Thursday, December 27, 2007


The holiday gift-giving season has ended and the bills are now coming due. There is no question that the American economy relies on year-end spending which has effectively commercialized any faith tradition's holy day or days that fall within this time period. Reports of numbers will tell us whether the bottom line bodes well for business or not, but there are serious burdens borne by the consumer that demand our attention. One is what economist Joel Waldfogel calls the “Deadweight Loss of Christmas.”

On National Public Radio's Marketplace, Waldfogel was quoted saying “People value things they receive as gifts about 20 percent less per dollar spent then they value items they purchase for themselves.” This deadweight loss is valued at somewhere between twelve and eighteen billion dollars this year. In effect this means that the marketing of the holiday caused Americans to hand over that much money in exchange for nothing more than the consolation of knowing that they participated in the annual spending ritual. And this only measures the difference in perceived value of gifts received, it makes no judgment on the uselessness of many of the gifts that were given.

The second burden to consider is the growing consumer debt that the holiday consumption frenzy creates. A recent Federal Reserve Bank report indicates that Americans carry over $920 billion in credit debt. Over the previous year, the number of accounts that are 30 days past due has risen by 26% and those that are 90 days overdue by 50% according to some lenders. This all adds up to an insane practice of purchasing over-valued items, many of them redundant or useless, with money we don't have and then either paying even more for them due to interest payments or creating insurmountable debt that brings an avalanche of other problems.

The only thing that keeps this cycle going is the cycle itself! Like a gerbil running on a wheel, the only way to stop the motion is to get off the wheel. This annual feast of overconsumption is surely an a disease. As we enter the flu season, it is apt that this economic disease can been called Affluenza. It is in fact a manifestation of the disease of addiction. Anyone who is living with an addiction knows the daily battles that can involve many setbacks without vigilance. The most successful way of dealing with addiction is through the wisdom of the Twelve Steps. The first step is to admit that we are powerless over the addiction – that our lives have become unmanageable. That should be plain from the numbers reported here, or the bills that you cannot pay.

The second step is coming to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. What power is that for you? Whether you are comfortable calling that higher power God or not, there is a spirituality required for recovery. We are a sorry and hopeless people indeed if we cannot find the spiritual path that will lead us out of the insanity of this runaway consumerism.

The Year in Religion

One of the biggest religious stories of 2007 was the fact that religion itself came under attack. A number of books were written that took religion to task for the harm that is has created historically and the way that it at times impedes social progress today. Many of the accusations are well-deserved as religious fanaticism has indeed led to bloodshed and repression in some parts of the world. Ideologues will always fight not relent and religion certainly is apt to create ideologues. But then, the stubbornness of the new atheists has likewise contributed to the lack of dialog about the clash of philosophies. Public opinion seems to be moving away from the church. Recent research by the Barna group regarding the opinions of American young people about religion was published in a book with a succinct title that names that opinion, “Unchristian.” The good news is that this could be an opportunity for reform if the church can do the difficult work of listening to the outside detractors.

The culture war continued to rage with religious folks involved in both public battles and internal disputes. The Anglican fellowship in the world saw divisions over the issue of homosexuality, with some American churches leaving their local fellowship to join with like-minded churches in Africa. In an effort to maintain some unity worldwide, those who accept the ordination of homosexuals have been asked to stop the practice. Religious voices were raised on both sides of the issue of legalizing same-sex marriage with Massachusetts continuing to permit it while many states moved to explicitly restrict it. On this issue, the year did not produce any signs of promise for dialog.

On a brighter note, there seemed to be some movement this year in the area of care of the environment as a religious issue. Despite the objections of some Evangelicals, a good number of others chose to publish a letter that called for action to slow global warming. Environmental issues present an opportunity for people of all faith traditions to find some common ground for action. We have witnessed the first steps this year.

The most encouraging dialog that was begun this year was that between Muslims and Christians. If nothing is done to reverse the trend toward conflict between these two cultures over half the world's population could potentially become embroiled in violent conflict. Considering the powers involved it is no overstatement to talk about the end of the world. The dialog that has begun centers on two tenets basic to each faith, love of God and care for neighbor. As we end one year and pray for peace in the next, we should cherish this important step and work to continue the progress begun.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

What Would Jesus Buy?

With the craziness of consumerism reaching a fever pitch just before Christmas, it is time for the obligatory respite to complain about it. Indeed there is very little that is redeeming in the purchase of endless and unnecessary items for people who already no doubt have more than they need. Does anyone ever complain that there are just not enough trinkets to buy or trendy items to collect? Of course not, but there is plenty of complaining about not being able to please the voracious desires of family and friends who will be disappointed if they don't get the latest and greatest. Consider that complaint for a minute. Who actually thinks so little of their family and friends to accuse them of such shallow desires? That is the most pernicious element of consumerism, it leads us to actions that that run counter to what we most want to believe. We want to believe that the things that matter most are not things. We want to believe that our family and friends only need our love and care, yet we allow the demands of consumerism to believe that they just must have things as proof of our love.

So why don't we stop? Why don't we wake up and celebrate Christmas by simply doing the things that make us happy with friends and family? Why don't we give gifts to the one who is having the birthday? We could give presents to Jesus who said he would be with us in those who are sick and hungry and in prison. But we all know that our noblest intentions at this holy season will still not be realized. Perhaps consumerism is a form of demon possession. It certainly seems to have a power beyond our control. It also is a force that that is in direct opposition to the teaching of the one whose birthday we celebrate.

A documentary called, “What Would Jesus Buy” opens in theaters this week. It is filled with satirical humor and street theater presented by “Reverend Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping.” It will no doubt make many people laugh and no doubt think about the insanity of consumerism. Perhaps we need to laugh to keep us from crying. There is indeed a war on Christmas, and it isn't about not telling the story and singing the songs. It is about ignoring the story and not listening to the message. May this be the year and we all start to hear the message of love at the heart of the story. Instead of giving more things to “the person who has everything” let us bring our gifts to the manger by giving them to the least among us.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Religion and the Public Square

Mitt Romney's recent speech on religious freedom was very revealing. He expressed his belief in some foundational principles that are necessary to maintaining the constitutional mandate to avoid the establishment of religion while at the same time apparently betraying his own beliefs.

To his credit, Romney said “we do not insist on a single strain of religion – rather, we welcome our nation's symphony of faith.” He also pointed to his record of keeping his Mormonism a private faith that informed his decisions without dictating his politics. He rightly suggested that “Americans do not respect believers of convenience. Americans tire of those who would jettison their beliefs, even to gain the world.” Or at least let us hope that cynicism has not taken such a hold in the electorate that this is no longer true. He also lifted up a number of faith traditions for praise: Catholicism, Evangelicalism, Pentecostalism, Lutheranism, Judaism, and even Islam. He stated his view of tolerance this way, “Religious tolerance would be a shallow principle indeed if it were reserved only for faiths with which we agree.” He pointed out that our nation has not always lived up to its high principles citing the banishments of Ann Hutchinson, Roger Williams, and Brigham Young, for their unacceptable religious convictions. Ironically, within his own speech, he too seemed to fail to “walk the talk.”

In a particularly contradictory moment Romney first suggested that "The founders proscribed the establishment of a state religion,” but immediately added, “but they did not countenance the elimination of religion from the public square. We are a nation 'Under God' and in God, we do indeed trust.” He believes that those expressions belong in our pledge and on our currency. He also thinks that nativity scenes and menorahs belong in the public square. If this is the path to tolerance, where does it end? In the area of public display of religious faith the only manageable position is to exclude it totally. This also begs the question of how to respect those of no faith. Romney himself suggests that recent efforts to keep church and state separate have gone so far as to effectively create a new religion of secularism. This begs the question of whether an expression of secularism should be welcome in the public square.

All of us have biases that make up the belief systems that guide our actions. Some of our belief systems include a belief in God or gods, others don't. If only those who believe in a single God are capable of being good citizens then our government schools must start teaching religious practice as part of training good citizens, and those who don't share that belief cannot be first class citizens. Clearly this would be unconstitutional and unwelcome. Those of us for whom religious beliefs matter should likewise be troubled by the thought that the government might attempt to teach our beliefs. Which particular doctrines would be taught? The only acceptable position is one broad enough to accept all citizens of any faith, or of no faith. Romney is welcome to bring his faith to the public square, indeed should be praised for clearly sharing his biases. But let us hope that whomever is elected president will truly live out a commitment to represent all the people, not drawing any lines that exclude any citizen.

Monday, December 03, 2007

A Common Word

One year after Pope Benedict XVI made controversial remarks regarding Islam, a group of 138 Muslim leaders representing all the various denominations and traditions of Islam have published a letter to the Christian community called “A Common Word Between You and Us” ( This group includes people with different profiles: religious authorities, scholars, intellectuals, media experts, professionals, etc... It also includes people from different schools of mainstream Islam: Sunni (from Salafis to Sufis), Shi’i (J’afari, Ziadi, Isma’ili), and Ibadi. It includes figures from Chad to Uzbekistan, from Indonesia to Mauritania and from Canada to Sudan. Many of the individual signatories guide or influence millions of Muslims and hold positions of religious, social, and political responsibility. The accumlated influence of the signatories is too significant to ignore. The content of the document is powerful in its stunning simplicity. It lifts up two doctrines arguably at the very core of both religions: love of God and love of neighbor.

Despite historical theological tensions, this group of Muslims goes to great lengths to show that the Christian devotion is to the single God of the universe whom they also worship. The second core belief that this document points out as held in common between Muslims and Christians is the concern for neighbor. It receives little space in the document, no doubt because it is is so obviously at the heart of both faiths. The well documented letter cites not just the Koran, but also the New Testament and the Hebrew Bible.

So far, the Christian response has been astoundingly positive. A response stating that the Muslim letter was both encouraging and challenging was issued by 300 Christian leaders. Among the signatories are the expected mainline denominational leaders and liberal theologians, but also signing were televangelist Robert Schuller and evangelical leaders Jim Wallis (of Sojourners magazine) and Rick Warren (author of “The Purpose Driven Life”). The pope has also responded with an offer to meet with a delegation of Muslim leaders.

There is no doubt that this is a remarkable exchange at a critical time in the history of relations between the two religions that together represent 55% of the world's population. The conversation around shared beliefs needs to replace the name-calling that is becoming too common. We in the West have to give up the idea that all Muslims are represented by the militant fringe of “Islamo-fascists.” Likewise, Muslims need to resist the urge to paint the West with the broad brush of the term “the Great Satan.” In both religions, not only those who think the worst about the other, but also those willing to take violent action toward the other need to be reduced even further than the minorities that they are currently. Both documents agree that “the future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians.” The military force available to nations potentially on opposite sides of a what could amount to a renewal of the Crusades along with the frightening ability of terrorism to act as a catalyst demonstrate the fact that indeed the future of humanity may rest on the ability of all of us to love whatever God we serve will all our hearts and to love our neighbor as ourselves.