Friday, December 21, 2012
I know that what I am about to say will make me sound like a fool, in fact, I was called an idiot and accused of having "sissy sensibilities" for saying what one person called the stupidest thing he had ever heard when I suggested that what truly stops a bad guy with a gun is the truth. Yes, I know that the truth won't keep me alive if I am shot, but I do believe that it will save my life. Because I don't believe that the highest good to be defended is life, I believe that the highest good, the one thing I will not abandon is love. If I must return violence on violence in order to know peace, then, logically, I have not found peace, even if the violence stops. When Jesus said to love our enemies, I don't believe that he meant that we could somehow love them while continuing to kill them. When an armed mob came to take Jesus, he not only didn't defend himself (with an army of angels no less, sort of the ultimate arsenal) he chastised Peter for attempting to do so. He reminded Peter that those who live by the sword die by the sword. It is true, that the swordless also die, often first, but Jesus not only told us that laying down our lives for others was the greatest love, he led by example.
Sadly, we too often save such idealistic rhetoric for Sundays alone and come Monday pragmatism and patriotism put the gun in Jesus' hand justifying killing for the sake of saving others. While sound moral arguments may be made for violence on behalf of protecting the innocent and even self-defense, all I'm saying is that Jesus would never pull that trigger. A single episode of table-flipping rage is far from sufficient to offset the rest of Jesus' teaching and example. We have the Second Amendment because we extrapolated from the experience of the armed underdog winning a bloody revolution against the greatest military power on the planet that democracy could be purchased in blood, effectively that might makes right (since it is the victors who write the history...and the constitution). This current round of angst about the availability of guns has opened my eyes to the tragic realization that the Second Amendment is quite possibly all about the fear factor: the citizenry need to remain armed to the teeth in order to balance the threat that government's army poses. If that is indeed a legitimate interpretation, then I am ready to work for its repeal for I don't want a democracy that relies on an equilibrium of fear instead the power of truth in ideas.
The marriage of a twisted version of the Christian story with the American ethos has existed since our nation's founding when we accepted that the genocide of the native peoples because we were God's chosen people, the new Israel, we had a Manifest Destiny. We Americans have a deep seated belief in the power of redemptive violence. It is just as Mr. LaPierre states, the bad guys with guns (or bows and arrows) were stopped by the good guys with guns. Good guys with guns brought justice to the Wild West at the end of a barrel. Even today when we execute foreign policy through killing we talk about brave soldiers defending our rights by killing others even when those others pose no viable threat to our rights. And if our schools become veritable prisons or worse, become Dodge City full of gun-toting teachers, then we may have freedom only in an Orwellian sense.
Instead of being a voice raised in lament crying out for peace, the church has instead played a supporting role in the violence by providing theological underpinnings for redemptive violence. When Jesus' death is seen as paying the price for all of us, it is easy to assume that the price (death) is set by a God who allows compassion to be trumped by a cold calculating form of justice that demands an exchange. What would we say of a father who requires the death of his own son to forgive a debt? Wouldn't we expect an all powerful and all loving God simply to forgive the debt without the blood? Thankfully, theologians do struggle with describing the atonement accomplished on the cross in other ways than this barbaric substitution. I understand the crucifixion as the work of humans not of God. We are the ones incapable of overcoming evil with good. We are the ones that trust violence over love. But God's work in the death of Jesus is to take away the victory by raising him to new life.
May we find the strength to place our faith in that hope. May we be fools for God by choosing to believe that love is more powerful than anything else in the entire universe. May we come to accept the hard truths taught by Jesus about love and forgiveness. May we learn to turn the other cheek...and take the gun out of Jesus' hand.
Thursday, August 02, 2012
Tuesday, July 03, 2012
Saturday, January 14, 2012
If I were watching football now it would be the Chelsea-Sunderland match I recorded this morning and have yet to watch, not the American version featuring the clash between the hometown team and that guy who likes to pray. But that doesn't mean that I'm not part of the 70% of Americans who have heard of Tim Tebow, but I am not part of the 40% who believe that his success is due to divine intervention. Don't get me wrong, I believe that God is involved. God is involved in all of creation and the divine spark lives in every human being, but come on, don't we all know that the success or failure of athletes is way down on God's list of concerns?
I'm not against the fun of cheering for a team (including the good-natured teasing of the opposition, just ask any of my fellow Midnight Riders about my behavior at New England Revolution matches) and I have no problem making light of religion (just show up at my church some year on the Sunday after Easter and you will see that in practice on Holy Humor Sunday) BUT when I heard about Wiccans in Salem invoking gods to neutralize Tebow in today's game I saw it as wrong on many levels. First of all, there is the whole point about the divine even caring, then there is theological problem of believing that the creation and/or the creator could be cajoled to perform the will of the created. There may be fine points to spin on those topics, but more disturbing to me is the idea that we might invoke our brand of divinity to trump the god of the other.
For me to be fully true to my Christian belief in a God who loves all the world I have to believe that the other expressions of devotion to expressions of that love are genuine attempts to find what I am attempting to find. In other words, I don't need (nor do I want) to believe that others are wrong in order for me to be right. I don't believe that my God ever wants me to wish defeat for another. It is wonderful that Tim Tebow thanks God for his successes. I hope that he also thanks God for the opportunity to do what he loves for a living, win or lose. We all should find that divine spark within us and nurture its growth so that we are filled with such love for all that we can live the abundant life that God offers, win or lose.
Wednesday, July 06, 2011
And that brings us to today's acquittal of Casey Anthony. The immediate response was a sweeping sense of shock and an anger that justice was not served. Isn't it interesting how often justice being served is equivalent to someone being punished? I must admit that my first reaction was "Who?" I avoid popular sensationalist news outlets, so I was only vaguely familiar with the case. In fact, I still only know that Casey Anthony was on trial for the death of her two-year old daughter. I don't know any of the details of how the death occurred. Naturally I'm saddened at the death of a toddler, but I truly don't believe that the taking of another life could do anything constructive to create a more just society. Murderers clearly must be stopped to protect others and there should definitely be consequences for such heinous behavior. But woe to us as a society when we allow the justice system to become trial by popular media. Twelve people were entrusted with the duty of weighing the facts and deciding if they were convinced beyond a reasonable doubt of the defendant's guilt, none of the rest of us should think that we are qualified to render judgment.
I had the privilege of seeing the justice system at work by serving on a jury in a murder trial a couple of years ago. It was gut wrenching work sitting through a couple of weeks of witness testimony and examining evidence. In that trial, a young black man was accused of killing the middle aged white woman he was personal care attendant for. His bloody hand print was found on the wall above her body. It seemed like an open and shut case, aided by the fact that he couldn't afford a lawyer so was represented by a public defender. But there were holes in the story that left me with a doubt that I considered reasonable. I imagine that those who watched the coverage on the local news must have rendered him guilty in the court of public opinion. But I went into the deliberations with my doubt and said so to my fellow jurors. We deliberated for a number of hours and in the end we all agreed that there was enough doubt to acquit. Is it possible that the man committed the crime? Yes, it is. Was justice served? Yes, it was. Justice was served because the system succeeded.
But where is the justice for the victim? This was a question in the death of bin Laden as well. In fact, anytime someone is executed for a murder this question persists. I don't believe in a God who is keeping score and needs to settle it somehow. Even if I did, my faith teaches that God offers grace to wipe out that debt. So if I, who am deserving of death, am let off from the consequences of my behavior then why should I wish that another person should not get the same deal? If you feel anger at the lack of punishment for Casey Anthony because you believe that she is guilty, then you have a lot of questions to ask yourself about what you think the justice system is designed to do. I'm willing to allow potentially guilty parties escape punishment due to reasonable doubt because I want the principle of reasonable doubt to apply to me should I ever be falsely accused. I'm also willing to let go of my sense of what is appropriate punishment and leave the judgment to God alone because I likewise want to be judged solely by God, not by others. I trust that these choices are the ones that pave the path of peace and help me to fully experience grace.
Finally, it is very right to be outraged at the death of a toddler at the hands of another. It is also well beyond time that we all start to express the same sort of outrage at the thousands upon thousands of children who die daily because of the preventable problems of hunger and disease. Until we are so moved that we end their suffering their blood is on all of our hands. God have mercy.
Sunday, June 05, 2011
This morning in worship, the congregation broke into applause when I told them what I told the director of emergency services earlier this week. I pointed out that the church was established before the incorporation of Brimfield because it was necessary to have a Meeting House at the center of the community. Now, nearly 275 years later, this same church called me as pastor in part because they wanted someone who would help them go out the doors and serve the community. In the nearly nine years we have ministered together, the church and I have worked to open wide those doors and use what we have to serve the community. Because of this, I was able to say that if the church had done nothing else all these years, it was at least preparing to be present at this moment.
When the decision was made to open the church to serve food and become a hub for coordinating volunteer efforts, I had no doubt that the community would respond. I've seen the divine spark fanned into a powerful fire of the human spirit plenty of times before. I knew that God was present in the people of our church and beyond, so I knew that all we had to do was open the door. The massive flow of donations and volunteers quickly confirmed my faith in the people and the God they serve.
There have been huge stories and small wonders through all of this. The strength of the covenant between people of faith has been been demonstrated in the numerous clergy who have contacted me offering help. Again, to me it is no surprise. But there have also been tales of the miraculous that are jaw-dropping, like the fact that Becky was able to celebrate her birthday today by worshiping with us before helping a family pick through the rubble of what used to be their house. I made it clear in a public proclamation that God has plans for Becky. How could I be so sure? The house that is nothing but debris today was on top of Becky's car on Wednesday. She was rushing to get home when the tornado hit dropping every tree in the area along with ripping this house off its foundation. Photographs after the fact show that the only section of roof on Becky's car not crushed down to the seats is the place where she sat behind the wheel!
The remarkable bond of community shows in the words of the woman who was in that house's basement with her family and spoke to me yesterday when I went up to offer comfort. Ellen pointed out that she does not attend our church, but appreciated what we were doing. How many times do those moments arise when you later think of the perfect response? This was one of those times for me. Fortunately, I was able to rectify that situation when Kim took the prayer shawl that we blessed in our worship today to give to Ellen. I told Kim to tell her that just because she doesn't go to our church doesn't mean that she isn't part of our church.
As important as the church's physical presence is in our community today, I have been recently considering the prospect of how to create a church without walls. One way the wall-less church was visible today was when I headed out to find Jacob. This wise young man had chosen to refrain from receiving Holy Communion until he completed confirmation, even though we welcome children to partake at Christ's table in our church. Only two weeks ago he completed confirmation, becoming a member of our church and thus giving himself permission to receive the Eucharist. Today he chose to worship Christ by finding him where he surely was; in the brokenness of the destruction at the property of one of our church members. I knew that it would not do for Jacob to forgo his opportunity for a first Communion on this particular day. So after the service, I headed out with bread and juice to find him. Along the way I got a call from my wife telling me that a reporter was at the church wanting to talk to me. I was able to say something that any pastor would be proud to say, "Tell her that she will have to wait, serving Communion is more important." When I reached Jacob I was able to know with full confidence that this kid understood the meaning of the Eucharist and joyfully shared with him one of the most memorable sacraments of my ministry.
Finally, the part of the day that brought me the most satisfying emotion was being a Skype guest at Darkwood Brew, being able to receive the very real, nearly palpable virtual embrace of the prayers and concern of people in Omaha and around the world via the Internet. Tears filled my eyes when the people of Countryside Community Church UCC said "We are praying for you, Brimfield." That prayer and the combined strength of the human spirit on display all around me are so much stronger than the EF 3 winds that rained destruction on my town. Thanks be to God.
Monday, May 02, 2011
So what is justice? Is it an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth? Is it a balancing of the scales? Is it the restoration of the status quo prior to the injustice? Or could it be the creation of a state of peaceful coexistence and harmony?
In theory, American justice is the rule of law where even the most heinous criminal is given rights because preserving justice is ultimately much more important than the risk that a guilty person might escape consequences. In practice, American justice sometimes looks like frontier justice where an expression like “he needed killin'” doesn't sound like the absurdity that it is. In the pantheon of villains, Osama Bin Laden is perhaps second only to Adolph Hitler. So when President Obama said about his death, “And on nights like this one, we can say to those families who have lost loved ones to al Qaeda's terror: Justice has been done,” I doubt that many Americans questioned it. If ever there was someone who deserved an extra-judicial execution, surely it was this evil man, right? Tragically, when the President sets himself up as judge, jury and executioner, justice is harmed, not served.
Of course, the argument can be made that this was a war and he was an enemy combatant killed on the battlefield. I'm not expert in military law, so that may be justified. Even if this action is a legitimate act of warfare, I must question its strategic value. Surely the vacuum left by the leader's absence has already been filled. In fact, hasn't the second in command been the leader for some time now anyway? How can this be more than a symbolic action in the war on terrorism at this point? One would think that from the level of euphoria seen on American streets that this war was over, but not one word has been uttered about the end of hostilities and the return of the troops. Sadly, this leads to the conclusion that hunting down and killing Bin Laden had only political motivation. Simply put, this was revenge.
And so we return to the question of whether or not justice was served. Is revenge justice? The death of the one responsible for the deaths of so many does little to balance the scale. Perhaps if I had a loved one who had died because of him I might feel differently, but I doubt it. I find no satisfaction in revenge. I can't see how returning violence for violence and hate for hate brings any comfort or peace to the avenger. Most of the people who lost family on 9/11 whom I've heard interviewed so far have commented on how it feels wrong to celebrate the death of someone, even someone as awful as Bin Laden. There is a reason that it feels wrong...it is.
As a Christian, I don't have an option for violence. If I am to be a true follower of Jesus, I need to love my enemy and pray for those who persecute me. I need to turn the other cheek. I need to return good for evil. I need to leave judgment and any vengeance that there may be to God. If that makes me a fool, so be it. I know it is not a practical way to live in the world, but that is not what is ever promised. History and personal observation confirms that violence is not defeated by violence. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, "The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that."
I believe that God's justice is the creation of what our Jewish brothers and sisters call shalom. Shalom is more than peace in the sense of the absence of conflict. It is harmony and balance among all beings. It is a description of what we want heaven to be. God wants to break into our lives with shalom, bringing heaven into the hell that we too often choose to inhabit. People like Bin Laden are so broken that they never open up to this grace and go about creating more hell on earth. Still, the love of God is so vast, so powerful and so persistent that regardless of the hells we find ourselves in (even of our own choosing) there is always hope.
Today I hope for more hearts to open to that love, that we may find shalom.