Wednesday, July 06, 2011

More Justice Questions

I haven't been blogging here much lately as I've been blogging on the Lord's Prayer for Darkwood Brew, so one of my most recent posts was a reaction to the death of Osama bin Laden. In that case I questioned whether justice was served. Part of the difficulty in questions of justice is defining what justice is. It seemed painfully clear to me that what too many people considered a just outcome was nothing more than revenge or retribution. Although many may argue that retributive justice is the model of how God deals with humanity, I reject that notion. Even though the ancient standard of "an eye for an eye" appears to be divinely instituted, I would argue that it was meant as a limit on the more vicious blood feud tendencies in humanity. It breaks my heart to see that in our reaction to the death even of an enemy, as if somehow a scale has been balanced by a death or even that there is such a scale that God oversees. Why should we find any relief in believing that God is causing another to suffer to bring about some sense of a deficient form of justice?

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

Blest Be the Ties that Bind

You never want to have a reason to have a sign like this outside your church BUT if there is a reason (like the tornado that hit our town) then your church is exactly where you want the sign.

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

Was Justice Done?

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 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.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Holy Week Possibilities: Thursday

So who exactly is this Joseph of Arimathea guy? Leaving a body on a cross for the inevitable, gruesome destruction by predators would have been the desire of the Romans, so Joseph must have had some pull to get the body of Jesus off the cross after only three hours. It makes me wonder about how he came to be a disciple of Jesus, and just what kind of follower he was. He seems to be friends with Nicodemus and perhaps they are both on the Sanhedrin. We hear about Nicodemus coming to Jesus in the night (and returning to the darkness after not being enlightened by the encounter) and are told that he was a follower from afar. I don't imagine Jesus courted friends in high places but that he certainly attracted their attention. That is what we should be doing as disciples today; doing the gospel in ways that attracts attention from the powers that be, not for the sake of the attention but in a way that can't help but be noticed.

I'm also pondering the fact that even at the time the theory that Jesus' body was stolen to fake a resurrection was considered more likely than what the followers claimed. It really is more likely that that is what happened, it really does take the suspension of rational thought to accept the story of a bodily resurrection as factual. I'm not saying that it didn't happen, but I am questioning how important it is for me to believe it. Can't I still find salvation through Christ if Jesus' body was stolen and he remained dead? I'm leaning toward answering "yes," but I'm still pondering. More on that later.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Holy Week Possibilities: Wednesday

Today I return to the question about why the Sanhedrin didn't stone Jesus to throw into the mix that there were a whole lot more people around to stir up because it was Passover. Not only were there more Jews who possibly could riot but also a lot more Romans around to watch them. Matthew tells us that there was a cohort present mocking Jesus and that alone is 600 soldiers. So perhaps those other stonings and beheadings simply were "under the radar" for Pilate.

I'm also intrigued by the the trial. We know that Nicodemus was a supporter of Jesus, apparently making sure that there was a trial. Hmmm, so perhaps there was the intent simply to kill Jesus, but one powerful supporter (or possibly two, if Joseph of Arimathea had influence) was able to force at least a show trial. Maybe the Sanhedrin would have made it look like self defense, killing Jesus at Gethsemane during the arrest. That is always the way with bullies isn't it? Still, the form of trial seems to be that there was no one to defend the accused but the accused. Of course, there is a requirement that two witnesses agree so it is more than one person making a false accusation. In this case truth still loses because two people concur. Actually, they do tell the truth, don't they? They say that Jesus said that he would tear down the temple and in three days rebuild it. It is a prime example of the problem of literalism. Jesus was not talking about the actual temple, but neither was he only talking about his body using the temple as a metaphor. It seems clear that he was talking about replacing the corrupt religious practice of his day with a new path of spirituality. In many ways that is exactly what we should be seeking during this Holy Week now.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Holy Week Possibilities: Tuesday

So what if we really took the parable of the Last Supper seriously? What if we realized every time we took the bread and cup that we are just like the disciples who shared that meal with Jesus? Jesus washed their feet so that they would understand service to others that involves making them clean too. Our instructions are to go out and share this good news. "You are going to hell, repent" is not exactly good news, but "God loves you and wants you to be clean and fed, both physically and spiritually...and I'm hear to help that happen," now THAT'S good news.

And we have this power because we have the Holy Spirit, the divine spark, inside us. Jesus made sure we understood that by taking bread and drink and reminding us that when we take that into us it becomes part of us. So when we decide for God and God's way, we have God inside us. So what are we waiting for? Do you expect something more powerful than God?

As this week goes on I continue to struggle with the sacrifice part of all of this. I have a friend who prepares a vegetarian Seder. I like the idea that the lamb doesn't need to be sacrificed. Is is possible that Jesus argued that point with God, i.e. no more sacrifice? Could it be that like Abraham and Moses that Jesus had the chutzpah to argue with God to change plans? It would be fitting, and it raises interesting possibilities to ponder.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Holy Week Possibilities: Monday

Did Jesus run into trouble because the religion of his day was corrupt? There is no hard evidence in the Bible, but there are hints. Surely the money changers were corrupt, cheating people with unfair exchanges, or at least that is what is implied. But how did the money changers get there in the first place? The religious leaders must have allowed it. Why didn't they police the situation? I can imagine Jesus being irate not only at the money changers but at those with the power in the system who turned a blind eye, or worse. Of course, when you hit someone in the wallet then they will really pay attention, that must have been as true 2000 years ago as it is today.

I've also been wondering about the consequence of angering the authorities for Jesus. It seems that capital punishment was not limited to the Romans during this occupation since the woman caught in adultery was about to be stoned. On top of that, John the Baptist was beheaded without Roman intervention, and Saul had the authority of the Jewish leaders to kill Christians after Jesus' death. So this begs the question, "why didn't the Sanhedrin execute Jesus themselves after convicting him of blasphemy?" My answer is that they were being clever. If they could get Pilate to have him killed then if Jesus' followers rose up in violence it would be against Rome instead of them. If it ended with the followers disbanding then they get what they want anyway. But perhaps there is more at work here. It is interesting to ponder.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Holy Week Possibilities: Sunday

Jesus' disciples continuously failed to grasp and/or believe what he told them. He let them know that he was going to Jerusalem in order to die, but they didn't seem to do much to stop him. What if you had been there? Would you have refused to go find the donkey like he instructed or was it more loving to help him accomplish the task he had before him? It would have been so easy to get caught up in the hoopla of the day, letting the light of celebrity reflect a little off of me. It would have been easy to convince myself that this man who could raise the dead would be safe, could take care of himself. But in those quiet moments, like at dinner when Mary annointed him with costly ointments as if he were already dead, I can imagine my heart breaking. These few in the inner circle had to have been intimate friends, how could the idea of their best friend and leader dying been anything less than earth-shattering? Knowing what lies ahead, whether through Jesus' prediction or via hindsight, heightens the drama of the week just begun.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Choosing Religion

We all make choices that reflect what we have faith in. We borrow and lend in faith. We plan our futures in faith that important things will remain predictable. We have faith that 2+2 will always equal 4 and that things we drop will never go up instead of down.

And then there are more ephemeral beliefs such as faith in the basic goodness of others or that it is right to treat others as you would want to be treated. It is by no means necessary to hold religious beliefs to create a belief system consisting of faith statements whether organized or disjointed. So some of us will attempt to organize our beliefs in line with traditions that we receive, while others will attempt to create systems ex nihilo, and indeed, some will not care about order and simply live by the beliefs they find necessary.

I've gotten to the point in my life where I am much more interested in learning from others about how and why their beliefs matter than trying to convince others that my beliefs are superior. That may be surprising, coming as it does from a religious professional. I have chosen religion because I find it easier to hone my own beliefs by comparing and contrasting them to the collective wisdom of centuries of tradition. That doesn't mean that I don't believe in the evolution of belief. The gift of tradition is that I don't have to reinvent the wheel. I also don't have to take it on as a burden. Rather, it is a tool that I can use to shape the particular beliefs that will get me through my journey.

I am a theist because my personal experience requires it. I spent time trying to deny the existence of God. I found a frightening empty place within my being when I did that. I know that there is a God...and that is about the total extent of what I can say with certainty. I also admit that it is my reality, your mileage may vary. Still, given the profound nature of my own experience, I believe that this power that I name God exists apart from me and therefore is real for everyone. Unfortunately, religion has done a lot to give God a bad name, so I don't blame people for rejecting what they think they are supposed to call God. I much prefer the wisdom of the twelve-step programs that insist that recovery necessitates the belief in a higher power, whatever that means for the individual. At its best, religion is about getting us out of ourselves and into community. That is also religion at its core.

It is also clear that we are beings that rely on ritual. We all do repetitive acts that connect us with others and place us in a historical context. Whether it is blowing out candles on a birthday cake or taking a bit of bread and grape juice on a Sunday in a church, we value ritual. Different religions provide different rituals, I'm not going to suggest that some are superior to others. But again, my personal decision is to practice Christianity, not because it is the only path to truth, but because it is the one that I know best. It simply seems foolish to pursue another path when this one is so ingrained in me. That is why I feel so sorry for those who reject religion because they have been damaged by it. Theirs is a longer path because they must do so much work on their own. Where I am comfortable using religious language to describe my spirituality, they must create new language and understandably hear my language in the context of their pain.

Still, I desire to be in community with all who seek to apply belief to living, because that should always be our aim in life. I admit that religious institutions have too often worked more to preserve their existence than to be relevant change agents for the betterment of the world. That in itself is a decent argument for atheism. But in the end, I am sure that those of us who take time to ponder how to live ethical lives can gain strength in being in conversation and community. Knowing that I can never fully describe the being I call God since God is necessarily greater than my limited ability to comprehend, I am content to say simply that God is love. Logically then, love is God. Isn't that a simple enough place for us to begin our conversation? And, yes, it is also mind-blowing when you stop to consider it.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Violent Solutions

One more time our nation is attempting to end violence with violence. It is indeed horrendous what the Libyan government is doing to its own people. It is right that the world responds. If there is to be military intervention, at least there is a group in the country requesting the support and the response is coming from the UN. While this is better than the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, that will come as little comfort to the victims of this violence. At the same time as the governments of Yemen and Bahrain (with help from Saudi Arabia) are inflicting violence on their people, the world community must either explain its double standard or commit to even more violence. The tragic slippery slope of violence threatens to take us all to our doom. It is well past time to declare that "violent solution" is an oxymoron. BlogBooster-The most productive way for mobile blogging. BlogBooster is a multi-service blog editor for iPhone, Android, WebOs and your desktop