Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Power of Love -- A Sermon

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

    With a sermon title like this, you’d think it was Valentine’s Day!   But that’s still a couple of weeks off.  Or, maybe you think I’m going to talk about an old “Huey Lewis and the News” song from the 1980s.  But, again you’d be wrong – in part because I probably wouldn’t have thought of the song, except Chris Cartwright asked last Sunday if I was going to talk about it in my sermon!   So, even if it’s not Valentine’s Day, and I’m not talking about an old pop song from a movie about time travel in a Delorean car, the questions remain: what is love and what is its power?

    I think you will agree with me that the word love can have a lot of different meanings.  It can speak of romance, but not always.  So, when I say “I love you” to Cheryl, hopefully that means something different from saying “I love the San Francisco Giants” or “I love pizza.”   Love has to do with feelings and emotions, but feelings and emotions can be fickle and fleeting.  You can fall desperately in love one day, thinking it’s the real thing, and the next day move on to someone else, especially when you’re young.  

    If all of this is true, then what do we mean when we say:  "God is love?”   Could this love be as fleeting as a teenager’s crush?  I don’t mean to put down teenage emotions, because I was once a teenager myself, and I remember what it was like.  The question here concerns whether God’s love dependent on the moment?      

1.  Love Defined

    1 Corinthians 13 is perhaps the best-known love song in history.  Although  I’ve used this text in numerous  wedding ceremonies, this isn’t a wedding song.  What it offers is a definition of divine love and then it invites us to share in it.  As we listen to the song, it becomes clear that the love described here is more than an emotional response to a person or a thing. 

    So, what does it speak of?   As we try to answer this question, a problem of language pops up.  The problem is that the English  word “love” has many nuances and uses,  which is why I can use it to speak of my spouse, my favorite food, and God.   In the English language, context usually determines meaning. 

    Paul, on the other hand, was writing in Greek, and the Greeks had at least four very precise words that typically get translated into English as love.   C.S. Lewis placed these four words into two categories:  Gift-Love and Need-Love.  He wrote that:    
    "The typical example of Gift-love would be that love which moves a man to work and save for the future well-being of his family, which he will die without sharing or seeing; of the second, that which sends a lonely or frightened child to its mother's arms."

As we listen to the reading of 1 Corinthians 13, a hymn Paul likely borrowed rather than wrote for this occasion, it appears that his definition falls into the first category.  In fact, by reading this passage in the context of the Corinthian letter, we discover that Paul was focused on resolving a church conflict, which means that this is a song about practical living, not emotion.  It’s a love that calls on warring factions to lay down their arms and embrace each other.  That is a very powerful form of  love, and I believe that it’s the kind of love that only comes from the heart of God.
2.  Marks of Love   

    Listening to this song, three words emerge concerning the power of love:  
  •   Love is Essential
    This hymn of love begins in the first person:  "If I speak with tongues"; "If I have all prophetic powers"; "if I give away all my possessions";  "if I embrace the flames of martyrdom."  All of this might be good, but it matters nothing without love.  Tongues, prophesy, sacrificial giving, and martyrdom, they may all have their place in the church, but without love, they have no value, no purpose, and no power.  They are nothing more than noise and useless gestures.   But, if they are accompanied by divine love, then these gifts and abilities -- which Paul lays out in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 will give the church the power to change the world.
  • Love is Practical
    The Greek word used for love in 1 Corinthians 13 is agape, a word that’s related to the Hebrew word hesed, which means "steadfast love."   This kind of love is very practical.  It’s outward looking, pushing us to seek the best for others rather than for our selves.  According to the song, it’s patient and kind; it isn't jealous, boastful, arrogant, or rude.  It doesn't insist on its own way, nor does it become irritable or resentful.  It protests injustice and rejoices in the truth.  As the New Living Translation puts it:  "Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance."  This kind of love is full of hope, and it is a love that enables us to welcome everyone into the community of faith.   
    Such a love isn’t easy to come by, but then it isn’t a human emotion .  It is, rather, a gift of God.  It comes to us by grace, as we allow God to dwell within us and transform us.  This transformation, which begins on the inside and continues to work its way outwardly, doesn’t happen overnight.  It requires maturity and commitment.  Often it emerges out of suffering, but as Paul reminds us elsewhere suffering leads to endurance, and endurance to character, and character to hope, and hope comes to us through the love of God that is poured out upon us through the Holy Spirit  (Romans 5:1-5). 

    Of course, none of us perfectly live out this love, and yet it’s still our calling and our purpose as followers of Jesus — the one who perfectly embodied God’s love.  As Jesus said to his disciples, “I came not to be served, but to serve” (Mark 10:45).  
  • Love is Permanent
    “Gift-love” has an important partner in “need-love,” because it calls forth from us the  “gift love” that comes to us from God.  Ultimately this  “need-love” doesn’t last, but that doesn’t make it bad, it just means it’s not permanent.   Lew Smedes, who was my seminary ethics professor, had this to say about Eros:

    "Eros flickers and fades as the winds of desire rise and wane.  Change is the way of life for Eros.  This indeed is part of the power of Eros.  Its very fragility creates the possibility of repeated excitement.  We could not endure a steady stream of Eros at its highest pitch:  we need the valleys to be inspired by the peaks."

Eros ebbs and flows, it rises with the excitement of newness and dies when that newness fades.  That doesn’t mean we should despise Eros, it just means that it is impermanent.  While agapic love is essential, life needs more than this one kind of love.  Agapic love needs Eros, because, despite its limitations, it is, as Lew Smedes writes,
     "The driving power for personal growth.  It may not endure unchanged into eternity, but its unrelenting urges move us beyond ourselves in this life.  All creativity rises from the need-power of Eros.  Eros is a drive created by human need for a share in what is beautiful; it is life's aesthetic power.  . . . Eros is a drive rising from human need for personal completion and human communion."3

    Eros drives us, but agape transforms us.  Eros drives us out into the world, but agape motivates us to serve the leper, the homeless person, and the one who is dying, even though no reward will be forthcoming.  Therefore, it’s agape, which is permanent, that finally enables us to do what we wouldn’t otherwise consider possible.  This is the kind of love that enables a spouse to stand by the other through serious and even debilitating illness.  It’s the love pictured in the parable of the prodigal son that allows a parent to keep loving and caring for a rebellious child.  It’s the love that enables a congregation composed of very different personalities and needs to stand together as one people.  Yes, agapic love is what allows us to risk our lives for one another.   But this love only exists because of an infusion of God’s grace.   Perhaps this is why the older translation of the word is Charity. 
   Divine love doesn’t replace natural love, as if we must, in Lewis’ words, “throw away our silver to make room for the gold.”4   It’s simply this: that which is natural is transformed by grace into sweet charity.  And there’s no better expression of this than the incarnation. As Christians we affirm the mystery that God has become flesh and dwelt among us.  In Christ, the human and the divine come together to perfectly display the power of love.  And it is a love that embraces us and empowers us to love others even as God, in Christ, through the Holy Spirit, loves the creation.    

  1. C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves, (HBJ, 1960), 11.
  2. Lewis Smedes, Love Within Limits, (Eerdmans, 1978), 120.
  3. Smedes, 120-21.
  4. Lewis, Four Loves,  184.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church
Troy, Michigan
January 31, 2009
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Concerning the Math -- More on the Troy Millage question

I have previously raised questions about the math being used by Troy Citizens United in their campaign to defeat the 1.9% millage increase.  The way the opponents are couching their position, you are led to believe, as I read it, that homeowners and businesses will experience a significant -- 29% -- increase in their tax payments.   What they fail to say, as I read it, is that the reason for the increased millage is that taxable values have decreased, so that taxable receipts will decrease, but costs to run the city and provide services are not decreasing at the same level.  So, despite privatization, wage concessions, and lay-offs, it will be impossible to keep services at the same level as today, without increased revenue.  

One of the issues at hand concerns whose numbers you're going to trust.  Now, I'm new to the city, and I don't know all the players.  Indeed, I don't know who is involved in Troy Citizens United -- though I did see that it was the backer of one of the current city council members campaign a few years ago.  So, at this point, I'm going to trust the city's numbers, as I have no reason at this point to question their veracity.  

Therefore, I'd like to share this note that was passed on to my, that comes from the current city assessor.  This note calls into question the claims of the opponents of the millage increase.  So, I'd love to know the answers to a couple of questions -- who is Troy Citizens United, and what is their purpose for existing?  From what I can see, they originally formed to oppose the use of public lands for building a conference center/hotel complex back in 2002.  But is that why it exists today?  And, why should we believe their numbers over the assessor's numbers?

Letter to the Editor

Re:  It’s not a 29% tax increase, it’s $38.

   The Troy ballot proposal to increase the millage rate by 1.9 is being mislabeled as a 29% tax increase.  It is not a 29% tax increase for anyone, it’s a 3.4% change ($38) on the City portion of the average residential tax bill.   That 3.4% ($38) average increase on the City portion of the tax bill is a 9.5% ($393) average reduction in overall residential taxes, even with the increase. 

   Residents are being told that a 29% increase in the Operating millage, or a 20% change in the overall City millage rate equals a 29% tax increase.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Here’s why.

   Taxes equal Rate times Value.   While the proposal would raise the millage Rate portion by 1.9 Mills, the average residential taxable Value is dropping by 14%.    The average residential Taxable Value in Troy for 2009 was $120,014.  That is equal to $1,114 in City taxes ($4,151 in total taxes).

   The average residential Taxable Value in Troy for 2010 will be $103,000.  That is equal to $1,152 in City taxes (with a 1.9 Mill increase), a difference of 3.4%, or $38 ($3,758 in total taxes).   That’s a 3.4% change ($38), not 29% as has been represented.

   Even with a 1.9 Mill increase in City taxes the average 2010 Troy total residential tax bill will be $393 less than the average 2009 average total residential tax bill.  This is a 9.5% reduction, not a 29% increase.

      The Consumer Price Index (CPI) for 2010 is .997.  That guarantees that everyone’s Taxable Value will decrease this coming year (except for new business Personal Property purchases).  The vast majority will decrease far more than this.

   This data, and answers to frequently asked questions are on the City of Troy web page at , Special Election information link.
Leger A. (Nino) Licari CMAE IV
Assessor, City of Troy
500 W Big Beaver
Troy, MI 48084

Leger A. (Nino) Licari is the State Certified
 Assessor for the City of Troy.  He has been
employed by the City for 30 years,
and is an 18 year resident.

Friday, January 29, 2010

GROWING DEEPER in our Church Community by Chris Smith

Chris Smith, editor/publisher of the Englewood Review of Books is offering a free e-book entitled Growing Deeper in our Church Community.   In it he offers 50 ways we can grow deeper in church community.  It's quite good and challenging.

He writes to offer ways in which we who are disconnected from the community and from God might be reconnected.  We live in a fragmented and polarized world, but there is hope.  Chris writes:

The purpose of this little book is to spark our imaginations with practical ideas of how we can become more deeply connected first with those that God has gathered in our churches and then with our neighbors as well. The ideas here focus on three primary facets of connection that are essential for our churches: connecting with people, connecting with place and connecting with God’s mission.
That sounds like something worth pursuing!

Now, before you check out the book site, here is a bit about Chris --
Chris Smith is a member of the Englewood Christian Church community on the near-eastside of Indianapolis.  He is also the editor of The Englewood Review of Books.  He regularly writes and speaks on topics related to church, community and God’s reconciliation of all things.

You can find the e-book by clicking here. 

Passage into Discipleship -- Review

Passage into Discipleship: Guide to BaptismPASSAGE INTO DISCIPLESHIP: Guide to Baptism.  By Christopher W. Wilson.  St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2009.  vi + 105 pp.

    Baptism is an important rite of passage in the life of a Christian, although for some traditions this happens long before the recipient of water is able to own the rite.  In those traditions that practice infant baptism, parents and sponsors promise to help the child grow into being a member of the community of faith.  This usually happens during a rite called confirmation.  Other traditions, including mine, apply the water at a moment in which a person is able to make a profession of faith.  This was once called adult baptism, but the age at which a person is baptized in believer traditions has gotten increasingly younger – generally in late elementary and junior high age rages.    
    Whatever the age one is baptized or confirmed (in some ways, the question has to do with when do we apply the water?) , there needs to be instruction in the faith.  Christopher W. Wilson, Executive Pastor of Rush Creek Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Arlington, Texas, provides just such a resource.  Published recently by Chalice Press, Passage into Discipleship is a one-book-resource and guide for baptismal instruction of young people ages seven to 14. 

    The book provides for a twelve-session series for young people, seven of these, including an orientation session at the beginning and one focusing on the nature of the church, involve classroom-related activities, and the other five are experiential.  At the end of the sessions, the author suggests a day long retreat to draw things together.

    The series focuses on confession, contrition, covenant, community, connection, and church.  The first section, confession, focuses on providing a theological foundation for Christian faith – in the experiential component Wilson suggests a field trip – first to a rather remote spot where the young people shout out something they like to do and then a phrase from the confessional sheets provided in the classroom setting.  Then, they’re supposed to go to a more populated spot and do the same – whether you can get young people to do this, is an interesting question.  From confession, we go to contrition, which involves a conversation about sin and  repentance as a step toward faithfulness.  Covenant plays a role, perhaps in part because the term is central to Disciple self identity.  Being that we’re a non-creedal and non-hierarchical community, covenant becomes the means by which we connect with God and with each other.  It is here that the baptismal issues are discussed as well.   In the experiential session, the students recreate the Upper Room so as to get a sense of the context of the Last Supper.  From there they move onto a conversation about community, and in the experiential component the young people are invited to share in a community improvement project.  Sessions 10 and 11 focus on connection, with special attention given to spiritual gifts and the role they play in one’s service in and through the church.

    The final class session focuses on the church, and here the focus is on understanding the specific identity of the denominational tradition, and one’s place within it.  Materials in the book focus on Disciples life, but the author suggests that one can adapt quite easily for other traditions.  It is really only in this final session that the Disciple component stands out.  Otherwise it’s quite ecumenical and adaptable to any tradition – including those that practice infant baptism. 

    The author suggests the use of mentors for the candidates for baptism, and offers guidelines as to how these should be selected and how they should operate in the process.  He makes it clear that some thought should be given to this, including background checks.  He also suggests that same-gender mentors by chosen, and that meetings should take place in public.  All of which is good advice for all activities that involve children.

    At the top I mentioned that this is a one-book resource guide to baptism.  That is, the written resources for class discussions and activities are found in the appendices at the end of the book.  These can be copied and used freely.  Other items one can find easily at hand.  That means that there is no need for more than one book. 
    As a reviewer, I don’t currently have the opportunity to test the materials – I don’t have any baptism ready children to take through the process.  But, it does look like it would work well, especially in settings where you have a number of children involved. 

    One thing I do watch for in resources such as this, is the ideological/theological bent.  As I read through the resource, my sense is that the author is very centrist/moderate in theology.  At points, especially in the section on contrition you see a more evangelical slant present.  Then, in the section on connection it’s suggested that the leader read the students a brief book by Max Lucado, an evangelically inclined Church of Christ pastor.  But, there are other sections, especially regarding community that point children toward concern for social justice outreach.  If you’re looking for a specifically progressive resource, this might not fit the bill.  But, if you’re looking for something quite centrist and moderate, something that can be adapted to one’s own needs, then this looks like a good piece. 

Von Daniken, Aliens, and Worship

James McGrath, Associate Professor of Religion and Clarence L. Goodwin Chair of New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University, and fellow blogger, is teaching a course I wish I could have taken in college -- Religion and Science Fiction.  The topic of a recent class concerned the theories of Erich Von Daniken, a purveyor of alien lore.  I remember the books and TV shows back in the 1970s, about the Chariots of the Gods The idea was that many of the amazing buildings and humanly created desert formations owe themselves to alien presences. 

The idea that the pyramids of Egypt or South America had alien designers has intrigued folks for some time.  We wonder how a much less sophisticated culture could do such things.  So, maybe there is a better answer.  It is, of course, not just a premise in Von Daniken's books -- consider the Stargate series and movie -- The ancient Egyptian gods were ancient alien travelers.

So let me ask readers of this blog a question an atheist once asked me: If it turned out that "everything in the Bible happened as it says it did," the only difference being that the being who reveals himself and accomplishes these things is a highly evolved intelligence that arose through natural processes over the course of many universes, how if at all would that affect your faith? Would you worship such a being? Why or why not? Would you consider this to scientifically prove the Bible true, or to undermine it, and once again why?

What might your answer be?
Here's my attempt:
You know, I don't have an answer to the question. It's possible, but its hypothetical. The Stargate thesis is that we're masters of our own destiny. If I follow Col. O'Neil, then I guess if such an eventuality turned up, maybe I'd not worship. But, then again . . .

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Pandora's Box of James Cameron -- Sightings

I must admit that I have not seen Avatar.  I know that I'm among the few who has not seen the movie, but that is the truth of it.  But, I must add that my wife isn't interested and my nearly 20 year old son who contemplated film school is in an anti-CGI mood.  My brother, on the other hand, thought it was one of the best ever.  So, what can I say -- at least one member of the family has seen it and likes it.

But, I do realize that there is a lot of buzz about the movie, especially its religious and ecological themes.  Those two go together -- as we're discovering in the bible study I'm leading at church. 

So, since I really have nothing to add to the discussion -- It is good to know that someone does, and Joseph Laycock, a PhD student at Boston University, helps us understand the attraction of the movie, and offers some important critique, in today's issue of Sightings.


Sightings 1/28/10

The Pandora’s Box of James Cameron
-- Joseph Laycock

Warning:  spoilers below.

Avatar, James Cameron’s high-budget blockbuster, is on track to become the highest grossing film of all time.  This two and a half hour saga tells the tale of the Na’vi, a race of blue skinned aliens with a pre-industrial culture.  Their planet, Pandora, is home to an ecosystem that has achieved a kind of sentience, and which the Na’vi revere as a deity.  The Na’vi way of life is interrupted by human strip-miners, who have come to Pandora in search of a mineral with the unlikely name “unobtanium.”

While audiences can simply enjoy the film’s cutting-edge special effects, few appear to be doing so.  Instead, Avatar has been compared to a cultural “Rorschach test,” onto which numerous allegorical meanings can be read, and discussions of Avatar frequently stumble into the realm of the transcendent.  Gaetano Vallini of the Vatican’s newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, received wide media attention for his review of the film.  Although Vallini expressed neither outrage nor enthusiasm, he did suggest that a heavy-handed form of nature religion “bogged down” the story.  Since Vallini’s review, the blogosphere has filled with posts debating Avatar’s significance as an endorsement of pantheism.

Even more interesting is the phenomenon of depression among those who have recently seen the movie.  Some viewers reported great distress after seeing Pandora and realizing that their existence is confined to Earth.  A comment on one of the forums that has sprung up around the film reads, “It's so hard.  I can't force myself to think that it's just a movie, and to get over it, that living like the Na'vi will never happen.”  Most viewers appear to recover in a day or so.  But for some, Avatar appears to have raised a truly existential problem.  One poster commented, “I even contemplate suicide thinking that if I do it I will be rebirthed in a world similar to Pandora and that everything is the same as in Avatar.”  And a growing community comprises individuals who feel that they are Na’vi who have somehow been incarnated as human beings.  Websites like “We Are Na’vi” feature discussions of how James Cameron managed to get so many details of the Na’vi home world correct.

Avatar has been compared with numerous other films about the conflict between pre- and post-industrial cultures, including Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, and Fern Gully.  Surprisingly, it has not been compared to The Space Trilogy by C.S. Lewis.  These books, written during the Second World War, combine Christian themes of fall and redemption with space exploration.  Lewis’ hero is sent against his will to Mars, home to several races of benevolent humanoids, by a group of scientists hoping to plunder the planet’s resources.  Eventually it is revealed that the rest of the solar system enjoys a state of prelapsarian grace:  Earth alone is a fallen planet and the domain of spiritual evil.  The religiosity emerging around Avatar may actually be more akin to Lewis’ Christian cosmology than to the new-age influences cited by the Vatican and others.

The idea that our world is flawed and that a perfect world exists elsewhere is the hallmark of a transcendent religion.  Karl Jaspers argued that between 800 and 200 BCE numerous civilizations from Greece to Israel to China began to form an idea of a transcendent order.  This “Axial Age” led to the rise of the world religions that have largely eclipsed older beliefs such as pantheism.  It also created a lasting social tension between the transcendent order and the mundane.  Cameron created the world of Pandora through technology never before seen by mankind.  For some, this seems to have had the effect of the transcendent vision described by Jaspers.  Compared to Pandora – as a movie-going experience for some and as a real possibility for others – Earth is a prison that must be escaped.  In fact, in one of the final scenes of Avatar the narrator makes a statement that is certainly poignant and possibly soteriological: “The aliens [i.e. humans] went back to their dying world.  Only a few were chosen to stay.” 

Ironically, the desire to live in another world is the antithesis of the pantheistic religion of the Na’vi.  While the Na’vi could imagine an even better world – perhaps one not inhabited by enormous carnivores – they do not.  The Axial Age has yet to occur on Pandora.  The perpetual search for a more perfect and more meaningful world is a uniquely human behavior.  But while humans cannot brachiate through phosphorescent jungles or ride prehistoric raptors, we can take comfort in our ability to imagine better worlds and to re-order our own.  In this sense, we have a type of radical freedom that the Na’vi do not.

“You Saw What in ‘Avatar’? Pass Those Glasses!” Dave Itzkoff, The New York Times, 20 January, 2010.

“Audiences experience ‘Avatar’ blues,” Jo Piazza,, 11 January, 2010.

We Are Na’vi [Na’vi Reborn]

Joseph Laycock is a PhD student in religion and society at Boston University, and the author of Vampires Today: The Truth About Modern Vampirism (Praeger Publishers, 2009).

In 2010's first edition of the Religion and Culture Web Forum ("The Uses and Misuses of Polytheism and Monotheism in Hinduism"), Wendy Doniger explores the complex nature of Hindu theology and its relationship to historical and political issues by focusing on a simple question: "Is Hinduism monotheistic or polytheistic?"  Her answer offers intriguing implications for the distinction between theological identities of "one" and "many" in Hinduism and--as respondents with expertise in other theological traditions reflect--beyond.  With invited responses from Martin Marty, Willemien Otten, Katherine E. Ulrich, and Ananya Vajpeyi.  
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

A President Speaks On the Union

Last night the President of the United States spoke to the nation about the state of the union.  I didn't see all of it -- but watched a considerable portion on CSPAN (Here is a link to a transcript).  Before turning to CSPAN I watched for a few minutes the conversation at CNN.  Typical, the Republicans didn't like the speech, more Democratic commentators did.  Gloria Borger was amazed it took 25 minutes to get to health care, but then it appears that Americans are tired of that conversation.  But, as I watched the middle section of the speech, I heard him take up health care -- in context.  He made it clear that we've gotten this close to reform, and so we can't let it drop now.   He admitted that he hadn't done a good job telling the story -- but he put it in context in the speech.  Indeed, he remains committed as ever, but it needs to be seen in context of bettering our economic situation.

The economy was the focus of his attention -- he reminded Congress (and us) that he came into office with a crisis already afoot.  He had to focus on things like upholding the banks -- not because he loves Wall Street, but because a collapse of Wall Street would have affected Main Street.  But, now its time to get focused on Main Street -- where we all live and work.  

Now, as a Democrat, I appreciated the "partisan" points -- especially his reminding the Democrats in Congress that they continue to have substantial majorities, and also telling Republicans in the Senate not to make 60 votes in the Senate a requirement for doing any business in Congress. 

As I watched him speak, I saw the humor come back, the smile, the comfortable nature of earlier speeches.  It seemed as if he'd broken out of the straitjacket that's been holding him in.  Barack Obama is a serious fellow.  A scholar, a thoughtful person.  I like that in him -- maybe that's because I see a bit of myself in him. 

The message has been delivered, both parties have been enjoined to come together and do the business of the country and not make every day a campaign day.  America has a bright future -- if we're willing to work together.  That's a good message to take home!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Telling the Truth -- Troy Millage Election

As I drive to and fro across Troy, MI (since I live on one side of the city and pastor a church on the other side of the city), I see these blue and white signs telling us to vote no on the upcoming millage election.  Added to these signs, is the message that this is a 29% tax increase.

If it were a 29% tax increase then this would suggest quite a major increase in taxes, and one that would not be fair, but is this the reality?  Are we really going to see a 29% tax increase or is someone monkeying with the numbers for political gain?  They say that because the current millage rate is 6.5%, a 1.9% increase is approximately 1/3 of that number.  But, is that the way it should be calculated?  I don't think so.  Our taxes are based on assessed home values, and so if those values go down, then so do the taxes we pay. 

The opponents of the millage increase tell us that they don't believe the city manager's projections.   Well, that's fine, but in responding I would suggest that the opponents not stoop to telling untruths.  Let us also recognize that if our services depend on revenue produced by taxes taken in, and those taxes are based on home values, if home values are decreasing, so are revenues, and if revenues decrease then we have to either increase taxes or cut services.  The City Manager has made a projection, checked it with the county folks (the same county government so many of the anti's in Troy are enamored with), and has told us what needs to happen. 

Every analyst of the current situation in Troy, MI says that due to decreasing home values our taxes will go down quite substantially.  A millage increase will likely only bring our tax bills slightly above what we're paying now, if that.  I'm a new homeowner in Troy, and I value the services provided here.  There is a top notch (and over-crowded but well used) library.  A nature center and a museum that provide important outlets for our children and the broader community.  We have top rated police and fire coverage.  And our tax rates are among the lowest in the county.  Do we really want to lose what we have?  I don't think so.  But then I don't speak for everyone.

But, back to telling the truth.  There is a populist rage out there, not just in Troy but across the country, and demagogues who manipulate the truth to their own advantage are tapping into and encouraging the fears of people.  I think its time to say no to the demagogues, and take responsibility for rebuilding our communities. 

As for me and my household, we're voting yes on February 23rd.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Where Are Today's Niebuhrs?

Barack Obama, among others, has claimed Reinhold Niebuhr to be a guide.  I have not yet engaged in a thorough reading of Niebuhr's corpus, but I've been dabbling in these works.

Niebuhr was an interesting figure.  He was a pastor (here in Detroit).  He was a social ethicist and professor (at Union Seminary -- although he never earned a doctorate).  He was a friend and mentor to Dietrich Bonhoeffer (I'm reading a very interesting work on Bonhoeffer at this moment entitled The Reluctant Revolutionary).  He was an adviser to Presidents and other leaders.  He was, as a blog article by Michael Jinkins of Austin Presbyterian Seminary points out a significant public intellectual.  The question Jinkins asks is this:  "Where are Have all the Niebuhrs gone?"    That is, where are the Christian public thinkers of the stature of Niebuhr, the ones who make it to the cover of Time Magazine?  Too often its the Pat Robertson types that make it there or the Rick Warrens.  Warren isn't in the Robertson category, but no one would suggest he's a public intellectual figure in the mold of a Niebuhr.

In formulating an answer to the question, Jinkins points to us, to our own responsibility.  To whom are we willing to follow and to whom will we listen.  We get the leaders we ask for and sometimes deserve -- because they are the ones we will listen to. 

Here is what Jinkins writes:

Perhaps much the same holds true for Christian public intellectuals of the caliber of Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhrs emerge because we will listen to them. I don’t mean to take anything away from Niebuhr’s unique genius, but I suspect there are Niebuhrs among us today, if only we would listen for them. What gets put on the cover of “Time” or any other magazine has a lot to do with us and what quality of thinking we will tolerate.

I’ve been wondering recently why we call the most famous of texts Niebuhr wrote “The Serenity Prayer.” True, the opening line goes, “God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed.” But the prayer also prays for “courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.” If Christians care about the quality of public discourse, we ought to pray even more today for the courage to change and the wisdom to discern.

It is a good challenge.  To whom do we have the courage to listen?  And , in the end, do we have the courage to change the discourse? 

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Robertson Paradox -- Sightings

If people are drifting away from religion -- seeing it as irrelevant to life -- why so much attention to the statements of one aging TV evangelist?  That is why would both Jon Stewart and the pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas pay attention?  Martin Marty suggests that maybe religion impinges on us more than we think.  He writes today in answer to a query from writer JeffreyWeiss of Politics Daily. 

Sightings 1/25/10

 The Robertson Paradox?
-- Martin E. Marty

Jeffrey Weiss, who blogs at Politics Daily, sent an e-query to some of us e-columnists, or at least to me, supplementing his blog-list.  He raised enough good questions to merit a response.  Revisiting the by-now-over-visited tragicomedy of televangelist Pat Robertson on Haitians and the Devil, Weiss wanted to discuss a “paradox:”  “From Jon Stewart (a secular Jew, for goodness sakes, who quoted Bible verses on the Daily Show) to the pastor of First Baptist Dallas in Newsweek to, well, you in Sightings, the range of people who have weighed in is impressive.”  Why a paradox?
At home on that range, let me comment.  Yes, Stewart is a secular Jew; I’d prefer to call him a “profane” one, in the etymological and other senses, but he is at home with the Bible.  Weiss thought that Stewart had nothing to do with religion.  Correction:  Among many instances of familiarity and interaction with religion, his Daily Show hosted Jim Wallis of Sojourners for a third time last week.  The First Baptist pastor?  He was on the spot because Robertson is a fellow-Baptist, but it was not hard for him to distance himself publicly from “Pat.”  As for me?  I’m in the business of being unsurprised by the many evidences of religion in American culture, and report on some each week.  What surprised me is that Weiss, who really knows his religion, was surprised by the attention to religion in this kind of national case.
He asked:  “Is it just that Robertson is such an easy target?”  Partly.  But, adds Weiss, “Would so many people pile on if they didn’t care about the topic?  Why bother offering a ‘correction’ if the subject is irrelevant?”  Now we are getting to the point.  I’d argue that “so many people do care about the topic” of religion.  From the New Atheists through profane and even obscene Comedy Central comics, the Hollywood of today, the United States Supreme Court, and higher academe – where religion is back, and strong – there is noise.  So the question becomes, why would Weiss get the impression that few people care?  He has some reasons.
As I recall, he won spurs in metropolitan daily newspapers, where City Desk editors often get grumbled about by religion-desk writers, who often have to fight for space and status when the assignment editors are indifferent to or hostile about religion.  But as our weekly assessments in a decade and more of Sightings point out, religion shows up in numberless ways.  Once more, then, why is Weiss puzzled over this paradox?  He answers clearly:  Many of the new polls show American citizens ignoring religious dogma and communion, and then drifting or galloping off to ill-defined, non-institutional religion or “spirituality.”  So one might not expect such citizens to care.
That evidence of drift and distancing from informed, intact, and institutional religion tells much about current Americans, but not about the kind of religion that makes news, because news-making religion still impinges on the drifters’ lives.  A few code words will illustrate:  religion and militant Islam, the Religious Right, priestly sexual scandals, Haitian relief efforts, ordination of gays and anti-gay activities in denominations, Israel and Zionism, and, for that matter, the popularity of magazines whenever they put anything about about Jesus on the cover.  One wishes – and I think Weiss, as he covers religion, wishes – that there were more attention given to what I just called “informed, intact, and institutional” religion as opposed to Protean and often egregious or violent forms.  But when people reacted to Robertson while he was acting egregiously, they were not stepping out of character.  One needs no telescopes to discover subjects when doing Sightings in religion.


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

In 2010's first edition of the Religion and Culture Web Forum ("The Uses and Misuses of Polytheism and Monotheism in Hinduism"), Wendy Doniger explores the complex nature of Hindu theology and its relationship to historical and political issues by focusing on a simple question: "Is Hinduism monotheistic or polytheistic?"  Her answer offers intriguing implications for the distinction between theological identities of "one" and "many" in Hinduism and--as respondents with expertise in other theological traditions reflect--beyond.  With invited responses from Martin Marty, Willemien Otten, Katherine E. Ulrich, and Ananya Vajpeyi.  

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

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Editors and Bishops -- the Future of Religious Journalism

Late in 2009 came the word that Disciples World, the freestanding journal or the Disciples was folding for economic reasons.  Despite the fact that the journal had won numerous awards, it simply could no longer sustain itself financially.  Now, we're trying to figure out what to do next.  Already one blog ([D]mergent) has emerged to try to carry on the message.  That the Disciples are without a standard bearing journal is a bit odd, for we were founded by enterprising editor-bishops.  What does this mean for us? 

As John Schmalzbauer notes in a posting at Duke's Call & Response blog, the times-are- a-changin' for religious publications.  A number have folded and others are in danger -- though a few (Christian Century being among these) are seeing growth in subscribers.   The point of the essay is that editors -- and not just in the Stone-Campbell movement -- have provided leadership in the various faith communities, that often exceed that of bishops.  But what happens to the church when this leadership begins to fray?  Yes, there are emerging digital forms of communication, but what does this mean for the transition?

That is the question that Schmalzbauer puts forth as he closes the essay with this statement:

Until American Christians find an ecclesiology and a business model for the digital age, they risk becoming a people without editors or bishops.
As noted in earlier posts, I'm participating in the Theology after Google conference.  The principle of this conference is a democratizing of the church's conversations.  But, can we sustain this conversation without professional theologians and professional journalists?

Listen for the Word

    Nehemiah 8:1-10

    Legend has it that when I was a very young child I would stand up in my crib and  preach.  I'd shake my finger and prattle away, speaking to no one in particular.  I can't say that I was a great preacher in those days, but I did make an impression on my grandmother.  She told my mother: “Someday Bob will be a preacher.”  Now, I can't confirm this story since my memory doesn't go back that far, but if it’s true, I hope the quality of my preaching has improved!

   It’s one thing to preach from a crib and another to preach from a pulpit.  In fact, it  does take a bit of audacity to be a preacher.  Take for instance Barbara Brown Taylor’s comparison of a preacher to a tight rope walker:
    Watching a preacher climb into the pulpit is a lot like watching a tight rope walker climb onto the platform as the drum roll begins.  The first clears her throat and spreads her notes; the second loosens his shoulders and stretches out one rosin-soled foot to test the taut rope.  They both step out into the air, trusting everything  they have done to prepare for this moment as they surrender themselves to it, counting now on something beyond themselves to help them do what they love and fear and most want to do.  If they reach the other side without falling, it is skill but is also grace -- a benevolent God's decision to let these daredevils tread the high places where ordinary mortals have the good sense not to go.  (Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life,  Cambridge, MA: Cowley, 1993, 76.

There is much truth to this description of the preacher’s daring, because you never know what’s going to happen once the sermon begins.  There may be those in the congregation who will be offended, and others might decide that what’s been said isn’t worth the time given to it.  And yet, others just might find in the preacher’s very human words a word of challenge or hope from God.

    Preaching has always played a central role in the church’s life.  So whether it’s long or short; eloquent or halting, we expect to hear a word from God that will encourage, console, challenge, or even incite us to action.  We come to worship hoping that the God who spoke the universe into being will speak to our lives so that we might be transformed.  As a preacher, I come to the pulpit praying and hoping that my very human words will be transformed by the Spirit of God into this life-changing Word from God that the gathered congregation seeks to hear.    I know that once uttered my words are no longer under my control, and so I must trust them to the Spirit who speaks to hearts and minds.


    A sermon is more than a speech, and so it involves more than simply a speaker and an audience.  A sermon, even if it is, like most sermons, a monologue is a communal act that involves preacher, congregation, and God.  This means that a sermon cannot succeed if the congregation and God aren’t part of the process.  It doesn’t matter if the delivery is eloquent or not; what matters is that the people hear in the words of the preacher a word from God.

    When the Jewish exiles returned home from Babylon, they found their homeland in ruins.  Years after the first wave of exiles returned, a priest named Ezra arrived in Jerusalem to take up his duties, and all that he found was a small temple and city walls that were still in disrepair.   He found a people struggling with daily life, wondering if God even cared.  He quickly discovered that what they wanted to hear was a word from God that would break through their despair and give them hope to face tomorrow.  As he was seeking to minister to this people, someone found a scroll containing the Torah, and the people begged the priests to read it to them.  The job of reading that scroll fell to Ezra.


    In many ways Ezra functions here in our text as a new Moses.  He offers them a new word from God, but instead of speaking from the mountain of Sinai, he has a wooden platform constructed so the people can hear him read the newly discovered text.   He mounted that platform, accompanied by his fellow leaders, all those people whose names Ray had to read.  As he began to read from the scroll, the people stood there in rapt attention, listening to every word spoken, believing that this scroll contained something special, something that would change their lives.

    According to this account, Ezra began reading at 6:00 in the morning, and he didn't stop until noon.  It took a long time to read that scroll, but no one fell asleep or daydreamed; they just stood there glued to the words of the text.  He  could’ve been reading from Leviticus or Deuteronomy, Genesis or Numbers.  It didn’t matter because the people were so hungry for a word from God that nothing could distract them.

    As Ezra continued reading, the people began to prostrate themselves on the ground and lifting their hands toward heaven.  As the day wore on they began to worship, and the Levites taught them in small groups, interpreting the text so that the people could understand it and apply it.  You see, it’s not enough to read the text, you have to interpret it, so that it makes sense in one’s own context. 

    How do we hear a word from God?  I’ve always liked the way theologian Karl Barth spoke of a threefold Word of God.  He said that God's Word comes to us first in Jesus, the Word of God Incarnate.  From this Word comes the second word, the Word written, which we call Scripture.  Scripture is a word of God because it points us back to the incarnate Word.  And then there’s the Word of God proclaimed – what we call the sermon.  Barth believed that when the sermon is rooted in Scripture, and pointing us to Christ, then it becomes for us a Word of God. 

    Psalm 19 says that the Law has the power to revive the soul, making wise the simple, causing the heart to rejoice, and enlightening the eyes.  Because it endures forever, it’s more desirable than gold and sweeter than honey.   So powerful is this Word that on this particular day, a group of  people who hadn’t heard the Law read in generations found themselves listening intently and receptively.  As they listened, they discovered the disparity between who they were and who God wanted them to be.  And so, when they heard this word – with interpretation --they fell on their faces and began to weep.

 Although many of them heard a call to repentance in this proclamation, Ezra believed that there was another word to be heard.  He wanted them to know that the Torah offered them a word that would energize and liberate them for the future.  He wanted them to know that the Torah was more than simply a set of rules and regulations.  It was instead instruction on living together as a covenant community.  If this is true, then the Scriptures should be interpreted anew in every generation, so that the words contained in this book might truly speak to our present condition.

 Ezra understood why they were weeping, but instead of telling them to put on sack cloth and ashes, he told them to celebrate God’s gracious word with a feast of rich food and sweet drinks.  He also reminded them to share their bounty with those who came unprepared.  This serves as a reminder to us that our meals as Christ's body are communal and they are open to all who would come.  They may have felt the need to mourn, but one cannot mourn on a day that’s sacred to the Lord.  The only proper response is to rejoice that God has reached out to us in grace so as to transform our lives.    As we hear our own word from God, a word that liberates and transforms us, may we hear this promise of Ezra as a word to us:   "The Joy of the Lord is your strength."

    It is this word that causes us to break forth in song, singing together:
    Beautiful words, wonderful words, wonderful words of life,
    Beautiful words, wonderful words, wonderful words of life.

                             (Chalice Hymnal, 323).

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
January 24, 2010
3rd Sunday after Epiphany

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Pope says -- Get to it, go blog!

In March I'll be a participant/presenter at a conference entitled Theology after Google.  The point of the conference is that we must engage the web if theology is going to be transformative.  Philip Clayton has issued the challenge to theologians, telling them that the "trickle down" method isn't working. 

Apparently the Pope has gotten the word too, because according to a report out today, he's issued a statement to priests telling them to get out there in cyberspace and tell the story. 

In his message for the Roman Catholic Church's World Day of Communications, the pope, who is 82 and known not to love computers or the Internet, acknowledged priests must make the most of the "rich menu of options" offered by new technology.

"Priests are thus challenged to proclaim the Gospel by employing the latest generation of audiovisual resources — images, videos, animated features, blogs, Web sites — which, alongside traditional means, can open up broad new vistas for dialogue, evangelization and catechesis," he said. Priests, he said, had to respond to the challenge of "today's cultural shifts" if they wanted to reach young people.

The Pope does have some words of warning that all of us who are out there in the new media world should heed.  According to the article:

But Benedict warned priests not to strive to become stars of new media. "Priests present in the world of digital communications should be less notable for their media savvy than for their priestly heart," he said.
 We must also remember that Google, for all its benefits, is not the same as the gospel!

Picture of Pope by Tony Gentile, taken from -- Reuters.

A Drive through Detroit

 Yesterday, after attending the North American International Auto Show at COBO Hall, we enjoyed lunch in a Greektown pizzaria, having traveled from a Greektown casino garage to COBO on the Peoplemover.  After leaving Greektown, I took a wrong turn, ended up on Gratiot and had to find my way west.  I took a left on Chene Street, and headed back toward the freeways and home in the suburbs.  (Note the picture of a burnt out building, it comes from an intriguing photo record at Detroitfunk.

Detroit is a study in contrasts.  It has a waterfront that is quite nice.  There are grand buildings like the Ren Center, Comerica Park, Ford Field, the Opera House, Fox Theater, and the Detroit Institute of Art.  But there are also areas of the city that are burnt out and abandoned.  We saw both yesterday.

Here is the question we who are citizens of the United States -- what are we willing to do to remake our nation?  Detroit was once a great city, America's industrial dynamo, and yet today, for a variety of reasons it is a city in despair.  Some of its problems are of its own making, but not all.  Once we were a manufacturing nation and so cities like Detroit and Cleveland grew and prospered.  As America ceased being the center of manufacturing things changed.  What might we do to reclaim our cities?

Friday, January 22, 2010

Faith Statements and the State

In December, answering the call issued in Philip Clayton's Transforming Christian Theology, I laid out my own credo (statement of faith) focusing on the seven core Christian Beliefs.  I even issued a meme, asking others, especially fellow bloggers, to do the same -- to offer their own confession.  You can still do it!

A bit later, I came across a sermon preached by Edgar DeWitt Jones, the founding pastor of the church I now serve as pastor.  Jones was a liberal Protestant of the Harry Emerson Fosdick school.  In fact, Jones had Fosdick in to preach at Central Woodward Christian Church when he was on vacation.  In this sermon, apparently preached around 1941, Jones set out his own statement of faith.  He touched on some, but not all of the seven core beliefs. Interestingly enough, he doesn't address the Holy Spirit -- but that is not surprising considering the Disciple emphasis on rational belief.  What surprised me, but perhaps shouldn't, was a statement about the American Republic.

The reason it shouldn't surprise me is that while today we think of ultra-conservative Christians rallying around the flag, two generations ago there was a much stronger connection between liberal Christians and the political realm.  I'd like to invite you to respond to the following statement, which I republish in full.  The sermon appears in a book of sermons published in 1943 by Bethany Press (now Chalice Press) entitled A Man Stood Up to Preach.

  I believe in the American republic!  I believe in its institutions and in the spirit of democracy.  I do not believe it has failed.  I think it is broken down temporarily and needs to be overhauled, rejuvenated.  This republic was an experiment in government and it still is.  The Constitution may be expanded, amended, or so interpreted as to meet new conditions.  Whatever is good in socialism or communism may be appropriated by our government and embodied in our structure without going to extremes or developing a warring and dangerous class consciousness.  The people of the United States have the power to correct the evils and inequalities that are bound to appear from time to time.  The ballot is the mightiest weapon ever put into the hand of man in the realm of government.  Democracy is not simply one great experiment, it is a series of experiments.

I believe our republic will endure, not because there is anything inherently indestructible in its make-up, but because its structure looks to the people for renovation from time to time, for periodic house cleanings, for scourings and polishings, and the liberal use of disinfectants when the case so requires.  To me there are few subjects so fascinating as American history and the story of our humble beginnings as a nation.  Our nation cannot endure without faith in the God of our fathers, faith in humanity, faith in the dream that the pioneers and pathfinders knew, men who were not disobedient to the heavenly vision.  I believe in love of country, but not to the exclusion of good will toward other countries and devotion to the global objective of the Christian faith.  I believe in an intelligent and dynamic spirit of internationalism; but at the same time, I thank God that I am an American.  (pp. 190-191).

As I read these words, there is much in them that I can and do affirm.  The United States is by no means perfect, but I have no desire to live anywhere else.  At the same time, I would never think of including a statement like this in a statement of faith.  Indeed, it wouldn't even occur to me to do so.  Yet, in 1941 it was possible for the relatively liberal pastor of one of the flagship churches of a mainline denomination to issue just such a statement.

(The flag is found at Gospel Clip Art)

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Jesus and the Gun Sights!

Some will take offense to the putting of scripture verses on gun sights, because of possible illicit crossings of church state boundaries.  Others, because it is a possible act of proselytism.    Both are problems, but there's an additional one.

According to a Detroit Free Press article, apparently the defense contractor from Michigan, Trijicom, has been doing this for years, and sees it as a way of offering support to the troops -- by letting them know that they are being prayed for on the home front. 

There is an additional problem, and that problem consists of the all-too-common mixing of Christianity with warfare.  Now, as I've noted earlier, I'm not a full pacifist, but I do believe that Jesus did not link himself with violence or warfare and that to do so in this way is a degrading (even if unintentional) of Jesus and the way of life before God that he lived and proclaimed.  Indeed, it is contrary to the reality of his death, the victim of an imperial occupation army.  It also sends a message to Muslims that Christianity is its enemy.  That neither helps the American cause, nor the cause of Christians living in these countries.

For all of these reasons, I would respectfully ask that this company remove the Scripture references from the gun sights.   They do no honor to Jesus nor his message of God's love for the world. 

Is the Devil a Black Man -- Sightings

Pat Robertson's interpretation of the Haitian earthquake, as just another expression of the curse that is on the nation due to a "pact with the devil," has gotten a lot of attention --here and elsewhere.  Although typical of Robertson's responses, it does raise issues that many of us would rather not confront -- the depth of racism in our nation.  Spencer Dew, in today's edition of Sightings points out how many European and Euro-American people have seen the person of color as not just an other but as the demonic.  As is always true with Spencer's pieces, this is thought provoking.


Sightings 1/21/10

Is the Devil a Black Man?
-- Spencer Dew

In what has now become a much-circulated clip, Pat Robertson makes sense of the catastrophic Haitian earthquake as the latest in a string of curses delivered by God to Haiti’s people.  Robertson’s interpretation of this catastrophe, whether we find it repellent or compelling, offers an excellent example of one of the ways religion functions:  Robertson reiterates a reassuring framework of meaning in the face of experiences which call such frameworks into question.  The earthquake, rather than evidence of the random and senseless nature of human existence, provides for Robertson evidence of God’s existence and ongoing, partisan involvement in human history.  Robertson’s theology provides comfort, too, in its categorization of the victims of this tragedy as deserving of their fate, insulating Robertson from the agony of identifying too closely with these wounded, mourning, homeless, and hungry fellow humans.  Robertson may be moved by this suffering – his remarks were delivered as the Christian Broadcasting Network raised money for earthquake relief – but his religious anthropology renders this suffering, in his words, “unimaginable,” a stark contrast to anthropologies that urge empathetic relations. 

For Robertson, the Haitian people are markedly other, a tone that carries through his version of the nation’s history:  “They were under the heels of the French,” he says, “You know, Napoleon III, or whatever.  And they got together and swore a pact to the devil.  They said, we will serve you if you’ll get us free from the French.  True story.  And so the devil said, OK, it’s a deal.  And they kicked the French out. You know, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free.  But ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other.”  This story is, of course, far from true.  Robertson offers here a typical demonization of the Voodoo religion and a Christian distortion of the legend of the 1791 Bois Caiman ritual.  Yet Robertson, one imagines, finds animal sacrifice and blood vows repellent, and he has no reason to be accepting of any religion other than his own, ruling them all false and therefore damnable.  In the clearly defined narrative Robertson insists upon, the followers of God can expect rewards while to the followers of the devil come destruction, blood, and wailing.  The troubling aspect of Robertson’s remarks, however, is not the myths he offers to make sense of the world, but what he leaves out of his thumbnail history of Haiti:  Unmentioned in his summary is the word “slavery.”  The “true story” that Robertson occludes is that Haiti, the first country to be founded by former African slaves, owes its origin to armed uprising.  What began as raids on plantations became full scale revolutionary war, with people who had been regarded as chattel claiming their liberty via the blood of their former “masters.” 

From Nat Turner to Fred Hampton, the armed, independent black person has remained a nightmare image to those who benefit from white privilege in America, an image, indeed, not unlike Cotton Mather’s description of Satan incarnate in New England, that “Black Man” with the power to destroy the social order.  Haitian Independence was an event interpreted by much of the white, slave-owning world of the time as catastrophic.  That “they” would dare – and be able – to seize power called into question preexisting systems of meaning-making as surely as any earthquake.

The image of black slaves shedding their chains and taking up arms contributes far more than any hobgoblins of the evangelical imagination to the historical “curses” that have kept Haiti poor and troubled.  The history of American relations with Haiti has been indelibly tainted by America’s true devil – the lingering effects of our own schizophrenic founding as a nation insistent on liberty yet practicing slavery.  Just as racist terror helped shape the stereotype of Voodoo as devil worship, so too racist attitudes have dominated the history of American relations with Haiti, from the fearful to the patronizing, from clandestine political machinations to occupation by military force.  Hopefully, the current attention on Haiti (for those of us who reject dismissive metaphysical explanations such as Robertson’s) will prompt Americans to examine the racism embedded not just in foreign and domestic political history but, indeed, in our own minds.  Without honest confrontation of the legacies of our past as a slave society, some “they” will always be demonized and some “devil” will always be imagined as a mask for our earthly hatreds and fears.


Spencer Dew is an instructor in the department of theology at Loyola University, Chicago.

In 2010's first edition of the Religion and Culture Web Forum ("The Uses and Misuses of Polytheism and Monotheism in Hinduism"), Wendy Doniger explores the complex nature of Hindu theology and its relationship to historical and political issues by focusing on a simple question: "Is Hinduism monotheistic or polytheistic?"  Her answer offers intriguing implications for the distinction between theological identities of "one" and "many" in Hinduism and--as respondents with expertise in other theological traditions reflect--beyond.  With invited responses from Martin Marty, Willemien Otten, Katherine E. Ulrich, and Ananya Vajpeyi.  

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