Dealing with the Butchery of our Consciences

There is too much going on to allow any of us to feel comfortable or safe for more than a few minutes.

There is this ridiculous fight going on in the federal government over funding for a wall on the southern border of the United States. While the fight feels like nothing more or less than a political stunt, it is troubling on many levels, but one of those levels particularly troubling to me is there is no such passion for working to allocate billions of dollars to help Americans who are living in poverty or near poverty.

It is ironic that so many Christians tout the name of Jesus, claiming him and the religious he spawned, as their own. It is as though they have remade him in their image; that, or what we have all read and studied our whole lives is incorrect. They have made him – and therefore Christianity – into a well-to-do white male, the manger story of his birth notwithstanding. Jesus’ family was homeless; he was born into poverty. He was a brown-skinned Palestinian Jew, which thus makes the anti-Semitism of so many Christians so difficult to understand. Were Jesus alive today, he and his family would be in danger of being attacked by angry white “Christian” men.

He was poor and was an advocate for the poor, leading and encouraging the poor to speak up for themselves to demand justice. He practiced free speech, so he believed in it which would have set him up for criticism today. He challenged the system – again something which would have drawn criticism today. I don’t really know what “Conservative” means, but from my reading of the Christian Bible, it does not seem that he identified as the same. He was targeted by law enforcement, scorned because he challenged their authority. He was scorned by members of his own family, which means they probably didn’t have peaceful family gatherings during the Jewish holy days.

He was accused of doing wrong, had what amounted to as a mock trial with a biased judge, was sentenced to death and executed – which means that the person whose birth we celebrate was a convicted felon, someone who would not have been eligible to enter the United States under the current immigration laws and policies.

The irony of the fact that, were he alive today, Jesus would most probably be rejected by the very ones who profess to be Christian is not lost to me. He would not be welcomed or respected by the Congress or by many evangelicals. Wrong religion. Wrong ethnicity. Wrong socio-economic class. And wrong political belief system. He might be called a socialist because of his work for the poor. He would be rejected by most of today’s devout Christians, I am fairly certain.

And yet, modern-day Christians, people who believe in and practice racism and sexism and homophobia and xenophobia and more – brag about their religious affiliation. People who think nothing of ignoring the poor, or of murdering members of the gay community or the Jewish community or the African American community – brag about following one who advocated that we should build community with each other, not walls between us.

Is it possible to proclaim/profess of being a Christian and yet be so unaligned with what the Jesus of the Christian Bible taught? Does it represent a particularly heinous type of hypocrisy to claim a man who taught what many of us are unwilling to do?

In 1965, when the Voting Rights Act was making its way out of the womb of Congress, there was much resistance – by Christians as well as by other religious groups. Christians participated in much of the violence perpetrated against African Americans who wanted to register to vote and then …vote; their hatred was leveled against white allies as well. At one point, as the violence reached a tragic peak in Selma, Alabama as would-be voters tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, then attorney-general Nicholas Katzenbach tried to get Dr. Martin Luther King to cancel a second planned march. Dr. King responded, “I would rather die on the highways of Alabama than to make a butchery of my own conscience.”

With the blatant hypocrisy that exists between the practice of identity politics and Christianity, I wonder if there are many people who see the chasm between what Jesus taught and what they/we practice, and if so if their consciences are bothered, “butchered,” as Dr. King phrased it? Is anyone sitting in remorse and shame for treating people of different races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, genders, religions as objects and not as human beings worthy of being treated with dignity?

Somehow, I don’t think there is much of that; the religion of the “newborn king” has been bastardized by many – of all ethnicities. That being the case, what is our celebration of Christmas really about?

A candid observation …

Official photographic portrait of US President...
Official photographic portrait of US President Barack Obama (born 4 August 1961; assumed office 20 January 2009) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the biggest frustrations I have about being a Christian and using the Bible as my text of reference is that there is no ONE interpretation of the words written in our sacred book.

Peter Gomes, the late chaplain of Harvard University, writes in The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Head and Heart, writes: One of the greatest ironies available to people who take the Bible seriously is that they may be tempted to take it, and themselves, so seriously that God and the truths of God to which the Bible points may be obscured, perverted, or lost entirely.” (p. 35)

He continues by saying that there is a temptation to see, in the Bible, no further understanding of what we see which leads to an “idolatry of scripture.

I thought about that as I read an article this morning on the CNN Belief blog about the religion of President Barack Obama. It seems that there are a fair number of people “out there” who do not think he is a real Christian. They are troubled by what he has said and done and by what he has not said and done. Author John Blake says in the article that many say that the president is the “wrong kind” of Christian.

Talk like that drives me nuts, because I don’t understand what the “right kind” of Christian is. Is the “right” kind of Christian the one who believes that the poor should pull themselves up by their bootstraps even if they have no boots?

Blake says that the president is a “religious pioneer,” who is “challenging the Religious Right‘s “domination of the national stage.” (http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2012/10/21/to-some-obama-is-the-wrong-kind-of-christian/?hpt=hp_c1)  The president is called a “progressive,” but according to clerics quoted in Blake’s piece, many believe that one cannot be Progressive and be a Christian.

The president apparently interprets the scriptures to mean that believers in Jesus are proponents of the social gospel, which compels the  “haves” to assist “the least of these.” But many from the Religious Right think that such a stand is not supported by the Bible and say that interpreting the Gospel to mean that government should help the poor smacks of socialism.

It is mind-boggling to me that all of us who read the Bible can and do walk away with such different and diverse interpretations of the words written, but that’s because I believe that since there’s one God, there is one way of doing things. Since God is love and God has no favorites, then this God would want those who have to help the least of these. That’s social gospel talking, through and through …but it is my interpretation. The Bible is not a mathematical formula; there is no quaint equation that mandates that everyone believe and interpret the same way.

That, for me, is a problem. How can there be one God and so many different ways of interpreting what God requires? And, even bigger than that, why doesn’t God step in and do something so that all the different interpretations will fall to the wayside?

For me, the way the Religious Right has tended to interpret the Bible is not acceptable. The Religious Right’s interpretation of scripture has left too many people out, left too many people marginalized.  That cannot be my conception of God; I could not worship a God who condoned racism, sexism, homophobia, militarism …God has to be better than that, has to demand better than that.

The CNN article says that the president’s article focuses more on community betterment than individual attainment. That, to me, sounds about right, but the people quoted in the article disagree. The attention paid to community and, more specifically, the “beloved community” talked about by Martin Luther King, has a socialist slant.

At the end of the day, though the president has a concern for the masses, and the communities of God’s people, he is still criticized by even those who believe more in the social gospel than in the fundamentalist way of the Religious Right. Many have criticized him for not doing enough for African-Americans, though he would argue that the Affordable Care Act really does address the needs of that community and other marginalized communities by providing them a way to get health care.

Some who have criticized the president for being the “wrong” kind of Christian say that they haven’t heard him say important things, like, for instance, that he was “born again.” They are suspicious of his Christianity because it is informed and influenced by all of the different religions to which he has been exposed.

But I shake my head. The “right” kind of Christian does and says what? The evangelicals I’ve read have not been very kind, not very merciful and certainly not very inclusive. The God I find in the Bible is all of that, and more.

At the heart of the discontent about the president’s religion, again, is the Bible, that marvelous yet troubling text which leaves so much open to individual interpretation. Gomes says in his book that people say “the Bible says what it means and means what it says.”  He quotes Matthew 8:12, where it says the wicked will be cast into outer darkness where “men shall weep and gnash their teeth.” Writes Gomes: “A toothless reprobate asked his hellfire-preaching pastor what would happen to those who had no teeth to gnash: ‘Teeth will be provided,'” was the answer.

The problem is that all of us put our own human, individual interpretations on words that I wish left no room for variable takes. Those who criticize the president for his take on the Bible have their take too. So, who decides who is “right” and who is “wrong?”

There is no answer…there never has been …and there will never be. But I think it’s wrong for any of us to make a judgment call on who is right and who is wrong. At the end of the day, none of us really know.  We can all think we are “right,” but at the end of the day, I have to believe that the God of the Bible is a God of love, mercy, forgiveness, inclusion and kindness, in addition to being an exacting God who demands that we do as S/He has asked us to do.

Just saying ….

A candid observation

Whose Phony Theology?

This morning I heard a news report on “The Today Show”  about the surging poll numbers of GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum. He is apparently appealing to Republican voters who like his socially Conservative views, and is ahead of last month’s front-runner, Mitt Romney, even in Romney’s home state of Michigan.

But I don’t write this because of Santorum’s poll numbers. I write this to challenge Mr. Santorum, Mr. Romney and Mr. Gingrich to be honest politicians, and to win their nomination based on truth and not on sensationalism…AND I challenge news organizations to be honest and accurate as well, seeking truth in reporting and again, not sensational reports that will drive their ratings up.

Peter Alexander did this morning’s report, saying that Santorum is using religion as one of his tools to fight his opponents. We already heard him say that President Obama has a “phony theology,” but Santorum took a jab at the President’s Christianity yesterday, intimating that something may very well be wrong with a man whose pastor was Jeremiah Wright. Said Santorum, “He sat under Pastor Wright for 20 years.”

Enter the now infamous sound bite of Wright saying, “no, no, no, not God bless America. God damn America!” End of clip. As the clip aired, Alexander continued talking, saying that Wright was “forced to resign from his church after making inflammatory remarks.”

My soul fell out of my body. First, the clip…which I will talk about in a minute, but Alexander’s carelessness as a reporter made my blood boil. Pastor Wright did NOT resign; he retired after serving Trinity United Church of Christ for 36 years! In his book, A Sankofa Moment: The History of Trinity United Church of Christ,” Wright writes, “It was during those years between 2001  and 2005  that we began to look earnestly for a pastor to succeed me in leading the flock of God known as Trinity United Church of Christ….We were looking for someone who loved the Lord with all their hearts, their souls and their minds. We did not want anybody coming into the congregation who was playing with the Gospel or playing God’s people, pimping them or trying to get over on them!” (p. 283) The church had a Plan of Succession; his retirement was not new news. Pastor Wright preached his last three sermons at Trinity UCC in February of 2008;  his last Sunday as senior pastor of Trinity UCC was the first Sunday of March, 2008.

The lack of accuracy in Alexander’s reporting is a giant black eye on a news operation which prides itself as being competent and accurate.

But then…that clip. I cringed. There it was again…ten words taken out of context, and done purposely in order to feed into the fear, suspicion …and dislike of President Obama that has never disappeared. From the claim that the president is not American to the charges that he is really a closet Muslim…a non-American, non-Christian, who is in the White House. Santorum is feeding the sharks and he knows it.

That clip came from a sermon, entitled  “Confusing God and Government,” and was actually preached in 2003. In that sermon, Pastor Wright began by asking, “If you were to ask the average Christian, ‘did Jesus cry?’ almost every Christian would quote for you that John 11:35 verse, which most Bible students call the shortest verse in the Bible, “Jesus wept.”

He goes on to tell the story around that particular verse…but then he begins to talk about why Jesus cried, going to the Gospel of Luke, where on Palm Sunday Luke says Jesus wept over the city; “he cried for his people who did not know the things that make for peace.”

Wright says, “He cried for his people because they were blinded by their culture, they were blinded by their conditions, they were blinded by their circumstance, they were blinded by their oppression…” He described a people who in Jesus’ day were oppressed by the Roman government; he said these people were tired of their oppression…they were blinded by the pain of their situation…”

He explains how people get confused: “Let me help you with something,” he said. “The military does not make for peace. The military only keeps the lid on for a little while…War does not make for peace, war only makes for escalating violence and a mindset to pay the enemy back by any means necessary,” a sentiment spoken by preaching greats including William Sloan Coffin and Martin Luther King Jr.

Wright talked about the people in Jesus’ day who wanted a new king but who were blinded by their circumstances, and “it made Jesus cry because they missed the meaning of his ministry.”  He continues to develop this thought, saying in the sermon that people were “confusing external appearances with external power.  People look for a miracle, Wright said, which is “just a sign,” but “the deeds of power point to a God who is greater than any physical limitation, and a God who can overcome any limiting situation…The people under oppression were confusing God and government.”

As he develops his thoughts, he talks about how some Muslims (and he is careful to say “not all Muslims”) confuse God and government who “condone a law condoning killing any and all who do not believe what they believe. They call it ‘jihad.'” He says we in America do the same thing: “we cannot see how what we are doing is the same al-Qaeda is doing under a different color flag, calling on the name of a different God to sanction our murder and our mayhem.”

“We confuse God and government,” he said. He mentions some of the things America has done in the name of God, including oppressing Native Americans and African Americans…”We believe God approved of African slavery.”  He talks about America’s Constitution which assumed men to be “more equal” than women, and he said, “We confuse God and government; we believe God is on the side of the wealthy.”

The place of the wealthy is forever up for discussion. Jesus, in the New Testament, and God in the Hebrew scriptures admonished the wealthy for not caring enough for the poor.  William Sloan Coffin once said “Our nation is going to have quite a lot to say about how tolerable this planet is going to be. And if it’s as hard for a rich individual to get into the kingdom of God as it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, you can imagine what it must be like for a rich nation!”  In other words, the debate about the rights of the rich versus the poor is not new; the chasm between the two has been a subject for prophets and apparently for God from the beginning of time.

In this sermon, Wright makes three points; Governments lie; governments fail, and governments change. He talks about how our government has lied over time “The government lied about Pearl Harbor. They knew the Japanese were going to attack.  Governments lie!  The government lied about the Gulf of Tonkin – they wanted that resolution to get us into the Vietnam War. The government lied about Nelson Mandela and our CIA helped put him into prison and keep him there for 27 years. ..Wright talks about well-documented instances in which the government has lied, but ends that section with “God doesn’t lie.

He then talks about how our government (and others) change. “Long before there was a red, white and blue colonization, the Egyptian government was doing colonization. They colonized parts of the Mediterranean. All colonizers ain’t (sic) white…But while the government of Egypt and Pharaoh ran it, they don’t run a thing today, and why? Because governments change. When the Babylonians carried away the people of promise into exile, the Babylonian government was the baddest government around, but when King Nebuchadnezzar went crazy, his government was replaced by the government of King Belshazzar. King Belshazzar held a great big feast, big banquet, defiled the sacred vessels stolen from the temple in Jerusalem, and a hand appeared.” Here, Pastor Wright describes the writing on the wall translated by Daniel, which said to the king that his government would fail. Governments, Wright said, using the Biblical text, change.

But, he said, “God doesn’t change, quoting Malachi 3:6 which says “…thus says the Lord, and I change not.” God, he repeats, does not change, an affirmation and a comfort to people who need to know that God is a constant, no matter what.

Finally he says governments fail. He talks of how the Roman government fail; the Russian government failed; the British government failed; the Japanese government failed …and the American government failed “when it came to treating her citizens of Indian ancestry fairly, she failed. She put them on reservations. When it came to treating her citizens of Japanese descent fairly, she failed; she put them in internment prison camps. When it came to treating her citizens of African descent fairly, she failed.”

Said Wright: She put them in chains. The government put them in slave quarters, put them on auction blocks, put them in cotton fields, put them in inferior schools, put them in substandard housing, put them in scientific experiments, put them in the lowest paying jobs, put them outside the equal protection of the law, kept them out of their racist bastions of higher education and locked them into position of hopelessness and helplessness. The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing, “God bless America” No, no, no! God damn America! That’s in the Bible, for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating her citizens as less than human. God damn America as long as she keeps trying to act like she is God and she is supreme!”

Governments fail, he says, but God never fails. He asks the congregants to refer to the Bible, where it says people will be cursed for not treating people right; in Deuteronomy 27 and 28, there are extensive lists where Moses explains why people (and nations) will be cursed and why they can and will be blessed. The fall of Jerusalem came about because the people “forsook God,” and the curse was that God allowed the enemies of His own people to topple them. It is not a pleasant message, but it is in the Bible.

I challenge Mr. Santorum to read the sermon, instead of making sneaky comments implying that there is something wrong with the president’s theology because he sat under the teaching of Pastor Wright. One might argue that a theology that allowed for the enslavement of African-Americans, the oppression of women, and the exploitation of workers is phony, too, if the Bible is to be taken into account.

At the end of the day, though there is one God, there are many different theological perspectives. The Rev. Franklin Graham gave a lukewarm acknowledgement that President Obama is a Christian, though he strongly affirmed that Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich are. When pressed by reporters on “Morning Joe” about his thoughts about the president’s faith, he waffled, criticizing the president’s policies which to him seem to be more concerned with protecting Muslims than Christians in places like Egypt. “We are not protecting the minorities,” he said, intimating that a good policy would be one that protected “the minorities,” which, in Egypt, are the Christians.

Yet, in America, many Christians historically have not been all that concerned with protecting its minorities.  So, which theology is “phony?” Which theology is “real,” in Santorum’s view or in Rev. Graham’s?

Rev. Graham said “all I know is that I am a sinner saved by grace.” That is the correct Christian jargon, but saying the words does not a Christian make, and, conversely, NOT saying those words when asked if one is Christian does NOT mean that one is not. Rev. Graham is right: the measure of one’s Christianity is found in the way one lives one’s life. Rev. Graham seems to have problems and issues with the president’s policies primarily in the Middle East, making him apparently doubt the president’s Christian belief claim.

As for NBC, I hope Peter Alexander corrects his error, and I hope all of the news operations are careful to check their facts before they put reports out that will only feed the fears and insecurity of so many people. I don’t feel sorry for politicians who rip each other apart, because those in politics know what they’re getting into, but the press has a duty to get the facts right and care about the lives of people it disrupts and destroys when it is not careful.

A candid observation ….

Somebody Ought to Tell the Truth!

In a front page article written by  Binyamin Appelbaum and Robert Gebeloff which appeared in The New York Times on February 12, a gentleman was described as being

, U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania.
Image via Wikipedia

anti big government. He printed tee shirts for his local Tea Party affiliate, and says he doesn’t need or want help from the government.

Yet, the article said, he gets a payment from the government every year, a subsidy for working families called the “earned income tax credit,”  “he has signed his three school age children up to receive free breakfasts,” paid for the by the federal government, and his mother, who had to have hip surgery twice, is on Medicare – again, a federal program.

This kind of situation is not the exception, but, rather, the rule, and I am finding it harder and harder to listen to GOP presidential contenders talk about how they will slash domestic spending because it represents big government. At the end of the day, politicians are not telling people the truth, but, rather, what they want to hear. The people are not clear on what “big government” is, and politicians are allowing their ignorance to remain, because their lack of knowledge is the pot in which raw emotions fester, and politicians know that many an election has been won by stirring the right pot with the right emotions.

Are people really thinking about what would happen if the host of government benefits we all take so for granted suddenly were not there? What WOULD happen to our elderly if Medicare were no more?  The Times article said that “dozens of benefits programs provided an average of $6,583 for each man, woman and child in 2009, a 69 percent increase since 2000.” The article said that older people get most of the benefits, primarily through Social Security and Medicare. So, if we cut domestic spending, how would “the least of these,” in this case, the elderly, get by?

Rick Santorum said that while Jesus wanted people to help poor people, social justice creates lazy Christians. That statement was stunning in and of itself, but it is disturbing and misleading and leads Americans to visualize “the poor” as lazy and probably members of a minority group. Like it or not, there are certain buzz words that get self-righteous Americans stirred up about who “the American taxpayer” is helping…but what is not being discussed or highlighted is that, again according to the Times article  “the poorest households no longer receive a majority of government benefits.” Now it seems that the doling out of government benefits has been more focused on saving the slowly dying middle class.

There is no doubt that the nation’s economy, in fact, the world’s economy, is in horrible shape.  GOP presidential hopefuls who want to beat President Obama cannot be pleased that the economy seems to be getting better, albeit slowly. That fact takes the wind out of their argument that the Obama administration is a “failed presidency,” but they still beat the drum that the biggest reason, or one of the biggest reasons the economy has pitted is because of big government and reckless government spending.

Somebody needs to be bold and tell the truth about what is going on. Rick Santorum looks like a clean-cut, all-American choir boy, and he stands on his Christianity, but Christianity  i.e., the following of the Christ – demands a social conscience and a heart for “the least of these.” Santorum has not voiced the truth that “the least of these” is a group growing larger and larger as the income disparity between rich and poor gets wider and wider.  William Sloan Coffin once said that what the “Christian community needs to do above all else is to raise up men and women of thought and of conscience…” Merely advocating for slashing of needed government programs, at the expense of people who have been the backbone of this country, providing the labor and services that made wealth possible for so many, would seem to be immoral, unethical …and un-Christian.

Santorum is talking a lot of religion lately, going so far as to say President Obama has a “phony theology.” I do not understand that phrase, but what I do know is that the Jesus in the scriptures I read would not condone the wealthy getting more wealthy while more and more people are falling deeper and deeper into financial ruin, with the threat of what little help they have hanging over their heads.

I cannot believe God is pleased with what is going on.

A candid observation.

 

 

What WOULD Jesus Say?

Sometimes, I find myself wishing Jesus would come to earth for a few days and clear some things up.

He could probably settle a lot of the confusion that swirls around him.

It would be interesting to see how he looked, and what he would say about pictures that have him with that long brown hair.

But mostly, it would be interesting to get his take on what he reportedly said.

This little diatribe comes on heels of my reading a comment on a blog, “Unedited Politics,”  which had put President Obama’s recent speech at the National Prayer Breakfast on his site. One of the comments said something to the effect that Jesus wanted individuals to help poor people, that “social justice makes Christians lazy.”

Seriously?

The person who made the comment  referred to the Biblical passage found in three of the Gospels, where Jesus says to people around him, in response to their ire at a woman anointing his feet with some very expensive oil, that “the poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.” That passage is found in Matthew and John as well.

Someone had apparently lifted that passage of scripture as proof that Jesus is a supporter of social justice, i.e., societies helping the poor, and the writer of the comment took issue, lifting up the “social justice makes Christians lazy” jewel.

That comment has bothered me all day. It reminded me of how the late Strom Thurmond once said, in acknowledging that Jesus advised us to help and love our neighbors, that Jesus would certainly allow us to “choose our neighbors.”

I know from having studied how the words of the Bible have been manipulated in order to keep certain power relationships intact – meaning the Bible’s words have been used to justify sexism, racism, militarism.

But Jesus’ words seem so…obvious. How is it that anyone could think that the words of Jesus do not mandate us to engage in social justice, to take care of each other, the “least of these,” as he said in the Gospel of Matthew?

The late Derrick Bell writes, in Faces at the Bottom of the Well, that racism is permanent, that it will never go away. That is a sad and sobering thought, but if the words of the One who was sent to teach us about the love of God cannot or are not interpreted uniformly, perhaps Bell is right.

I guess it makes no difference that people in the Bible were always under some kind of oppression, so a mandate for social justice would make sense. From the beginning, there was always a “we” and a “them;” oppressors included the Egyptians, the Assyrians, Babylonians,Persians, Greeks and finally, the Romans. In times of prosperity, the people of God would forget their God and go after the pagan gods, trying their best to fit into that society. Always, the oppressors would take economic advantage of the oppressed, but the oppressed, instead of turning back toward the the Hebrew god who had led them through the wilderness, would turn toward those whom they could see and aspire to be like them.

It spelled disaster for God’s people, if the Bible is to be believed.

I have heard people reject what seems to be a god who turned away from his people because of their apostasy, but goodness, is anything in the Bible sacred, beyond convenient translation and interpretation?

If a person can interpret the words of Jesus in such a way that would make social justice not a central part of Jesus’ message, then what is sacred? What WOULD Jesus say?

I wish he’d come for a visit, if just for a few days.

A candid observation …