Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Just Say "No" to War

The Collegium of Officers of the United Church of Christ have written a powerful pastoral letter against the war in Iraq and are asking others to sign the letter. Their goal is 100,000 signatures by World Communion Sunday, October 7. They call us to seek forgiveness for "the arrogant unilateralism of preemptive war." They also call us to "cast off the fear that has made us accept the way of violence and return to the way of Jesus."

The ideal of returning to the way of Jesus coupled with the letter's opening paragraph decrying the way this war was justified serve as a reminder that the acceptance of war as a necessary evil was not always a part of Christian thinking. For the first three centuries of Christianity, pacifism was the primary view of Christians. Early church leaders such as Origen and Tertullian wrote tracts on the subject. Roman soldiers who converted to Christianity were instructed not to kill! All of that changed rapidly when the emperor Constantine made Christianity the official state religion. By his edict, Christians went from being social pariahs who could be killed for their beliefs to being the only ones who could be soldiers or political leaders. Needless to say, this had a radical impact on Christian teaching. Augustine created a compromise position, which has come to be knows as the Just War Theory, stipulating principles that had to be met in order for a war to be considered just. Just War Theory is clear that no war can be started preemptively as an act of aggression, that it cannot be used for acquisition of land, power or resources, and that civilians may never be targeted. Applied to the current war, all of these principles raise serious questions. In fact, the sickening ratio of civilian to military causalities in every battle fought today begs the question of whether modern warfare can ever be considered just.

September 21 is the United Nations International Day of Peace. This annual event focusing on peaceful resolutions to conflicts is a call for a world-wide one day cease fire. That surely will be met by accusations of naivety and impractical idealism. Indeed, the logical end result of pacifism may be that evil triumphs and innocents suffer. But pacifism doesn't mean passivity. The innocents who suffer need to be those, who like Jesus, stand up to injustice with a willingness to lay down their lives before they will take another's. Non-violent resistance to injustice is a very active expression of faith requiring the commitment of all the resources at our disposal to wage peace.

The UCC pastoral letter calls us to repentance for having "confused patriotism with self-interest." True patriotism is a love of nation that calls it to be the best that it can be. Ending this war is a patriotic act, but it will not come by wishing it to happen. Christians need to add protest to their prayers. Let's begin to believe in peace more than violence and roll up our sleeves to do the hard work. You can begin by signing the pastoral letter at http://www.ucc.org/100kforpeace/

Monday, September 10, 2007

What If Hell Didn't Really Exist?

Carlton Pearson used to be involved with Oral Roberts' ministry and pastored a mega-church of 5000 people. One day he was watching news coverage of a flood and questioned God on why these poor souls should be going to hell because they weren't Christian. Our still-speaking God spoke to Pearson to assure him that that wasn't the case.

Now Pearson has written a book, "The Gospel of Inclusion." This is from his website:

Have you ever asked how a loving God could condemn most of His children to eternal torment? Bishop Carlton Pearson did, and his answer will change everything you ever thought you knew about God, eternity and God’s plan for humankind.

In The Gospel of Inclusion, Bishop Pearson courageously explores the exclusionary doctrines of mainstream religion and concludes that according to the evidence of the Bible and irrefutable logic, they cannot be true. Instead, he offers us the Gospel of Inclusion—the simple, stunning truth that everyone has already been saved by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

In this astonishing book, Pearson argues that the controlling dogmas of religion are the source of much of the world’s ills, and that we should turn our backs on proselytizing and holy wars and focus on the real Good News: that all of humanity is indeed loved by the Divine!

I look forward to reading this book and potentially welcoming Rev. Pearson as a UCC colleague since he is seeking standing in the United Church of Christ, where we believe we are called to a radical hospitality that includes all.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Preaching Up a Storm

Recently, Senator Barack Obama preached up a storm of controversy preaching about a storm from a church pulpit in New Orleans. Part of the attack can be dismissed as a disingenuous double standard from Republicans who have not objected in the past when members of their party followed the campaign trail to churches on Sunday mornings. But another part of the attack was theological. Some Evangelicals objected to Obama's use of Jesus' metaphor of building a house on a rock. They insist that the only genuine understanding of the rock is to see it as Jesus himself and/or his teachings. Obama used this image to imply that the government's response to Katrina provided a foundation of sand, not rock. He told the congregation that their response following the storm of taking in those who lost homes was the true rock.

Two years ago, President Bush used a different biblical image to offer hope to the Gulf Coast. He spoke of how God once provided an ark to save people from a flood and that God never leaves anyone totally abandoned. He conveniently neglected the part of the story that the flood came as God's judgment of the people, but there was no similar outcry at that time about his incomplete use of scripture.

Faith and scripture should be employed in the service of inspiring hope. Both of these politicians did just that. Obama told the church, the Body of Christ, that by doing Christ's work they were building a foundation of rock. Bush told the suffering that God was their last refuge, their best hope. Appeals like these to Christian charity are a much better use of religious language than, for example, the divisive, even sometimes hateful, campaign to deny equal marriage rights to homosexuals.

Two years ago, standing in a deserted New Orleans addressing the people of America, Bush had the opportunity to appeal to the demands of faith to rise up and meet the need. He didn't ask us to roll up our sleeves, instead promising government assistance. Now we see that he failed to deliver on his promises. Obama has yet to be tested on this issue and may likewise fail to deliver, but at least he understands that the power of faith lies in the action that accompanies it.

Mixing religion and politics must only be done with great care. It is much too easy to fall into the self-serving justification of “God is on our side.” Religious language also has the power to become code to indicate who is in and who is out. But throwing faith out of the public square would silence the prophetic voice that speaks truth to power. As a person of faith, I am compelled not just to care about, but to work for the common good. As a religious leader, I call on all people of faith to join their voices in public debate and not just “talk the talk” but also “walk the walk.”