Friday, December 21, 2012

Take the Gun Out of Jesus' Hand

When The National Rifle Association executive vice president Wayne LaPierre blames the violence being peddled as entertainment as a contributing factor to the mass casualty shootings we have seen, I must agree.  When he points to our woeful lack of services for mentally ill people as another factor, I again agree.  But my agreement ends with his statement, ‘‘the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.’’

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

Dogma, Doctrine and Sangama

The recent article by NY Times columnist, Ross Douthat proclaiming the impending death of the liberal church has sparked a lively response. Notably, Diana Butler Bass replied with numbers that argue that the entire church is in a dive with the left wing being the first to droop. But she also proclaims the good news that a new Great Awakening is in the offing. As a former Evangelical and a former liberal (more on that below) I have seen the decline from different angles with different lenses. But since I believe in resurrection I affirm that death has lost its power, so I accept death that makes way for life, and I believe that new life is indeed emerging.

The first thing that I hope will die is the false dichotomy of left and right. I don't believe that the divide is purely theological. Bass laments that too often our only choice in church is between “intelligence on ice or ignorance on fire.” Shifting the focus to the balance between head and gut gets closer to the heart of the matter. Prescribing specific beliefs that must be held in black or white starkness while maintaining a strict behavioral code does have its appeal. It feels good to know that in arguments you can be certain that you are right and as distasteful as it is, feeling holier than thou does feel good. You likely read that sentence with “the other” in mind, I know that I am tempted to do that all the time. But there is the problem. Both left and right can can be cold and stark in expectations. For the purpose of discussion, let's call this dogma; holding the belief that questioning certain beliefs is a questionable act. Evangelicals risk the dogmatism of reading the Bible in only one way that can only be understood correctly when God provides the insight. When liberals dogmatically support the cause du jour through peer pressure to always do justice they risk becoming a mile wide but only an inch deep. The other element to consider is doctrine. For this discussion that will mean any belief set, systematic or not, whether comprehensive or just an isolated piece. While Evangelicals are more likely to risk turning doctrine into dogma, Liberals too often have been overcautious around doctrine to the point that they risk having none. So while it may be true that left will benefit by adding more gut and the right more head, the real shift that I think I am seeing is a move from dogmatism toward a passionate and multi-doctrinal spirituality.

I spent many years in ministry to homeless and and hungry people based in a church. We were clear that there would be no religious litmus test for our services and that we wouldn't require anyone in need to be subjected to pressure to believe what we believed. We were motivated by our doctrine, putting our faith into action, but we resisted dogma. We also couldn't do it alone, so we regularly put out the call to the community for assistance. We found that it didn't matter if a person was a fundamentalist charismatic, an unabashed pagan or raging atheist, they all were compelled by their diverse beliefs to show kindness to neighbors in need. I also learned in that time that our very different faiths could find no way to worship together through seeking the least common denominator since we had so little in common. On the other hand, when we learned to welcome the diverse expressions of our deeply held faiths we had rich common experiences. The lesson learned is that diverse doctrines can lead to unity but exclusive dogma will always divide. And now it is the practices of acceptance and doing justice in the world that are leading Evangelicals into post-Evangelicalism and liberals into post-liberalism and together joining in what Eric Elnes calls Convergence Christianity.

Take the issue of homosexuality as an example. There are post-Evangelicals who are finding that they don't have to abandon the doctrine of the inerrancy of scripture in order to follow Jesus in abandoning judgment. There are post-liberals who are passionately proclaiming the scriptural call to radical hospitality. In worship, post-liberals are embracing creative arts and expression in new ways and post-Evangelicals are more engaged with questions. The great secret that we had forgotten is that especially around issues of ethical practice we have always had more in common than we liked to admit when we were defining ourselves in opposition to the other. We must abandon, as Chris Heuertz says, our false centers. When we define the so-called other by how they differ from us we place ourselves at the center and the person or group described at the margins. We must acknowledge the truth that Christ alone is at the center and that we all share the margins. We all benefit from less certainty and more humility.

The use of the past tense may be prematurely optimistic, yet some of us are feeling the Holy Spirit like a wild goose moving among us now in this way. Convergence Christianity is like the confluence of two great rivers. When a confluence occurs between two strong rivers they may flow together for miles in the new river still distinguishable as the mingling to create the new takes place. Perhaps it is a temperature difference that makes one bit of water flow over the other, or salinity or turbidity or any number of factors. It is clear that the post-Evangelical and post-liberal tributaries off the Evangelical and liberal rivers are nothing if not strong and very different. So we may be so strongly within the tradition we are flowing out of that we don't recognize that we are rushing side-by-side with the other tradition as we converge into an emerging Christianity that is God's way of helping us all to be more spiritual and less religious (at least in the way we have been). Hindus have long understood the power of confluence, which they call Sangama. The point of confluence of three rivers, called a Triveni Sangam, is a holy place where one bathes to remove sins. One such Triveni Sangam, in Allahabad has two physical rivers Ganges, Yamuna, and the invisible or mythic Saraswati River. Perhaps we will learn the wisdom of welcoming an unseen river in our confluence, welcoming the Holy Spirit to co-mingle among us that Jesus' prayer may become real among us, “that they all may be one.”

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

The Death of the Prodigal Son

What if the story of the prodigal son had a different ending? What if when the younger son came home the father said to him “you are dead to me.” Would it still be a story of redemption and salvation? Yes it would. But, you object, the younger son would then have nothing, complete and abject poverty and no family and no hope of help, how can that be salvation? The exile that the younger son experienced, he brought on himself. He was separated from his true self, the one who was son and brother, loved and cared for. He instead chose to leave all that in order to get what he thought he wanted. Maybe he even thought he would find himself in all of the sex and drugs and rock & roll. And perhaps he did. He found rock bottom, complete exile, total emptiness. How is that a gift? It is a gift because of what happened for him at the end of the journey; he came to himself. When he came to himself, he began a new journey, the journey home where he offered his confession of sin. And THAT was his redemption and salvation. He gave himself the gift of removed burden by simply putting it down. He gave himself the gift restored relationship by putting himself in the position where he restored the part of the relationship that he could, his. He came to himself, he looked in the mirror and saw the truth, and ugly as it was, he accepted it...and found his salvation.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Whose God Is It Anyway?

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.