TV commercial, and if you're watching TV for a couple of hours in an evening you will be bombarded by commercial after commercial. 

Is voting an act of violence, I'm not convinced that it is, but the process has become increasingly violent.  And, to be honest I'm concerned about the kind of governance we will get if we continue down this road.  

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Election Day is Near at Hand

A week from now, we'll all wake up and be able to enjoy watching TV without having to endure the constant drone of political ads that seem to multiply exponentially each year.  We will know whether the GOP has been able to wrest control of one or more houses of Congress.  We'll have a better sense of the short term impact of the so-called Tea Party.  And we'll get on with life.  Indeed, we likely will see the stock market soar. 

I'd like to make a few comments about the political forecast.

  • Third party ads  that are financed by unknown groups and corporations are impacting this election cycle -- though we don't know in what way to this point  (there could be a backlash against candidates backed by shadowy groups that are financed by corporations protecting their own interests)
  • Restating the first point, the recent Supreme Court ruling, allowing Corporations to spend whatever they wish on elections is having in my mind a negative impact on the elections.
  • Concern about the anti-intellectualism present in this cycle.  In its populist backlash against so-called "elitism" we're seeing a lot of rhetoric that is anti-science and simply anti-education.  It's a "don't trust egg-head" mentality.
  • Although politics can corrupt, political experience is helpful.  Lobbyists prey on rookies.  One of the reasons why California is in such bad shape is that the legislature no longer has experienced legislators, and so lobbyists have run amok.
  • The Obama team has not done a good enough job selling its accomplishments.  Here in Michigan ads are being run against the incumbent freshman Democrat, who has won the endorsement of all the local papers, suggesting that he voted for a failed stimulus plan that has cost Michigan jobs.  Last I knew, the Obama administration had provided considerable support to two important industries in this district -- including Chrysler, which has its headquarters in Auburn Hills. And people are buying the rhetoric.
  •  Closer to home, I'm really dismayed by the politicized nature of judicial elections in the state of Michigan.  I'm used to a very different system in California, where the governor appoints judges and they are then later confirmed by the voters in non-partisan elections.  Here there are as many ads for the Supreme Court candidates as the governor, and not only that but they are nastier and more politicized than the ones for the gubernatorial candidates. 
I'll leave it at that.  My word of encouragement here is to go vote on Tuesday.  I believe that this is an important election, one that may have a lot to do with the future of the country.  We have a Republican Party leadership that has one thing on its mind -- making sure that President Obama is a one-term President.  In other words, it's not the good of the country that is foremost in their mind, but regaining the White House, and with it power. 

I will admit to being a left of center Democrat.  I'm still a strong supporter of Barack Obama.  I believe that the Health Care Reform that was passed this last year is an important building block to providing access to health care for all Americans.  Did it go far enough?  No.  Does it need to be tweaked? Yes!  Should it be repealed?  I'm a pastor, so I shan't use the word I want to us, but no it shouldn't.  In fact the majority of Americans don't want to see it repealed, they want to see it strengthened.  As for financial regulatory reform so that we don't have a repeat of the Great Recession that we're still clawing our way out of, well it's not a perfect bill.  It doesn't go far enough, and yet once again it is a good beginning.  As for the Stimulus, is it a failure?  Well, as I remember it, not long after the last election the experts were saying that we would hit around 15% national unemployment.  We never did.  While unemployment is stuck at 9.6%, the economy is growing and things never got as bad as predicted.  So, just maybe it did work, its just that the hole was so deep it's taking us a lot longer to dig out from it.  And as for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- don't think that a McCain administration would have exited them earlier than an Obama one.  McCain's platform called for going in deeper and staying longer.  So, while I'm not "satisfied," by the progress of the last two years, I surely do not want to go back to what was. 

Finally, I want to say I'm disappointed by the way the media has painted this election.  It has from the very beginning, because of all the Tea Party ruckus, chanted the mantra about an enthusiasm gap.  I believe it is a gap that the media has contributed to by its continued message that the Republicans will win and the Democrats will lose.  Sometimes that message can have the effect of suppressing voter confidence.  So, to the media -- shame on you!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Split Ticket -- A Review

SPLIT TICKET: Independent Faith in a Time of Partisan Politics. Edited by Amy Gopp, Christian Piatt, and Brandon Gilvin. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2010. viii + 184 pp.

If the reports are to be believed, young adults are leaving the church, either because it has become too politicized or because institutional religion has become corrupt and moribund. They are, for instance, turned off by their perception that churches tend to be anti-homosexual. And if truth be told, they’re probably correct in this perception, for at most, a majority of churches have followed the lead of the military and have instituted a policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” In other words, stay in the closet.

Of course, not all young adults are leaving the church. Neither are all young adults rejecting what some would call political agendas (definitions are important here, because many consider social justice advocacy/action to be political, while others see it as a proper extension of the gospel). As is true of people of every generation, today’s young adults are not of one mind when it comes to the question of politics and religion. Things are complex!

Split Ticket, the book that is under review here, is the second book in Chalice Press’s WTF (Where’s the Faith?) Series, a series that is edited by, authored by, and intended for young adults. The first book in the series, provocatively titled O God! O God! O God!, (reviewed here) looked at the issue of sex, and this book will be just as provocative as the first. Focusing here on the relationship between faith and politics, we are presented with a series of nineteen essays that range from anarchist to prophetic to politically engaged. The theology evidenced by the writers runs from evangelical to liberationist. Authors are gay and straight, male and female, clergy and laity, and from most every ethnic community. As is true in the first volume in this series, the essays are extremely personal. These volumes are designed to start a conversation, which is why each chapter ends with three discussion questions.

This volume is divided into three sections – “From Awakenings to Activism”; “God in the Voting Booth”; and “We’ve Got Issues.” To give a flavor of the essays comprising each section, consider that the first section includes essays about connecting faith to activism, including an essay by David Ball entitled “Thy Revolution Come: An Invitation to Radical Discipleship.” Ball frames his essay with the Lord’s Prayer, and suggests that radical discipleship is best expressed through “Christian Anarchism.” Christian anarchism, as the phrase suggests, calls for radical, even revolutionary action, even against one’s own government. Amy Gopp, one of the three co-editors, on the other hand reflects back to her time spent in Bosnia, and speaks of building bridges between groups and peoples in the pursuit of peace.

In the second section the essays range from the provocative essay by John Edgerton and Vince Amlin that charges that voting itself is an act of violence and coercion, and thus as Christians they have decided not to vote. They suggest that a better way of making decisions is one of consensus-building. As one who has long believed that voting is a national responsibility, this essay was disturbing to say the least, and yet it is a view that many are considering in our day. On the other hand, others see the value of one’s faith in influencing not just voting, but political action. If there is a consensus here is that, as Gabriel Saguero writes, “the Gospel challenges all political ideologies and denounces any obedience to any Lord but Christ” (p. 113).

In the final section, the essayists reflect on the leading issues of our time, from abortion to health care reform, and the way that we deal with them from a perspective of faith. What is clear from the essays is that this isn’t a clear-cut process. There is gray area to be considered, and the role of the church needs to be weighed carefully. Christian Piatt writes an intriguing and extremely personal essay about his own struggle with the pro-life/pro-choice debate in the context of the births of his own two children. Being strongly pro-choice, he found himself equally pro-life, as he fell in love with the “it” that was the fetus being carried by his wife. Christian reminds us that personal experience is a powerful contributor to the way we look at issues. Things become much less cut and dry, once one is personally engaged. As Christian puts it:

I’m not ready to jump the pro-choice ship, but the experiences of parenthood have had a permanent change on my understanding of life, the human soul, and our responsibility as joint stewards of those lives. . . . I may wrestle with this subject until the end of my days, but one thing is for sure: I love my kids, both of them. Even if one of them had never been able to join us in the world, and had never had the opportunity of loving and being loved, I would still love “It” all the same (p. 134).

So, are young adults calling for the church to be apolitical? No, however, they want the church to deal honestly with issues such as homosexuality, abortion, justice, the environment. They decry hypocrisy and want issues to be dealt with in light of faith and not just politics as usual being baptized into the church. They are passionate, but they also seem to want to keep the bridges standing (unless you’re an anarchist and the bridges lead to injustice). Perhaps Earle Fisher states it best:

Political truths may be something we’re willing to fight for, campaign for, or give money to. But a personal, spiritual truth, truly embraced as a foundational tenet of our identity as God-created beings, is something to which we’re willing to give our entire lives to, and perhaps die for (p. 148).
In other words, for these young adults, faith is the foundation, the guide, for their political engagement, even if that means deciding not to participate in the political process, because to do so would be to participate in a coercive, and therefore violent, system.

I heartily recommend this book to anyone wishing to understand the relationship of faith and politics. These essays may be written by and for young adults, but the issues they raise, and the solutions they suggest, are as pertinent to those who are well into their retirement years as those who are just entering the adult world.

While my recommendation of this book would not be any different, I should note that the editors, all members of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) are people whom I know and have worked with in the past (and in the present). I have high regards for all of them as individuals and for the work that they do in the church and outside it. Two of them, Amy Gopp and Brandon Gilvin, are Disciples clergy, while the third, Christian Piatt, is married to one. They are all committed to the church and to social justice (Gopp and Gilvin are in leadership at Week of Compassion, the relief and development arm of the Disciples).

As for the authors, many of the contributors are unknown to me, and while I agree with some and not with others, each of them offered insightful and challenging words that demand my attention, and the attention of any reader. If we’re to accept the premise that young adults are tired of politicized churches, then we must first understand what they mean by their critique, and this is a good place to start!

Adventurous Theology: Transforming Paul (Bruce Epperly)

The Book of Acts is one of the more fascinating parts of the New Testament.  It tells the story of an expanding mission of God, wherein the gospel goes forth into the world.  At first it is a mission to Jews, but quickly expands to embrace other groups, including Samaritans and Gentiles.  It is a mission that is rooted in the Jewish witness, but as the story of Acts suggests, the mission that goes forth in the name of Jesus, modifies the terms of conversion so that circumcision is removed as the marker of entrance into the community.  The key preacher of this new understanding of salvation in the name of Jesus is Paul, whom we meet in Acts 9 as Saul of Tarsus, a zealous protector of orthodoxy, whose visionary encounter with Jesus transforms his life and witness.  Bruce Epperly continues his exploration of the adventurous theology of Acts by focusing on the transformation of Saul into Paul. 


Adventurous Theology:
Transforming Paul (Acts 9:1-31)
By Bruce Epperly

Our holy adventure in Acts takes on a new dimension with the introduction of Saul of Tarsus. The transformation of Saul into Paul cannot be understood purely as a conversion experience, but as an opening to deeper dimensions of the faith he affirmed. Although the later Paul counts his earlier orthodoxy as worthless, the fact of the matter is that Saul was a faithful Jew, whose persecution of the Way of Jesus was motivated by his belief in the God of Jesus, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It is not that Saul had gone astray; he simply had not strayed far enough into God’s new frontiers of spiritual adventure. His orthodoxy had limited his ability to experience God in new and creative ways. Even after his mystical experience, as a leader of the fledgling church, Paul still affirmed God’s covenant with the children of Israel.

Acts 9 is shrouded in visionary experiences. On his way to persecute Jesus’ followers in Damascus, Saul sees a light and hears the voice of Jesus. He is blinded and then transformed by this theophany, this moment of divine revelation in which Jesus appears to him as the Risen One, God’s beloved revealer of a new age and new way of life. Saul receives a new vocation, and eventually a new name. He receives new sight and what John Biersdorf calls “the healing of purpose.”

Saul’s visionary experience is part of a larger ecology of revelation. Ananias also has a vision in which he receives divine guidance to welcome Saul into the community of faith, despite his previous history. Vision leads to vocation, both for an encounter and for a lifetime.

Acts 9, like the rest of Acts, invites us to a world of wonders in which God is active in each and every moment and each and every life. Yet, the one who is moving through all things addresses each thing – each moment and each person – uniquely and individually. Saul is “chosen” by God for a particular vocation in the early church. God is present in different ways in different situations and with different people. This is not a matter of supernatural intervention, but personal relationship. Healing moments – whether of vocation, body, mind, or spirit – emerge from a lively interplay of call and response, moving through our lives, unconscious mind, personal history, and historical and environmental context. Perhaps, God was gently and persistently moving through Saul’s religious quest to bring him to a moment of transformation. Despite the theophany, Saul still had to respond in order to experience the fullness of revelation and claim his new vocation. Likewise, Ananias also needed to be open to a new way of experiencing God’s presence in his life and in the emerging Christian community. Ananias had to experience God moving within Saul’s life: this was an act of courageous faith – opening to the proclaimer waiting to emerge from within the persecutor!

Acts 9 reminds us that burning bushes and theophanies can be found around every corner. God is constantly giving us guidance and inspiration. When we open to this inspiration, new possibilities emerge. Even when we appear to be going in the wrong direction, God is still working in our lives, inviting us to greater sight and insight in our vocation as God’s beloved children, sharing good news of healing and transformation.

Bruce Epperly is professor of practical theology and director of continuing education at Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is the author of 17 books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Christian Violence -- Sightings

Perhaps you've heard rumors that Muslims are violent, even though they claim to be a religion of peace.  The folks spreading this word tend to be Christians, but as Jesus said be sure to take the log out of your own eye before trying to take the splinter out of your neighbor's eye.  And thus, today, Martin Marty reviews a number of recent reports on the level of Christian violence.  Perhaps we all need to step back and recognize that religiously inspired violence is not the province of any one specific religion, but is a possibility present in all of them (as well as in non-religious communities).  One need not take the story literally to see in the story of Cain and Abel a parable for every age.   Thus, I pass you on to the care and feeding of Martin Marty who offers helpful wisdom on the issue of Christian violence.

Sightings 10/25/2010

Christian Violence
- Martin E. Marty

“Christians kill too!” is the topic this week as frightened and angry Americans keep raising the temperature of Islam-versus-Everyone-Else controversies. In his new book Christianity and Genocide in Rwanda, Timothy Longman writes that in three months in 1994 more than one-tenth of the population of Rwanda was killed. Longman notes, “Rwanda is an overwhelmingly Christian Country, with just under 90 percent of the population in a 1991 census claiming membership in a Catholic, Protestant, or Seventh-Day Adventist Church.” Killers from these churches engaged in ecumenical savagery, their mass-murdering sanctioned by the church and, as is well-known, often occurred in church sanctuaries turned slaughter houses. “Muslims [1.2 percent of the population] are also said to have participated much less willingly in the genocide and in particular to have resisted killing fellow Muslims,” according to Longman.

Another book much discussed this week is Eliza Griswold’s The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line between Christianity and Islam. Ms. Griswold spoke at the church where she was confirmed; her father was the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the U.S. Hers is a ground-level report along the tenth parallel in Africa and Asia, an area in which half of the world’s 13 billion Muslims and 60 percent of the world’s billion Christians live, die, hope, and kill. One can know those statistics, but it is hard to absorb them. Griswold spent much time with Franklin Graham, who serves people in need and provocatively tries to convert Muslims in dangerous zones. His dismissal of Islam as a wicked and evil religion is well-reported on in the United States—and in Islamic spheres!

Abdullahi Abdullahi, a Muslim lawyer told Griswold of an outbreak of violence: “That was the day ethnicity disappeared entirely and the conflict became just about religion.” One suffering pastor, while citing the Bible, told her of the killing, “This is about religious intolerance; Our God is different than the Muslim God.” At Yelwa in Nigeria Griswold visited killing fields where 660 Muslims were massacred in two days alone; twelve mosques were burned. Archbishop Peter Akinola, well known in the United States, head of the Anglican Church of Nigeria, told her, “No Christian would pray for violence, but it would be utterly na├»ve to sweep this issue of Islam under the carpet. I’m not out to combat anybody. I am only doing what the Holy Spirit tells me to do. . . Let no Muslim think they have the monopoly on violence.” They don’t. Western encouragers of hatred against Muslims or, if Muslims, against Christians, play with fire--and death.

Disclaimers: First, the Christian apologist in me relishes chances to report on Christian peace-making. Second, there is no interest here in “equivalency” in reporting body-counts when reporting on, say, Africa: Who started each killing, and who killed most settles little. Third, there is no Western (or Christian) self-hate operating here. Finally, reporting on Christian-Muslim killing is not an advertisement for the claims of the Four Horsemen of the current Atheist Front, who argue that if we got rid of religion all would be well.

Following up on the fourth, I look at Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, a new giant of a book which reports on when, as the Economist report “two totalitarian empires, Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union, killed 14 million non-combatants, in peacetime and in war.” The latter was officially atheist, and the former bizarrely disdainful of the faiths. Where did their abolition of religion get us?

Finally, the current Christian Century includes an article by Eliza Griswold, "On the Fault Line," which features Pastor James Wuye and Imam Nuryan Ashaffa who are working with some success to find ways for people in Kaduna to coexist peacefully and creatively across the boundaries of their two faiths.


Eliza Griswold, The Tenth Parallel:Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010).

---. “On the Fault Line,” Christian Century, November 2, 2010.

Timothy Longman, Christianity and Genocide in Rwanda (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (New York: Basic Books, 2010).

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


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

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945 -- Review

DIETRICH BONHOEFFER 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance.  By Ferdinand Schlingensiepen. Translated by Isabel Best. New York: T & T Clark, 2010. xxix + 439 pp.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer has become an almost mythical being. His death at the hands of Nazi thugs has proven to be so inspirational that everyone wants to claim him as their own. Therefore, Death of God theologians of the 1960s could build a theology on Bonhoeffer’s theological musings about a “religionless Christianity” and a world “come of age.” On the other hand, radical antiabortionists have claimed his mantle and appealed to his involvement in the plot against Hitler as a rationale for their acts of violence directed at abortion clinics and their personnel. There is also the recent attempt by a biographer of Bonhoeffer to turn him into an American Evangelical. Yes, Bonhoeffer has become of the great modern saints, standing alongside Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Bonhoeffer’s life story and his theology are much more complex than any of these attempts to use his legacy would suggest. When you consider that he died at the age of 39, you can only wonder where his life and his theology would have gone had he lived a full life. This is especially true of this theology, which seems to have been bursting with new ideas in the closing years of his life, years spent in prison. All that we can do is speculate on where these threads might lead. There is, of course, there is sufficient material available that suggest that Bonhoeffer was on the verge of becoming one of the great and most creative theologians of the modern age. He interacted closely with theologians and biblical scholars such as Barth, Tillich, Harnack, Bultmann, and Niebuhr, and he left us with tantalizing clues to his agendas and concerns, clues that have proven fruitful for theological reflection since his death.  Indeed, because he did not live long enough to complete his own theological journey, posterity has tried to pull the threads in directions that have gone in many directions, both right and left.  One wonders where he would have taken his theology, especially in light of his interest in a "religionless Christianity" and his ponderings of what theology would look like in a world "come of age." 

The most important custodian of Bonhoeffer’s legacy has been his close friend and former student at the Finkenwalde Seminary, Eberhard Bethge. Bethge gathered together and published many of Bonhoeffer’s unpublished works, and wrote what has been to this point the most definitive biography, but the time has come for a new definitive biography. Ferdinand Schlingensiepen has written a full, fair, respectful, and theologically sophisticated assessment of his life. The author is a theologian who has deep regard for Bonhoeffer and his legacy, having been a founder of the International Bonhoeffer Society, and was a close friend of Eberhard Bethge. What stands out from this book is the author’s seemingly intentional decision not to claim Bonhoeffer for any particular contemporary ideological party or movement, but instead seeks to reveal to us in great detail the complexity that was Bonhoeffer’s life.

Schlingensiepen’s biography rests deeply in the collected works of Bonhoeffer, which are now largely available in English translation. He has made good use of these writings to give us a picture of Bonhoeffer’s life story, including his social and familial context, his travels to places as diverse as Rome, Mexico, London, and New York, as well as ministries with German churches in Barcelona and London, his deep involvement with the Ecumenical Movement, his involvement with and frustration with the Confessing Church, and his own complex theology that was forged in difficult times. We learn about a man who had deeply held pacifist views, who struggled with what to do with the requirement for military service (there was in Nazi Germany no room for conscientious objectors) and yet decided to join in the conspiracy against Hitler.

The Bonhoeffer who emerges from this biography is both a deeply rooted German and yet a man of the world. He was the product of an elite upper middle class family, with his mother, the daughter of a pastor, providing his initial religious instruction, though the family was by and large not particularly religious. His neighbors included figures such as Adolph Von Harnack, who would be one of his teachers at the University of Berlin.
Theologically, Bonhoeffer was his own man. Although attracted to Karl Barth’s theology, Bonhoeffer chose not to study with Barth, and ultimately he chose to take things in his own direction. Inspired by his visit to Rome, he chose to study ecclesiology, as is seen in his doctoral dissertation Sanctorum Communio. Later he would write practical theological texts that emerged from the church struggle and his need to provide resources for his students. His involvement in the struggle against Hitler would define his theological work, including his Ethics, while prison allowed him to look into the future and wonder where theology might go once the war was over and people began to recognize that the old ways had died with him.

Many Americans know of Bonhoeffer’s visits to the United States, including a final visit that could have saved his life, had he chosen to remain in America. But while he was fascinated by life in the United States, he found the American church and American theology frustrating and even shallow. While he held the African-American church in high regard, found Americans, both liberal and conservative, lacking in theological acumen, with little interest in questions of dogmatics.  Of course, his own theology had been forged in the church struggle against the Nazi movement, and he acutely understood that a rich theology was needed if the church was to survive the Nazi encroachment, which he believed was imposing a foreign ideology on the church that had nothing to do with Jesus Christ.

Bonhoeffer’s decision to join the resistance movement, which led ultimately to his execution even as American artillery was heard in the background, emerged from his theology and his deep love of Germany. Although many Germans would view him as a traitor, even after the war, he acted out of his desire to participate in the rebuilding of Germany. He used his ecumenical contacts in an unsuccessful effort to reach out to the Allies, in the hope that they would spare Germany a punishing blow, if only Hitler could be removed. This effort required him to pretend to support the war effort and even make the Hitler salute, so as to cover his activities. Once he was imprisoned, he devoted his life to theological exploration and ministry to his fellow prisoners. The closing weeks of his life are known to us only through the stories told by survivors, but these stories prove poignant as they are retold in this book. One of the stories is that Bonhoeffer continued working on a now lost theological manuscript up until the day of his death. We have an outline, which suggests that he was in the midst of a deeply creative theological moment, one that would have offered us a revolutionary turn in Christian theology for a world “come of age.”

Although the book concludes with an epilogue that speaks of how news of Bonhoeffer's death became known to the outside world, the final paragraph is brief and pointed.  In part this is because there is little information that is available from those final days.  What we know from official records is laid out accordingly:

During the morning hours of 9 April, Wilhelm Canaris, Hans Oster, his colleagues Theodor Strunk and Ludwig Gehre, Karl Sack and Dietrich Bonhoeffer were hanged and cremated.  Friederich von Rabenau was to follow them a few days later.  Their ashes, together with those of many thousands of other victims of Hitler's regime, form the now grass-grown pyramid in the middle of the former concentration camp at Flossenburg (p. 378).
In a footnote to the book (p. 406), Schlingensiepen dispenses with the oft told story about Bonhoeffer's last day, wherein he supposedly was seen in in his cell by an SS doctor kneeling at prayer.  The author notes taht this story is a fabrication as the doctor in question would not have had access to the cell, nor would he have seen Bonhoeffer offering prayers before mounting stairs to the gallows as there were no stairs.  Indeed, this doctor's duty was keeping prisoners alive so as to prolong their agony. 
Bonhoeffer is in the eyes of many a martyr, but it is unlikely that he would have seen himself in that light.  After all, besides Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of his brothers and two brothers-in-law were also executed as a result of their involvement in the conspiracy against Hitler.  He did what he believed he had to do, and he died like so many others because he dared to oppose an evil regime. 

This isn’t a quick read, but neither is it a ponderous one.  It's neither  a hagiography nor the remaking of  a life for ideological purposes.  It is a book written by one who is deeply devoted to the legacy of a man who has impacted the lives of so many in the years following his death at such a young age.  Therefore, it requires of us deep thought and reflection.  Even as it demythologizes the man, by bringing his life into clearer focus, it reveals to us a person whose life and work shines even brighter as the mythological layers are removed.

Anyone wishing to know Bonhoeffer’s story or needing a context in which to read Bonhoeffer’s collected works will find in this book much food for thought and reflection.  My only suggestion is that it be read with John Moses’ The Reluctant Revolutionary, (Bergahn Books, 2009), which gives greater attention than does this biography to the way in which Bonhoeffer challenged the ideological roots of German nationalism and anti-Semitism in ways that were ahead of their time.  He also goes into greater depth than does Schlingensiepen in laying out Bonhoeffer's post-war reception, especially in Germany, where he was considered by many a traitor to his nation for his participation in the attempt to overthrow Hitler.   His light shined brighter earlier outside of Germany than inside.   Read together, however, the reader will get a full-orbed picture of one of the most intriguing figures of modern history and modern theology.

  • Those interested in Bonhoeffer’s biography and know of the book authored by Eric Metaxas would be well served checking out these two reviews of that book, each written by editors of the English translation of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Works, and thus very familiar with Bonhoeffer's life and theology.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Poured Out -- A Lectionary Meditation

Joel 2:23-32

2 Timothy 4:6-18

Luke 8:9-14

Poured Out

Each week, as I sit down to write this lectionary meditation, I look at the text to see if there is something that connects them in one way or another. After all, the creators of the lectionary have tried to some extent to bring some thematic unity to their choices. It doesn’t always work, but often something sticks out, something catches the imagination. As I looked at these three texts, which in some ways are quite distinct, a phrase stood out in two of the passages – the words “pour[ed] out.” In the Joel passage, the Spirit is poured out on the whole people, empowering and equipping them to bear witness to the things of God. In the passage from 2 Timothy, the author (assumed to be Paul in the text) claims to have been “poured out as a libation.” That is, he is being offered up as an offering to God. The words don’t appear in the Lukan parable, but consider the cry of the tax collector, he pours out his heart before God, seeking forgiveness. It could be that the Spirit is being poured out upon us, or it may be that the calling of God has led to our being poured out as an offering, or perhaps it is the need to pour out the heart to God so as to receive God’s gracious offer of forgiveness. Whatever is the case, we are being called upon to rest our lives in the hands of God.

If there is this common word usage, the passages themselves take us in different directions. Each is well known to many people of faith. The Joel passage has long been familiar to me as it has been used as a basis of Pentecostal theology. The second half of the passage serves as a foundation for Peter’s sermon in Acts 2, where he interprets the events of the Pentecost experience in light of this very text. In Peter’s mind (as presented by Luke), Joel’s promises of the coming of the Spirit upon the people of God so that young and old, male and female, slave and free might bear witness to God’s grace is being fulfilled. The first half has been used by Pentecostal preachers to suggest that the renewed Pentecostal experience of the 20th century is itself a fulfillment of Joel, and thus is a sign that God is winding things down. What had been lost, as Aimee Semple McPherson, declared in a famous sermon, has now been restored. Now is the time of the Latter Rain. Whatever our sense of the Pentecostal interpretation, there is a strong promise here that God is at work restoring that which is broken.

In the letter to Timothy, the author (named here as Paul) is reflecting on his own life, and acknowledging that the end is near. He has fought the good fight and has finished the race. He did what God had called upon him to do. He has no regrets, for he now awaits the “crown of righteousness,” which awaits all those who long for the appearing of Christ Jesus. Yes, it has been difficult at times – witness the report of the opposition and even abandonment by friends and supporters. But in the end, it doesn’t matter, because even if his human friends abandoned him – I picture the author identifying himself with Jesus on the night of his betrayal – the Lord has stood with him. Yes, the Lord has stood with him so that the message of God might be proclaimed to the Gentiles. He has been rescued from attacks by those who would do him evil, but now the heavenly realm awaits him, he is content, and so he can stop and offer praise to God for his glory.

The Lukan Parable is brief, powerful, and requiring a bit of caution as we approach it. The point of the parable is to address those who put their trust in their own righteousness, and not only that but treat others with contempt. Yes, this is a parable that challenges our tendency toward self-righteousness. “But, by the grace of God, goes me,” we might like to say. We think of this sentiment as giving praise to God, but does it really? Are we not suggesting that God somehow loves us more than the other, which is why we’re not down on our luck?

The person in this passage who goes home forgiven, after going to the Temple to pray, is a Tax Collector. As we all know, tax collectors have been despised since the beginning of time. For a tax collector to refer to the self as a “miserable sinner” would be deemed appropriate by most of us. This man, who has gone to the Temple, acts in a manner appropriate to one who has sinned. He dare not look up into the heavens, for that would be the height of arrogance. No, he bowed his head low, as a sign of his contrition for his misdeeds. He beats his breast as a sign of his grief at his actions in life, and asks that God would be merciful to him for he is a mere sinner.

The moral of the story is that those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. Or as Jesus says elsewhere, the last shall be first, and the first last. So, where is the problem?

Ah, yes, the problem with this text is that Luke contrasts the unrighteous, but forgiven Tax Collector with the self-righteous, but unforgiven, Pharisee. How often do we use the Pharisee as the example of the self-righteous, stuffed shirt, sort? Even with the best of intentions, we can slip into such usage, when in fact, despite the animus seemingly present in the gospels, the Pharisees were devout, broadminded, faithful, tithers even (who wouldn’t want a few of those in a church?). But, by focusing our attention on the “Pharisee,” as a member of a religious party, we might miss something much more important. As Ron Allen and Clark Williamson note in their lectionary commentary, this passage uncovers an attitude that is potentially present in all of us, “the ease with which we turn the love of God into self-adulation, the pride we take in our humility” (Williamson and Allen, Preaching the Gospels without Blaming the Jews, WJK, 2004, p. 243). The parable then confronts us with an attitude that marks many of us, in which we turn God’s unconditional love into “a condition apart from which God is not free to love, a condition that, presumably, we have met but others have not.” The Tax-Collector, on the other hand, had no such allusions that he was the beneficiary of God’s unconditional love, and therefore he didn’t take it for granted or assume that he was on the inside already. Jesus commends him for his willingness to honestly pour out his heart before God, making himself more receptive to God’s unconditional love. May such be true for each of us.

Republished from [D]mergent

Friday, October 22, 2010

Building Cultures of Trust -- Review

BUILDING CULTURES OF TRUST.  By Martin E. Marty.   Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010.  192 pp.

    Back in the day, a song by the rock group Three Dog Night suggested  that “one is the loneliest number that there ever was.”  I’d like to paraphrase that line to read: “trust is the loneliest word that there ever was.”  At least in the current situation, trust seems in short supply.  Where once the mantra was “don’t trust anyone over thirty,” today we don’t trust anyone or thing, including politicians, government, religious institutions, science, corporations, banks – think about that for a minute, a bank is supposedly a “trust” institution -- and the courts.  We have become a nation of conspiracy theorists, where a significant minority believes it’s Jesus-confessing President is a closet Muslim who was born in Kenya.  But, if trust is in short supply, how then can our society survive, let alone function?   Although a certain degree of suspicion is healthy, lest we allow ourselves to be scammed and defrauded, we’ve moved far beyond healthy skepticism, which makes building cultures of trust difficult.  
    Building cultures of trust the topic of Martin Marty’s latest book, and if any figure has earned our trust over the years, it is Dr. Marty.  He is not only an elder statesman in the Christian world, he is known for his sagacity and discernment.  If anyone can point us in the right direction so that we can again build trust in one another, it would be him.  This book is Marty’s contribution to the Emory University “Studies in Law and Religion,” and is based on a series of lectures Marty gave for the Trust Institute at the State University of New York at Stony Brook in 2008.  In these revised lectures, Marty suggests that trust starts with the individual, and has to do with a person’s character, resolve, and ability to change.  However, trust doesn’t stop with the individual.  Trust must involve others, and it evolves in the context of social cultures, which provide for conditions where the task of building trust can occur and even thrive. 

    Trust, as Marty continually reminds readers, involves risk.  Indeed, it requires risk, for if there is no risk, then there is no need to trust.  The current context, therefore, provides an important place to explore the possibilities of trust building.  Our discussion is framed in the context of 9/11 and the attendant conspiracy thinking, an ongoing economic crisis, failure of banks, distrust of the government’s ability to rescue Americans in times of disaster (Katrina, Bank bailouts, etc.), foreclosures, retirement accounts that have decreased in value, if not totally disappearing, criminal economic activity (Bernie Madoff, for example), bribery, media deception, trust-breaking by religious institutions, the growing presence of religious “strangers,” and exploited public.  None of this makes trust-building easy, and yet, it is the contention of the author that this is necessary if society is to exist in any meaningful way. 

    The goal of this venture is building cultures of trust, and by “culture,” he has in mind something akin to a definition provided by Philip Bagby in a 1958 book, which defines a culture as “regularities in the behaviour, internal and external, of the members of a society, excluding those regularities which are clearly hereditary in nature.”  Two cultures that will intersect in this conversation are the religious and scientific communities, along with the broader context of public life, which are experienced through certain “modes,” including thinking, feeling, and behaving.  In these contexts a culture of trust is to be built and experienced.   A culture of trust, then, can be defined as existing “when there is evidence that through internal or external means the religious, political, economic, artistic, scientific, technological, educational, and linguistic expressions of a group lead participants to count on each other and keep commitments” (p. 15). 

    Trust assumes risk.  Whether it is an athletic adventure, a medical procedure, or an investment, going forward involves risk, as we trust our lives and futures to the hands of others.  Both trust and risk are experienced at various levels, and Marty names seven that begin with the self or the soul.  It requires assessing one’s interior life and one’s experience with others.  This is the foundation and moves along through experiencing the other, to the input of education, life in community, and onward to the telling of our stories.  Marty notes that “stories of betrayal or victimization undercut efforts to build elements of cultures of trust,” while stories of heroes and faithfulness inspire trust (p. 33).    Thus, the question then becomes – what stories are being told, recognizing that trust is difficult to build and easy to destroy.  Indeed, the very fact that we have locks on our doors is a reminder that at our very core, we’re mistrustful of others. 

    In seeking a foundation for building these cultures, Marty looks to what he calls “scripted resources” and “humanistic reflections.”  The first comprise the various scriptures or sacred texts, together with the theological/historical sources that emerge from these texts.  Religion is part of the conversation when it comes to the task of building cultures of trust.  They often provide the vocabulary and the lessons about trust and mistrust.  Indeed, faith is by definition trust, built upon the expectation that God is reliable.  Faith/religion, then, is one of the central building blocks of society.  Although Marty recognizes that all religions contribute to this conversation, for the purposes of this book he limits himself to the Western traditions, which are influenced by Jewish and Christian traditions, together with classical and Enlightenment texts.  The second component is the humanistic/secular contribution, which leads to an interesting construct that forms the foundation for cultures of trust, something he calls “religio-secular.”  This construct seems awkward, but it may be a better way of describing the legacy upon which Western society is built than is Judeo-Christian.  Built into this conversation is the realization that the biblical texts do contain a sense of realism that relates closely to the conversation – whether or not we call it original sin, there is the recognition that cultures of trust can’t count on the “natural trustworthiness of humans.”  But, while there is need for a “hermeneutic of suspicion,” if we’re to move forward we’ll also need a “hermeneutic of trust.” 

    When we come to the humanistic part, Marty has in mind what we call the humanities – the contribution of classical and Enlightenment philosophy, from Plato to Aristotle, and on to Locke, Hume, and even Hobbes.  Each of these sources accept the need for suspicion and even mistrust, and yet provide a foundation for creating cultures of trust.  Hume and Locke constructed, for instance, the idea of the social contract and Kant the “categorical imperative.”  The principal lessons of this tradition concern the fact that the more people keep the promises they make, the greater the possibility of creating networks or cultures of trust.  Experience and habit lead to the ability to trust and be trusted.  Thus, reason plays an important role in this process. 

    Having laid out the resources upon which cultures of trust might be built, Marty moves  to the task of “correcting ‘category mistakes’.”  It is in this context that Marty brings in the religion/science conversation.  He notes that partisans from the science side and the religious side have often attacked each other.  These attacks, which lead to mistrust, are rooted in modes of experience and differences in language or “universes of discourse.”  Mistrust occurs when we misapply modes of understanding to something.  He uses, to give an example the folly that emerges when a scientist steps into the debate over the real presence, assuming that the issue can be resolved by testing the wine and bread to see if they have changed.  On the other side of the coin, creation science is built on category mistakes, where scientific questions are resolved by through scriptural interpretation.  But, Marty wants to facilitate conversation and trust, which means that science and faith can’t be compartmentalized – as Stephen J. Gould would have it.  Instead, he would have us see these questions in terms of modalities or voices, in which the methods and values of one are not confused with the other. 

    Having offered his conclusions on category mistakes, he moves to the importance of conversation to the process.  Category mistakes occur when we don’t pay attention to the rules of conversation, and therefore violate the boundaries of conversation.  True conversation, which leads to trust building requires one to listen to the other, allowing ideas to flow back and forth.  These conversations cannot be built if, like the fundamentalist, we impatiently wait our turn to denounce the other.  Interestingly, what we might consider trivial conversation can lead to trust-building because it allows participants to get a sense of the other, making possible the creation of trust. 

    In this book, the goal is to lay out a basis for trust-building conversations between science and religion.  The controversies of the day emerge when private thoughts/conversations go public.  And the conversation becomes vulnerable when it is caught up in politics.  To move toward trust building conversations we must recognize that the universes of discourse that occur within the scientific, religious, and even the political cultures are distinct, but not isolated.  If we don’t follow the rules set up in one culture, then we end up with category mistakes, confusion, and mistrust.  Indeed, problems arise when one side seeks dominion over the other.  But, trust can be built if we set aside the desire for dominion and for settling everything.  Conversations don’t have to settle every issue.  Conversation is informed, but the goal isn’t winning something.  The goal is understanding and trust-building.  Conversations are ongoing and often inconclusive.  Thus, science and religion could be considered two different world views of a single reality.  According to Marty, “both are God-given in the sense that God is revealed through human minds and hands not only in Scripture, but also in the scientific insight that God allowed us to develop through our senses and brainpower” (pp. 169-170).  Dialog such as this requires that each discipline be allowed its own integrity – they can challenge each other, but you can’t, for instance, reject a well-founded scientific theory such as evolution because it conflicts with your interpretation of scripture.  Ultimately, mistrust is often rooted in miscommunication. 

    The goal of the dialogs between world views or modes of experience, is building cultures of trust, cultures where we respect each other’s views.  We do not have to always agree or even find resolution, but we respect the rules by which the other does their work.  In difficult times, such as these, it is important that we begin working on this task.

    This is, in every way, a timely book.  When there is an increasing lack of trust in any form of authority, when increasing numbers of religious people are questioning the findings of science – not just on evolution but climate change and more – it is important to have this call to action, and the action required of us is to join in building a culture of trust.  The message here is clear; although the challenges are great, there is a pathway that can lead to a culture of trust, if only we’re willing to take the necessary risks and be willing to listen to the other.  We are, once again beholden to the wisdom of Martin Marty.