Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Paul's Universalism -- Philippians 3 (Bruce Epperly)

This is the third of Bruce Epperly's six essays on Paul's letter to Philippians.  In it Bruce invites us to consider Paul's universalist message, a message that is found here in Philippians 2.  What is God's vision for humanity and creation?  Is it possible that God will restore/reconcile all to God's loving embrace?  What does that mean for us?  Bruce invites us to consider this message in this essay.  I invite you to read it and engage in a conversation about this message.


Philippians III – Paul’s Universalism
Bruce G. Epperly

What is it about “every” that you don’t understand?

At the name of Jesus
            every knee should bend,
            in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11            and every tongue should confess
            that Jesus Christ is Lord,
            to the glory of God the Father.
(Philippians 2:10-11)

What is it about “all” that you don’t understand?

            God will be all in all. (I Corinthians 15:28)

Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation
for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification
and life for all. (Romans 5:18)

We can find a lot in scripture.  We can justify almost any theological position by few verses.  Yet, few Bible readers take seriously the universalistic passages in Paul’s writings and throughout the scriptures.  While they often insist on literal interpretations on passages relating to homosexuality, limited atonement, eternal damnation, and Christian exclusivism, they try to explain away the passages above as relating to the saved and not to everyone as the passages clearly indicate.

Philippians 2 proclaims a clear universalistic gospel.  Christ lets go of power. He rules by relational love and inclusion, rather than – like Caesar – by threatening his opposition.  The peace of Christ is not the Pax Romana or rule by violence, but the peace that comes from caring, accepting, and sacrificial relationships.  Accordingly, when “every knee should bend,” this is not bending before Caesar, who will obliterate all those who do not give him due homage. It is the bending of gratitude before one who gives us - to our joy and surprise - more than we’ve asked or imagined.  It is the act of honoring one who accepts us even when we see ourselves as unacceptable. 

Philippians 2 proclaims the power of love, not submission.  Christ’s power invites us to produce a harvest of righteousness, that is, to achieve our highest good and to realize our potential. There is no competition between God and humankind: our achievements do not rob God of glory but reveal God’s ever-creative and ever-resourceful love.  God’s power is infinite precisely because it is constantly growing in partnership with the freedom of creation.

When Paul says “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” -- or, as I translate it, “with awe and excitement” -- he is not speaking of heaven and hell, but a partnership in seeking wholeness and shalom.  As Eugene Peterson puts it: “Be energetic in your life of salvation, reverent and sensitive before God. That energy is God’s energy deep within you.  God willing and working at what will give God most pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12-13 Message)

We don’t need to be scared into salvation, as some revival preachers say.  Rather, we need to be awakened and lured to experiencing our place as God’s companions in the quest for Shalom.  As noted preacher Ernie Campbell once stated, “There are only two kinds of people in the world: those who are saved and don’t know it, and those who are saved and do.”  The message of the kenotic Christ, the Christ among us, is that you are loved, you belong, and you are mine – forever.

“Love wins,” as Rob Bell says.  But, love is not passive.  Rather, our wholeness and the wholeness of creation emerges from the dynamic partnership of God and the world, in which God lures each creature toward fulfillment.  God does not rule from afar, building walls between the saved and unsaved, but rules from within and beside us, seeking our salvation and insuring – over the long run – that all creation and every child will experience the God of everlasting communion with its creator.  (For more on Philippians, see my text on Philippians: An Interactive Study, Energion Books, appropriate for both individual and group study.)

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty one books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, and Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study.  He may be reached at for lectures, workshops, and retreats.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Praying with the Earth -- Review

PRAYING WITH THE EARTH:  A Prayerbook for Peace.  By John Philip Newell.  Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.  Xiii + 58 pages.

            We live in a time of war and conflict.  This is especially apparent in the overlapping worlds of Jew, Christian, and Muslim.  These children of Abraham, by his two wives, Sarah and Hagar, find it difficult to experience peace, and yet the call to peace is inherent in the Abrahamic tradition.  The dilemma we face is that despite calls to peace, the followers of these faiths frequently have not embraced this part of the broader tradition of Shalom/Salaam.  

For Christians, the call to peace is rooted in Jesus’ words that peacemakers are blessed and born of God.  My sense is that this blessing extends to all who would make peace, whether explicit followers of Jesus or not.  The question is how do we work for peace?  As people of faith, whatever our tradition, it seems apparent that prayer would be a key ingredient in this work.  But how shall we pray?

In answer to this question, a beautifully illustrated and written book has been provided us by Philip John Newell.  Newell is a minister of the Church of Scotland, former warden of the Iona Abbey, and currently the Companion Theologian for the American Spirituality Centre of Casa del Sol of New Mexico.  It was in the context of a spirituality course that he was teaching with his wife at Casa del Sol with a Sufi Muslim teacher and a Jewish Rabbi that this prayerbook emerged.   Using his skills as a poet, Newell has brought to us a prayerbook that draws on the texts and traditions of all three traditions. 

The book offers prayers for morning and evening set out over the period of one week, beginning with Sunday and ending on Saturday.  Each of these periods of prayer, morning and evening is set out in a particular pattern, which begins with a recitation of one of Jesus’ beatitudes, which Newell has retranslated.  The same beatitude is used in both the morning and the evening session of prayer, the first of which (for Sunday) reads:  “Blessed are those who know their need for theirs is the grace of heaven” (Matthew 5:3).   This blessing is followed by a prayer of awareness and then an invitation to be still and aware.   This section is followed by three excerpts or verses from the three scriptures used in the book – the Psalms (Hebrew Bible), the Gospel of Matthew (New Testament) and the Qur’an.  Each excerpt is but one sentence in length, but this is sufficient to call us to reflection on the matters of peace.  After the first two statements, the reader is invited to pause, and then after the reading from the Qur’an, there is an invitation to silence.   This is followed by a Prayer for the Life of the world that reflects these texts.  Finally after an invitation to offer silent prayers for peace, there is a closing “Prayer of Blessing.” 

To give an example of the prayers that are present in this book, I offer his “Prayer for the Life of the World” from the Monday evening session:

Our heart is comforted
in its awareness of You
Soul within our soul
Life within all life.
Our heart is comforted
in remembering You
Giver of this day
Gift of every moment.
May we be bearers of comfort.
May we be strong in our soul
to cry at the wrongs of nations
to weep with the bleeding earth
to mourn with those who mourn this night
in the loss of life and lands
in the loss of dreams and hope
May we be strong in our soul this night. (p. 15).

            Interspersed among these prayers is artwork that reflects these three traditions.  These include the 14th Century Spanish Golden Haggadah, which is an illuminated manuscript of the Passover ritual.  There are also illustrations from the Lindisfarene Gospels (7th century Britain) and a 14th century Egyptian carpet and a mosaic from the Alhambra Palace in Granada, which blends the artistry of all three traditions. 
            For all who pray for peace, especially across inter-religious lines, this is a true gift.  I extend my appreciation to the people at Eerdmans for sharing this small but powerful book with me, so that I might share it with others who share the desire for peace on this earth.  Newell is to be commended for his insightful blending of these traditions, not in a syncretistic manner, but in a way that allows the three traditions to speak in one voice concerning the common hope of peace.     


Monday, August 29, 2011

Ordinariate -- Sightings

What's an Ordinariate you ask?  Well, Martin Marty aims to define this word for us.  It has something to do with Anglicans converting to Catholicism in England.  The Pope set up this process making it easier for Anglicans to move across the religious aisle.  Many thought this would lead to a mass stampede of disaffected Anglicans.  But alas, nothing near as momentous has taken place.  Marty offers thoughts on all of this for a last Monday in August.  So, take a read, and let's have a conversation about relationships across our denominational lines.  

Sightings  8/29/2011

-- Martin E. Marty

Hurricanes, earthquakes, droughts, famines, tsunamis, floods, volcanic eruptions, and many other natural disasters—supernatural disasters and signals to Glenn Beck and Pat Robertson—are prime global and local topics. They inspire prayer and practical responses, but they also provide metaphoric language for religion. Try this, from National Catholic Reporter: “NO EARTHQUAKE FROM OVERTURE TO ANGLICANS,” a story by John L. Allen, Jr. This week he could have communicated as well by writing “No Hurricane after overture to Anglicans.” “Earthquake” works better, so let it stand.           

The overture in question is the new “Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham,” a two-year-old structure instituted by Pope Benedict XVI to make it possible for hosts of Anglican clergy—and, less-noticed, laity, into the Roman Catholic communion. Don’t know where and why Walsingham is? We don’t need to. Don’t know what an Ordinariate is? Neither did the authors of the Catholic dictionaries on my shelf, but you can figure it out, and may need to if this issue interests you. It made possible the group reception of clerics into Catholicism as opposed to one-at-the-time processing through “conversion.” By the way, Allen wrote on June 8 that the ordinariate numbered 900 laity and 60 clergy “including some newly minted Catholic priests who had already retired from Anglican ministry at 70.”
Some nervous Anglicans, Roman Catholics, and ecumenically-minded “others” had foreseen a surge—see how that metaphor creeps in?—of Anglican priests who oppose the ordination of women. Allen foresees some more ordinariateers when Anglicans welcome women into the priesthood. (By August 19 he revised the statistics to “1,000 laity and 64 clergy . . .” scattered across 27 different communities.)  
Allen says “there’s scant evidence of a revolution,” so this earthquake has to be “downgraded” to near zero on Richter scales, since it represents “roughly .02 percent of the 5 million Catholics in England and Wales.” That number, he thinks, could go down, or a bit “up” if, as foreseen, Anglicans will begin ordaining women to the episcopate next year. By the way, Allen, when interviewing leaders, makes a point of describing them as “thoughtful” and not antic or frantic. Still, despite all the predictions: “No Earthquake.”
Such a judgment applies outside the U.K. as well. In 1952 when I was ordained, without the help of an ordinariate, we would hear on occasion of a minister in our communion or others who had “defected” from the Catholic priesthood and been “converted” to some Protestant group. Perhaps because the events were rare and the gulf between Catholics and Everyone Else then was cosmic, such pastors became celebrities. Like “apostates,” of whom Max Scheler wrote, they “spent their whole subsequent careers taking revenge on their own spiritual past.” The gulf between communions has now narrowed; the ecumenical spirit has taken the roughest edges off the old abrasions.
Now and then we hear of the move of a Protestant minister to the Catholic priesthood, news accompanied by predictions of a forthcoming surge of such moves. In some circles of the church these predictions create tremors. However, eased ecclesial relations, the sense that the vocation of others is sacred and not to be judged by uninformed people at a distance, and an awareness that even if the statistics rise to .03 percent, we must still say “No Earthquake.” The rumblings may even provide opportunities to listen and learn and not merely to yawn. Or quake.


John L. Allen, Jr., “NO EARTHQUAKE FROM OVERTURE TO ANGLICANS,” National Catholic Reporter, August 19, 2011.

John Allen interviews Fr Mark Woodruff,” Ordinariate Portal, August 6, 2011.

UK Catholic Questions the need for the Ordinariate,” Kiwianglo's Blog, August 27, 2011.
Auguste Boudinhon, Ordinariate.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 11. (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911).

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


In this summer’s Religion and Culture Web Forum: What does religious education look like in the globalized realities of the 21st century? This was the question put to a distinguished panel at the recent meeting (May 22-28, 2011) of the International Association of Black Religions and Spiritualities (IABRS), an organization that “represents the religions and spiritualities of darker skinned peoples globally.” This month, we feature the response of Dr. James Massey, the male Dalit (India) delegate to the IABRS. Dr. Massey argues that peace among the world’s religions will require finding not only a “common ethic” (per Hans Kung), but an “appreciation of differences.” To both these ends, Dr. Massey calls for “re-looking at the religious traditions.”


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

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Mindful of Divine Things -- A Sermon

Matthew 16:21-28

Yesterday, at our retreat, which Alex led with great wisdom and wit, we “played” a few games, and after each game our  facilitators had us debrief our experience.  We talked about how felt and what we learned, with a special focus on what these experiences said to us about the way the church works.  We actually did this several times, and each time we would talk about our feelings and our insights about the way we communicate with each other and as a church.   One of the important lessons learned had to do with listening, and to listen we have to stop talking!   For some of us, that’s not easy to do!   But as the Psalmist wrote: “Be still and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10).  

Jesus would debrief his disciples on occasion, especially after a big event, like feeding a few thousand people with a couple of loaves of bread and a few fish.  He would  also gather them up after a teaching session.  

So, as Jesus was closing out his Galilean ministry, he gathered his disciples together at a spot near the northern Galilean city of Caesarea Philippi.   The town lay at the base of Mt. Hermon, in what is today the Golan Heights.  You might think of this as a mountain retreat, a good place to stop and reflect about where they’d been and where they were going next.  

Jesus began the conversation with a question: You’ve been out among the people for some time now, what are you hearing?  What are they saying about me?   One disciple said, “well I heard a few people suggest that you might be John the Baptist risen from the dead.”  Another disciple said, “I was talking to some people and they were wondering if you might be a prophet like Elijah or Jeremiah.”  And Jesus said, “hmm, that’s interesting.  But what do you think?  Do you agree with them, or do you have other ideas?  After all, you’ve been with me from the beginning of this ministry.  Whom do you think I am?    This is where a debriefing gets dangerous – when you have to answer for yourself!  

But Simon was willing to offer his assessment.  And you know what he said?  Of course you know.  He gave the Good Confession, the statement that we give when we join the church:  “you are the Messiah, the son of the Living God.”  

Now, in the church, when we make that confession, we can usually expect a visit from the chair of the nominating committee to sign us up for a committee assignment!  But Jesus had something even more important in mind.  He said to Simon – I’m going to give you a new name.  From now on you are Peter.  You are the Rock, and you Chevy lovers know what that means!  You are the one on whom I will build my church.  You are the foundation stone, and not only that, you get a set of keys, the keys of the kingdom.   

What a day that was for Simon  the fisherman.  Now known as Peter, the Rock, he had reached the pinnacle of success.  Jesus had just appointed him to be the first head of the church of Christ on earth.  What greater honor could be bestowed on a person than this.  Of course, the higher you climb, the farther you will fall! 

The next day, as Jesus opened the morning session of this retreat, he told them he had new orders.  They were going south, to Jerusalem.  Although the Galilean campaign had been a great success, it was time to head into the Lion’s Den.  Yes, it was time for Jesus to suffer and die at the hands of the religious leaders – you know the ones who worked for the Empire. 

Well, you know how you can be the hero one moment and be the goat the next?   Let’s say you’re Miguel Cabrera, and you come up to bat in the bottom of the ninth with the  score tied and two outs; oh, and you’re playing the Cleveland Indians.  Well, Cabrera hits this monster walk off home run and the team and the town celebrates him as the big hero.  The next night, Cabrera comes up to bat, it’s two out in the ninth, the bases are loaded, and the Tigers are down a run.  They need one run to tie, and two to win.  This time, however, the previous day’s hero strikes out on three straight pitches.  In fact, he watches that last strike go by without a swing.  

    And so it was for Peter.  He went from being “like a rock” to the “stumbling block.” You see, Peter knew what a messiah was supposed to be like.  Everyone knows what a successful messiah is supposed to be like.  He knew it, you know it, and I know it.  A successful Messiah is a conquering king!  So Peter isn’t prepared for what Jesus had to say.  Just the day before, after much thought, and with divine revelation guiding him, Peter had declared Jesus to be the Messiah, and he didn’t mean that Jesus was going to be a dead one.   He didn’t sign up for that kind of duty!   And so Peter grabs Jesus by the lapels.  He shakes him and shouts at him: “God Forbid!”   Yes, I’m not going to let this happen!! 

After all, you said I’m going to be the rock on which this church is built, and I went to a church growth workshop and I even did this webinar on the six ways to promote the messianic kingdom, and not once did I hear any thing about suffering and death.  I did hear about handing out free I-Pads, but none of this suffering and death stuff.  You have to be mistaken!  

So, how did Jesus respond?  He yells right back at Peter and says:  “Get behind me Satan.”  Now isn’t that a bit harsh?  But Jesus wasn’t finished – he said – remember that name I gave you?  I called the Rock, well now you’ve become the stumbling block.  You’re standing in the way of the kingdom.  And the reason why is that you’re listening to human voices instead of God’s voice.  You’re listening to your culture and not to me.  

Yesterday, we talked a lot about communication.  And as we know, good communication requires listening, and listening requires us to stop talking.  Alex had the participants pair up during lunch and talk about five people who had influenced them and six emotions they had experienced in their lives.  And the instructions were these: You have to listen to the person, until their done sharing their story.  You can’t hear unless you listen, and you can’t listen if you don’t stop talking.  That goes for interpersonal communication and communication with God.  

It does help if God comes to us in a burning bush and speaks to us in an audible voice.  That worked, as you know, quite well for Moses.  But I’ve not seen too many burning bushes that talk.  I have a couple of those burning bushes in my back yard, which get really red in the fall, but they never talk to me. 

Peter thought he knew what it meant to be a messiah, and Jesus seemed to be that person, but suffering and death – that didn’t make sense.  But Jesus said to Peter, and to  us: If you want to be my disciple, then take up your cross and follow me.  If you want to find your life, then you must lose it.   This is, Jesus said, what the voice of God is saying to us.  This is the way of the kingdom, for the kingdom requires of us that we lay down our lives for others.  And that’s not easy, especially when the other is a stranger. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is known to many of us for his opposition to Hitler, which led to his eventual execution.   In the mid-1930s Bonhoeffer wrote a book called the  Cost of Discipleship.  In this powerful book, Bonhoeffer called on the German Christians, who he believed had become beholden to their culture, to heed the call of Christ instead, even if that led to death.  As I’ve read Bonhoeffer’s books and biographies through the years, I’ve always wondered which path would I have taken?  Would I have taken the difficult path, the one that leads to suffering and death, or would I just go along to preserve my life?  Would I allow myself to be coopted by my culture?   As I look at my life and its comforts, I wonder, how would I respond?  

As the Psalmist put it: “Be still and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10).  Buddhists speak of mindfulness, which as  Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh puts it,  is: “to know what is going on within and all around us.”*   To be mindful is to listen for the voice of God.     Am I mindful of the things of God?  Am I listening for that still small voice that often calls us to take a narrow path?   Indeed, if God doesn’t normally speak to us out of burning bushes, how am I to know if I’ve heard the voice of God?  

And Jesus said:
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind. This is the first and most important commandment. The second most important commandment is like this one. And it is, "Love others as much as you love yourself." All the Law of Moses and the Books of the Prophets are based on these two commandments.  (Mt. 22:37-40 Common English Bible).  
   This is the way of the kingdom, which the Messiah of God will inaugurate.   

*Thich Nhat Hanh, Living Buddha, Living Christ, (New York: Riverhead Books, 1995), p. 14.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
11th Sunday after Pentecost
August 28, 2011

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Living Faithfully in a Pluralistic World

When we look at the public square, it is important that we keep in mind the diversity of persons and values and interests present there.  I doubt Jefferson or Madison ever imagined the extent of religious diversity that marks modern America, though I believe that given their personalities, they would have welcomed these changes.  Religious diversity, however, for them largely meant differences within a predominantly Protestant nation, with a few free thinkers, Quakers, Jews, and Catholics might be thrown into the mix.   Today our cultural and religious differences are so striking that it seems as if our nation could fracture, though despite the vocal minority that stirs the pot, most Americans have not only made peace with this diversity, but welcome it.  In this pluralistic climate it might seem best to keep our religious opinions to ourselves, lest we offend our neighbor, but is this the best way forward?     

            In spite of the obstacles, pluralism is good for our nation and for American religious life.  My encounters with other religious faiths have not just challenged my faith; they have invigorated and enlightened my faith.  I have also become more sensitive to the beliefs and practices of my neighbors.  My faith may influence my public views and actions, but I recognize that there are other religious beliefs and practices living in our communities.  It is appropriate, therefore, to raise questions about the suitability of school-sponsored prayers, prayers at city council meetings, crèches on public property, and the posting of the Ten Commandments in public buildings, because the appearance of public support for one particular religious tradition can be coercive and marginalizing to those who do not share the beliefs of the majority.  

I am a Protestant Christian, and though I do not believe Christians should hide their faith or act contrary to their faith, Christians need to remember that as fragmented as our voices may be, they remain powerful in the public square.  Prayers in school and at council meetings may seem innocuous, but do we allow for diverse voices to be heard?  At the same time, do our morals suffer from the absence of prayer, the Ten Commandments or even a pledge of allegiance that does not include “under God”?   I do not think so, because my faith is nurtured by my church, not my government.  

Religious voices are at their best when they are prophetic and free from government influence.  Martin Luther King challenged white America’s racism, and his faith empowered his voice.  The wall of separation is a necessary protection for both religion and state, but it should not exclude the religious voice from the public square.  At the same time, we must protect everyone’s right to practice or not practice their chosen faith without repercussions.  A person’s religion should not exclude them from public service, but, if we are to live together in peace, we must respect, tolerate, and be civil to those whose beliefs and practices differ from our own.  I will continue living a public faith in the public square, but my focus will be on the common good of all our citizens, whether religious or not.   

Although religion is personal, that doesn’t make it private.  If we hold our faith traditions to be true and valuable, then surely they should influence the way we live our lives in public.  Shouldn’t they guide our moral and ethical decisions?  That is, of course, assuming that our faith traditions uphold justice, mercy, and the common good.   But, if faith is to be present in the public square, then we must have a serious conversation about the form that this presence should take, especially in the context of a nation that is increasingly diverse and pluralist in its ethnic and religious make up (see Putnam and Campbell, American Grace, for a detailed explanation of this reality).

Friday, August 26, 2011

Religious Origins of America's Interventions -- Sightings

It may come as a surprise to some, but America's interventionism in global affairs may be rooted in a civic gospel that is driven by sensibilities informed by the Social Gospel.  At least that's the thesis of James Wellman and S.R. Thompson.  There is a sense that America's interests are rooted in its values -- values informed by religious (Christian) sensibilities.  From McKinley to Wilson and onward, there has been a belief that America has a singular set of values that are needed globally, and that at times must be introduced via force.  There may be a strong pacifist lean among those on the left today, but not too far below the surface is an interventionist perspective.  It's an interesting read, and one that should garner some conversation.  What do you think?

Sightings  8/25/2011

Religious Origins of America’s Interventions
-- James K. Wellman, Jr. and S. R. Thompson

America’s foreign interventions over the last century arise from deeply held religious motivations. The source of these motivations reaches back to the end of the nineteenth century, and the invention of the “social gospel.” A gospel that would redeem not only individual souls but groups and even nations, the social gospel took root in the effort to civilize, democratize and Christianize the world.    

Traces of this movement mark the Spanish American War, the Filipino intervention, World War I and II, the multiple interventions into Latin America in the twentieth century, the Vietnam War, and the recent involvements in the Middle East. Recently, John McCain has argued that America’s “interests are our values.” We are led not simply by a lust for power, land or oil but by an ideology of principles, expressed as a civil gospel forged over a century ago.
 This gospel has consistently knitted together democracy and laissez faire economic policy in a peculiar American tapestry synthesized as an American gospel to be shared with the world.

American presidents, like William McKinley (who said that God told him to invade the Philippines), and Woodrow Wilson, who was infused with the piety of the social gospel, and who crusaded to create world peace in the League of Nations, gave his life for this dream, which he called “the kingdom of God.”

George W. Bush’s 2002 National Security Strategy, too, stated that the US had the “right and responsibility” to occupy a foreign country because America embodied a “a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise.” Bush’s dream, sometimes thought of as an aberration, smoothly ties together the strains of the American civic gospel.
And for much of the last century US interventions have had as their goal of “tutelage”; that is to train and guide nations in American civic gospel and then to give them independence. Wilson did this for the first time in the case of the Philippines. A similar kind of policy appears to be at work in Iraq.
Past generations have often talked about “civilizing the uncivilized,” mentoring our “political children,” intervening in the affairs of “lesser” countries to Christianize and democratize them. We don’t say that now, but this is at least in part what we are doing in Afghanistan and why we have entered into the internecine conflict in Libya.
 Much of this comes out of a deeply Anglo-Saxon march to re-invent the world in the image of the American dream of democracy, capitalism and Christianity. Many have disputed whether these belong together, but consistency and purity of religion have never been an American virtue; extending the American civic dream trumps the prophetic strain in the biblical tradition. 

Those who voted for President Barack Obama did so not because he was religious or motivated by his Christian faith. Yet, in addressing the committee for his Nobel Peace Prize, Obama took a page straight from the twentieth-century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, a critical figure in the construction of the Cold War. Niebuhr embodied Christian realism: to deter evil and to secure the innocent; to keep totalitarian regimes from doing their evil.
Obama picks up many of these themes, beginning with the idea that self-righteousness is the first error of great powers, so we must be humble and aware of our faults. But, as Obama says, “make no mistake: evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies… To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism—it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.”
This is Christian realism in its purest form. Ironically, American liberals are neither historically secular nor isolationists—they are often motivated by a religious sensibility. They have believed that intervening to stop evil and to promote the good of democracy, freedom and yes, capitalism is sometimes necessary. This explains in part the Left's ever-reborn support for nation building through the use of force, which we see once again today in Libya.
Now, many will say, “This is naïve, that religion had nothing to do with it and our interests were territory, oil, and power.” Cynics abound. Others will say that the social gospel was a counter note to this American civic gospel, but in our research we found quite the opposite, indeed, an ideological paradigm to extend the values of the American dream.
And so, we say, read the history. Over the last one hundred years, in particular, our values have driven our interests. Have they sometimes been misguided? Of course. Have they sometimes been deeply fruitful? Yes, indeed. In either direction, though, a religious spirit has driven American interventions in the world.

James Wellman is associate professor and chair of the Comparative Religion Program, at the Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington. Wellman and S. R. Thompson, an MA graduate from the Comparative Religion, just published on line, “The Social Gospel Legacy in U.S. Foreign Policy.” It can be read at


In this summer’s Religion and Culture Web Forum: What does religious education look like in the globalized realities of the 21st century? This was the question put to a distinguished panel at the recent meeting (May 22-28, 2011) of the International Association of Black Religions and Spiritualities (IABRS), an organization that “represents the religions and spiritualities of darker skinned peoples globally.” This month, we feature the response of Dr. James Massey, the male Dalit (India) delegate to the IABRS. Dr. Massey argues that peace among the world’s religions will require finding not only a “common ethic” (per Hans Kung), but an “appreciation of differences.” To both these ends, Dr. Massey calls for “re-looking at the religious traditions.”


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

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Heeding the Voice -- A Lectionary Meditation

Exodus 3:1-15
Romans 12:9-12
Matthew 16:21-28

Heeding the Voice

            When people claim to hear voices or have visions, especially voices and visions that are said to come from God, we tend not to take these persons very seriously.  There have been too many false messiahs and saviors, from David Koresh to Jim Jones, for us to pay much heed to their voices.  Like Muammar Gaddafi, they seem to have convinced themselves that they’re more important than they really are. 

When these alleged prophets, when speaking for God, call on us to take up dangerous tasks, we treat them as if they were sending us an email from a Nigerian prince needing to get millions of dollars out of the country – just send a little of yours as a way of making this happen.  Of course, divine voices don’t usually ask us to drink poisoned kool-aid, but they do, on occasion the do ask us to let go of everything we have and follow God’s lead – consider St. Francis of Assisi.   The question is, are we ready to heed the voice of God when God calls?
  The passage from Exodus 3 is one of the best known biblical stories.  If nothing else we have seen it dramatized in that 1950s epic movie featuring Charlton Heston as Moses.  You know the scene, the one where Moses sees a burning bush in the distance and decides to check it out.  Then you have Jesus’ revelation that God was directing his path toward Jerusalem, where things would get really messy, and Peter, acting in a rather rational way, tries to convince Jesus that maybe he’s misheard things.  In the midst of these two stories of divine calls, Paul steps in and offers us a strong description of what the kingdom life should look like.  Together these three texts invite us to consider what it means to actually heed the voice of God.  The question is – are we willing to “bet the farm”? 

            It’s important to consider Moses’ situation when he sees this burning bush on the Mountain of God.  Remember that he had this shepherding job because he had to flee Pharaoh’s wrath after intervening on behalf of a Hebrew slave and killing the Egyptian task-master who was beating him.  You have to wonder though, if there’s more to the story.  Could DeMille be on to something when in his version someone let the cat out of the bag concerning his secret Hebrew identity?  Might Pharaoh see a traitor in his midst and thus Moses had to flee? 

So, here he is, in the Sinai, spotting a bush burning but not being consumed, in the distance.  Since this wasn’t a normal occurrence, Moses felt compelled to check it out.  As he drew close, a voice from the bush speaks his name and commands him to take off the sandals, because this is holy ground.  Then comes the big revelation – the one speaking from the bush is none other than the God of his father, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.   Curiosity quickly gives way to fright at this revelation.  But this isn’t the last frightening revelation.  Not only is this an epiphany of the God of his ancestors, but this God has a job for him.  Since God has heard the cries of the people and seen their plight, God has chosen to act, to deliver them, and Moses is God’s chosen vessel.  The one who fled from Pharaoh’s wrath, and yet was rejected by his own people, is now being called to go down to Egypt, free the Hebrews from their bondage, and lead them to the land of milk and honey, which by the way is already occupied by other peoples.  Moses is probably saying to himself:  “thanks for the honor, but I’d rather not.”  He might have said: “You see, there’s a bounty on my head back home in Egypt, and if I go there I’m sure to die.  Besides, the Hebrews either don’t know me or they don’t trust me, so why should they follow me?”  Following the voice of God can get us in trouble, which is probably why most of us take the safe route and ignore the voice.  But Moses is at least willing to continue the conversation.  He even has the temerity to ask the bush to identify itself.  What’s your name?  Now remember that there was a belief that the power of the divine was found in the name and if you knew the name you could control the deity.  Was this what Moses was asking for – the key to unlocking the mysterious power of God?  Whatever Moses is asking, the voice says – tell them “I AM Who I AM” sent me.  That should do it!  So, go into the lion’s den and tell Pharaoh to let my people go and tell the people that I’ve sent you to rescue them.   Wouldn’t you heed a voice like that?

            Something similar might be happening in the Gospel text from Matthew 16.  Jesus reveals his future plans to the disciples for the first time – I’m going to Jerusalem, and I’m going to suffer and die.  Wow, now that’s a revelation that’s sure to be welcomed with open arms.  At least God didn’t tell Moses to go back to Egypt with the express purpose to suffer and die.  It might be a dangerous mission, but it seemed as if in the end Moses would be successful.  But this is different, and Peter recognized this fact.  Just a few verses earlier he had declared Jesus to be the Messiah and the Son of God, and Jesus had commended him for this – Jesus even changed  his name to reflect this recognition.  Peter understood that as successful messiah shouldn’t suffer and die.  In fact, Peter was willing to give up a lot for this cause, because he saw something of great value in Jesus and his message.  This was no ordinary man.  He was the one whom God had sent, but suffering and dying, surely that wasn’t part of the package.  And so Peter did what many of us would do.  He tried to talk sense into Jesus.  No lord, this isn’t the way things are supposed to work.  Are you sure you’ve heard the right voice?  But Jesus was not to be deterred.  In fact he calls Peter Satan.  The one who is the Rock, who held the keys to the realm of God, was now the tempter, the stumbling block, who would try to prevent Jesus from fulfilling his calling.   Jesus says to Peter – you’re thinking human thoughts not divine ones. 

            And then, in order to impress on Peter what it means to heed the voice of God, he says that if you want to be a disciple you have to take up the cross and lose your life, because if you try to save your life, you will end up losing it.  So, what does that mean for us?  How do we, who live in this modern world, especially we who live in the West, with our homes and cars and electronic devices heed this call?  Ron Allen and Clark Williamson suggest that this means that “the only way to have one’s life in any ultimate sense is to accept that it is a loving gift of God’s grace and spend it in the love of God and neighbor” (Preaching the Gospel without Blaming the Jews, p. 69.).    Thus, if we are to heed the voice of God, we will cease focusing on ourselves and love God and neighbor, and to do otherwise is to be dead. 

            I turn finally to Paul’s words to the Romans.   They don’t speak directly to the matter of heeding a divine voice, at least not one that directs one to lose one’s life, but they do speak to the way we live in community – both inside and outside that community.  This passage begins with a lengthy list that encourages us to live in community out of a love that is genuine and not false.    Paul does suggest that we should be patient in our suffering and persevere in prayer, which fits well with Jesus’ own words, and even Moses’ own situation.  Paul calls on the Romans to care for those saints who are in need and show hospitality to strangers.  Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.  This is a word about true community, a community of people committed to each other’s welfare, something we rarely see in our culture, even in the church.  These aren’t easy words to abide.  It’s not that they’re not true, it’s just we’re not used living this way.  And then comes the kicker – don’t repay evil for evil, but keep focused on what is noble in the sight of all.  This sounds a lot like turning the other cheek.  Again, these are words that don’t sit well with us in our age.

           One of the most important words to hear in the New Testament is its rejection of the law of retaliation.  Jesus speaks to this issue in his word about turning the other cheek, and Paul makes it absolutely clear in this passage – whatever avenging needs to take place, leave that to God.  Now, even that word might not sit well with everyone, and indeed, I struggle with this word about God’s wrath, but it does remove responsibility for taking matters into our own hand.  Matters of ultimate justice are best left in the hands of one who is best equipped to make the right decision.  Human nature is always tempted to seek revenge.  That is the message of the movie The Conspirator, which focuses on the trial of Mary Surratt, convicted by a military tribunal of participating in the plot to assassinate President Lincoln, even though there was little evidence to support this conviction.  That wasn’t the point, though.  In the mind of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and many Union supporters, someone had to pay for this crime, and that was enough.  It is the concern that many have right now as we watch Libya emerge from civil war.  It’s interesting that many who have no stake in this game are warning against taking vengeance, when there is sufficient evidence that we ourselves want to do this very thing in our own situations.  How many, for instance, felt vindication at hearing that Osama Bin Laden’s death?  Admit it, you weren’t sorry were you?  But Paul says to us – do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.  Is this possible?  Perhaps it is if we’re able to set aside the obstacles to hearing the voice of God, which calls on us to lay down our lives in order to find them.   

            As I conclude this reflection, which calls us to heed the difficult calling of God, I want to share a prayer for peace written by John Philip Newell:

May our enemy become our friend, O God,
That we may share earth’s goodness.
May our enemy become our friend, O God,
That our children may meet and marry.
May our enemy become our friend, O God,
That we may remember our shared birth in you.
May we grow in grace
May we grow in gratitude
May we grow in wisdom
That our enemy may become our friend.
(Newell, Praying with the Earth, p. 36).