Saturday, March 31, 2012

In All Things Moderation

Crooked River Gorge and Bridge -- Oregon

As I was pondering what to write this morning for the blog, wondering what direction to go, I was directed to an article by David Brooks in the New York Times.  The tip comes from Scot McKnight's Weekly Meanderings.  In this article Brooks points out the difficulty of moderates to navigate the political realm.  This is especially true of center-right folks who traditionally have found a home in the Republican Party.  The focus of the story is Nathan Fletcher, a California State Rep who is seeking the office of mayor of San Diego.  This office is often held by moderate Republicans, but that animal is a rare bird in this age of polarized politics.  So, Fletcher is going Independent, because as a moderate he's finding it difficult to find a home.  

Having been born into the Episcopal Church -- before converting to Pentecostalism -- I am genetically predisposed to the principle of "in all things moderation."  It is the hallmark of Anglicanism, which sought to find a middle path between Reformed Protestantism (Calvin) and Roman Catholicism.  The way this has evolved is an interesting story in its own right, but not a story to be told here.  My point is, that I am by nature a moderate, even if I'm a liberal one.  This is as true in my faith commitments as in my political ones.  

I know all the reasons why moderation is a bad thing.  You're wishy-washy.  You're a collaborator -- etc.  But the question is -- how do we get things done if there are only two rather starkly divided poles, with no room to maneuver in the center.   How do we get things done when no one talks with the other side?

Yes, principle is important, but what is the nature of this principle?  There are things worth dying for, but what what are these things?  And are there incremental ways of reaching the goal?  

I'll give you an example -- the Affordable Health Care Act (also known as Obamacare).  Many liberals oppose it because they want a single-payer government option.  I think that this would be best, but is it going to happen in this time and place?  This measure, which is under review by the Supreme Court, is largely based on a proposal offered by Conservative Republicans as a counter to a more government controlled system.  Now they oppose it, but I'm wondering if it's on the merits or because of politics.  President Obama, who campaigned against an individual mandate (supported by Hillary Clinton) adopted it, because it seemed to be the only game in town.  We'll see.  If overturned, the only options left on the table will be a single-payer system or a completely unregulated system (at least at the federal level).  

Why can't we figure this out?  Is it that there is no place for moderation left in the system?  There isn't in the Republican Party, and there's increasing pressure within the Democratic Party to weed out moderate dissenters.  And what is true there is often true in the religious realm.  Polarization -- a winner take all -- position takes over,  but what is the result?

So, I wonder -- is there a place for the moderate, for the bridge-builder, in our systems?      

Friday, March 30, 2012

People of Faith and the Public Square

People of faith, if they choose to enter the public square, face the question of why they are making this move into public life. There are those who desire either to dominate public life through the imposition of religious law or a theological vision, whether that is Sharia, the Ten Commandments, or the Sermon on the Mount! Others hope to gain special privileges, whether that involves official establishment or some other form of support. American history shows that there was not a consensus on this question, even as the states began to ratify the Constitution.

In the essays that comprise this book [Faith in the Public Square] I hope to create a conversation that would help the nation in which I live, as well as the global society, to work together for the common good. I happen to believe that while it has its flaws, the American political system is the best system yet devised. It is a democratic system, and yet it has imposed checks and balances that have provided political stability. This is the context in which citizens, including people of faith engage each other publicly. The US Constitution allows for people of faith to exercise their faith in public. There are few legal prohibitions of religious practice in America, and the government must show a compelling reason for limiting religious speech and activity (usually matters relating to personal or public safety). Therefore, the government, according to the First Amendment, cannot either impose a religious orthodoxy on the nation or infringe on the rights of religious people to practice their faith openly. These are very important rights that bring with them important responsibilities. Therefore, people of faith must enter the public square boldly but respectfully, for there is more than one viewpoint on matters religious and non-religious present in the public square. That said, from the perspective of faith, one must ask the question – what kind of world does my faith tradition envision and how should a person of faith seek to bring this vision to fruition?

As we seek to understand how this question of vision is worked out in public, we must remember that this is a pluralistic democracy and that the players in the public square must respect the rights of the other. There are rules that govern our engagement with the public square. Sometimes we may decide that the issues closest to our hearts require us to trespass the boundaries, and be willing to suffer the consequences. The notion of nonviolent civil disobedience is a recognized form of expression in our society, and without it the Civil Rights Movement would never have achieved the results it sought.

 I would argue that religion has an important role to play in public life, because in its institutional forms at least, religion is a public entity. It is a public space where people come together, linked by a common faith, but generally emerging from outside a particular family grouping. It is a public space where people can join and leave if they choose. Some religious communities are more engaged with the public sphere than others, but all have a place in public life. As a public entity, my belief is that each faith community has an opportunity to contribute to the common good of the nation and the world. That is, if we believe that faith transcends family and nation, then it calls us to embrace the good of the entire creation. 

Excerpted from the introduction to my recently released book:
Faith in the Public Square, p. 6-8

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Perplexing Message of Palm Sunday -- A Lectionary Reflection

The Perplexing Message of Palm Sunday

            Palm Sunday poses problems for preachers.  We who know the trajectory of the story know that the celebrations quickly give way to a state-sanctioned execution of a possible troublemaker.   Of course, we could just skip Good Friday and jump to the triumphal glory of Easter.  It’s a much more cohesive message.  Jesus enters the city of Jerusalem, hailed as king and then God graduates him to heavenly glory.  We can go from “All Glory, Laud, and Honor” to “Crown Him with Many Crowns.”  There’s no need for us to sing “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”  After all, in my subdivision, the children will get to engage in the annual Easter Egg Hunt on Saturday – the day before Palm Sunday! 

Now this perplexing Palm Sunday situation could be avoided -- We can focus on the Passion Sunday texts (and two of the text I’ve chosen come  from that set of lections) – but perhaps we need to be reminded how easy it is for us to misread what God is up to.  How then do we make sense of these texts that speak of glory and suffering?  If we are called to follow Jesus, then what is required of us?  Must we suffer to experience glory?   

Because there all these choices available for this Sunday’s service – whether Palm or Passion Sunday -- I’ve mixed and matched, taking the Passion Sunday texts from Isaiah and Philippians, while taking the Gospel reading from Palm Sunday, choosing John 12 over Mark 11.  Both gospel readings offer ways of entering into the conversation about how Jesus was perceived by his contemporaries, including the pertinent question for this week:  What did they want from him?  From this question we can then move to why did they turn on him?  (Now in posing these questions, I’m taking the texts, at least for the moment, at face value.  We actually don’t know the entire story as history; we know it as it has been told to us.  Whatever the “history,” this story raises the question:  What are our expectations?  And what happens when those expectations don’t get me?   

            In the midst of this conversation comes another, the one dealing with suffering.  This is an issue fraught with danger.  There is the question of atonement theory and questions about whether suffering should be an expected part of discipleship.   It’s clear from the gospels that Jesus suffered a most horrible death, and the church sought to find a way to interpret this death in a redemptive way.  It did so in a variety of ways, but what is the nature of suffering in relationship to the Christian faith? 

            We start with Isaiah 50, a text from the Exile that depicts Israel as the suffering servant of God.  The servant receives a word from God, having his ear awakened by God.  God issues a call to follow God down a pathway that will lead to vindication, but along the way the servant will experience great suffering – both physical and emotional.  Despite the violence that is thrown at the servant, there’s no turning back. 
Instead, I gave my body to attackers, and my cheeks to beard pluckers.  I didn’t hide my face from insults and spitting. (vs. 6-7a). 
The reason the servant can take this path is the confidence that God will be the sustaining power, who vindicates and empowers.  So in the end, who could condemn the suffering servant?  So, what about us?  Where do we stand in this picture?  Are we the suffering servant who goes forth and stands firm in the midst of opposition, or are we the ones who answer the call to stand with the servant in this righteous cause?  Either way, the invitation is clear:  join the servant in boldness and courage, standing not in our own power, but that of God.  

Now, in the Christian reading of Isaiah 50, Jesus is this suffering servant, and we find our boldness in standing with him, at his invitation.  And in this context of Holy Week, we watch him challenge the status quo, for which he paid dearly, but of course God vindicates his cause.   The question for us is:  Will we stand firm?  Or will go along to get along?  As I consider this question, I recognize in myself a certain cautiousness that won’t push the envelope to fast, too far, but here is Jesus doing exactly that!   In this context, what is our calling?

            Philippians 2 is also part of the Passion Sunday emphasis.  It is a powerful hymn to Jesus, which lifts him up as our model for Christian living.  “Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus,” Paul exhorts his readers.  Here is your model, your example.  Be like this person.  It is a call to servanthood, a calling that may involve suffering.  Now, the point is not to suffer, just to suffer, as if martyrdom is a higher calling, but rather recognizing that discipleship will involve suffering.  If we do what is right there might be, as Jesus experienced, a cross to bear.  Jesus was, as Paul suggests, faithful in all that he did.  He was a servant, though this needn’t have been his destiny.  But because he is faithful in his servanthood, God raises him to glory.

It is clear that this text offers up a very high Christology.  This is not merely a prophet of God.  This is the one who shared equality with God prior to life on earth, and then returned to that place of glory afterward.  There is a clear declaration of pre-existence in this hymn that we should acknowledge.  There is also the word here about choice.  Though he shared equality with God, he thought nothing of it, and emptied himself of this glory, and took on human form, which would be the same as becoming a slave.  That’s not the end of course, because this choice would lead to his suffering and death on a cross.  But all was done in obedience to God’s direction.  There is great beauty in this hymn, but it also raises questions, especially for more liberal Christians (myself included).  

As is true with the servant in Isaiah 50, Jesus’ ear had been awakened.  He heard his calling, and he didn’t turn back, despite the suffering of the moment.  And as in Isaiah 50 we hear a word of vindication.  The one who declares the servant innocent, honors Jesus by giving him “a name above all names, so that at the name of Jesus everyone in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:9-11 CEB). 

As we listen to Paul, we’re hearing word that in the end the course of God’s work will be vindicated, even if we choose to resist.  God is persistent, and Jesus represents that persistence.  We as human beings may subject the messenger of God to violence, but this violent response will not win out.  Jesus ends this cycle by not resisting in kind, but rather in giving his life, he brings to an end this cycle of violence that marks so much human experience.  As a result, he is honored by God, and we will honor him as well, by bowing to him, but also by living as he lived.

            Finally, we come to the Gospel Reading.  Here in John 12, we stand and watch the Palm Sunday Parade commence.  It’s a glorious scene, but if you know something of the rest of the story, this scene has to be perplexing.   The Palm Sunday texts remind us that it’s easy for us to misread God’s intentions and to import our own agendas on God and on the ministry of Jesus.

It’s not an exact parallel, but in some ways this scene is strangely reminiscent of the expectations placed on Barack Obama as he ran for President in 2008.  There was this messianic fervor that seemed to take hold among many in the American populace.  Then, when it turned out that he wasn’t the messiah who would usher in a new age some grew disillusioned.  Now, I’m not saying that Jesus and Barack Obama are equivalent.  Indeed, the President would be horrified by such an equation, but the point seems relevant.  In our eagerness to see our dreams come to fruition, we can put on persons, including Jesus, our own agendas.  Then, when things don’t work out as we hoped, we become disillusioned.  Many a pastor knows this same feeling – expectations of salvation for a congregation is placed upon the new pastor who is unequipped to fulfill the messianic expectations, and thus go through a Good Friday sort of experience.

John’s account of Palm Sunday is brief.  A crowd is gathering in Jerusalem for the festival (Passover Week).  Some of them have heard that Jesus is coming into Jerusalem, and in preparation for his entrance, they take palm branches and go out to meet him.   Reading this reminds me of a childhood experience.  It was 1968 and Richard Nixon was coming to town, and because my parents were active in the Republican Party, we went out to line up along the road from the airport to town to wave at him and let him know we believed that “Nixon is the One” (that’s what the sash said that we all wore as waved at him).   Now, even as Obama isn’t the Messiah, neither was Nixon, but that slogan has messianic tendencies as well.  They waved and shouted and greeted the favored one, just as we did that day in 1968.  According to John, they shouted the acclamation that Jesus was the King of Israel, who came in the name of the Lord!

Now Jesus didn’t enter the city in a limo, but rather, on a donkey.  Now to us that might seem a rather lowly form of transportation.  Surely a war horse would be better, but the donkey fills a need.  Jesus enters the city as foretold by the prophet, sitting on a donkey, so that Daughter Zion need not fear (Zech. 9:9).  It would appear, from this telling of the story, that Jesus knew what he was doing, even if his disciples were clueless.  Jesus was sending signals, but perhaps they were misread.  It’s interesting that in Zechariah 9, reference is made to the humble manner in which the king arrives.  So, it seems that there is a contrast being made between the humble king and the one who seeks to come in power and glory.  Whatever the signals given, this is clearly a political act, and not one that the Romans or their collaborators among the priesthood, would have appreciated.  The problem isn’t the political nature of the act, but the way in which all parties seem to have misunderstood the nature of the realm that Jesus sought to inaugurate.  Jesus’ realm is one built not on violence, but nonviolence.  It is not built upon the sword, but upon the Spirit of God.  Now John says that the disciples didn’t understand at first, but after he was glorified “they remembered that these things had been written about him.” But did they understand, really, and more importantly do we understand?  Do we truly understand the nature of God’s reign? 

The only way we can truly understand Jesus’ intentions is to continue the journey from this point through to the cross.  If Jesus is, as I believe to be true, inaugurating the realm of God in this Holy Week experience, then we must seek to understand the means by which it is accomplished.  Are we willing to take this much more difficult path, a path that can, as Isaiah and Paul remind us, take us on a pathway that might lead to suffering?  As we contemplate this question, let us also enjoy the parade while it lasts.  Just remember this isn’t the reality that God seeks to inaugurate, and that can be perplexing to the one who doesn’t know the pathway leads to the cross.    


When the Private is Political -- Sightings

Recent debates in Congress and in the public square have raised the issue of religion and public life. How do these two relate? Is religion truly private? When the two collide, as they often do, what gives? The issue of contraception opened up a lot of different debates, some having to do with the way we understand religion.  In this Sightings article, Caryn Riswold asks us to consider once again the long standing Feminist witness.  It's not, she says the final frontier, but a frontier that has been contested for centuries within the church.  It's a very provocative piece that is worth deep consideration!  



March 29, 2012

When the Private is Political

— Caryn D. Riswold
Who imagined that the hot political topic in Spring 2012 would be contraception? That Rush Limbaugh would flame back into relevance for demanding that a Georgetown law student provide him and his buddies with sex tapes? That a religious organization comprised entirely of celibate men would exert such power over all American women's access to health care?

Welcome to the messy space where feminism and religion meet. Some of us have been here for a while. It's not new. Nor is religion, as Lisa Miller's recent piece in The Washington Post suggests. "Feminism's Final Frontier" suggests that this messy space has just been discovered or is just now being explored, in effect dismissing a long and transformative history of feminist engagement with religion.

Women have been leaving, rebelling against, and more importantly changing religious traditions for centuries and for a variety of reasons. Feminists in particular have been critiquing, constructing, and transforming religions for generations.

It was all the way back in the year of my birth, 1971, when Mary Daly preached the so-called "Exodus Sermon" at Harvard Memorial Church: "Sisters—and brothers, if there are any here: Our time has come. We will take our own place in the sun. We will leave behind the centuries of silence and darkness. Let us affirm our faith in ourselves and our will to transcendence by rising and walking out together."

Even long before that call, in 1837, Sarah Grimke publicly addressed the use of the bible to limit women's roles in her Letters on the Equality of the Sexes: "The Lord Jesus defines the duties of his followers in his Sermon on the Mount. He lays down grand principles by which they should be governed, without any reference to sex or condition."

Nineteenth and twentieth century American religious history is filled with examples of women evangelists like Jarena Lee and Sojourner Truth, women activists like Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Anna Julia Cooper, and women religious innovators like Mary Baker Eddy and Phoebe Palmer. Medieval Christianity left the legacy of Julian of Norwich and Catherine of Siena. All of these are women profoundly dedicated to faith and political transformation of women's roles in church and world. And those are just examples from the Christian tradition.

Perhaps the problem is that not enough people know this history. Or that the more recent work of women scholars in Transformative Lutheran Theologies or New Feminist Christianity is not more widely read. Or that more feminist theologians and progressive people of faith in general are not meaningful participants in public debates about religion and politics.

Because of the push back from the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops on the mandate in the Affordable Care Act that insurance cover preventative health care, and because Rush Limbaugh decided to engage in the tired patriarchal tactic of slut-shaming Sandra Fluke for testifying before a Congressional panel about contraception as preventative health care, religion is not private. Neither is contraception. They are public and they are political. The Catholic Church's absolute ban on artificial contraception is now something everyone is talking about.

This is a good thing: Good for religion and good for women.

Make it public. Shed light on the fact that Church teaching makes absolutely no difference in the rates of contraception usage among Catholic women and men. Pay attention to the history of the Catholic Church itself, when a Papal Commission recommended relaxing this absolute ban in 1966, and the Pope rejected it outright. Tell more stories about how making contraception harder to get returns us to an era where Lysol was promoted for female hygiene and even birth control.

When it is not just private and personal, it is political. Then, change can begin to occur.

It is a classic feminist rallying point to insist that the personal is political. It means that we recognize how individual experiences are connected to and sometimes the result of systemic and structural inequalities. It suggests that when we make changes to those systems and institutions, that our lives can and will begin to change. Or, if we find new institutions, that our lives could be better. This concept led to changes in access to educational opportunities for girls and women, increased rights in the workplace, and secured legal protections against sexual violence and harassment... even when they occur at home, the most private sphere of all.

So let us make it all public and keep talking about it. Sex and religion. Women and politics. Birth control and church. Not because this is a new or even final frontier, but because we have a rich and complex history of scholarship and activism on which to draw for making lasting and meaningful change.


Lisa Miller, "Feminism's Final Frontier? Religion.Washington Post, March 8, 2012.
Mary J. Streufert, Transformative Lutheran Theologies: Feminist, Womanist, and Mujerista Perspectives (Fortress Press, 2010).

Mary E. Hunt and Diann L. Neu, New Feminist Christianity: Many Voices, Many Views (Skylight Paths Pub, 2010).

"Contraception Provision Sets of Firestorm," NPR, February 3, 2012.

Sandra Fluke, "Slurs Won't Silence Women," CNN, March 14, 2012.

Profiles of women evangelists can be found here.

Caryn D. Riswold is Associate Professor of Religion and Chair of Gender and Women's Studies at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois. She is the author of Feminism and Christianity: Questions and Answers in the Third Wave, and you can follow her on Twitter @feminismxianity.

Sightings is published by the Martin Marty Center

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Health Care Reform -- What's the Right Thing to Do?

The Supreme Court is in the midst of hearings that will have wide ranging effects on the lives of every American.  The Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) is an imperfect instrument, but it is the first such instrument to be put into law.  It is an attempt to provide health care for every American, and Congress (Democrats in Congress) chose to require every American to purchase insurance or pay a rather nominal penalty.  Many Democrats preferred a single payer system like Canada's, but they didn't think they had the votes, so they went with on that involved private insurers.  When fully implemented there will be regulations and expectations placed on these carriers, including ending the practice of denying benefits for those with pre-existing conditions.

The only way that this requirement can work is if everyone is in the pool.  If not, then costs can't be shared in a sustainable way.  

Yesterday the merits of this mandate were argued and many observers believe that the votes will swing against the mandate.  Today, there will be questions about whether the other parts of the law can stand without the mandate.

It's unfortunate that the naysayers have been able to misrepresent much of the Act, and that proponents, perhaps wanting a more perfect bill, have not stepped up to defend it.  But consider what will be lost if this fails.

1.  The insurance exchanges
2.  Ban on denials for pre-existing conditions,
3.  Ban on life-time caps on coverage
4.  Gender will not be considered as part of setting policies
5.  Young adults on family insurance to age 26

  • And many more.

One of the stones thrown at the bill is that the government will determine what kind of care you receive -- especially end of life care.  The fact is, right now, your insurance company makes that choice -- if you can afford insurance.  And even under the Affordable Care Act, as with Medicare, if you can afford it you could get supplemental coverage, if you want.  So, this is really a straw man argument.  

So, the question I have isn't a Constitutional one -- the Supreme Court will decide that -- but rather what is the right thing to do for America's people?  If the mandate fails, are you ready to go to a truly government program and extend Medicare to everyone.  As I understand it Medicare is Constitutional, because it's a tax, and Congress can levy taxes and spend them according to its wishes.  Since this is true, and because expanding the pool for Medicare would make it financially sound, wouldn't this be the best way forward?  

Like many others I will watch with baited breath to see what happens.  Perhaps many are correct -- if the mandate fails, then we'll get the chance to discuss the truly government program.  Republicans want to repeal and replace -- is this their replacement option?  

Ultimately, we need to ask the question -- is the current health care system working for the majority of Americans?  And the answer is sometimes, sometimes not -- depends on your situation.  But the bigger question is -- what is the right thing to do?  That is, what is the just thing to do?

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Kingdom of Heaven and the IRS -- Sightings

We've been having lots of discussion recently about where the line is drawn between church and state.  Whether it's arguments in support of a Christian America or claims of persecution for righteousness sake -- relating to health insurance coverage, the debate has roared.  Martin Marty throws open the debate a little further with this essay, using as his foil the claim by a Florida man that he doesn't owe taxes because he's part of the Kingdom of Heaven.  Not sure it works, but even in its silliness it raises the questions of boundaries and what is essential and non-essential.  And, is heaven a new tax haven replacing the Cayman Islands? Take a read, offer a thought!  


Sightings  3/25/2012
 The Kingdom of Heaven and the IRS
-- Martin E. Marty  
A Gentile (as in Russell P. Gentile) is the most recent, perhaps most earnest, certainly the boldest claimant, on the government and religion news front in the winter just past. While others have protested along the line of “separation of church and state” when government is interpreted as having crossed that line, Gentile goes further. The Florida businessman pleaded that he should not be punished (as he will be punished) for not having paid owed taxes which he argues that he does not owe. While the public is familiar with Catholic bishops being critical on the issue of having to pay taxes, even indirectly, or even “indirectly indirectly” when a government policy apparently conflicts with conscientious and doctrinal issues, Gentile will not pay taxes for anything. We are familiar with Baptists and others who hold the line on “separation,” Gentile poses a transcendent issue.           
In short, he says he is not subject to human laws but is an American national who “resided in the Kingdom of Heaven.” He has been “as polite and patient” as he could be, but threatens to sue if the Feds come after him. (Thy have come.) He would not report his income, and faces substantial federal prison time and fines. He broke numbers of laws and set out to obstruct justice. The legal cases continue, and outcomes are uncertain as we write. Why waste readers’ time on a case that can be described as comical and trivial?           
The problem is that the Kingdom of Heaven is invoked in other cases as well. James Madison’s words argue “that it may not be easy, in every possible case, to trace the line of separation between the rights of religion and the civil authority with such distinctness as to avoid collisions and doubt on unessential points.” And most colliders say that they deal with essential points. These days we are told that Catholic and Evangelical authorities are the chief critics of the civil authority. Does Mr. Gentile’s apparently bizarre claim cast light on the others? We have to prove he is conscientious and sincere, though he is a bad calculator if he thinks that he can hold on to all his money as a member in the Kingdom of God. The last we heard from a relevant source, the New Testament, it claims all that one has and is.           
Back to reality: we are in tangles over what is “essential,” what is “authority,” and who has the power to tie up government, gain media time, and affect policy. Are Catholic and Evangelical leaders the only ones who have a moral right to raise these issues? Do they succeed because they have the money, the power, and the clout to advance their claims? Every year, every day, thousands of Americans, equally conscientious as they are, do not get their way when government policies conflict with their consciences. Jehovah’s Witnesses go to jail and other “sects” make legal cases and irritate the courts as they refuse to follow mandates to have their children vaccinated, etc. Those who oppose fluoridation of water are inconvenienced. Pacifists know that we know that they suffer for conscience’s sake whenever they pay federal taxes, and will get no more than sympathy from those of us who share their conviction but do not probe to its depths. Or who do not make a legal case of being members of the Kingdom of Heaven.           
Conclusion: we citizens need patience, dialogue, study, and argument of more reasoned, thoughtful, and sympathetic character than we often see and hear and show. Otherwise Mr. Gentile and his kind will be the ones who make the best case.
J. D. Gallop, “Melbourne Man Faces Prison after Making Deal with IRS,” Florida Today, March 20, 2012.
 ---. “IRS Intervention Not Divine for Melbourne Man,” Florida Today, March 21, 2012.

 James Madison is quoted from a letter to the Rev. Jasper Adams, in John F. Wilson (ed.), Church and State in American History (Boston D C Heath, 1965), pp. 77-78.

 Martin E. Marty's biography, publications, and contact information can be found at
 David M. Freidenreich's book, Foreigners and their Food (California 2011), analyzes how Jews, Christians and Muslims use food regulations to construct boundaries between "us" and "them." This month's Religion & Culture Web Forum features Freidenreich's chapter on Christian laws from the fourth through the ninth century. Here, Freidenreich argues that "Christian food restrictions define Jews in two different and, indeed, contradictory ways: as equivalent to or worse than heretics, which is to say insiders gone horribly bad, and as equivalent to or worse than idolaters, which is to say the ultimate outsiders." These contradictory depictions, however, "share a common feature: the ascription of impurity to Jews and their food" (112-13). Read "How Could Their Food Not Be Impure?"  here.
 Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Jesus Have I Loved, But Paul? -- A Review

JESUS HAVE I LOVED, BUT PAUL? : A Narrative Approach to the Problem of Pauline Christianity.  By J.R. Daniel Kirk. Grand Rapids:  Baker Academic, 2011.  Ix + 214 pages.  

         If you ask many of my progressive Christian friends what they think of Paul, their responses might be less than complimentary.  Paul simply doesn’t rate with Jesus, and in the minds of some, Paul ruined the faith that Jesus established.  Now, it’s true, there have been liberal attempts (Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan’s First Paul) to rescue Paul from ignominy by separating out the truly Pauline letters from the pseudo-Pauline letters. Thus, Paul’s more radically egalitarian message is seen as being set aside by later church leaders who sought to shore up the church by casting it in a more hierarchical framework, and doing so in the name of Paul.   But, who is Paul, really, and how does his message fit with that of Jesus?  Are they polar opposites or are they on the same page?     

           Daniel Kirk, an assistant professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary (my alma mater), seeks to address the concern that so many have about Paul.  Unlike Borg and Crossan, he doesn’t  focus on authorship questions – it should be noted that Borg and Crossan don’t appear as dialogue partners.   Instead, he uses a narrative approach to demonstrate how Paul and Jesus were of a similar mind and purpose, though their contexts and questions addressed may have differed.    

Using this narrative approach, Kirk suggests that Paul attempts to write the Gentiles into the broader narrative of the People of God.  For Paul this doesn’t come about through conversion to Judaism by way of circumcision, but by way of adherence to the person of Jesus, who reveals through the cross and resurrection the purpose of God.  As Kirk lays out this narrative, going back and forth between the gospels and the Pauline texts, his purpose is very practical.  This is not simply an apologetic for Paul; it is an attempt offer Paul as a guide for faithfully following Jesus in the 21st century.  His hope is that we will discover how we should embody the story of Jesus, with Paul as a companion.  In addressing ancient and modern questions, this narrative approach is dynamic in nature.  Thus, as Kirk writes:  “Our calling is not simply to recite agreed-on points of doctrine.  Rather, our calling is to freshly discover with the communities we are part of what it means for us to live out the narrative of Christ crucified” (p. 30).  

Chapters explore the concepts of new creation and kingdom of God, Christianity as community, and ways in which we can live out the Jesus narrative.  These chapters lay the groundwork for chapters dealing with judgment and inclusion, women, liberty and justice, sex, and homosexuality.  He closes with a chapter entitled “Living Interpretations.”  Ours is a living faith, and even as Paul wrote the Gentiles into a narrative that was defined by circumcision as the prime identity marker, we find ourselves being written into this story.   Because it is a story it can’t be defined in solely propositional forms.  It must be lived.  And this story that begins in the Old Testament moves towards its end (telos) in Christ.  He believes that both Jesus and Paul understood the story of God in this way.

For the modern reader who knows that there have been supersessionist tendencies in the church, it would have been helpful for this issue to be addressed directly, so that this narrative doesn’t get taken in an anti-Jewish direction.  I don’t believe that Kirk goes in this direction, but it would  have helped to have acknowledged the danger.

I’m not a Pauline scholar, so I’ll leave the minutiae of the academic conversation to others.  Instead, I’d like to point us to the way in which he addresses the question of living out this faith.  One of the key points in moving into this conversation is dealing with the question of justification.  He makes it clear that for Paul there isn’t this strong delineation between faith and works that so often dominates Protestant theological conversation.  Faith, he notes, isn’t just assent to something, rather “faith works.”  Paul might take off the table some markers of Jewish identity – circumcision – but the faith that truly matters “is faith that works through love” (p. 92).  The point is that our ethics, our actions need to be rooted in the foundational narrative of Jesus.  Thus, we simply can’t point to some Judeo-Christian ethic and say – well this is how the nation should organize itself.  

From this point he moves on to issues of inclusion and judgment, the role of women (an issue suddenly again a hot topic in our society thanks in part to Mark Driscoll and the political sphere), social justice (Glen Beck made this an issue as well), sex and homosexuality.  I’m going to focus attention on the latter two, because Kirk’s perspective is intriguing.  On the other issues, Kirk would say – there is both judgment and inclusion, but knowing how this works is important.  On women he represents that growing trend toward full inclusion of women (that’s a requirement to be a faculty member at Fuller – you can’t teach women how to be pastors if you don’t believe they belong in the pulpit, and Fuller is committed to that proposition).  As for justice, it is the desire of God as revealed in the life and death and resurrection of the crucified messiah.  

Sex – it’s a topic ever in our thoughts, but not always on our lips.  We live in a sex-saturated age.  It’s not that sex didn’t play a role before; it’s just that media has made it more visible, and there is a greater openness in our society’s sexual mores.  So, how do we interpret the biblical narrative with regard to sexuality in our day?  As he notes, Jesus did talk about sex and family, including divorce (Jesus was not overly supportive of the idea, despite its prevalence in the church today).  Sex, he suggests, in the biblical narrative, is designed to be expressed in a committed covenant relationship, which we call marriage, and it’s to be a life-long partnership.  This chapter will be a challenge to many, if not most, modern Christians.  Divorce is a regular occurrence, even among clergy, and whether or not we acknowledge, sex no longer is linked to marriage in the minds of perhaps a majority of Americans, and probably among a majority of Christians as well.   Although we don’t like to talk about such things, Kirk takes on this taboo subject rather directly.  

The discussion of sex is central to the next point – the development of a Christian position on homosexuality for the 21st Century.  He insists that if we’re going to discuss developing a more open view of homosexuality, then we must have “truly Christian narrative of the story of sex” (p. 173).   Whatever the nature of partnerships, his understanding sex is something that exists within a committed, life-long partnership, where two are made one flesh.  He provides guidance for how we as church deal with the realities of our age, but this is the standard that must wrestle with.

Now, with my hints as to his understanding of sex, what is his position, as an evangelical, toward homosexuality?  I will say -- it’s an intriguing discussion.  He acknowledges that Scripture says little about it.  He acknowledges that Jesus is silent, but that doesn’t mean Jesus, unlike Paul, had a more open view.  It’s just that culturally Jesus likely wouldn’t have dealt with it.  So silence is silence.  Regarding other texts, he suggests that his conservative friends should leave Leviticus well-enough alone, as the church no longer finds much of Levitical teaching binding on the modern church.  This leaves two Pauline texts (Romans 1:18-27 and 1 Corinthians 6:9-10), along with two others (1 Timothy 1:8-11 and Jude 7) that require attention.  He addresses both Pauline texts, noting that for Paul homosexuality is “anticreation”; it’s contrary to nature.  But is that the end of the conversation? 

Returning to Jesus he addresses the suggestion that Jesus’ view can be intuited from his commitment to inclusion and social justice.  He addresses suggestions as well that this issue has parallels with women and slavery, though he points out that with homosexuality you won’t find any biblical counterarguments to reigning cultural practices.  Thus, there is little direct biblical support for an open position, but that’s not necessarily the end of the story.  Remember that he suggests that whatever position we take on homosexuality must be placed in a broader conversation about sexuality and a reminder that this is ultimately a living narrative.   So, are there no possible arguments for affirming homosexual practice?  The answer is – possibly -- but, advocates for inclusion must do several things.

1.    Refuse to endorse all forms of homosexual engagement, but instead do so in a way that reflects the “biblical standard of lifetime loyalty to one partner who is also in Christ.”  To do this many churches/denominations are going to have to back away from concessions to the sexual revolution.

2.   Advocates need to offer a more compelling way to “plot homosexual partnerships within the narrative of God’s story” (and he offers ways in which this might be done).  

3.     The church must understand this affirmation as a work of the Holy Spirit of God.  And there is precedent for this – the inclusion of Gentiles into the people of God without circumcision, which “flies in the face of a huge swath of Old Testament teaching.  But the Spirit of God gave divine testimony to God’s approval of these gentiles without their becoming circumcised Jews” (p. 185).  In this matter, it is the faithful and committed expression of faith in Jesus that is determinative of this new move of the Spirit.

Added to these three points, is the commandment to love one’s neighbor.  In articulating a Christian position, we must ask the question – what does it mean to love our neighbor?  He writes:
If the faithful Christian practice of committed homosexuals provides the strongest argument in favor of the church’s blessing of homosexual unions, the rancorous, destructive, and otherwise unloving behavior of the traditionalists is one of the strongest indications that they are not on the side of God (p. 186).
I expect that is proposal will be received by many on both sides of the issue with resistance, but it is an interesting proposal, but one that is challenging to all sides of the debate.  Are we willing to go down this road less traveled?   I appreciate Kirk’s desire to address what he finds to be the “insufficiently Christian way people are advocating for certain positions,” both on the left and the right (p. 190).  To move forward, he calls on us to recognize that with regard to sex, no matter our sexual identities, we are “full of disordered desires that point us toward our need for the twin redemptive work of both forgiveness from guilt and liberation from bondage” (p. 192).  

I found this book to be challenging and enlightening, maddening at times, but revelatory at many others.  I might not agree at every point, but this is a cogent, thoughtful, evangelical perspective on Paul and the way in which Paul’s message can resonate in the 21st century.   I might have wished that he had spent more time attending to authorship questions, and perhaps engaging Borg and Crossan, as well as Tom Wright and Richard Hays, but this is a most interesting book, that is well worth reading.  And I might add, it is a reflection of the best of that open spirit that I found at Fuller while a student there more than twenty years ago.  Take and read, won’t you?!

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Hearing the Voice of God? Experience

Acts 11:1-18

    How does God speak to us, if burning bushes aren’t a normative experience?   In answer to this question, we’ve considered Scripture, Tradition, and Reason, but could  God also speak to us through our own experiences and the experiences of others?   The idea that God might speak through experience is both an attractive and dangerous idea, but can faith be alive if it’s not experienced? 

    An answer might be found in St. Augustine’s confession:   “Thou hast made us for thyself and restless is our heart until it comes to rest in thee.”   And Augustine’s confession is similar to that of the Psalmist:

     Just like a deer that craves streams of water,
        my whole being craves you, God.
    My whole being thirsts for God, for the living God.
           When will I come and see God’s face?  (Psalm 42:1-2 CEB).

According to Augustine and the Psalmist this desire to be in relationship with God is written into our very being.  We won’t rest until we find our fulfillment in God.

    Many years ago, I “converted” from being an Episcopalian to being a Pentecostal.  There were a number of reasons why I did this, but ultimately  I was looking for a deeper and richer spiritual experience than what I was finding in the church of my birth.  Although I had been the church my whole life, and had been an acolyte, a choir member, and a lay reader,  in my heart I knew there must be more.  I eventually left Pentecostalism for the Disciples, because I wanted a more balanced spirituality that honored heart and mind, experience and reason.  But the point is, I was looking for a living faith. 

    Jeremiah speaks to this concern in his word concerning the new covenant that God will make with Israel.  Unlike the earlier covenant that was written on tablets of stone, this new covenant will be written on the heart.  When this happens, we will no longer have to teach each other about God, because everyone will know the LORD (Jer. 31:31-34).  And as the Psalmist puts it: “Those whose heart is right will see God’s face.” (Psalm 11:7).

      As we ponder this question of how we can hear the voice of God, another question emerges: Is experiencing God’s presence the desire of our hearts?  If it is, then what are the markers of this experience?  Can we not say that the clearest marker of our love of God is found in the way we love our neighbor?

    You might be wondering – where does Acts 11 fit into this conversation?  Well, I chose it because it speaks to how the Spirit can use our experiences to awaken in us an awareness of the presence and purpose of God.     

    According to Luke, when Peter returned to Jerusalem after his visit to Cornelius, he faced a lot of questions from a congregation that still itself as a renewal movement within Judaism.  They asked him – so why did you enter the home of the uncircumcised and eat with them?   They lacked a vision of where the Spirit might be leading them as a movement.  Their question then was this: by what authority did you baptize these uncircumcised Gentiles?

    Peter answers by telling them the story of his own experience.  He tells of his vision and the invitation he received from Cornelius, a Roman soldier and worshiper of God, to come and share the gospel of Jesus with his extended household.  Although he might have gone reluctantly, he went anyway, and has he preached, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they began to speak in other languages – just like on  the Day of Pentecost.   Whatever doubts he may have had melted away as he watched the Spirit fill this group of people, and therefore, he concluded – how can I not baptize them.  After all, didn’t John the Baptist say that even as he had baptized with water, so Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit? 

    If these people were good enough for Jesus, then surely they were good enough for the church. The Spirit had spoken, and the dividing walls came down – even though he didn’t have a scripture, a tradition, or even a good rationale for doing this.  But, from then on, at least in theory,  this would be a church that included Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female (Gal. 3:28). 

    Of course, even if the Spirit takes down walls, we’re very adept at building our own walls.  But, thankfully God doesn’t give up, and so even if we build walls, God continues to use our experiences of faith to break down these walls.

    One of my favorite stories is that of Aimee Semple McPherson.  Back in the 1920s Sister Aimee broke onto the American scene and gained fame as a preacher.  Her critics demanded to know why she thought she could preach.  After all, Scripture seemed clear:  women are supposed to keep silent and refrain from teaching men, so why did she think that she was different?  Why did she think that she could subvert Scripture and 2000 years of tradition and stand in the pulpit and preach?  She answered this question by appealing to her experience.  The Holy Spirit had gifted and called her to preach, so what else could she do?  This sense of calling gave her the confidence she needed to preach, in spite of the opposition that she experienced, and as a result she became one of the best-known evangelists of her day.  She did this long before most Disciple churches, including this one, allowed women to be elders or preachers.

    But experience can be rather mercurial.   You have to be careful about what you think God might be saying.  After all, lots of people have taken the wrong turn because they trusted their gut over Reason or Scripture.  

    Although there are dangers to be avoided, Disciples theologian Kris Culp makes a helpful point:   “Experience will not offer us unambiguous perceptions, whole truths, or pure touch points of the holy” Chalice Introduction to Disciples Theology, p. 71).    What it does is open our eyes to new movements of the Spirit, by disrupting old ways of doing things and by raising questions of faith that we must address.  She points us to the story of Frederick Douglass, one of the most important abolitionist voices in American history.  Douglass spoke out against the evil of slavery, not because it was the popular view in the surrounding culture, or because religious leaders had spoken against it, or even because he had read it in Scripture.  No, it was his own experience of slavery that told him that slavery was evil, and  that he should do everything he could to end slavery in America.

    I think we are at a similar moment in time when it comes to the question of  homosexuality.  Those who argue against the full inclusion of Gays and Lesbians in the church will point to Scripture, the traditions of the church, and even nature as evidence against allowing gays and lesbians to take positions of leadership in the church, being married, and being ordained.  But is this a Cornelius moment when the Spirit is ushering in a new age?  And if so, what does this mean for the church? 

    Although I haven’t had a vision like Peter’s, my experience has led me to believe that God may be doing a new thing.  Now, I’m not prepared to go too deeply into the discussion this morning, but I do have something to share.  Like many Christians, I once believed that both Scripture and the traditions of the church barred the full inclusion of homosexuals in the church.  That was, until my brother, who at the time was a Young Life leader and a committed Christian, came out as a gay man.  That revelation led me to re-evaluate how I read Scripture and church tradition.  I concluded that God was opening the door of inclusion, just as God had done for the Gentiles in Acts 11.  Since I began this journey with the Spirit, I’ve met many other gay and lesbian Christians, who seek to be faithful followers of Jesus.  They give evidence in their lives of strong character and deep spirituality, as deep as I’ve found in any straight Christian.  I know that not everyone is at the same place as I am, but this is where I find myself, and the reason I’m here is rooted in my experiences. 

    So, is experience revelatory?  By itself, I’d say no.  Experience can, as they say, provide false positives.  But, there are ways for us to discern whether God is speaking to us through experience.  We can compare our experiences with those we find recorded in Scripture and Tradition, and ask if this experience is reasonable.  Together, as we listen for the voice of the Living God, who continues to speak to us in the here and now, we will find the answers we’re looking for. 

    And in the end we return to St. Augustine’s point:   “Thou hast made us for thyself and restless is our heart until it comes to rest in thee.”   Yes, ours is a living faith, a faith that includes both minds and hearts, a faith that is growing and evolving even as we seek to walk in the presence of the Living God, who has made us for this purpose.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
March 25, 2012
5th Sunday of Lent

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Experiencing God's Presence. Is this the Heart's Desire?

I'm about to conclude a four week series on hearing the voice of God.  We've considered how God speaks through Scripture, Tradition, and Reason -- but what about Experience?

Diana Butler Bass writes that in her conversations with Mainline, liberal, Progressive Protestants, a group of Christians that value education and  have "little patience for faith without reason," there is disquiet about religious experience.  Though I have to say from my own experience that there is equal disquiet about Scripture, so that Reason might be given greater pre-eminence.  Perhaps, as Diana suggests the reason for this is that religious experience is often coupled in the minds of many with Pentecostalism (Christianity after Religion, pp. 120-121).  Having been a Pentecostal, I understand some of the reticence, but is it necessary?

Is it possible for us to hear the voice of God in the midst of our experiences of life and the Spirit?  

Perhaps the most famous declaration of this possibility was offered by St. Augustine in his Confessions:
Thou hast prompted him, that he should delight to praise thee, for thou hast made us for thyself and restless is our heart until it comes to rest in thee.
As I read Augustine's statement it seems to me that this need to be in relationship with God is innate.  It's part of who we are, and we continually seek to find that connection.  As Augustine writes his Confessions he continually points to ways in which we seek to satisfy this longing.  Too often we fill it with things other than God, and this eventuates into disastrous results for our lives.

We see this not only in Augustine, but in the words of the Psalmist:

 1 Just like a deer that craves 
streams of water, 
   my whole being craves you, God. 
2 My whole being thirsts for God, 
for the living God. 
   When will I come and see God’s face? 
3 My tears have been my food 
both day and night, 
   as people constantly questioned me, 
   “Where’s your God now?”  (Ps. 42:1-3 CEB)
 As I ponder the words of Augustine and the Psalmist, I wonder if this may be what Friedrich Schleiermacher had in mind when he defined true religion as "feelings of absolute dependence upon God."  
Religion is at least in part subjective.  It may have an objective reference point, but we approach that reference point as a subject as one who experiences God.

    To look at this issue historically, one need only look to the origins of Pietism during the seventeenth century.  Pietism developed because orthodox Christianity had become rigid and rationalistic.  Concern for preciseness had sucked all the life out of Christian faith.  As a result, the Pietists emphasized personal faith in God.  They emphasized the need for relationship with God and with one another.  Philip Spener's masterpiece, Pia Desideria, or "Heartfelt desire for a God-pleasing Reform" spoke directly to this need.  He continually stressed the need for the people of God to move beyond the external aspects of faith to an actual living out of that faith. 

    [T]he people must have impressed upon them and must accustom themselves to believing that it is by no means enough to have knowledge of the Christian faith, for Christianity consists rather of practice.  [Philip Jacob Spener, Pia Desideria, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1964), 95.]

Although Pietism has been critiqued as being overly inwardly focused, and thus having no real concern for the real world, Spener understood that a faith that has no heart is a faith that has now real worth.  It can say the right things and perhaps do the right things, but will it last?  Will it transform lives, and with that transform worlds?

Is experiencing God's presence, the heart's desire?