Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

The news has been filled with Syria the past couple weeks.  And Egypt the couple weeks before that.  I have to say, there’s something refreshing about it.  At least the media is talking about something significant, something that affects lives, something that has implications for our common humanity.  Other than that, it’s anything but refreshing.  It is a global conundrum where everyone seems to agree: “The U.S. has no good options.”

But I’m not here to share my opinion on the Russian plan or what the President should do if it fails.  I’m here to talk about how this fits into the Story–you know, the Story of this world and God and humanity.  Which brings me to Food, Inc.  For those of you who don’t see the obvious connection between a documentary about the American food industry and the current crisis in the Middle East, let me explain myself.  My wife and I watched Food, Inc. a few years ago.  It was disturbing.  Not just to see the story behind what we put into our bodies.  But to look through this window into the human situation.  Not pretty.  Here’s what I saw: We humans are experts at solving problems…without paying attention to the problems our solutions will cause.  We make an adjustment to make our farming easier without attention to the ways this will disrupt the animals, plants, and ecosystem.  We mass produce food to make it more available without attention to what this does to the nutritional value of the food.  We make food cheaper without attention to how it affects laborers, jobs, and the economy.  This is the human story.  We solve one inconvenience only to create a deeper predicament.

See what I mean about Syria and Egypt?  And Iraq and Afghanistan?  And Korea and Vietnam?  And so many other situations.  There has been lots of conversation in Christian circles recently about whether Adam and Eve were historical figures and whether Genesis 1-3 even intends to present them as such.  But regardless of your position on this, it’s hard to deny the truth of Genesis 3, aka “The Fall.”  In this story, Eve and Adam face the temptation to improve their lives their way.  Eve hears the logic of the serpent, and then the text says, “When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.”  In other words, she decides that her solution to her “problem” is better than God’s wisdom…and proceeds to pitch this miracle solution to the rest of humanity (who knew better). 

Hopefully, we have learned something from Afghanistan, where we armed rebels to get rid of one regime only to empower the Taliban’s rise years later.  Hopefully, we have learned something from Iraq, when a “quick use of force” to dethrone one dictator and capture another terrorist turned into a war that dragged on for a decade.  Hopefully, we might consider even the lasting effects of our own Civil War, when the use of force may have brought about one good cause, but also left divisions, hostilities, and hard hearts among fellow Americans for years to come.  Hopefully, we will learn the lesson of Food, Inc. that sometimes our brilliant solutions to certain problems actually cause THE PROBLEM (sin, brokenness, darkness, etc.) to weave its way ever-deeper into the fabric of our world. 

I don’t presume to know what Jesus would do if he were the 44th President of the United States (not that he could get elected).  I do know that with legions of angels at his disposal, Jesus chose the path not of least resistance, but of greatest sacrifice.  And told all who would follow him to do the same.  This is the path that will weave healing into the fabric of the world.  Being willing to house Syrian refugees?  Listening to our brothers and sisters who are actually in the midst of the conflict?  Using our voices to redirect national resources into serving those in need rather than enforcing our will militarily?  Encouraging our leaders to ask what is good for the Middle East, not just how can we achieve American interests?  This is just a brainstorm.  But it is what we need: creativity; thinking outside the box of war vs. appeasement; a willingness to take the narrow road that leads to Life when the well-trod wide path lures us with a quick fix.

Created in God’s image, we humans have a natural bent toward problem solving.  We will keep digging our hole deeper, however, until we are willing to sit at the foot of the Cross, listen to the Story of the Gospel, and be trained in the Way of Christ: the Way of creative love, loving sacrifice, and a sacrificial commitment to the healing of the world.

Yesterday I received two emails and noticed a couple Facebook posts bearing links to an article entitled, “Pentagon May Court Martial Soldiers Who Share Christian Faith.”  The story is not exactly all out in the open at this point, so I’m not going to pretend I’m an authority on this particular story.  But these e-mails reveal a “pressure-point” for many Christians in America as well as the increasing number of non-Christians in America.  You know how pressure points work: if someone applies minimal pressure in just the rights spot, they can cause a disproportionate reaction in the other person.  Church and State issues are a pressure point in our country.  The smallest pressure applied to an issue in this category can open up a whole can of accusations, assumptions, defensiveness, and fear.  Now, none of these things are particularly prominent in the life of Jesus, so perhaps I could just take this monthly blog space and talk through the issue with both “sides.”

Background: It appears that the Pentagon spent some time seeking the counsel of outspoken advocate for the separation of Church and State in the military, Mikey Weinstein (the Christian Post initially reported wrongly that Weinstein was “hired” by the Pentagon).  The facts seem to be that the Pentagon is looking at certain standards for chaplains in counseling situations with non-Christian soldiers and restrictions on how faith is promoted by other military authorities.

First:

Dear President and Pentagon,

Why consult this guy?  There are plenty of lesser-known but better-qualified people who could have helped you to develop the policies your thinking about.  Weinstein’s language is intentionally provocative and his strategy seems to be founded on attention-getting.  You even could have consulted Christians who would want to minimize the relationship between Church and State.  Did you want to stir the pot in conservative circles?  Just doesn’t seem like a wise move.

Also, you are taking on a very difficult issue.  Christians–including chaplains–don’t just share the Gospel because they want to get more people over to our side.  We believe that to treat the human as a non-spiritual being is ultimately going to come up short.  We believe that there is healing, restorative, wholeness-creating potential in the Gospel, which is rooted in the person of Jesus.  So it is possible to share the Gospel (evangelize, proselytize, whatever you want to call it) in a spirit of love, genuinely seeking the ultimate and deepest good of the other.  I get it.  Sometimes we do share the Gospel in selfish and unloving ways.  But pretending like any counselor should–let alone could–just “turn off” her/his beliefs and worldview in seeking the healing of another might not be that realistic or helpful.  Most of these chaplains are Christians and Chaplains because they believe that Jesus is actually the best and ultimate source of healing and restoration for themselves and others.

Further, the Constitution does not demand that Church and State exist in utterly separate spheres.  Rather, it reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  In other words, the religious voice has a place in the public sphere.  Government simply may not choose or enforce one religion over another.  So the Christian’s voice need not be accepted merely because it is Christian, but it also should not be rejected merely on the grounds that it is Christian.  Be very careful, my friends, for trying to order how and when people apply their religious convictions is a messy endeavor.

TTFN, Pastor Jon

Dear Church,

OK, deep breaths.  In.  Out.  I understand that headlines like this are concerning.  You’ve had quite a run at the top of Western/American society.  You’ve enjoyed lots of great benefits in our culture that Jesus never promised.  Even so, now that they seem to be fading away, it’s hard.  None of us likes to say “goodbye” to something that was enjoyable, comfortable, or made us feel special.  It is natural to mourn the loss of our cultural privilege.  Christian America was also the air we breathed for many decades.  We assumed it.  It was dependable.  It made church life so much easier.  And now, we’re noticing that breathing isn’t quite as easy.  You felt like America was built on the foundation of Christianity, and now it feels like each one of these restrictions might be the one that causes the whole thing to cave in.  Not fun.

But you also must remember that it’s possible that these “Separationists” have a point.  What made America distinct from England, Rome, etc. wasn’t Christianity…it was religious freedom.  We can believe what we want without the government punishing us for it.  It’s true that the great beneficiaries of this for many years were mostly Christians of various denominations (yes, we Christians have a wonderful history of oppressing ourselves).  But doesn’t this founding American principle and justice itself demand we extend the same freedoms to others who believe in different gods with different names, or even no god at all?

So this whole Mikey Weinstein thing.  First of all, be careful what you read and pass on.  This Weinstein character isn’t government employed.  And there is no evidence that the government wants to court martial your average soldier who shares his faith.  There isn’t really even evidence that they’re going to adopt Weinstein’s ideas nor that he was the only one they consulted.  Don’t spread gossip, or–even worse–slander.  You don’t have to be the news-breakers or the watchdogs.  Just be patient, get more facts, and listen to a different perspective.  By all means, have an opinion.  But be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to become angry.

And let’s think through the real issue at hand.  It’s a tough one.  Think about it.  These chaplains are employed by the U.S. Government, who constitutionally aren’t supposed to promote one religion over another.  I mean, if our churches were paying these chaplains and donating them to the military, that’d be one thing.  But that’s not the case.  Moreover, it doesn’t appear we’re talking about worship services.  We’re talking about counseling situations and military operations.  The military is an authority-based community where soldiers are often deeply emotionally wounded.  This is a context ripe for spiritual abuse.  Could policies go too far?  Yes.  But can you also understand that the government wants to make sure their chaplains are really seeking to understand, connect with, and bring healing with their soldiers whether they are Christians or not?  And can you see that telling a traumatized non-Christian soldier who is struggling that the only professional he can talk to is someone who will only talk to him about Jesus might not be what’s best for that soldier?  And do you really want a picture of a Cross and shield on a plane set out to kill?  Is this mixture of Gospel and military something we really want to protect?

One more thing.  This whole “Fear” thing.  It’s very unbecoming of you, Church.  I mean, how many times does God have to tell us “Do not be afraid”?  So you get court-martialled for following the Spirit and preaching the Gospel when you weren’t supposed to.  So pastors don’t get tax breaks anymore.  So you can’t have your Christmas decorations out in front of City Hall.  And what if laws were passed that put us in jail for sharing our faith with people?  What if we got kicked out of the U.S. because we were worshipping Jesus?  What if we became targets for assassination because we were so subverting our culture?  We’d be no worse off than millions of our brothers and sisters in Christ all over the world since the time of Jesus.  Here’s the problem:  We seem to be more fearful and anxious than those brothers and sisters WHO ACTUALLY FACED THAT STUFF!  One of those persecuted Christians once wrote: “Perfect love casts out fear.”  If we perfectly believed that nothing in all creation could separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, we would be perfectly free from fear.  I’m not saying that I’m there.  But the point is, if we are afraid, that says more about our lack of faith than it does about our surrounding culture’s godlessness.  Let’s not let fear for our own comforts and privileges distract us from the radical life of preaching Good News to the poor, binding up the brokenhearted, and setting the captives free that we have received as followers of Jesus.  Don’t promote fear.  Let everything you do be done in loveDon’t be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with goodLive such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.

Grace and Peace to you all,

Pastor Jon

 

 

So I was going to write a simple post on an article I read last Sunday about how Pres. Obama should not swear on a Bible due to the separation of Church and State, and how, though I do think there should be a separation of sorts, this argument completely misses the point of the Bible in the inauguration.  Yada yada yada…

And then I read this…and watched this…and I changed my mind.  January 22nd, the day after Pres. Obama’s inauguration and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, was the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, a court decision that essentially legalized abortion in the United States.  While limitations on when, how, and after what procedures abortions can be performed have been enacted nationally and on state levels, abortion continues to be a practice that is both legal and common (in 2009, the CDC reports that approximately 1 fetus was aborted for every 6 live births, and well over 50 million legal abortions have been performed since 1973) in the U.S.

The abortion debate is widely known to be inflammatory (sometimes literally) and divisive.  And while I have hinted at my convictions on this matter elsewhere on this blog, I have generally been cautious (fearful?) about airing my own opinions either here or elsewhere.  I know there are people in my congregation who have strong opinions on either “side” of the debate, and others who have strong opinions that the topic should be avoided.  It is well known that some of the most vocal opponents of abortion can be found in evangelical and Roman Catholic Christian circles.  On the other hand, I pastor in a denomination (the United Church of Christ) that calls women’s right to have an abortion one indicator of “reproductive justice.”  So, in some ways, I exist in the middle of the debate.

So let me begin by affirming some of the points made by my more “pro-choice” brothers and sisters:

  • Yes, the pro-life movement contains some hypocrites who call themselves “pro-life” and then blow up abortion clinics or assassinate doctors who perform abortions.
  • Yes, there are many conservatives for whom it is true that “they will do anything for the unborn, but once you’re born, you’re on your own” (potentially offensive language in this link), who have fought tooth-and-nail to outlaw abortion but never cared to get into the messiness of poverty, shame, etc. that make abortion an attractive option.
  • Yes, as a whole, the pro-life movement has treated the unborn as full humans while failing to fully appreciate the humanness of women who have unwanted pregnancies, the complexities of their situations, and the systemic challenges they face.
  • Yes, if abortion were illegal, it would continue to happen in unsafe ways.
  • Yes, it’s disgusting that men can and do run away from unwanted pregnancies, leaving the woman on her own to make it work.
  • Yes, rather than “speaking the truth in love,” pro-lifers have had a tendency to speak words that lead to condemnation and shame, especially on the part of the women who have had abortions.

Living in the center of theological/political battlegrounds , I work very hard to put myself in the shoes of other Christians (and other people, in general) who hold different perspectives than I do.  As I have imperfectly and stumblingly allowed myself into the ethical complexities and gray areas of our broken world, I have generally found my heart softening on many issues.  I may still hold a different conviction and opinion (I’m no relativist), but I can see how some might interpret the Gospel and the will of God differently than me.

This has not been the case for me when it comes to abortion.

I see how acting in compassion and seeking  justice for women in unenviable circumstances is a Gospel mandate.  I deplore the ways pro-lifers have often been simplistic, hypocritical, and downright evil in their pursuit of their “cause.”  I weep for the personal and systemic forces that have moved and will continue to move women to endanger themselves for the sake of an illegal abortion.  And still, I fail to see how the right to have an abortion has anything to do with the Kingdom of God.  Moreover–and here is why I address this topic this week–I fail to see how abortion can be anything more than a tragic-if-necessary evil, let alone something to be celebrated.

Unfortunately, like most “political” debates, the abortion debate regularly gets derailed as people talk past each other (fail to address what the other is actually saying), ask loaded or unproductive questions, operate on surface-level principles (“pro-life”/”pro-choice”), and disregard the possibility of any possibility outside “A (overturn Roe) or B (keep Roe).”

At the risk of falling into the same traps I just outlined, I would like to offer a few thoughts on why I oppose abortion and how I respond to those who count Roe v. Wade a victory worth celebrating.

  1. First of all, I believe that it is possible to be pro-women while at the same time being anti-abortion (and so do many women who oppose abortion).  I do not aim to demonize women who have had or are considering having abortions.  The forces at work in our culture are way bigger than a single person making an isolated decision.  Given the burdens and challenges many women experience, I can see how many women do choose the route of abortion.  If I were facing the same burdens and challenges, I can only guess at what I might do.  But regardless, the basis of the following thoughts is not blame and condemnation, but grace and the possibility of a more just and loving society where men and women, adults and children, born and unborn have every opportunity to thrive.
  2. I frequently hear proponents of reproductive rights make the claim that the fetus is not a person with a right to life.  In fact, one is almost required to hold to this position to support abortion.  A fetus, then, is merely a piece of tissue.  I’m not going to pull in any Scripture to argue that life begins at conception (such references very rarely pay attention to what the biblical writer is actually saying).  But here’s the thing: we don’t treat fetuses as just a piece of tissue.  When we are hoping/praying for children, we celebrate at the first signs of life blossoming in the womb.  And even when we are not hoping/praying for children, we know full well that that first sign of pregnancy has deeply human implications.  I’m afraid the whole debate about precisely when the “tissue” becomes a “person” (conception, 3 weeks, 2nd trimester, birth…?) misses the point (more in #7).  We must proceed with great caution, however, whenever we feel the urge to put limits on who is and is not a member of the human community.
  3. To continue #1, it should be noted that multiple serious philosophers, in order to argue against the personhood of the fetus, have found it necessary to extend their support for abortion to “infanticide.”  In other words, if we are saying fetuses are not human/persons because they are completely dependent on another human or because they are not self-conscious, that is equally true of newborn babies.  Really, the biggest difference between a child in the womb and a child outside of it is that the fetus is invisible and voiceless to us.  Not less human.  And this is why pro-lifers see opposition to abortion as a dire matter of justice for the unborn: acting as a voice for the voiceless, making visible the invisible, and protecting the most vulnerable members of our human society.
  4. On the topic of justice, the problem is not just that people choose to have abortions, but who is chosen to be aborted.  With all of our medical technology and genetic testing, we can be particularly careful about which “tissues” are worth keeping.  We know that in cultures (like China), where boys are more desirable, female fetuses are disproportionately selected for abortion.   Talk about a “war on women.”  In our country, studies indicate that a wildly disproportionate number of parents who find out that their fetus has Down Syndrome are aborted.  I find these to be disturbing facts.
  5. As true as it may be that some pro-lifers only a) care about human well-being pre-birth and/or b) are so caught-up in legal battles about abortion that they ignore the host of other factors related to abortion, these accusations are convenient and inaccurate generalizations of pro-lifers.  Crisis Pregnancy Centers, which are often supported by pro-lifers, have proliferated since 1973, seeking to serve women with pre-natal care, counseling, and material needs once the baby has been born.  Many Christians have put their faith into action by adopting unwanted children both domestically and internationally.  And “social justice” has increasingly entered the evangelical/emergent vocabulary in the past decade.  Thankfully, this accusation is less and less true and should not have such a prominent place in the debate.
  6. I would suggest that advocating for abortion is “the easy way out” for people who recognize the systemic pressures on pregnant women.  Abortion is not the only solution to the problem of abandoned pregnant women.  I would much rather see the energy that goes into reproductive rights advocacy go towards developing creative ways to hold fathers accountable in caring for the life they helped create, provide programs that reframe sexuality and procreation, make adoption a more financially viable option for willing and loving families who struggle to afford huge adoption costs,  subsidize childcare costs for single mothers, to name a few alternatives.  Abortion is not the only or best way of addressing the problem of unwanted pregnancies in ways that are compassionate toward women.  It’s just the easiest.
  7. Abortion does not solve the problem or empower women.  In fact, it lets men off the hook.  ”Hey, you have the option to abort.  If you don’t want to, that’s your problem.”  Abortion leaves women in the powerless spot of choosing between an unwanted (potentially coerced) abortion and single motherhood.  This is merely moving the problem of powerlessness, not solving it.  At the moment a woman finds out she is pregnant, men are supposed to be responsible as committed partners and fathers, and yet Roe v. Wade gives men absolutely no legal responsibility to determine whether the child lives or dies.  If women want responsible, committed men at this time, the law is undermining that desire, and giving men a convenient excuse to abandon women–as if men needed any more encouragement to be irresponsible.  (This is a big part of what makes this ad so deplorable, in my opinion.)
  8. Roe v. Wade reinforces the disjointedness of our understandings of sexuality and procreation.  It puts a big bracket in the beautiful process of procreation, disconnecting new life from loving relationship.  It says, “Sex is for individual pleasure.  Pregnancy is about the woman’s individual rights.  Birth begins the mutuality of parenthood.”  Contrast: “Sex is the physical pinnacle of relational intimacy, and in this expression of love, new life is created to be celebrated and cared for by its co-creators from beginning to end.”  For Christians, the biblical story is that God’s love is the source of creation and Life.  And so procreation is this process from love to life.  Anytime we try to jump in, parse out, and disconnect that story, we are walking on shaky ground.  I’m not naive enough to think that this narrative is always reality, but I will say that the incessant touting of “rights” and “individual freedom” and “ownership” as predominant values is an enemy of relationship, community, and love.  It hinders our culture from thinking, dreaming, and imagining in relational terms of love, intimacy, partnership, and mutual loving sacrifice.  Roe v. Wade, here, is not the primary culprit, but rather a legal rubberstamping of community-unfriendly values surrounding sex, relationships, and procreation.
  9. None of this is to say that Christians should put all their resources and resolve into getting Roe v. Wade overturned.  Rather, I believe it is our first calling to live the Kingdom of God and to present our surrounding culture with an alternative.  What does this mean in this case?  Presenting a narrative of sexuality in our communities that connects sex to procreation and committed relationships.  Simultaneously creating communities of grace, which shower women with unintended pregnancies and women who have had abortions with love and support.  Opening up our families, homes, and spirits to women who are not sure whether or not they can support a child and to the beautiful opportunity of adoption.  Seeking ways to hold men accountable to the procreation process.  Offering society a fuller view of humanity and hope that makes abortion a less viable option.  The questions we must ask ourselves: “Were Roe v. Wade completely overturned, would the Church be prepared for the consequences?  Are we working to create a society where abortion just doesn’t make sense?”  This, to me, is a more holistic ethic of Life than simple pro-life v. pro-choice debates.

Well, my simple post has become a weird mix of a long-but-not-long-enough and complicated-but-still-simplistic treatment of this controversial but vitally important issue.  I have gone past my normal blog length, and yet there is still so much more to say.  I hope you will take time to respond, to see through my eyes, to challenge me, and to point out more constructive ways of approaching this issue.  Although I feel strongly about this issue, I promise respect and love to any who disagree with me here, and will hold your comments to the same standard.

 

(Note: when I share a link, I am only passing on that article for your reading and discernment, not as an endorsement)

http://www.onbeing.org/program/pro-life-pro-choice-pro-dialogue/4863

http://www.ucc.org/justice/womens-issues/Reproductive-Justice.html

http://www.guttmacher.org/

http://www.nrlc.org/

http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2013/01/22/creepy-pro-abortion-ad-celebrates-anniversary-of-roe-v-wade/

http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justintaylor/2013/01/22/5-things-you-didnt-know-about-jane-roe/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+between2worlds+%28Between+Two+Worlds%29

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/22/opinion/leeches-lye-and-spanish-fly.html?_r=1&

http://www.freep.com/article/20130128/NEWS05/301280075/Abortion-rights-supporters-opponents-turn-out-in-metro-Detroit-to-mark-40th-anniversary-of-Roe-v-Wade-decision?odyssey=nav%7Chead

http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/headlines/protestors-mark-40th-anniversary-of-roe-v-wade/14605/

With election season in full swing, I thought I would take just a moment to point out two campaign ads that I’ve come across.  Both of these made me sit up and say, “Wow”…but not in a good way.   They are both, in my opinion, illustrative of a single message that both camps are sending to voters this year: “Vote scared!”  While this has become common over the years (especially in regards to terrorism and homeland security), it seems to pop up most clearly this election in an unexpected area: the so-called “War on Women.”  It seems that both sides agree this war is going on; the only question is whom women should fear.  So I’ve chosen one television ad from each side that was approved by that candidate (no Super PAC ads).  While the targets of the ads are different, I hope you see the same underlying message:  ”Vote scared!”

(I don’t know how to embed video, so you can watch them by clicking on the following links.)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=33NT0_MgsVU

Summary: If you’re a baby girl in this country, you should be frightened.  The debt of current generations will fall crushingly onto your shoulders if Obama is re-elected.  You won’t have jobs, opportunities, or any way to dig yourself out of the hole you’ve been born into.  Moms (and dads), you should be scared of what Obama will do to your daughters (and sons).  Oh, and we hope you catch the irony of the nursery music and soothing motherly tones of the narrator as you ponder the devastation that will eventually be meted out on this cute little baby.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=YkvN7GCcTVk

Summary: Women, this is a historical moment, a turning point for the future of womankind.  Mitt Romney wants to take away your legal access to have an abortion.  As a woman, you surely believe you have every right to terminate your pregnancy.  And surely you believe that every insurance company should be required to offer contraception coverage.  Since Mitt Romney has a different belief about human life, he clearly is out of touch with women.  Who knows what other womanly needs and rights he might stomp on if you elect him.  Oh, and you can see how out of touch Mitt is in the split screen where a jabbering Romney is distanced from our concerned heroine.

Both of these commercials, I hope you notice, say next to nothing about the candidates by whom they are endorsed.  They are purely focused on engendering a fear of the opponent.  The commercials aim to make you sympathize with the women on screen, and then explain how the opposition is going to bring harm to these people with whom you’ve just made a connection.

I’ve said before on this blog that I am independent when it comes to politics, and I struggle with how to use my vote each year.  One of the biggest frustrations I have is that the packaging seems to mean more than the contents.  In other words, how something is said has more effect than what is being said.  It is bad enough when candidates make soaring, overblown promises about what they will do (see Romans 12:3).  In fact, maybe the genuinely believe they will do these things.  It is worse when candidates pretend to look into their crystal balls and prophesy the doom that will come if the other is elected.  Plus, the rhetoric assumes what is in HIS heart (HE obviously hates women…and baby girls!), while leaving others to assume that what is in MY heart is pure and good (I will protect you from evil and harm!).  This is the opposite of life in God’s Kingdom, in which we must hold ourselves to the same standards as we hold others, first own up to the impurities in our own hearts, and treat our enemies with love as we would desire to be treated by them.

I have to say (again as an Independent) that I was particularly surprised by the President’s commercial.  Though I disagree with a number of his policies (in this case, on abortion), I have found him generally to be respectful and reasonable in his discourse over the past 4+ years (here is President Obama at his best, in my opinion).  Since 9/11, many have noted that Republicans have gotten into a rut of playing the “Vote Scared!” card when it comes to foreign policy and homeland security issues (this election cycle, we’ve moved from Middle Eastern terrorism to Chinese economic growth and the Arab Spring).  But it seems Democrats have found their counterpart in the “War on Women.”  They have specifically chosen “war” and “fear” rhetoric, in which there is no room for shades of gray or stopping to really listen (lest the “enemy” attack).  For instance, this ad assumes that any reasonable person can see that abortion and contraception coverage are basic human rights for women.  There is no room for discourse.  If you think abortion is unjustly terminating a human life or that contraception is (more often than not) a lifestyle choice more than a medical necessity (both positions I support), you are making this society a “scary” place for women.  Hence, women should fear anyone who holds these positions–not dialogue with them, love them, or treat them as rational human beings who are co-journeyers in the ever-changing and murky waters of bioethics.  Fear; do not love or listen.

As Christians this election, what would it look like to “Vote compassion” or “Vote conviction” rather than “Vote scared”?  As John writes, “Perfect love drives out fear.”  What if we rest securely in the care of God’s promises, freed to lovingly engaging the societies in which we live?  What if we recognize not only that “This is my Father’s world,” but also that no one President will completely transcend the checks and balances of our system over the next four years (note that we’re not quite a Communist country even after 3.5 years under President Obama as the doomsday prophets of the last election cycle were predicting).  What if we listened attentively, spoke clearly, and modeled love for the “other” both when we are interacting with that “other” and when we are interacting with “our own”?

In the Vice-Presidential debate last week, the moderator asked the two VP candidates if they were at all embarrassed by the vitriolic tone of the campaign so far.  Both promptly began attacking and parrying (to use fencing terms), as if the concept were completely lost on them.  We should expect more from those who get our votes.  But first, we should expect more from ourselves.  By all means, vote!  But by all means, don’t vote scared!

This Sunday, April 22, is Earth Day.  Earth Day has been observed in various ways for about 40 years, and some might say it has “hit its stride” with the prominence of the Green movement.  A number of earth-conscious slogans have shaped how my generation thinks about the earth–from the political imperative “Go Green,” to the philosophical approach “Think globally, act locally,” to the practical “Reuse, Reduce, Recycle.”  Proponents of earth care have been effective in getting their message out.

Sadly, I’m not sure how much “progress” has really been made in the 40-some years since that inaugural Earth Day.  And also sadly, the Christian Church (especially in its association with the Republican Party) is often seen as an enemy of this movement to care for the earth.  Most recently, then-candidate for the Republican presidential nomination Rick Santorum stirred the pot with this comment critiquing what he perceives as President Obama’s theology: “[the President's] idea that man is here to serve the Earth, as opposed to husband its resources and be good stewards of the Earth. And I think that is a phony ideal. I don’t believe that that’s what we’re here to do – that man is here to use the resources and use them wisely, to care for the Earth, to be a steward of the Earth, but we’re not here to serve the Earth.  The Earth is not the objective.  Man is the objective. I think a lot of radical environmentalists have it upside-down.”  So what is an American Christian to do?  Or more foundationally, how is an American Christian to think in regards to the environment and the Green movement?

Let me start by offering 3 theological principles:

1) We are talking about Creation, not just the Earth.  Of anyone, Christians have more reason to take environment issues seriously.  If this is just a planet that we happen to live in; if we are just dust moving around on a pile of dust, I don’t see a whole lot of reason to care about “going Green.”  But if this is a beautiful piece of art created by the ultimate Artist, a protective home created by a Heavenly Father, a reality declared “good” by the Lord of Life, well that’s a horse of a different color.  We cannot honestly praise God as Creator in one breath, and then abuse his creation in the next.  Some people seem to think earth-care requires an alternative theology to Christianity that makes the earth into God (pantheism) or puts humans on the same level as (or beneath) the world Earth.  Obviously, I disagree, and think that this claim misunderstands the biblical Story (mostly due to misunderstandings within the Church itself).

2) Human beings are the crown of creation, kings and queens over the rest of God’s creation.  In this one thing, I agree with Santorum (and disagree with many environmentalists): humans have been appointed to “rule over” this world.  Sounds oppressive, huh?  What does that mean?  Here is the key.  If we learn anything from God’s kingship or Jesus’ expression of authority, we learn that to rule “in God’s image” is to serve, to cultivate, to care for, to sacrifice for.  Yes, we are called first to serve God–not the earth.  But God directs our service back to cultivate beauty and life in his creation just as God has done.  One dimension of being made “in God’s image” is being a ruler over this earth as God is Ruler.  Again, as opposed to undermining earth-care, Christian theology actually bolsters a calling to care about creation.

3) God is still interested in creation.  N.T. Wright has done a wonderful job calling Christians’ attention to the fact that the Bible’s Story does not end with heaven, but with New Creation.  Think with me for a moment: if God originally thought it would be “good” for us to cultivate and care for creation, might not creation-care be our fulfilling work in the New Creation?  In fact, Revelation picks up this idea.  In the New Heavens and New Earth, we are told that “[God's people] will reign forever and ever.”  Far from making creation-care irrelevant in this fading creation, in caring for creation now, our disposition and abilities are being prepared for the wonderful work of eternity.

OK, I could go on.  But let me briefly offer a couple implications I see for Christians who want to live out these truths:

1) We must look past the politics of environmentalism and into the heart of God.  What the heck does it matter if global warming is fact or fiction?  We have been called to care for the beautiful and good creation God has made.  And I don’t think that the desire for our nation to compete economically with other nations is going to hold much weight in justifying our abuse of creation in God’s courtroom.

2) We must live and preach against consumerism.  The math is simple.  More consumption = More creation-abuse.  Put another way: voting Democrat is not your duty to creation-care.  Many of us want to get married to the Green movement without forsaking our mistress of consumerism.  Here’s the deal: as long as we continue to demand the ability to travel whenever and wherever we want, greater environmental risks will be taken to get the oil; as long as we continue to demand more meat, animals will continue to be raised in unhealthy and unjust conditions; as long as we demand more…things, the more factories will pollute, trees will be chopped, and landfills will be filled.  As in the whole Christian life, creation-care begins with our heart disposition to the creation.  Do we prefer the way of personal pleasure at any expense or the way of love?

Thanks be to God for grace.  It is nearly impossible to live in this world without getting tangled up in the destructive webs we have created (often to free ourselves from the old destructive webs we were in).  God doesn’t tell us we must “save the earth.”  Jesus is doing that.  And that grace compels us to simply follow him into the Way of Love, the Way of Life.  It compels us into creation-care not with the weight of the world on our shoulders, but with the encouraging call of God to love as we have been loved. Where is God calling us to curb our own appetites or alter our own careless practices as an act of servant-ruling over his creation?  How is God calling us to speak lovingly and persuasively into the political realm–not just on environmental issues, but also in various economic and international issues that have implications for the creation?  What is God calling us to do in our local communities to model and encourage others to have a healthy relationship to the material world?  When might we speak the Gospel to people who need to see the bigger picture of “going green” and of what God is doing in this world through Jesus?

Surely there is more to say and better ways to say it.  Here are some places you can go to read more about the Gospel and creation-care:

Wendell Berry–if you haven’t read him, do; if you have, read more.  Especially this and this.

http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2010/october/17.27.html

http://bawulskis-in-scotland.blogspot.com/2009/10/towards-theology-of-national-geographic.html

http://www.ucc.org/environmental-ministries/

http://www.earthday.org/

 

Rick Santorum brought religion back to the center of political conversation this week.  It seems that everyone has an opinion about what place Christian faith has (or does not have) in the political arena.  Is this a fair conversation to have?  Absolutely.  In fact, it is necessary.  Is it fair to suggest that a public figure is applying his/her faith in a way inconsistent with the Gospel?  I believe it is–at least for the sake of our own learning process of how to live our faith.  But is much of the conversation that is actually going on thoughtful and helpful?  I would say, “No.”

Let’s look for a moment at Santorum’s recent comments in Columbus during a discussion about energy policies and the environment: “[The President's policies are] not about your job. It’s about some phony ideal, some phony theology.  Oh, not a theology based on the Bible, a different theology. But no less a theology.”  He later went on to clarify his comments: “When you have a worldview that elevates the earth above man and says we can’t take those resources because its going to harm the Earth, it’s just all an attempt to centralize power and give more power to the government…[Obama believes] man is here to serve the Earth… Earth is not the objective. Man is the objective.”  What is Santorum suggesting?  I believe he is suggesting that President Obama’s environmental and energy policies derive from his basic way of understanding the order of humanity’s relationship with the Earth; and that he believes Pres. Obama’s worldview to be different from that which is set forth in the Bible.

To those quotes, many people jumped up and cried, “Foul!”  The title of one Huffington Post article summed up a common opinion: “Religion and Politics Don’t Mix, Major Religious Groups Tell Presidential Candidates.”  Upon reading the article, you will find that the headline doesn’t really describe what “major religious groups” actually told presidential candidates, but the sentiment is clear: Religion has no place in government!  If I may (and I may, because it’s my blog), I’d like to offer a few ideas that I wish came up more in these conversations.

1) Everyone has a worldview, and we all live out of it.  Frankly, it drives me nuts when people say that religion has no place in politics.  Santorum was absolutely right saying that the President’s policies come out of his “worldview” (I wish he had used that term to begin with).  A worldview is, simply, a system by which we view the world.  I know, revolutionary.  Our worldview is the set of foundational assumptions we have about life in this world that informs the decisions we make and opinions we hold.  All of our worldviews are based on beliefs: beliefs about where the world came from, what the purpose of humanity is, what is good and bad, etc.  I’m not just talking about Christians or even religious people.  I’m talking about everybody.  To be a Christian means to accept a Christian worldview–or at least to determine to develop a Christian worldview.  Jesus and the Bible present a worldview and distinguish that worldview from other worldviews.  They speak to the purpose of human life, our place in the cosmos, how we should act, etc.  Realizing that not all Christians are of one accord on what a Christian worldview is and that we don’t all live it out perfectly, a Christian should aspire to live out of the Christian worldview.  And I think it is hard to call a worldview “Christian” if it doesn’t have implications for how we act in all areas of life: family, work, politics, etc.  A politician who is a Christian, I believe, should have his/her policies formed by Christian worldview beliefs.  Here’s the kicker: even atheists have worldviews.  And atheist politicians are going to have their policies formed by their worldview beliefs as well.  It is nonsensical (I know that’s strong) to suggest that Christians should keep their beliefs out of politics because everyone brings their beliefs to politics. 

2) We need a calm, thoughtful conversation on the separation of Church and State…desperately.  Christians need to understand two things: 1) this separation thing was our idea–it is good that the government cannot take one particular kind of religious belief and impose it on the whole country, including churches who don’t hold that particular belief; 2) the New Testament never talks about having our values and beliefs legislated by a government.  Non-Christians need to understand a couple things as well: 1) just because an idea comes out of a religious worldview does not mean that it is not a good policy (intentional double-negative); 2) the establishment clause does not delete religion from the public sphere, but, on the contrary, protects its expression in the public sphere.  In other words, Christians cannot and should not be able to impose an idea just because it is Christian; but Christians have every right (and responsibility?) to influence politics by demonstrating that something Christian may be good for society.  In the present example, the fact that Santorum claims Pres. Obama’s policies are “unbiblical” is irrelevant legislatively.  But if he demonstrates convincingly a) to Christian citizens that the President’s policies are outside a Christian worldview and thus not a helpful way of living in this world and/or b) to the general public that a more “biblical” approach to the issue is really for the good of society, then he has fairly and legally applied his faith to influence the political process (in my estimation).

3) We need to watch our double-standards.  Rick Santorum has been criticized for calling the President’s theology/worldview “phony” and “unbiblical.”  People have said that he “stepped out of bounds.”  It seems to me that I’ve heard quite a bit of criticism of Rick Santorum’s theology/worldview, specifically as they relate to his positions on abortion and gay marriage.  Seriously, do people who are pro-choice and supporters of marriage equality not disagree with the theology/worldview that leads to Santorum’s positions?  Do many of those who claim the Christian faith not think, then, that Santorum holds a phony and unbiblical theology?  Some of the people I hear criticizing Santorum for un-Christianly dismissing liberal/progressive theology are the very same people I hear speaking negatively and dismissively of evangelical or “fundamentalist” (another widely misunderstood and misused label) theology.  If it is wrong for Santorum to do it, then it is wrong for his opponents to do it as well.  And I do think both “sides” (including whichever “side” I’m on) would do well to spend as much time thinking about HOW we disagree as we do thinking about WHAT we disagree on.  It’s the whole speck-of-sawdust-plank thing.  We can openly disagree, even with our fellow Christians.  We can even rebuke and hold each other accountable.  But we tend to call the very same practices “righteous rebukes” when we use them and “evil mudslinging” when our opponents use them (ok, most of us don’t use the term “righteous rebukes,” but you get the picture).  When Christians disagree and when it happens in public, we can still be a witness to the world of how to disagree in love and sister/brotherhood.

So to sum up.  I don’t love the way Rick Santorum went about disagreeing with President Obama this week, I’m a little queasy about his clarification (“If he says he’s a Christian, he’s a Christian”–what does that mean?), and I don’t subscribe to a lot of Santorum’s political/theological positions.  I do think the whole situation brought back to the surface an important conversation about faith and public life.  And I think that conversation about faith and public life needs to be reframed and reformed.

What can we do?  Well, as normal pastors and Christians, we can watch the way we talk about politics and politicians this election year.  We can pay less attention to the billowing smoke of media reactions and more attention to the fire of what is actually being said and suggested.  We can point out when people we agree with are making their points in unloving and unfair ways.  We can sit down for coffee or a beer or a shamrock shake (mmm!) with someone who votes differently than we do and ask them lots of questions about what they believe and why.  We ask God to help us develop in us the character to engage politics in a Christian way before asking God merely to show us what to vote for.

In my mind, complete disengagement from politics is not an option.  Nor is trying to legislate “Christian values” to people who don’t share our worldview.  We are called to shine like stars in a crooked and depraved generation.  What more relevant place to start than everything political!

 

http://www.sojo.net/blogs/2012/02/21/santorum-question-should-theology-affect-way-we-vote

This past Tuesday, all my favorite shows were cancelled thanks to the State of the Union (SOTU) being aired on every channel.  So I just hunkered down and watched/listened.  (I’m kidding about the tone–I like that networks do their best to get you to watch the SOTU, because it is important.)  Here are some of my thoughts on the whole affair.

Introductory Thoughts:

1. Cards on the table: I consider myself a theological conservative and a political moderate/independent, though I do find myself leaning left more often than leaning right.  I have this nasty tendency to see wisdom and folly in both “sides,” which makes it quite difficult for me to come out and make a decision when voting time comes around.

2. I approach political speeches with great cynicism.  I know that everything about the SOTU is carefully calculated using market-based research and principles.  As one of my pastor friends likes to say, “It’s hard to find the person behind the ideology,” or in this case “behind the crafted, vote-seeking presentation.”  This is not a commentary on President Obama as much as our current political scene.  (There was one entertaining moment of apparent spontaneity–when the audience was caught completely off-guard by one of the only jokes in the speech and Obama responded sheepishly to the crickets.  And by the way, I love that they panned to Michelle; I get that face all the time at home!)

The minuses:

1. Call me unpatriotic, but I always get concerned when there is a lot of “America is the best” or “America needs to be the best” talk going on.  Statements like this, for example: “Our workers are the most productive on Earth, and if the playing field is level, I promise you – America will always win.”  Is that true?  What does he mean by leveling the playing field?  It seems to me like you can pursue global justice or American economic/military superiority, but you cannot honestly serve both of those masters.  Not all the blame falls on the President.  There is this false notion going around that says to love one’s country means to think one’s country is the best in the world.  It’s simply not true, and we ought to beware such language before a God who regards nations as nothing in his sight and who opposes the proud.

2. From whence they come?  There were a lot of programs that the President laid out that I think would work.  But a number of times, he mentioned the importance of rewards/incentives for businesses who stay in the U.S., for the best teachers, for kids who go to college, etc.  A couple times, the President alluded to some ideas for funding these incentives.  But there are still a lot of big question marks in my mind of how we materially encourage (bribe?) people to do the right thing while also making a dent in a ginormous debt.   In another instance, the President gave a great line that got me excited coming from a family of educators: “Give [schools] the resources to keep good teachers on the job, and reward the best ones. In return, grant schools flexibility: To teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test; and to replace teachers who just aren’t helping kids learn.”  Preach it!  But then this thought:  If you are not going to evaluate teachers by standardized test results (a good thing) and you are going to reward the best teachers and weed out the ineffective ones (I suppose a good thing), how are you going to determine who gets rewarded and who gets booted?  The President brings up a great issue.  But how do we implement this in a fair way?  And does the federal government really have the ability to accomplish this?

The pluses:

1.  Specificity and purpose.  While one commentator afterward called the speech a “laundry list,” I appreciated the President’s specific discussion of a variety of issues and what he sees needing to be done.  During his 2008 campaign, I thought he was rightly criticized for giving speeches that were more cheerleading than clear on issues.  But on this night, he simply said, “Here are the issues that need to be addressed.  Here are the ways I see us best addressing them.”  I liked that.

2. Inspiring and encouraging leadership.  The President said a number of times to his congress, “Send me _____, and I’ll sign it right away.”  First, let me qualify this: I realize that this refrain may have been intended to pass the buck for lack of effectiveness in the administration so far and blame congress for any future ineffectiveness.  That said, as I listened, I found myself all excited to sign up for one of these committees.  I think it’s great for a leader to say, “This is a problem that needs to be dealt with.  Here is a vision for how we can do it.  Now get creative and let’s make it happen!”  Perhaps this is just my moderate naievete that we should be able to get together and work for the good of the country.  So sue me, I liked it.

In conclusion, I enjoyed the President’s conclusion.  He told us we needed to be more like the Navy SEALs who raided the bin Laden compound.  ”All that mattered that day was the mission.”   This is a concept we need to grasp as churches as well to battle our divisiveness (John Armstrong calls it “missional ecumenism“).  But what is our mission as a nation?  The SEALs had a very clear mission, which was why they could unite around it.  But how does that apply to a nation?

What do you think?  What were your thoughts about the President’s address?  What do you think is our national purpose or mission, around which we can unite?

OK, so I’m showing up to this party about 3 months late.  I never was a cutting-edge type of guy.  Occupy Wall Street has been going on since September 17 in NYC and in that time has become quite a movement all over the country, even here in Toledo.  I don’t mind not being on the cutting edge, though, because sometimes “cutting edge” simply is a euphemism for “speaking before you think.”  The more I have researched the Occupy movement, after 3 months I’m still not sure that it isn’t too soon to draw any conclusions.  So instead, I’ll use this space as a chance to share some of what I have discovered and offer a few of my initial reactions as I hold the Occupy movement up to the light of the Gospel Story.  First, my discoveries:

1) Occupy is different from what we normally think of when we hear “protest.”   As the Occupy Toledo website distinguishes, “A protest is at first antagonism. An occupation is at first COMMUNITY.  A protest is defined by opposition.  An occupation is defined by PRESENCE.  A protest is singular. An occupation is MULTITUDE.”  The movement is seeking to be different not just in policy but in practice.  So, instead of trying to garner votes for or against a particular issue/party/candidate, the Occupy movement is advocating a different way of organizing society.  And the individual occupations seek to function in that different way: sans authority, sans private ownership, sans any set-in-stone political agenda.

2) People aren’t quite sure how to respond to the Occupy movement.  It would be easier to respond if they had a set of demands or if there were a designated leader or if there were a clear audience (ie. state/federal legislators, corporate CEOs, the American public, the judicial system).  Certainly there are implications of what the movement is generally saying for most, if not all of these.  But we’re better at responding to something concrete with a yes or no than to what Occupy is offering.

3) There are a few popular “proposals” that are being spoken.  One of the most prominent would be debt forgiveness–allusions to a biblical “Jubilee”–as a way of evening the playing field and starting fresh.  The claim is that there is so much debt (individually and even nationally), that there are only a small handful of people who are not in debt to anyone–experiencing financial “freedom.”  This is not a sustainable of just situation regardless of the causes of the debt, and thus it needs to be changed.

4) The movement is seeking to be as genuinely democratic as possible.  This is one of the reasons that there has been great hesitancy in designating leaders or a specific agenda.  That is not to say there are not some key idea people who have greatly–if mostly anonymously–influenced the movement.  But this is to say that the movement has sought to be extremely dialogical, conversational, and inclusive of as many people’s grievances and suggestions as agree with their foundational goals.  They are trying to listen to people whose voices seem to be largely ignored by policy-makers and corporate leaders.

So while these are some very cursory insights I have gained into the Occupy movement, let me now share a couple of the things I have observed.  These are not necessarily original to me.

1) The Occupy movement and the Tea Party have some distinct similarities in spite of appearing to be polar opposites.  It is true that the Occupiers tend to want government to step in to regulate businesses in order to create a more just system while Tea Partiers tend to want government to step out of regulating businesses in order to create a more just system.  Yet, the more I read on the Occupiers, the more I see them–like the Tea Partiers–wanting a system that tends to be more locally oriented than federally oriented.  In the Torah (Old Testament Law) and the New Testament Church, most of the economic laws and practices assume a relational, small community–at least compared to the U.S.  Both groups recognize that economies function best (most justly) when they are small and relational and that one of the biggest problems we have right now is that our economies are not just nationally, but globally intertwined.  Without the possibility of relationship with those we are buying from and selling to, it makes the biblical economic principle of compassion difficult to follow.  Odd, but the Tea Party and Occupy movements each see the same problem and share the goal of a more locally-driven economic system.  And I agree: while globalization may allow many of us to get more things more cheaply, I find it very difficult to see any lasting, just, healthy, or compassionate solution that does not involve some sort of re-localization of the system.

2) One of the questions we have to ask any movement is, “Who are you trusting?”  For the Tea Party, the clear answer seems to be “the Market.”  They mistrust government and are putting their faith in capitalism to take care of things.  For the Occupy movement, the question is a little more complicated.  They are obviously mistrusting “the Market,” largely based on the greed and indefensible inequality they see in corporate leaders.  But does that mean they are trusting the government?  Well, perhaps.  I suppose they believe the government might step in and do some regulation or help out in redistributing some wealth (a term I do not use pejoratively).  But perhaps they are really trusting the people or a pure democracy.  As David Graeber (one of Occupy’s key idea guys) reasons, “If democracy is to mean anything it is the ability to all agree to arrange things in a different way.”  I think they believe that since our current system seems to pretty much be a human development, if they capture people’s imaginations, they are quite capable of developing a new system.  So the idea that their lack of focus or political agenda is self-sabotage may be a bit short-sighted.  The goal is not to work within the system to alter the system, but to collectively create a new system.  This is what many people seem to be missing, and why Chris Hedges senses, “This is a goal the power elite cannot comprehend.”  In some sense, this approach is quite Christian: aim at people’s hearts, capture their imaginations, and invite them to join in in a new way of doing life.  It is based on vision and invitation before policy and legislation.  On the other hand…

3) No matter how inclusive any movement claims or tries to be, there is always an underlying worldview, a Story that drives it.  The Occupy movement does share with the Scriptures a concern for the poor, the voiceless, and the helpless.  The Occupy movement does share a Christ-commanded commitment to non-violence (yes, like all human movements, we should expect slip-ups).  In fact, the Occupiers may be far more influenced by Christianity than many of them would care to admit.  There is much, I believe, that Christians can affirm in the Occupy movement.  As Jim Wallis writes, “When they stand with the poor, they stand with Jesus.”  Yes, the movement borrows from pieces of the Christian vision.  No, it is not a Christian movement at heart.  As much as our trust is in anything other than God’s New Creation process, we are at best settling and at worst doing something spiritually dangerous, replacing one kind of sinful system with another.  More on that here…

4) I think the big question that arises for me is, “If the Occupy movement (somehow) succeeds in bringing down the ‘system,’ will they have the foundation of character and commitment to actually replace it with something better?”  As Jesus says, sometimes casting out one demon merely makes space for more and worse ones to enter in.  One dangerous scenario that we face individually and any reform movement faces is the tendency to get caught up in the “others’” sin without owning our own sin.  If the Occupy movement gains power and influence, how will that power affect the character of their movement?  The fear of wealth redistribution is whether we can actually trust the middleman, the re-distributor.  Again, Jesus never tells us to trust humanity.  We should hold a healthy skepticism as much as we believe that we are all susceptible to the power of temptation and sin.  So I am wary of those who jump in and embrace a movement like Occupy wholeheartedly and place their hope for transformation and new creation there.

So what is a Christian to do?  Well, let me humbly and hesitantly suggest that I think it is important for Christians to engage the Occupy movement in a positive way.  First, we are called to see where God is at work and join him there.  I certainly don’t agree with every idea or practice of the Occupy movement (if this is even possible!).  But our job is not just to participate in things initiated by the Church, but to join where God is at work.  There is enough going on in the Occupy movement that seeks to stand for the poor and stand up to injustice that it is at least worth amplifying those parts of the movement that are picking up God’s voice.  Second, it is important for the Church to engage the Occupy movement–and I say this as humbly as I can–because they need us.  Christians have been given a truly wonderful vision of what God is doing in this world and how he is doing it.  If there is hope for a new movement of justice, compassion, and reconciliation, that hope comes from God’s initiation of that work.  The Scriptures tell us that God is blessing the world through a people who put their trust in him and cry out to him, not through people who try to do it on their own.  That is our Story, and we can live out that Story among the Occupiers.  As I have mentioned above, the Occupy movement also needs to be called to humility and confession.  Someone needs to affirm that there is great sin in our systems, but the biblical Story is very clear that we all participate in sin.  Our sin that may seem small in comparison to the system’s sin, but only until we are given the opportunity to continue in those sinful patterns on a larger scale.  An arrogant revolution is a dangerous revolution.

Only time will tell whether the Occupy movement is just a flash-in-the-pan or a lasting and growing force in our culture.  As Christians, our calling remains the same regardless: to be the Body of Christ, God’s representatives in this world, partakers in a radical kind of life, seekers of justice, and proclaimers of true hope.  If the Occupy movement joins us in part of that, let’s be grateful for that.  More on Occupy soon here at the blog.  And if you’d like, join Pastor Luke Lindon and I as we Occupy Nautica Coffee in Mayberry Plaza on Tuesday, December 13th at 7pm, where we will be discussing further the Occupy movement.  We’ll discuss some of the questions I’ve posed in this blog and many more.

 

Articles, websites, and blogs:

http://occupywallst.org/– Occupy website

http://www.sojo.net/blogs/2011/10/05/occupywallstreet-helpful-links–links to info on the Occupy movement and historical context

http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/tag/distribution-of-wealth/–some analysis of statistics related to the 99% number

http://cbo.gov/doc.cfm?index=12485  and  http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/05/24/where-do-you-fall-on-the-income-curve/–some recent research on how distribution of wealth has changed over the past 30 years

http://www.sojo.net/press/occupy-wall-street-christians-debate-if-jesus-would-occupy-protesters–Jim Wallis an his thoughts on whether the Occupy movement has some “Christian” character

http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/why_the_elites_are_in_trouble_20111009/–a Occupy is being underestimated by the “elites” as well as an insider’s account of what goes on and how it developed

http://www.jesusradicals.com/we-need-a-confessing-movement/–a call for protesters to acknowledge their own sin even as they hold others accountable

http://www.reclaimingthemission.com/is-it-time-for-evangelicals-to-join-occupy-wall-street/–discussing how evangelicals can/should engage the Occupy movement based on 3 Christ-like aspects to Occupy

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jeremy-john/the-occupation-of-the-lor_b_1119252.html?ref=fb&src=sp&comm_ref=false&fb_source=message#undefined

I guess for those of us who are into sports, the obvious topic for this blog would have been the scandal at Penn State.  But for now, just one quick comment: we’ve had lots of college student protests in the news this year captured by iPhones and the like.  Just take a moment and contrast the “Arab Spring” protests where many young people in northern Africa and the Middle East gathered to speak out against oppressive political regimes and the Penn State students who gathered to speak out (violently at times) against the firing of a football coach who took part in covering up the sexual abuse of children.  Priorities, anyone?  That’s all I have to say about that…for now.

What I decided to focus on this week were a couple of related election-week experiences I had.  I’ll tell you the separate stories as they happened.

On Wednesday, I came across a friend’s Facebook posting of this article on a new “Christmas Tree tax.”  As you can see in the article, the author is incredulous that the Obama administration is “imposing” a new 15-cent tax on all Christmas trees sold by major tree farms (sales of >500 trees/year) in order to boost the public image of Christmas trees.  The tax gained ridicule from conservatives and eventually was put on hold.  The impression I got from listening to soundbytes and reading headlines and blogs were that this tax was 1) some new thing from Obama and his tax-addicted administration, 2) a unilateral decision by the government picking on Christmas tree farmers, and 3) a way for the government to gain some revenue for its programs.  At this point, I thought to myself, “Hmm, maybe there’s more to the story.”  And guess what?  There was!  I came across this article, which clarified some of the process going into the tax proposal.  Apparently, a group of Christmas tree farmers have taken a hit with the prevalence of artificial trees, realized they didn’t have the resources as individuals to do much marketing, and approached the administration about this tax program, which would be the latest in a series of similar programs (eg. “Got Milk?”  “Beef: it’s what’s for dinner” and “Pork: the other white meat”).  Now, do I think these are places the government should step in?  Not really.  I think a little collaboration and ingenuity among the concerned Christmas tree farmers is more appropriate.  But it is clear that this is not 1) some new concoction to tax people by a socialist regime, 2) a straight-up “imposition” by the government on poor farmers, or 3) a way for the government to gain revenue for an unrelated program (ie. Obamacare).  That’s story 1.

Story 2 occurred on Thursday.  I was listening to a (quite liberal) radio show discussing SB 137, an anti-bullying bill passed by the Michigan State Senate last week.  The issue at hand was not the anti-bullying part of the bill, but an insertion that Republicans in the state senate made.  According to the show, it sounded like the Republicans had put in a clause letting people off the hook if their bullying is based on a religious belief or moral conviction.  You can see some of the criticism in this article.  This seemed pretty odd to me (even for Republicans…), so I thought to myself, “Hmm, maybe there’s more to the story.”  And guess what?  There was!  I decided to just read the bill.  It’s mostly a bill requiring school districts to create and enforce thorough anti-bullying legislation.  The controversial addition by Senate Republicans goes like this: “This section does not prohibit a statement of a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction of a school employee, school volunteer, pupil, or a pupil’s parent or guardian.”  Let me say that I am grateful for the anti-bullying bill and the increased attention being paid to bullying.  Bullying was never a good thing, but is a whole new beast with social media and cell phones.  It is dangerous and it should be addressed by schools (and churches, and workplaces, etc.). That said, however, I agree with the inserted clause.  It does not justify or excuse bullying.  Critics believe it will make the bullying policies difficult to enforce.  Guess what?  Life is messy and a bullying policy isn’t going to fix all the problems.  But there is a difference between stating a belief that something is wrong and bullying someone.  Sadly, it is a distinction our culture is increasingly unable to make.  That is why the clause is necessary.  And though some bullies will certainly try to use it as an excuse for their bullying as some critics say, that is not what this clause is about.  That’s story 2.

I hope my literary clues have led you to the connection between these two stories.  In Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort, Bishop describes and laments the way Americans are increasingly able and willing to adopt a “tribal” lifestyle.  We can easily design our lives so that the journalists, newscasters, preachers, and friends we interact with are all telling us what we want to hear, reinforcing our beliefs, telling us the side of the story that will confirm our preconceived notions.  The problem is this: rarely do stories have one side.  That’s not to say that there is no right or wrong.  That is to say that before we form an opinion, vote, or plan of action, we should have as much of the story as we can.  I think this is generally a good policy.  But as Christians, I believe the biblical Story gives us even more motivation to get our stories straight…

  1. Truth-speaking.  God does not and cannot lie.  Which means that if we are to reflect God accurately (function as God’s image), we must be truth-speakers, “speaking the truth in love.”  Truth-speaking is not just accurately relaying some facts, but doing our best to convey the whole story.  For instance, if we tell people that God is just and holy, but leave out that he is loving and forgiving (or vice versa), we are certainly guilty of misrepresenting God and have failed to lead people into Truth.  Aren’t we just as much responsible for accurately representing other people?  In both of the examples above, I had to go to at least two different sources to put together the whole story.  If we only represent the “liberal” or “conservative” version of the story in conversation or Facebook post or radio show, can we really say we are speaking truth in love?  If we only mention parts of the story that spotlight the “socialist agenda” of President Obama or the insensitivity of  Republicans in the Michigan state senate, isn’t that pretty close to slander, libel, or gossip depending on the medium?  Half-story-telling is not compatible with being truth-speakers.
  2. Truth-seeking.  In order to be truth-speakers–in this day and age–we must be truth-seekers.  This means being aware of the signs that we are only getting one side of the story.  In fact, maybe we should just assume it when it comes to news channels, blogs (except my own, of course ;) ), radio programs, and politics.  Turn off the people paid to get ratings by being divisive and controversial.  Turn on the people from both sides who are making thoughtful arguments for the good of the order.  Fine, watch FoxNews or MSNBC, but then consult the other before you have a conversation with your like-minded friends.  And if you don’t have time to do some truth-seeking, there is a plethora of biblical wisdom about holding your tongue.
  3. Truth-seeing.  The biblical Story gives us some good principles to check the filters through which we are understanding the world.  For instance, the Scriptures tell us that all human beings are a) created in the image of God and b) fallen into sin.  Our vision is out-of-whack when we only see the image of God in “our people” and only see evil and sin in “them.”  We need to be disciplined in applying these doctrines across the board.  The doctrine of the “Image” should make us think twice before we accept that Republicans are pro-bullying.  The doctrine of Sin should give us a healthy skepticism about whether President Obama is really a tax-addicted dictator just because my favorite news station is painting that picture.  Again, there are right and wrong, good and evil, but truth-seeing means we respect the Image enough to consider that the “others” might be good and right and Sin enough to consider the possibility that I and my side are are just as susceptible to evil and wrongness.
  4. Healing and Reconciliation.  Accepting the first side of the story we hear is not the way to healing and reconciliation, two things God is pretty into.  These gospel goals are made difficult by the lack of #1-3.  The more we misrepresent others, refuse to listen to the other side, and neglect the biblical call to respect and self-awareness, the harder unity and peace become.  As Christians, we have been given the ministry of reconciliation.  If we continue to surround ourselves with people who reinforce the goodness and rightness of our current way of thinking and the evil and wrongness of anyone we already disagree with, there is no hope of transformation, something else God happens to be pretty into.

Here’s the message: As Christians, who are called to worship in Spirit and in Truth, who follow the One who calls himself the Way, the Truth, and the Life, who are indwelt by the Spirit of Truth, there is no part of our lives where we can settle for less than Truth.  Our political landscape makes it easy to do just that.  So this is one of the opportunities we have to be stars in a dark sky: as truth-speakers, truth-seekers, and truth-seers for the sake of healing and reconciliation wherever God has placed us.

Everybody just hold on, stop spinning, reorient yourselves, catch your balance…  Good?  Good.  Now let’s talk about that whirlwind we just went through: the debt ceiling crisis.  Or, as one journalist refers to it: “an insanity-inducing syllabus of everything that’s wrong with the American political system. Everything.”  It certainly wasn’t America’s final hour.  Without rehashing too much the stories and viewpoints that have been aired all over the news networks, I’d like to point out a couple of the complexities that undergirded the crisis of leadership we’ve just witnessed.  (Some of these issues build on ideas I discussed in my blog about Ohio’s Senate Bill 5.)  And since we’re dealing with complexities, it’s important that we take a moment for compassion and humility before we rip on our elected leaders.

1) Politicians are faced with the old “serving two masters” conundrum.  Let me explain.  Before you rail against uncompromising or lying politicians, consider the choice we offer them.  We want our leaders to inspire us and make big promises, talk about changing the world and Washington, give us a reason to vote for them.  We elect leaders who make big promises.  Unfortunately, our system of government requires compromise.  Republicans especially were ridiculed for not budging from their refusal to raise taxes and their insistence on a balanced budget amendment.  You know what?  Those were the promises they had to make if they wanted to be elected.  Republicans were stuck between serving the wishes of those who elected them (not compromising) and compromising to  serve the American people (which makes them promise-breakers).  I imagine this conversation going on in politicians’ heads: “Did their vote mean that they think I will carry out their wishes?  Or did it mean they trust me to make good decisions in the best interest of the whole country?”

The former is usually why we elect a leader, and the latter tends to be an afterthought once opposition is faced in Washington.  We examine all of a candidate’s positions on particular issues and tend to vote for the candidate whose platforms square most with our own.  When politicians get to Washington, they realize that their promises will simply not be fulfilled.  And that’s how our system of government is supposed to work (not the broken promises part, but the checks and balances part).  The parties are supposed to balance each other out, to converse with each other.  Otherwise, we have a kind of democratic dictatorship where 51% of the people can dictate whatever they want regardless of the needs or opinions of the other 49%.  When our politicians don’t vote exactly the way they promised, we call them “liars” and then vote for some other candidate who makes the same big promises.  Many of the same people who railed against the Republicans’ unwillingness to compromise will turn around and accuse politicians of lying when they don’t do what they said on the campaign trail.  Is it still lying?  Yes.  Is lying still a sin?  Yes.  But sin (in this case, lying) is often a symptom of a society as much as it is an individual action.  We would be wise to ask, “What kind of society produces leaders who consistently turn out to be liars?”

What needs to change is not so much Washington as us.  We need to be able to make voting decisions based on whether we trust the wisdom and concern of a candidate to do what is best for the country, not just what benefits us.  Non-compromise is not a viable or healthy political platform to run on as many votes as it may inspire.  Yes, this requires us to go deeper than campaign slogans and rallying cries.  No, I don’t expect most voters to change their approach to voting.  But as Christians, let’s at least recognize the difficult position our politicians are in and bring a different voice to the political arena.  Be willing to speak out a word of compassion the next time you hear someone ridiculing a politician–even if it’s a politician you don’t agree with.  Insist on depth when talking about political candidates and issues instead of settling for sound-byte superficiality.

2. Above, I spoke about Republicans.  Much of the same could be said for President Obama, who made promises in his presidential campaign that he truly had no hope of fulfilling–many of these changes hadn’t already been made for good reasons.  These promises sounded good, but that is not always the same as being good or being in the best interest of most people.  For instance, much has been made of then-Sen. Obama’s vote against raising the debt ceiling in 2006.  Quietly, vaguely, and impersonally, Pres. Obama admitted that that vote was a mistake.  Why quietly, vaguely, and impersonally?  Because for some reason, admitting past errors is politically devastating.  In what kind of society or political climate is humble confession a vice, not a virtue?  As Christians, humble confession is a virtue that allows us to enter into God’s loving mercy.  Humility is more a sign of courage in the political sphere than any vote or platform a politician might take.  As Christians, though, why should we expect politicians to be courageously humble and confessional if we don’t practice those virtues ourselves?  I’m not talking about the Catholic sacrament.  I’m talking about having confession and forgiveness be normal practices in our relationships and communities.  We need to hear the Scriptures calling us to grow in our transparency in our Church communities and to set an example to our nation and our leaders of the kind of character that can lead to real, lasting change in Washington or anywhere else.

3. Back to Republicans.  I don’t remember who or where, but in one interview, a conservative leader tried to make his stance as clear as possible: “America is spending more money than we’re taking in.  That means we need to spend less.”  I kept waiting for the interviewer to say, “Or…or…”  Take in more!  This leader shined a bright light on the glaring half-truth of his position.  The statement should have gone: “America is spending more money than we’re taking in.  That means we need to spend less or take in more.”  It’s simple math and logic.  The leader needed to at least finish the statement and then tell us why “take in more” wasn’t a helpful option in his opinion.  Instead, this leader insulted the intelligence of the people he is supposed to lead by telling us half the story…and most Americans let it happen.  Please, friends, don’t learn your logic from a politician.  If we are going to talk about an issue, we must listen to politicians who disagree with us, and people outside the political sphere.  As Christians, we need Jesus and the Scriptures to form our worldviews.  Too often, we let our party form our worldviews and then–strangely enough–our Jesus and scriptural interpretation come out looking an awful lot like our party.

4. And finally, one more lesson from Pres. Obama.  On July 24, he addressed the nation on television during primetime, expressing frustration at conservatives’ unwillingness to move towards him, enumerating the ways he has moved towards them, and pleading with the American people to speak out against the political games.  At first, I wanted to say, “Amen!”  to his call to compromise and the need for both sides to sacrifice in order to get something done.  What re-discouraged me was when I put myself in the shoes of Republicans listening to the speech.  I could just hear conservatives groaning, “NOW he wants compromise.”  Jesus contrasts Kingdom-of-God-style leadership with worldly leadership, calling us to be servant-leaders at all time, not only when it is politically beneficial.  I believe Pres. Obama’s address would have gone over a lot better if he had made a similar address directed at Democrats during the two years they controlled all of Congress and the Presidency.  Power is tempting.  We are tempted to use it while we have it, to push our things through the easy way.  We are tempted to do this whether we have presidential authority or parental authority.  We think, “Forget the hard tasks of persuasion and compromise.  I have the authority to get things done!”  It’s easy to justify, especially if we think our things are good things.  But if we want others to be willing to compromise with us when they have power, we must be willing to exercise restraint when we have power.  Sound familiar?   While I don’t support Republicans continuing the “I have some power and I’m going to use it to get what I want” cycle, in some ways and in my opinion, it was a bit of reaping what was sown, another notch in the cycle of ignoring the other side as long as we have the power to do our thing.  In much the same way, the Church is reaping what we have sown during the era in the Western world in which Christianity held authority over public life (“Christendom”), often taking shortcuts to achieve “Christian” goals.  We are now experiencing increasing disinterest, mistrust, and bitterness towards the Church.  Leadership is not just about making the right decisions or having the right ideas.  It is about engendering trust in others, illustrating why one would want to follow, and being willing to hold oneself to the same standards to which one holds others.  

I’m glad we came to some sort of resolution concerning the debt ceiling.  But the complexities that spawned this clash are far from resolved.  Christians can be leaders in helping this country reassess how we vote, think about issues, and interact in the public sphere.  In order to lead, we must see the contrast between Jesus’ Way and the patterns of this world.  We must model humility, confession, sacrifice for the good of others, integrity, loving speech, gracious words to and about our leaders, and even a willingness to submit to leaders we don’t always agree with.  When Paul commanded us to submit to governing authorities and Jesus commanded us to give Caesar what is due Caesar, they knew exactly the kinds of people who were in those power positions, men of more questionable character than our leaders and with even more power.  Certainly there are times where civil disobedience is the proper Christian response, but not over every issue.  This road to real transformation in ourselves and our society is a longer, harder road than just making the right vote or joining the popular momentum.  But then again, no one said following Jesus was easy.