Monday, July 31, 2017

How to Become a Multicultural Church (Douglas J. Brouwer) -- A Review

HOW TO BECOME AMULTICULTURAL CHURCH. By Douglas J. Brouwer. Foreword by Wesley Granberg-Michaelson. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2017. Xi + 177 pages.

If I have a dream for the church local is that it would reflect the cultural diversity of our community (and the world). It is a tall order, one that many have contemplated, but few have pulled off. So, for the most part, our churches remain as segregated today as they were when Martin Luther King opined about the most segregated hour of the week. While I would love to see multicultural churches (and not just multi-racial churches) become the norm, I’m not sure how to pull it off. Despite the challenges, I will continue to dream that dream. 

There are, of course, congregations that are, at least to some degree, multicultural. One of those Congregations is the International Protestant Church of Zurich, Switzerland. The pastor of that congregation is Douglas Brouwer, a Presbyterian pastor and author of the book under consideration. In many respects this book is a personal reflection on Brouwer’s experience as pastor of this multicultural church, with the hope that we the readers might glean something helpful. There are some important words of wisdom to be heard and helpful suggestions that might ease a congregation’s move into a more multicultural space, though the style at times is a bit too chatty. In other words, he spent a bit more time talking about himself in ways that distracted from the core message. Of course, this is my observation and you as a reader might get a different impression. So, on that score, it's a personal thing.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Living with the Living Dead (Greg Garrett) - Review

LIVING WITH THE LIVING DEAD: The Wisdom of the Zombie Apocalypse. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. 248 pages.

                Apocalyptic literature comes in many forms. It often expresses feelings of being oppressed, persecuted, and threatened. These sense is that the end of the world is drawing near. We see it present in the biblical texts, especially the New Testament. The book of Revelation is by design apocalyptic, but Jesus appears in the gospels as an apocalyptic figure and Paul gives us the sense that the end is near. The world is filled with apocalyptic movements, many with religious origins or overtones. Sometimes in pursuit of sophisticated religion, believers set aside or ignore the apocalyptic elements of the faith. Calvin, for instance, chose not to write a commentary on Revelation. Yet the apocalyptic seems to reappear regularly in our cultural and societal conversations. With that we give our attention to the possibility of a Zombie Apocalypse.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Climate Change, Faith, and Happiness

I have been reading, and just finished the book Beyond the Modern Age, by Bob Goudzwaard and Craig Bartholomew. I will be writing a review soon, but considering our political debate about climate change and economic growth, there is something that they write in the concluding chapter that I wanted to share. It's a rather lengthy excerpt, but it is a word we need to hear. I want to note up front that the authors are evangelical Christians with a Reformed orientation. Both live in Canada, which may explain why they are not caught up in the current right wing turn, but it is also a good reminder that evangelical does not mean Trump supporter, climate denier, or devotee of laissez faire economic theory.

So, with regard to climate change, economics, and happiness, they first offer a reminder that we "need to openly, even forcefully challenge the powerful illusion in modern societies that technological progress can save us. A spiritual battle must be fought against worldviews that do not start with respect for what has been given us to take care of and preserve." 

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

That’s Not the Way We Do Things Here - Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 8A (Genesis 29)

15 Laban said to Jacob, “You shouldn’t have to work for free just because you are my relative. Tell me what you would like to be paid.” 
16 Now Laban had two daughters: the older was named Leah and the younger Rachel. 17 Leah had delicate eyes, but Rachel had a beautiful figure and was good-looking. 18 Jacob loved Rachel and said, “I will work for you for seven years for Rachel, your younger daughter.” 
19 Laban said, “I’d rather give her to you than to another man. Stay with me.”  
20 Jacob worked for Rachel for seven years, but it seemed like a few days because he loved her. 21 Jacob said to Laban, “The time has come. Give me my wife so that I may sleep with her.” 22 So Laban invited all the people of that place and prepared a banquet. 23 However, in the evening, he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob, and he slept with her. 24 Laban had given his servant Zilpah to his daughter Leah as her servant. 25 In the morning, there she was—Leah! Jacob said to Laban, “What have you done to me? Didn’t I work for you to have Rachel? Why did you betray me?” 
26 Laban said, “Where we live, we don’t give the younger woman before the oldest. 27 Complete the celebratory week with this woman. Then I will give you this other woman too for your work, if you work for me seven more years.” 28 So that is what Jacob did. He completed the celebratory week with this woman, and then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel as his wife.

                Jacob was a fugitive. He might have gained the family blessing, which was supposed to go to the eldest son. Esau might have a claim to that title only by a second or so, but by law, first one out is the winner. So, Esau should have received the blessing of his father Isaac, but such was not the case. Jacob might be the youngest, but through a bit of deviousness had gained it. With his brother angry at the turn of events, Jacob fled (Genesis 27). Or, was the need for a bride the reason for his journey. Even as Abraham didn’t want Isaac to marry a Canaanite woman, Isaac didn’t want Jacob to marry from among the neighbors (Gen. 28:1-5). Whatever the case, Jacob found himself at a well in the land of Haran, the land of his Uncle Laban. It was at that well that Jacob met Rachel, the younger daughter of Laban, and fell in love (Gen. 29:1-14). Apparently, Laban was happy that his sister’s son had come to town, welcoming him into his home. That’s where this week’s story begins.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Building a Bridge (James Martin, SJ) -- A Review

There are many pressing issues confronting the Christian community, ranging from immigration to heath care.  In fact, there are so many issues facing the church that it’s easy to become overwhelmed. So, perhaps it is best if we take them one at a time, seeking to find solutions that honor God and honor our neighbors. One of these critical issues facing the church today involves the question of the status of LGBTQ folks in church and society. If the table is open to all, is anyone not welcome?

A little over a year ago the congregation I serve as pastor chose to become "Open and Affirming." This action came after several years of open and at times difficult conversation. We lost people as a result. We took this action as a congregation, and we had the ability to do this, because in our tradition such matters are left to congregations. As difficult as that move was, can you imagine the challenge of moving the largest Christian communion, one that is both ancient and nearly universal, in a new direction. While winds of change are being felt in the Roman Catholic Church, change comes slowly. Indeed, it can take generations for changes to be fully experienced. For those most affected by the slow pace of change, can become discouraged and leave, even as there some for whom the pace is much too quick. So, in such a case, how does one build a bridge that allows for productive conversation within in an ancient institutional church that finds it difficult to change (look at what happened with the reforms of Vatican II) when it comes to the full inclusion of LGBTQ Catholics when the weight of tradition and practice stands in the way of change?

Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Groaning of Creation - A Sermon for Pentecost 7A

Romans 8:12-25

There are seven parables in Matthew 13. I preached on the parable of the sower last Sunday, and next Sunday Naomi will have five other parables to choose from. That leaves the parable of the Weeds, which is this week’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew. Even though I’m focusing most of my preaching this Pentecost season on the Gospel of Matthew, this morning we’re taking a short break and attending to a word from the book of Romans.

In Romans 8, Paul speaks of two kinds of obligation. According to Paul we owe a debt either to the flesh or to the Spirit. We call the first obligation selfishness, and it leads to death and destruction. The other possible debt or obligation leads to freedom from fear and abundant life. If we embrace the Spirit, we will be adopted as children of God. If we’re children of God, then we are joint heirs with Christ of all the promises of God. That means that we can, with Jesus, address God as “Abba, Father.” 

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Dangers of Teaching Theology at Christian Colleges

I didn't know how to title this posting, so hopefully no one is expecting something about being attacked with a knife or something. I was once a theology professor at a Christian College, and am no longer a Theology professor!  It was twenty years ago this summer that I was asked to resign from my position as Associate Professor of Theology at Manhattan Christian College (Kansas). The reason for my resignation is that some in the college's constituency thought I was teaching liberal theology and so they demanded that I be fired. The ax fell shortly after I signed the contract for the year. I can say this, the college honored that contract, paying me not to teach for a year. I didn't want to resign at the time, because I enjoyed teaching and had good relationships with most faculty and a goodly number of students, and even though I was on the left end of the school theologically, I didn't think I was that far afield. But, alas, the die was cast, and my journey took me from academia to the church. The reason why I'm writing this reflection isn't because I want to come back to haunt my former employer. What transpired then, transpired. So, my reason for writing this "anniversary post" (I do find it difficult to imagine that it's been 20 years since my inglorious departure) will become clear momentarily.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Ayn Rand Mugged -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

Ayn Rand was the apostle of the philosophy of selfishness. By all means, do everything you can to put yourself first. It's a philosophy that has been having a lot of traction lately, in business circles and in political circles. It's linked to a hard-line liberterianism, that both Ron Paul and Rand Paul espouse (among others). While she continues to have many devotees, as Martin Marty notes, some of them have been falling from favor, their selfish behavior getting them in trouble. The question is, can one embrace her philosophy and a Christian one? While Marty doesn't mention the current President, one of the articles he points us to does, suggesting that this is the underlying philosophy of the administration, which again raises questions about how one squares Christian faith with a Randian world view? It makes no sense to me, but I guess some can keep the two together. In any case, take a read, and offer your thoughts.

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Ayn Rand Mugged
By MARTIN E. MARTY   July 17, 2017
Photo Credit: StefanoRR/Wikimedia Commons
Ayn Rand, in the years of her prime, told Playboy her overarching philosophy was that “man exists for his own sake, that the pursuit of his own happiness is his highest moral purpose, that he must not sacrifice himself to others, nor sacrifice others to himself.” A recent chronicler, Mark David Henderson, said that “[s]he wanted to be known as the greatest enemy to religion that ever lived. She put together this philosophy that is all throughout her writing—from Atlas Shrugged written in 1957, which is still the bestselling novel of all time.” Henderson summarized Rand’s creed, which she professed and expounded in her novels and endless short writings, talks, and interviews: “She believed that the individual is the highest possible occupation of any one person. She believed that one should always occupy their minds, will, and emotions with the highest possible occupation and she believed that would be the self.”

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Sacred Places, Divine Callings - Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 7A (Genesis 28)

Genesis 28:10-19 Common English Bible (CEB)

10 Jacob left Beer-sheba and set out for Haran. 11 He reached a certain place and spent the night there. When the sun had set, he took one of the stones at that place and put it near his head. Then he lay down there. 12 He dreamed and saw a raised staircase, its foundation on earth and its top touching the sky, and God’s messengers were ascending and descending on it. 13 Suddenly the Lord was standing on it and saying, “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. 14 Your descendants will become like the dust of the earth; you will spread out to the west, east, north, and south. Every family of earth will be blessed because of you and your descendants. 15 I am with you now, I will protect you everywhere you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done everything that I have promised you.” 
16 When Jacob woke from his sleep, he thought to himself, The Lord is definitely in this place, but I didn’t know it. 17 He was terrified and thought, This sacred place is awesome. It’s none other than God’s house and the entrance to heaven. 18 After Jacob got up early in the morning, he took the stone that he had put near his head, set it up as a sacred pillar, and poured oil on the top of it. 19 He named that sacred place Bethel, though Luz was the city’s original name.
                I have been tasked with writing a lengthy (10,000 words) chapter for a book focusing on the cultural history of religion in the 18th century. It’s due the first of September, and I have only begun my research and writing. That chapter came to mind, as I read this story from Genesis 28. In this passage, we discover that Jacob has a dream in which he hears God reinforce the covenant made first with his grandparents, of which he is now the third-generation carrier. God has promised to bless Abraham and his descendants (Genesis 12). Now, God reaffirms that promise, telling Jacob that this land upon which he is lying, is given to him and his descendants. While his descendants will span out in all directions, they will always have this land as their inheritance, even as they serve as a blessing to the peoples of the earth. When Jacob woke up from this dream, he declared that Yahweh (the LORD) was definitely in this place. He recognized this place to be sacred (even if he didn’t at first recognize its sacredness). As we ponder this reading for the seventh Sunday of Pentecost, the author invites us to consider the spaces that are sacred because they are places where God is encountered.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Always with Us (Liz Theoharis) -- A Review

ALWAYS WITH US? What Jesus Really Said about the Poor (Prophetic Christianity). By Liz Theoharis. Foreword by William J. Barber II. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017. Xxii + 185 pages.

Will the poor always be with us? Is poverty a chronic situation that no matter how hard we try, it can’t be eliminated? If so, is the only option that we manage poverty through charitable action? As Christians, seeking to answer that question, what would Jesus have us do?

Liz Theoharis, the founder and codirector of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice and coordinator of Union Theological Seminary’s Poverty Initiative, seeks to make the case that not only can poverty be eliminated, it is an imperative. Unfortunately, in her experience, Christians resist this message, arguing on the basis of a statement in Matthew 26, that the poor will always be with us, and that Jesus makes it clear that he’s more interested in being worshiped than dealing with poverty (beyond charitable action). She challenges this sentiment in this contribution to Eerdmans' Prophetic Christianity series, which is based upon what appears to be a revision of her Ph.D. dissertation in New Testament at Union Seminary. Central to her work is the idea of "Reading the Bible with the Poor." She uses historical critical methods to engage the text of scripture, but does so in conversation with persons who experience poverty, much like Ernesto Cardenal's "Gospel in Solentiname," recognizing the importance of this too often-neglected voice.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Sowing the Word - Sermon for Pentecost 6A

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

The closest I ever get to sowing seeds is laying down grass seed to fill in the gaps in the lawn. I can’t say I have any expertise in this, or much success, but I try. When I sow the grass seed, I try my best to get the soil just right. I go to the store, pick up top soil or even planting mix. I dig out the weeds and rocks, and put down a layer of that specially prepared soil. I try to buy grass seed designed to sprout quickly and has a long life span, though it rarely works as promised. As Cheryl can attest, I do what I can to make the front yard look nice, but I confess that I don’t have a green thumb. 

Friday, July 14, 2017

ONE -- Initial Reflections on the Disciples of Christ General Assembly

Installation of the Rev. Dr. Teresa Hord Owens as General Minister and President of the Christian Church ((Disciples of Christ) on July 12, 2017 at the Indianapolis General Assembly. (picture taken by Don Dewey). 

Like many Disciples from across the country, I have returned home from the 2017 General Assembly in Indianapolis. People go to meetings like this with varying hopes and expectations. Some go to participate in business, most of which today involves statements on social justice items, calling on the church to speak prophetically. Some attend hoping to hear good preaching and to join in worship. Others go for the fellowship. To be honest, it's the latter that draws me. If I can renew connections, many of which go back to my college days, and make new ones, then I go home happy. I came home happy. 

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Love Your Enemies: Moral Absurdity or Genius? -- Sightings (Audrey D. Thompson)

Should Christians really follow Jesu' dictum to love our enemies, and what does that mean? Audrey Thompson addresses the question of what that means in our contemporary context bringing in to the conversation thoughts from Reinhold Niebuhr, who raises questions about its suitability, along with a blogger who suggested that black first responders should not have stepped in to save Steve Scalise, the GOP congressman shot at a congressional baseball practice. Scalise is a right wing congressman, whose positions are often at odds with the lives of persons of color and LGBT persons. I will simply invite you to read and respond.


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Love Your Enemies: Moral Absurdity or Genius?
By AUDREY D. THOMPSON   July 13, 2017
Photo Credit: CBS News (screenshot)
The Autumn 1942 issue of Christianity and Society published an article by Reinhold Niebuhr that began: “In times of social and political conflict there are always Christians who obscure the very genius of the New Testament conception of love by their particular interpretation of one form of the love commandment, namely, ‘Love your enemies.’” Fresh on Niebuhr’s mind, of course, would have been conflicts at home and abroad centering on the race problem during World War II. Responding to Christian idealists at that time who had used the love commandment to speak out against participating in the war, Niebuhr determined that the applicability of the biblical mandate in such a case would either demand “a psychological and moral absurdity of us” or enjoin an ingenious attitude of spirit, all depending on how the word “love” is interpreted.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Unity and Mission -- #DOCweareone -- Reflection

It is Wednesday, and the very last day of the 2017 General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Since the message of the week has been unity, and the defining text is John 17, I am reposting below a lectionary reflection that I think fits the moment. Take a read, especially if you are Disciple, and contemplate what it means to pursue unity of the body of Christ, and how that is expressed in the mission of God. 


John 17:20-26 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

20 “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. 24 Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. 

25 “Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. 26 I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”
                On the Seventh Sunday of Easter, many preachers/congregations will choose to celebrate Ascension Sunday. The Gospel reading for Ascension Sunday is Luke 24:44-53. The promise of Ascension Sunday is that Jesus, despite leaving the disciples physically, is sending them out on a mission. Luke will pick this up again in the first chapter of Acts, where he recounts the ascension story and tells the gathered community that when the Spirit falls on them, they are to preach the good news to the world beginning in Jerusalem (Acts 1:8). The reading for the seventh Sunday of Easter also speaks of mission, though we find Jesus engaged in a final moment of teaching before going to the cross. Thus, for this reading Jesus has not yet died or risen from the grave, and thus isn’t ready to ascend. But, he does pray for the disciples in what is often known as Jesus’ high priestly prayer. In this prayer he offers up a vision of mission that is tied to unity among the members of his community.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Disability Theology and the Healthcare Debate - Sightings (Courtney Wilder)

The health care debate has been raging for years, and it is at a peak right now as a Republican Congress and President seek to repeal and possibly replace the Affordable Care Act. Much rhetoric has been expended on both sides, and much of it is confusing. What is clear is that the general populace, while not thrilled about the ACA prefers it to the current alternatives. One of the "groups" that is caught up in the debate is those persons with disabilities, many of whom are covered by Medicaid, and who could face loss of coverage under current proposals. Courtney Wilder raises questions from the perspective of "Disability Theology." That is, viewing theology from the perspective of those with disabilities. As the pastor of a young man with Down's syndrome, I know how the debate affects his family. I invite you to read this essay and contemplate how people of faith ought to view the debate, recognizing that one can equate living a good life with being illness or disability free. This isn't just a political discussion, this is a spiritual one!


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Disability Theology and the Healthcare Debate
By COURTNEY WILDER   July 6, 2017
Photo Credit: Justice Ender/Flickr
Amidst many developing political news stories this summer, one of the most important in terms of policy is Congress’s ongoing attempt to reform healthcare and health insurance access in the United States. Disability rights activists have been vigilant in protesting the proposed changes, and characterizations of people with disabilities by lawmakers have taken on religious overtones. The field of disability theology provides much-needed resources for analyzing and rejecting religious denigration of people with disabilities.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Family Dysfunction - A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 6A (Genesis)

Genesis 25:19-34 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
19 These are the descendants of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham was the father of Isaac, 20 and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean. 21 Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived. 22 The children struggled together within her; and she said, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?” So she went to inquire of the Lord. 23 And the Lord said to her,
“Two nations are in your womb,
    and two peoples born of you shall be divided;
the one shall be stronger than the other,
    the elder shall serve the younger.
24 When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. 25 The first came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle; so they named him Esau. 26 Afterward his brother came out, with his hand gripping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them. 
27 When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. 28 Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob. 
29 Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. 30 Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!” (Therefore he was called Edom.) 31 Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” 32 Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” 33 Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. 34 Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.


                The lectionary readings from Genesis this Pentecost season speak to God’s faithfulness to the covenant promise. That promise was this: Abraham and Sarah would be the ancestors of nations, and that their descendants would be a blessing to the nations. There are many twists and turns to this story, beginning with Sarah’s inability to get pregnant, Sarah’s plan to provide Abraham with an heir through a surrogate (Hagar), and God’s commitment to fulfilling the promise through Sarah, which leads to a messy question of Hagar and Ishmael’s future, when Isaac is born to Sarah. So, Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael off into the desert, though God provides support. Then, just when you think the coast is clear, Abraham thinks he heard God command him to sacrifice Isaac. Fortunately, God stepped in and prevented the deed from occurring, or this chapter of the story couldn’t be told.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

Marriage in Interesting Times at Disciples General Assembly

Today is Sunday, July 9, 2017. Today Cheryl and I are celebrating our 34th wedding anniversary. We are doing so while attending the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Isn't that a wonderful way to celebrate an anniversary? 

While today is a day of celebration, tomorrow offers a time for signing of books. I will be signing copies (for sale through the Thoughtful Christian Bookstore) of my book Marriage in Interesting Times: A Participatory Study Guide ( Energion, 2016).  I will be signing books along with my friend and colleague Katherine Willis Pershey, who will be signing her book Very Married: Field Notes on Love & Fidelity, (Herald Press, 2016). 

We will be in the Disciples Home Ministries Booth -- in the Family and Children's Ministries area -- from 9:30-11 AM. If you are attending the General Assembly, I hope you'll stop in and purchase copies of both books. They fit quite well together! Katherine's book is wonderfully personal! And she liked my book as well. So, join us between 9:30 and 11 on Monday July 10.  

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Freedom in Covenant -- An excerpt

The General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ begins this evening. I will be in attendance. In addition, copies of my book Freedom in Covenant will be available in the bookstore. I invite you to take a read, and if you're a Disciple, I would, of course, recommend you get a copy!


The religious movement that gave birth to the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) burst forth on the American frontier early in the nineteenth century. This fact is important if we are to understand the story of who the Disciples are and what they value. What has come to be known as the Stone-Campbell Movement was marked from the beginning by a frontier ethos of freedom, anti-institutionalism, and individualism. You might say that this is a denominational tradition with a libertarian streak. In addition to its frontier ethos, the movement has been marked by its roots in the Reformed tradition, for the founders of the movement were first Presbyterians before taking the steps that led to the creation of a new American religious movement. While Disciples are heirs of the Reformed tradition, they, along with the other two major branches of the Stone-Campbell Movement, are marked by their points of resistance. This is especially true regarding demands for doctrinal conformity. As a result, Disciples take pride in being a non-creedal tradition.

Friday, July 07, 2017

Freedom in Covenant: A Reflection on Disciples of Christ Identity

Tomorrow evening the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) will open. During the days to come we will worship and hear preaching, share educational events, gather for fellowship, and do some business, including electing a new General Minister and President. One of the topics of conversation, whether official or not, will concern our identity and our future. We are small denomination getting smaller. We have some strong founding principles, but do we understand them and embrace them. In preparation for this gathering I am reposting a presentation I made to the Regional Board meeting of the Michigan Region of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) on October 22, 2016. The presentation is rooted in my book Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015), which I will have available for purchase (and signing if you would like). 


            Disciples have always valued the principle of freedom.  We hold tight to our non-creedal identity and grant each other room to interpret and apply Scripture as we believe the Spirit leads. That doesn’t mean, however, that you can be a Disciple and believe anything you want to believe. That’s a statement I’ve heard over the years, but we call ourselves Disciples of Christ for a reason. If we’re disciples of Christ, then Jesus must have a prominent place in our life together.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Democracy and Cultural Diversity

Yesterday the United States celebrated the 241st anniversary of the issuance of the Declaration of Independence, which essentially created a breach between the colonies and Great Britain. We call our selves a democracy, though we are not a pure democracy. We are instead a representative democracy. Although the Declaration declares that "all men are equal," this statement had a fairly narrow definition, which has broadened with time (and continues to broaden so that humankind is a much better word). Reinhold Niebuhr wrote of the vision of democracy the Founders had in mind. It was to be one without faction.  Yet, as Niebuhr writes: "The founding fathers of America regarded “faction” as an unmitigated evil. The American Constitution was designed to prevent the emergence of the very political parties without which it has become impossible to maintain our democratic processes." [Niebuhr, Reinhold. The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of Its Traditional Defense (Kindle Locations 1432-1433). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.]. So, parties emerged, with the parties of today not being the parties of the earliest American politicos. The earliest debates pitted those who valued a centralized national government (Hamiltonians) and those who envisioned a more libertarian form (Jeffersonians). One was urban the other rural/agrarian.

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Independence Day and the Ethical Paradox of Patriotism

                Today marks the 241st anniversary of the publication of the Declaration of Independence, the event that marks the beginning of a national identity separate from Great Britain. It would be several years before the nation would become fully formed with a constitution and permanent government. Nonetheless, it is the 4th of July that we celebrate as the beginning of America’s national identity. While we who are American citizens should celebrate and show our patriotism, but do so lightly and with humility. As a Christian, I affirm the principle that God is not just America’s god, but the God of all nations and all peoples. While Christianity has been the dominant religion in the United States, no form has dominated and no religion is prescribed by the Constitution. In fact, the Constitution never mentions God and proscribes religious tests. The First Amendment forbids the establishment of religion, and grants freedom to all Americans to practice their religion as they please.

                As an American citizen, who loves his country, but also recognizes its imperfections and its spotty history (to be kind), I offer these words from Reinhold Niebuhr’s book Moral Man and Immoral Society, which I recently re-read. He writes of the “ethical paradox of patriotism:”
There is an ethical paradox in patriotism which defies every by the most astute and sophisticated analysis. The paradox is that patriotism transmutes individual unselfishness into national egoism. Loyalty to the nation is a high form of altruism when compared with lesser loyalties and more parochial interests. It therefore becomes the vehicle of all the altruistic impulses and expresses itself, on occasion, with such fervor that the critical attitude of the individual toward the nation and its enterprises is almost completely destroyed. The unqualified character of this devotion is the very basis of the nation’s power and of the freedom to use the power without moral restraint. Thus the unselfishness of individuals makes for the selfishness of nations. That is why the hope of solving the larger social problems of mankind, merely by extending the social sympathies of individuals, is so vain. Altruistic passion is sluiced into the reservoirs of nationalism with great ease, and is made to flow beyond them with great difficulty. What lies beyond the nation, the community of mankind is too vague to inspire devotion. The lesser communities within the nation, religious, economic, racial and cultural, have equal difficulty in competing with the nation for the loyalty of its citizens. [Moral Man and Immoral Society, p. 91].
As you can see, Niebuhr puts his finger on a crucial point. Nationalism is potent. We might say that we have a greater loyalty to humankind, but do we? When push comes to shove, how many of us will saw no to the nation? We may not be rabid in our patriotism, but it’s hard to resist the lure of national pride.

What about the church? Might it not be a strong enough counterweight to the draw of nationalism? Niebuhr raises questions about the ability of the church to resist. He continues from above:” The church was able to do so when it had the prestige of a universality it no longer possesses.” He does see one possibility of a force stronger than nation, but while class might one day supersede nation, “for the present the nation is still supreme.” [Moral Man and Immoral Society, p. 91].

Niebuhr wrote this in 1932, in between two wars in which nationalism proved to have great power over the people. It would find its most diabolical expression in Nazism, which sought to purify its national identity by eliminating any groups of people who might sully its national identity—Jews, Gypsies, people of color, gays and lesbians—but back home, when the GIs returned from fighting for the promise of freedom, African Americans found that they would not share in the bounty of honors given to their white comrades.

As we express our patriotism today, let us try to do so with humility. Let us try to remember a higher loyalty. If one is, as I am, a Christian, let us remember that the God we know in Jesus is the God of all nations. When we pray the Lord's Prayer, we affirm our ultimate allegiance to God and God's realm. That affirmation serves to temper and restrain any unmitigated loyalty that would accord to the nation unlimited power. In other words, there is room for patriotism, but not nationalism. In doing so, may we reflect upon the diversity of this nation, honoring that diversity as one of the goods that has come about over the decades of national existence.