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An Offense to the World

January 31st, 2015 No comments

The bible is clear and consistent in its call for sacrificial discipleship. Jesus calls his followers (as joined together in the Body of Christ), to make disciples of all nations (Mt. 28:19). He calls his followers to do this at the cost of forsaking the comforts of personal property and prestige and even family relations (Mk. 10:29Lk. 14:26Mt. 10:37). He calls on his followers to love as he loves (John 13:34-35), which cannot point to anything less radical than the cross. He calls them to take up their cross and follow him (Mt. 16:24). He calls them to be perfect (Mt. 5:48). He never calls his people to comfortable compromise with the world.

I have here barely scratched the surface of the hundreds of places in scripture where God’s chosen people are called to radical and sacrificial living in favor of justice, righteousness, love, and the gospel. How can anyone who is called to be “born again,” (Jn. 3:3) to forsake all and be “crucified with Christ” (Gal. 2:20) so that they might rise to new life in Christ, believe that he demands any less?

The Spirit filled gospel community living out God’s commands will stand out from the world. In fact it is an offense to the world, which is precisely what Jesus predicted (Mt. 10:16-2334-39Jn. 15:18-19). Jesus does bring peace, but it is not a false, compromising, comfortable peace (Jn. 14:27), rather assurance and contentment in the midst of persecution (Phil. 4:11-13). And God does not call us to be quiet, he calls us to proclaim the gospel, as much with our lives as our words. And that will always be a radical act that requires courage.

Today’s traditional church does not believe this, and does not want to live this. That is where the contemporary church departs from the authenticity of the gospel and surrenders to the surrounding culture. It is lack of authenticity that post-moderns reject, not Christ or the gospel. People who are drawn to the gospel of Christ are not satisfied with Christianized pep talks about how to be successful by the world’s standards. And the last thing today’s churches need is a cadre of well-meaning but apparently theologically ignorant leaders justifying the status quo by trying to make Christians “comfortable.” Christians do not need to be comforted; they are too comfortable already. They need to be shaken awake, and this requires recognizing that the gospel centered life is a radical one, by the world’s standards.

N**ger Jokes

January 29th, 2015 No comments

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When I was a youngster growing up in the South I was exposed from my father to something called “N**ger” jokes. It was one of the ways that whites used to reassure themselves of their superiority, cementing Jim Crow both in law and spirit. The humor in these jokes was in the portrayal of black people as stupid, lazy, dishonest, lecherous, and of little value as human beings. By example I learned that they were funny, and that telling them was a good way to socialize.

I was born in 1955 so I came of age during the Civil Rights era. But as a child the momentous changes the nation was experiencing meant nothing to me. I grew up in an age of terrible conflicts ignited by race, but I was insulated from them beyond what I could see and not understand on the television news. Stupid people burning down their own neighborhoods, as my father would remark. Though whites and blacks lived side by side in the South, they might as well have lived in different worlds. I came through my teenage years and into early adulthood saddled with the burden of an inherited racism I didn’t even know I possessed.

When I was 18 I joined the Navy. The tensions that were tearing the nation apart were reflected in the armed services and the Navy took steps to ensure that military efficiency would not be compromised because of issues of race. One result was that I was compelled to attend a number of classes and workshops aimed at addressing race that my civilian contemporaries probably were not. So when I left the military in my late twenties, though my heart was not integrated, I at least knew that I could no longer be openly and publicly racist. I could still tell N**ger jokes to my white friends, but I had to be careful.

I do not know why but in the late eighties I read a book titled We Are Not Afraid about the murder of Civil Rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner in Mississippi in 1964. This is the case that was portrayed, not completely accurately, in the 1988 Gene Hackman film “Mississippi Burning.” Reading this book transformed me because it’s not really focused on the case but on the Civil Rights Movement in general, with the case as a backdrop. And it was only then, in the late eighties, that I became aware of what the Civil Rights Movement was really about.

Reading that book motivated me to read other works about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement, and as I learned more about the injustices that many people endured and their heroic efforts to overcome them, I acquired a profound appreciation for the Civil Rights Movement and the necessity of seeing my black brothers and sisters as equals. And I came to see that the racism that had been instilled in me as a child still plagued me, that the wall of separation in my heart between myself and others based on skin color was still very much intact. But as I recognized it was there, I also recognized it was wrong. I had to deliberately acknowledge my own racist impulses and denounce them, in word and deed.

I was in my thirties when I realized I could no longer tell N**ger jokes. I could no longer tell them because they weren’t funny, and because they were symptoms of a great evil in our society, and by telling them I was perpetuating that evil. Though I wasn’t much more than a nominal Christian then, I knew too that the racism represented in those jokes was a great sin in God’s eyes. In the bigger picture I had come a pretty far distance from the racism I had been raised in, but even then I was still not really a champion of racial justice. I know this now because, looking back, I can see that while I personally would no longer tell N**ger jokes, I would remain silent when others did, giving my assent to the practice by my failure to speak.

In honesty I am not sure that anyone can completely overcome racism once infected with it. I think it is more likely than not that the ways I relate to black people today still are tainted by racism which I try mightily not to act out. But I am sure that someone who was once so soaked in racism that they could not even recognize it as wrong can learn to respect and speak out for the dignity and humanity of those he once held in casual contempt. I know this because that is my experience. And though I cannot claim to be race blind as I would like to be, my attempts to act as if I were are genuine.

Racism is one way of making a distinction between ourselves and whole populations of others. It is blind, inaccurate, and based on stereotype. Racism doesn’t see people as individual reflections of the image of God; racism categorizes people in a way that presents as the norm the worst attributes of what may be the tiniest minority. Racism is a lens over our perception that causes us not to see the humanity of the other, but a monstrous caricature. By stripping individuals of their human identity we relegate them to a mass. With racist eyes we can no more detect the differences between individuals of the “other” than we can differences between cockroaches. And as they are all ugly, they are all enemies, and deserving of whatever contempt, scorn, ridicule, oppression, and even violence we can visit upon them.

There are other ways of dividing people that are just as destructive. Hitler tapped into an ancient and vicious anti-Semitic strain in Europe to identify Jews as the great enemy of Germany. The British were able to capitalize on a centuries-old animosity between Hindus and Muslims to divide the population of the Indian subcontinent in a cynical attempt to prolong their colonial rule. In Ireland, Protestants and Catholics define each other as enemies and viciously attack each other in the name of the Prince of Peace. The Japanese before World War 2 saw themselves as racially superior to other Asians and practiced a degrading racism against Koreans, Chinese, and others. And let us not forget the famous observation of U.S. General Philip Sheridan, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” There is much more to this practice of setting people apart than skin color.

Today is the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz Nazi concentration camp by Allied troops. Many of the remaining survivors are gathering there to remember their experience. There is a solemnity about remembering because when we remember the joy and triumph of liberation we must also remember the evil that these few were liberated from. The death camps reveal the depths of human depravity. And although after the war Germans pretended they didn’t know what had happened, they knew. And they acquiesced. And by their acquiescence they became accomplices.

We will do well to remember that the Nazis didn’t invent anti-Semitism. Rather, they tapped into a well of race prejudice that already existed – that had existed for centuries. They tapped into something seemingly innate that wants to lift ourselves over others. The familiar attitude of racial superiority, the kind that manifests itself in the likes of N**ger jokes, paved the way for the horrific final solution. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of the few Christian theologians who spoke out against the Nazi Jewish Laws: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

I am writing this because in spite of all the pain and destruction and horror that has been experienced by all kinds of people throughout history based on this casual dehumanization of the other, we continue to practice it. We are still telling N**ger jokes. And even if we, personally don’t, if we see it and don’t speak against it, we promote it. While on the one hand we are quick to denounce the Nazis and the KKK, on the other we still rush to affirm an easy prejudice against those who are culturally different.

If our collective criminal history (no group is guiltless) teaches us anything, it is that we must learn to recognize the humanity of each individual, no matter how lost they may seem. We must condemn the acts of criminals but we must at the same time affirm the dignity and humanity of each and all who are not criminals, as we demand for ourselves.

When we take the time to get to know the other as people, we will discover that each of them is flawed, as we are, but also that each of them bears the image of God, as we do. We will find there is more that unites us than divides us. What unites us are the things that are real; what divides us are the things that are added on. When we come to know this, we will begin to see that we are all brothers and sisters. And that not only can we no longer tell N**ger jokes, we must not tolerate them.

 

 

Tossing Tea and Stealing Dishes

January 25th, 2015 No comments

If we don’t know our history, we can’t know when we’re being lied to about it.

As a college history professor it is my sometimes unpleasant duty to inform students that they have been misled about history. In fact, I try to impress on them that for this reason alone it is essential for citizens of a democracy not only to know basic facts about history but also to know basic methods of historical investigation. Because if you don’t know history anyone can lie to you about history, and you won’t know any better. And if you don’t know how to determine if something is true, you can be fooled. And the go-to strategy for office seekers is to appeal to popular but false assumptions about history.

It is only fair to mention at the outset that anyone who can get away with this will. No “side” in our political discourse is innocent. But here I’m going to focus on just one group so that we can see how the principle can be applied elsewhere. Here I will briefly examine the so-called Tea Party because of its unconcealed resort to historical fiction in seeking to define its public image.

Let’s start with the name. When you think about “tea party,” as an even moderately educated American citizen you think of the Boston Tea Party. That event was a revolutionary act in 1773 by some of the colonists of Massachusetts against what they felt was an unfair and burdensome tax laid upon them by the British Parliament. Those people who would support the American Revolution that this event contributed to would come to be known as “patriots.” So those who participated in the “Tea Party” are associated with the original “Patriots.” In our collective imagination patriots are virtuous and heroic freedom fighters. Get it? The contemporary Tea Party is so called to claim the image of heroic and valiant patriots fighting for freedoms won in the Revolutionary War, which have somehow been lost.

As in many other things the Tea Party is not subtle about this symbolism. Their web site observes, “The Tea Party includes those who possess a strong belief in the foundational Judeo-Christian values embedded in our great founding documents.”[1] There is no explicit mention of what these founding documents are, although they go on to say, “We stand by the Constitution as inherently conservative.”[2] I think it would be safe to assume that the Declaration of Independence should be included as well. So we have the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

At the start we begin to encounter historical difficulties. The committee of the Continental Congress charged with authoring the Declaration of Independence included Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. Neither Franklin nor Adams believed that the document was of very great importance, so they left the bulk of the writing to the young and vocally less articulate Jefferson while they participated in the seemingly more important business of the Congress. Both Adams and Franklin, but especially Franklin, were instrumental in editing the document to reflect a less explicitly Christian tone in the final draft than Jefferson originally wrote.

If you are a Tea Party sympathizer my guess is that last statement produced a strong negative reaction. But the fact of the matter is that none of these three authors were what most people would today consider Christians. Both Jefferson and Franklin were Deists, and Adams was a Unitarian. Deist philosophy assumes a God who created the universe and put it in motion and then receded from its day to day affairs, particularly the affairs of humans. Like a clock maker who crafted a clock, wound it up and left it to run on its own. There was no concept of Christ as savior nor was the Bible considered sacred. Reason was the foundation of the created order. Later in his life Jefferson would rewrite the Bible to remove any reference to supernatural occurrences because they offended his belief in the rational certainty of Reason.

So when the document he largely authored refers to the Creator, as in “they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights,” the Creator they are referring to is this Deist Creator, not the Elohim who acts in the first verse of Genesis.

Further, the document itself doesn’t reflect Judeo Christian values. Given that its authors were among the leading figures of the European Enlightenment (or, “Age of Reason”), it reflects the values of those who elevated Reason over faith. There is some controversy about origins but a simple reading of the Declaration of Independence alongside Enlightenment Philosophe John Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government will reveal an uncanny resemblance; in places it seems almost to be plagiarized.

So, for example, when the document affirms that “all men are created equal,” the idea proposed by Locke is that all men are created equal in the state of nature (hence the term natural rights), a theoretical Eden that existed before men began acquiring property. Humans are all equal in that they may all mix their labor with anything unowned to create private property. But the acquisition of property creates inequality. Those who have property have need to defend it, so they institute civil government to do so.

The main idea here is that government is instituted by property owners to defend the property rights of property owners. Chapter VI of Locke’s Treatise equates “liberty” with property. This is the liberty the revolutionaries had in mind when they wrote the Declaration of Independence. Did you ever wonder why, in the beginning of the American republic and indeed most of the democratic movements of the Atlantic world in this era, voting was limited to property owners? It is not only because of racism and male chauvinism that participation in government was limited to white males; it was primarily because only white males could own property, and only property owners were thought to need government protection.

The key to the link between the Declaration and Locke is in chapter XIX of the Treatise, which describes a situation where a government that has been instituted to protect property fails to do so, and in fact becomes a threat to property rights. This is what the American colonists believed to be the case with the imposition of the Tea Act in 1773 and other acts of Parliament before and after. By so doing, according to Locke’s (and the colonists’) reasoning, the government put itself into a state of war with those who created it, who were left with recourse only to force and violence to dissolve and destroy it and institute a new government, which would perform the only purpose for which governments are created: the protection of private property. A reading of the Declaration alongside chapter XIX of the Treatise can’t fail to make this connection crystal clear.

It is true that over the course of the American Revolution the focus of the struggle shifted from property rights to individual freedoms, more like what we today would consider liberty. But one of the ironies of history is that the first time this idea appears in a founding document is in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen of the French Revolution in 1789, which states “all men are born and remain free and equal.” In Locke’s reasoning, all are born equal, but are made unequal by the acquisition of property. By the end of the American Revolution many of the revolutionary leaders had become more radical in their ideas about freedom and the meaning of the revolution. But this radicalism would have been unknown to those who dumped British tea into Boston harbor.

All of which leads to the conclusion that the subject of the Declaration of Independence is principally property rights. There is no appeal to Judeo-Christian values in the Declaration of Independence.

So then, what about the Constitution? I find it exceedingly odd that there is such a strong belief in the historical fantasy that the United States is a “Christian” nation when its blueprint, the Constitution, the document that actually defines the United States, contains no reference at all to religion as it was originally written. This was not by accident but by design. The Constitution is, more than anything else, a codification of principles of the Age of Reason, which itself was a rejection of the Judeo Christian worldview. Does it not seem at least interesting that the only reference to religion in the entire document, in the First Amendment, prohibits the establishment of a state religion and the creation of restrictions on the free exercise of religion? Where do we get “Christian” nation from this?

The most common response is to cherry pick certain quotes of the founders and other leaders in the early republic that call upon Christian virtues and make them central to their ideas about public life. And I won’t deny that American culture in the beginning, and diminishing slowly over time, was drenched in the Judeo Christian worldview. Christianity was foundational, ontological. People holding the Christian worldview had every right to their beliefs and values and to practice them in the public sphere. That is what the secularism of the Constitution envisioned. But that doesn’t make the United States a “Christian” nation it makes it a secular one. Later manifestations of Enlightenment secularism, in France and in Latin America for example, would become more radical, more vocally and even violently anti-Christian. But the secularism of the United States Constitution ensures religious toleration, without sectarian affiliation.

So much for the “foundational Judeo-Christian values embedded in our great founding documents.”

Let’s go back to the name of the group: the Tea Party. There is a general statement on the Tea Party web site that says about its founding, “Many claim to be the founders of this movement; however, it was the brave souls of the men and women in 1773, known today as the Boston Tea Party, who dared to defy the greatest military might on earth.”[3]

Well, let’s look at who these “brave souls” might have been. As nearly as we can tell, they were all men.[4] They identified with a colonies wide loose association of activists opposed to Crown taxation known as the “Sons of Liberty.” This was not a formal organization and most often when it acted in public it did so as an unorganized mass. Their motto became “No taxation without representation,” reminding us that their issue was taxes. If freedom was involved, it was freedom from having to pay taxes to the Crown. It should be noted that many people desired relief from taxation, but those who favored radical action and independence and associated with the Sons of Liberty were in the minority even after the Declaration of Independence.

We can get a feel for the kind of organization this was by considering some of the other actions they were involved in. In New York, the Sons of Liberty provoked the British administration by erecting “liberty poles,” which British soldiers would tear down as soon as they appeared. The back and forth between putting them up and tearing them down resulted in several street battles over many years and consequently many injuries and some deaths. In Boston the Sons of Liberty burned the local stamp collector in effigy and then burned down his house. Not content with this, they also broke into, ransacked and destroyed the home of the Lieutenant Governor and stole his dishes. They were also responsible for the destruction of other property including the burning of the ship HMS Gaspee in 1772. Please notice that all of these actions occurred before the Declaration of Independence, which means that today they would more than likely be categorized as acts of terrorism.

In our desire to emphasize the righteousness of our revolutionary cause we tend to overlook these uncomfortable truths. But the Sons of Liberty the contemporary Tea Party wants to associate with were far from the God fearing middle class Christians they want us to believe they are. The actions of the Sons of Liberty more often than not were mob actions. Boston in 1773 more resembled Ferguson than Pleasantville. And the Tea Partiers of 1773 were on the wrong side of the law. Today’s Tea Partiers would no doubt be assaulting them mercilessly with Facebook memes. Today’s Tea Partiers, more than likely, would then have been called Tories.

I’m not going to comment on whether any of the Tea Party’s ideas are good or bad. My point here isn’t to engage the Tea Party in political dialog but to point out how the image of virtuous and heroic patriots standing up for God and country against tyranny doesn’t quite square with the historical reality of the American revolutionary era.

History matters. And as much as we may hate to admit it, accurate history, and the ways to determine accuracy, must be learned from professional historians, not political hacks. If we don’t know our history, we can’t know when we’re being lied to about it.

 

[1] “About Us,” teaparty.org, 2015, accessed January 24, 2015, http://www.teaparty.org/about-us/#sthash.JwwDNojv.dpuf.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “List of Tea Party Participants,” Old South Meeting House, http://www.oldsouthmeetinghouse.org/history/boston-tea-party/list-participants (accessed January 24, 2015).

NYT: For Auschwitz Museum, A Time of Great Change

January 24th, 2015 No comments

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A profound reminder of what can happen when we divide “us” from “them.”

Let us never forget.

For Auschwitz Museum, A Time of Great Change

Never Wrestle with a Pig

January 22nd, 2015 No comments

Some Personal Reflections on Posting on Social Media

Here are some practical guidelines I have learned over the years to try to make social media a positive experience. I try to practice these myself. Most of them I’ve learned from painful experience.

  • If you don’t have anything positive to say, don’t say anything.
  • Share things that others will be interested in. Nobody cares about what you ate for lunch or when you brush your teeth.
  • Check the sources on the things you share. Only share things from reputable sources. “internetkooks.com” is not a reputable source.
  • Don’t share things you know are not true unless you make that clear.
  • Do the best you can to make sure what you share is true. If you don’t know, make sure people know you don’t know. Are you really sure Phil Gramm is a Martian?
  • Don’t get caught up in media hype. Don’t validate the adage: “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. And a social media overreaction.” The “media” manufactures outrage to sell toothpaste.
  • Share things that educate. Share things that might make others’ lives easier or safer, or might inspire them, or might encourage them to think about things in a different way. Challenge people, but don’t insult them.
  • Only correct people if you know you’re right and only if the correction will make a positive difference. Everybody missspells things.
  • Don’t insult other people’s politics or religion. Nobody ever changed their political views or religious beliefs based on a Facebook meme. If you post a meme that shows Nixon dancing naked with Mao you might get a lot of “likes,” but have you really added anything worthwhile to the marketplace of ideas?
  • Some things are cute and some things are funny. But remember who your audience is. If you’re like me, you have a lot of friends with different backgrounds. What one group finds cute or funny others might not get. That’s what private groups are for.
  • Pointing out the flaws of others reflects badly on the one doing the pointing.
  • Exaggeration only weakens your argument.
  • I will post things that are religious because faith is a very important in my life. But I know many of my Facebook friends are not religious or practice different faiths so I try to post things that are both uplifting and reflect positively on the gospel. That doesn’t mean sugar coating or misrepresenting the gospel, but if my life doesn’t make the gospel seem attractive, how can I expect non-believers to be drawn to it? If I believe that the good news is good news then my aim ought to be to demonstrate how good it is.
  • I don’t expect non-Christians to agree with or adhere to Christian standards, and I’m not affected by whether they expect me to do the same with theirs. I think that’s what “coexist” means, and there’s no better place to practice it than Facebook.
  • I will respond to genuine disagreement in a civil manner, but I don’t respond to either direct or indirect offensive criticism of my beliefs. If someone’s offensiveness challenges my beliefs, they weren’t very well founded in the first place. “I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.” – George Bernard Shaw
  • “Liking” something is not the same as doing something.

I hope this adds something positive. It’s not really comprehensive but you get the gist. If you don’t “like” the list, I won’t be offended.

“Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

A Day to Look Forward

January 19th, 2015 No comments

We celebrate Martin Luther King Day as a day of remembrance but also appropriately as a day of service. Rev. King devoted his life to service and gave his life in service. I’ve recently heard it said that his life has been reduced to just four words: “I have a dream.” Those are wonderful words from a wonderful speech but there was much more to King than the quest for civil rights for black people. Some of it is laudable, and some regrettable. To quote King, “So it goes.”

But even if the only thing we know about King is the Civil Rights Movement, and even if the only thing we ever heard him say was the black and white recording of the “I Have a Dream” speech, we have been given enough to know that King’s dream was not just for black people, and not just for the past. King’s dream was in fact the consummation of God’s plan of redemption and the final triumph of God’s Kingdom. King knew that this was a promise for the future, for the end of all things, but he also knew that striving to realize it is the mission of God’s Church today. So to fully understand the man you have to go beyond the commodified civic hero into the gospel.

Rev. King was and remained a minister of the gospel. As such, his focus was on the reversal of the curse of Eden. His calling was to obey God’s demand for justice, righteousness, and love: for all, but especially for the poor, the oppressed, the dispossessed, the outcast, and the stranger. In the “I Have a Dream” speech we hear a call for the brotherhood of all Americans of every race and creed, and if we go beyond this single moment in his life to his larger work we see him as a champion of all people, from black Americans to Vietnamese peasants. Probably without realizing it, the Nobel Prize committee affirmed the appeal of the gospel in action when they bestowed on King the Peace Prize.

While it is fitting that the commemoration of Martin Luther King’s life should be a day of service, it must be more than that. It must be a day of atonement. I fear there is a tendency to lull ourselves into satisfaction about issues of racial justice by celebrating King’s triumphs without acknowledging where he fell short. The nation has made great strides toward equality, but the events of the past few months remind us that there is still a divide. I should rather say there is an epidemic of division based not only on race but religion, ideology, politics, ethnicity, culture, class, wealth. The world does not seem to be coming together; it seems to be pulling itself apart. And though if we observe rationally we can recognize progress, we must admit the happy fraternity of the Beloved Community King envisioned is far from reality.

And so while it may be pleasant to reflect that in the United States we can see some visible movement toward overcoming some divisions, it is incumbent upon us to reflect on the distance we have yet to travel. And especially on what we as individuals must do to go that distance. It is not enough to look upon the great evils that were committed in the past and celebrate their end. Certainly that is cause for celebration but we must search out our own hearts to expose the darkness that allows hatred to persist. Yes, they were guilty. But so are we. In my heart I know I have overcome much of the tyranny of the culture I was born into, but I also know I still have far to go in recognizing all of God’s children as my brothers and sisters. So I, along with the nation, can celebrate past victories and pay homage to great leaders, still I sing along with the psalmist, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” (Psalm 51:10 ESV)

As we look around us and we see so much tension and strife we may wonder if it is even possible to celebrate. So I am attaching the text of a very hopeful sermon by Rev. King entitled, “Our God is Able.” If you are like most unfamiliar with King’s work beyond “I Have a Dream,” it will orient you toward his pastor’s heart. Here is a taste, and the full PDF is attached.

At times we may feel that we do not need God, but on the day when the storms of disappointment rage, the winds of disaster blow, and the tidal waves of grief beat against our lives, if we do not have a deep and patient faith our emotional lives will be ripped to shreds. There is so much frustration in the world because we have relied on gods rather than God. We have genuflected before the God of science only to find that it has given us the atomic bomb, producing fears and anxieties that science can never mitigate. We have worshipped the god of pleasure only to discover that thrills play out and sensations are short lived. We have bowed before the god of money only to learn that there are such things as love and friendship that money cannot buy and that in a world of recessions, stock market crashes, and bad business investments, money is a rather uncertain deity. These transitory gods are not able to save us or bring happiness to the human heart.

Only God is able. It is faith in God that we must rediscover. With this faith we can transform bleak and desolate valleys into sunlit paths of joy and bring new light into the dark caverns of pessimism. Is someone here moving toward the twilight of life and fearful of that which we call death? Why be afraid? God is able. Is someone here on the brink of despair because of the death of a loved one, the breaking of a marriage, of the waywardness of a child? Why despair? God is able to give you the power to endure that which cannot be changed. Is someone here anxious because of bad health? Why be anxious? Come what may, God is able.

The PDF is from Martin Luther King, A Testament of Hope: the Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. James Melvin Washington (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2003), 504-509.

Download (PDF, 3.19MB)

“But if Not…”

January 18th, 2015 No comments

I say to you this morning, that if you have never found something so dear and precious to you that you will die for it, then you aren’t fit to live. You may be 38 years old, as I happen to be, and one day, some great opportunity stands before you and calls upon you to stand up for some great principle, some great issue, some great cause. And if you refuse to do it because you are afraid. You refuse to do it because you want to live longer. You’re afraid that you will lose your job, or you are afraid that you will be criticized or that you will lose your popularity, or you’re afraid that somebody will stab you or shoot you or bomb your house. So you refuse to take the stand. Well you may go on and live until you are ninety, but you are just as dead at 38 as you would be at ninety. And the cessation of breathing in your life is but the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit.

You died when you refused to stand up for right. You died when you refused to stand up for truth. You died when you refused to stand up for justice.

-MLK at Ebenezer Baptist Church November 1967

Franklin Graham is What’s Wrong with American Christianity

January 16th, 2015 No comments

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Duke University in North Carolina announced that the Muslim Call to Prayer would be observed on Fridays, conducted by members of the Muslim Student Union. The university administration gave as motivations for this action a demonstration of their commitment to religious pluralism and a desire to promote a different view of Islam: a peaceful, prayerful community vs. the image of hate-filled terrorists  currently flooding the airwaves.

The decision to announce this in the midst of a media storm about “Muslim Terrorism” in France, with anti-Muslim sentiment already high, was no doubt regrettable. The university acknowledges that it received a number of very hateful responses. One of the more public of these came from Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham, who urged withholding financial support from the institution. “As Christianity is being excluded from the public square and followers of Islam are raping, butchering and beheading Christians, Jews and anyone who doesn’t submit to their Sharia Islamic law, Duke is promoting this in the name of religious pluralism,” Graham wrote on his Facebook page.

Graham is no stranger to controversy. He has consistently and publicly made inflammatory remarks demonstrating his ignorance of Islam as an “evil” religion, even to the point of advocating organized violence against Muslims. Interestingly he made similar remarks (sans the violence) about Mormonism, until he learned his preferred presidential candidate was Mormon, after which he became curiously silent on the issue. He has declared that President Obama inherited Islam from his father, as if Islam was a germ that could be transmitted genetically. These examples just scratch the surface of Graham’s bigotry and ignorance.

If Christianity is being excluded from the public square, as Graham maintains, it is because the face of American Christianity looks like Franklin Graham. Franklin Graham, like much of American Christianity, has responded to the tensions created by increasing pluralism in American life by retreating and fortifying behind the historical fantasy of the “Christian” nation. This worldview is built on a religious fallacy first voiced by refugees to the New England colonies in the seventeenth century that America was to be a place for the fulfillment of God’s covenant. America was to be a “shining city on a hill,” as the New England founders proclaimed, that would demonstrate the model Christian society.

This vision is both historically and ideologically removed from the revolt of the colonies that erupted a century and a half later, but it inspired many with the notion that the American Revolution created a golden age in which America and Americans were righteous Christians blessed by God with prosperity, with the manifest destiny of extending their blessings as far as they could go. The social pressures challenging the Christian worldview today in the public square are seen as apostasy: an abandonment of what God has called America to, a real threat to God’s plan for America.

So the “Christian” response is to adopt a posture that sees every non-”Christian” act as the work of the devil against the embattled “good” people of America. “Winning America back for God” is set as a goal before the Christian community. Not satisfied with the freedom to practice their own interpretation of the scriptures in their own lives, they see it as vital to their mission to impose Christian morality on everyone, whether professing Christians or not, ultimately on pain of eternal damnation, but in the meantime on pain of legal sanction. This is why “Christians” are dismissed as bigoted, hate-filled zealots in the public square. I challenge Mr. Graham to explain what the difference is between Muslims seeking to impose Islamic law on non-Muslims and Christians trying to legally impose Christian morality on non-Christians.

There is a lot of hot air flowing around this issue, with well-meaning Christians cherry picking quotes from various of the founders to “prove” that the United States was really intended to be a Christian nation. But the proof is in the document that founded our country. The constitution is a thoroughly secular document.

Now, I have to say that outside of this nonsensical pseudo-historical fantasy of the “Christian” nation I agree with much of what Graham believes. I agree that our culture is mired in sin, injustice, and wrong thinking and that much of what passes for “normal” and even celebrated in our society is condemned in scripture. I believe that the larger culture is profoundly non- and at times even anti-Christian. And I believe that I have both the right and the duty as a follower of Jesus to make my views public and to practice my faith openly. I don’t believe that Islam is evil per se, although there are evil Muslims. Just as there are evil “Christians.”

I think, rather than being guided by myth, we ought to consider the example of the founder of our faith. When we leave behind the fiction that the United States is God’s chosen country and acknowledge that the United States is a pluralistic society made up of every race and creed we can see that we live in a world remarkably similar to the one Jesus lived in. The Christian worldview is one of many in the marketplace of ideas, as it was in the Roman empire. Many of the others are contradictory and hostile to Christianity. Because of this similarity scripture gives us concrete examples of how we can accomplish our mission of making disciples in a non-Christian world, both by what Jesus and his followers did, and did not do.

First, what they did not do is try to legally impose moral standards on the larger society. Jesus didn’t propose to replace the emperor and the imperial administration with his followers so that Christianity could be legally enforced throughout the empire. In fact, the only group Jesus consistently engaged on this issue were the leaders of his own nation and religion, and he thoroughly condemned their tendency to exclude people from God’s grace. Read chapter 23 of Matthew where Jesus forcefully summarizes his condemnation of the religious leaders. “Woe to you,” he proclaims seven times, “scribes and Pharisees. Hypocrites!” (Mt. 23:13 ESV). An irony of contemporary Christianity is that Christians today collectively imagine the Pharisees to be the “bad guys,” but in Jesus’ time they were the respected religious leaders. They were the Franklin Grahams.

When Jesus addresses moral issues, as he does in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapters 5-7, he calls his followers to a righteousness that is even stricter than what the Mosaic Law calls for. In fact, he calls his followers to be “perfect.” (Mt. 5:48) Followers of Jesus are not called to a lower moral standard but a higher one. But Jesus and the New Testament writers acknowledge that the moral standard Jesus demands is not achievable by people on their own. Only in Christ can one receive righteousness and justification before God. That is why Jesus came and died on the cross. And that is why what he did is called “good news.”

In contrast to the hypocrisy and exclusivity of the Pharisees Jesus made clear that his work was not only or even particularly for the respectable people. It was for everyone. And it was especially for those who were on the margins of society: sinners, the despised tax collectors, the sick, the lame, the outcast, the outsiders, even foreigners. When a Canaanite woman came to him begging to heal her daughter he did so, to everyone’s surprise, because of her great faith. (Mt. 15:21-28). He didn’t demand she convert to Judaism. When an officer of the hated Roman army asked Jesus to heal his servant Jesus did and remarked, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith.” (Matthew 8:10 ESV)

In scripture, making disciples is not accomplished by enforcing a moral code but by acts of self-sacrificing love. Jesus did not owe anything to anyone he healed. Yet he did so freely, not by demanding assent to doctrine, but with the admonition, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.” (John 8:11 ESV)

“Neither do I condemn you.” If there is a relationship between Muslims and God, that relationship is between Muslims and God. I know that God has not charged me to be my neighbor’s judge. At the same time I know that God has called his church to be “a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6 ESV) We cannot be light by answering darkness with darkness. If we want Muslims to hear the voice of Jesus, we ought to encourage them to pray. That is, after all, where we meet Jesus too.

A Call for Creative Extremists

January 16th, 2015 No comments

For me an event like the terrorist attacks in France last week (1/7-9/15) always leaves more questions than answers. Like everyone else I learn of things through Western media, and even though there is a wide variety of news outlets they all seem to report the same things. And so like everyone else I am compelled to witness, in this case, a seemingly endless stream of acts of terrorism accomplished by “Muslim Extremists.” In the last two months we saw the siege in Sydney (the deed of a lunatic acting alone) and the Charlie Hebdo event, both accomplished by self-proclaimed Muslims supposedly acting in defense of their Prophet, while at the same time we hear of acts of unspeakable barbarism in the Middle East and Africa committed, again, by “Islamic Extremists.”

I think for many these events simply serve to emphasize what they already believe, which is that Islam is the enemy. I am sickened when I see caricatures of bomb toting Middle Easterners with beards and turbans put forward as representative of all Muslims, for the purpose of confirming that all Muslims are our enemies. I know this is not true because I personally know a number of Muslims who are not terrorists, not even in sleeper cells waiting to be activated, who want nothing more than the rest of us want, which is to live in peace and freedom. And yet the evidence seems to indicate that there must be a link between Islam and brutal acts of violence and terrorism, all in the name of defending the Prophet. This is why I am left with more questions than answers.

In the wake of the last tragedy, while many of my contemporaries were quickly arriving at conclusions, I was at a loss to find meaning. Of course I heard the hyper-jingoistic reactions which in the end boil down to little more than the cartoon image of character Joe Swanson bellowing “Bring it ON!” But there are other voices and other events. One thing that caught my attention after the Paris attacks was that there were far more severe acts of terrorism in Sudan and Syria coinciding with what was happening in France, but that these seemed to receive little attention. Why? If we were to conclude the importance of events from the volume of media coverage devoted to each we would be left with the idea that freedom of the press is much more important than the freedom to live in peace and safety and to worship God without interference.

I might here remind the reader that when Franklin Roosevelt put forward his vision of Four Freedoms as a goal for the world in his lifetime he did place “freedom of speech and expression” first on the list. But second was “freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world.” It seems that in the West at least, we have erected an idol to the first and repudiated the second. One of the predictable reactions to the events in Paris was to declare that religion itself was to blame. As if to say if there was no religion there would be no terror. And that is a proposition that is simply too ridiculous to even respond to.

Scholars have known for some time that the seeds of terrorism are planted in the soil of despair. There is no mystery there. Going as far back as 1843 Charles Dickens was able to warn the Scrooges of the Industrial Revolution to beware of the two hideous children in the protection of the Ghost of Christmas Present: Want and Ignorance. Beware them both, he said. We know that a great deal of the resentment Middle Easterners aim at the West is fueled by the debilitating economic and social consequences of Western colonialism. So when we learn that the perpetrators in Paris were poor and marginalized Muslim immigrants, we are not surprised.

But one thing I have noticed that puzzles me is that al Qaeda, the Taliban, and now ISIS seem to draw European and American youth. These don’t seem to fit the mold. They don’t all come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Some begin their journey to radicalism in the comfort of middle class suburbia, through the lens of advanced Western technology. What could possibly inspire people like these to declare the culture they were raised in to be their mortal enemy?

I recently read an article which pointed out that only a small percentage of all acts of terrorism are accomplished by “Muslim Terrorists.” In fact most are not accomplished by any kind of religious extremists. Most, in fact, are committed by separatists. Separatists are people who desire to declare themselves and their territory independent of whatever larger political power currently rules them. They want to establish their own law for their own identifiable group. What characterizes separatists and links them to religious extremism is a sense of identity. Solidarity can be found in association with self-declared Corsicans (nationalists), or with Muslims (religionists). The point has been well made that Islamism is a political expression of the religion of Islam. What do al Qaeda and the Taliban, ISIS and other Islamic extremists have in common? The desire to see the creation of an Islamic state in some configuration, governed by whatever supposedly Islamic law they choose to elevate. And what will make this state a nation is its common devotion to Islam.

How this answers my question about privileged white kids being drawn to Islamic extremism is that it gives them a sense of identity, a solidarity with a larger whole, a heroic quest for the goal of bringing about justice for an oppressed people.

These things are missing in Western life. Religion has lost much of its sway. Even where it is practiced in the West it does not provide any basis for identity. Put a conservative Roman Catholic and a fundamentalist Protestant in a room and have them discuss solidarity. The idea of the “Christian” nation, never really true to begin with, is receding from the popular imagination. With the passing of the colonial order the self-proclaimed European “civilizing mission” inspires no one. Americans have for the most part lost their belief in their manifest destiny in the world. Roosevelt’s vision of Americans blessing the world with Four Freedoms no longer inspires. Young men went to Vietnam sure they were defending freedom. Young people going to war today hope only to survive their time in service so they can reap rewards in education and upward social mobility. One veteran of Iraq describes his experience this way, “Our lives were crumbling so that we could pretend to help people who pretended to appreciate it.”[1] Cynicism dominates.

All of this is symptomatic of the failure of the Enlightenment meta-narrative. This is a big topic that can’t really be represented in a short telling here, but the gist of it is that in the time leading up to World War 2 people in the West were propelled by the idea of progress. Historically this notion arose out of the so-called Enlightenment. The foundational belief of Westerners through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was that through scientific and technological advance and liberal education humans would inevitably achieve liberation and enlightenment. This was the meta-narrative, the overall self-pronouncing story of the past present and future Westerners told themselves.

By the end of the Second World War people began to lose confidence in this story. The twentieth century saw the most unbelievable brutality – the Western Front, the Holocaust, the Atomic Bomb – accomplished by the most scientifically and technologically advanced, the most highly educated people in history. How can you reconcile this with the idea of the inevitability of liberation and enlightenment through science and education? The meta-narrative was also called “Modern,” hence the period after World War 2, the one we still inhabit, became known as postmodernism.

Many scholars have studied and debated postmodernism, and many have either celebrated or dreaded its consequences, but the truth is that the only concrete thing characterizing the postmodern world is that the West has lost its story. Prior to World War 2 people in the West were comfortable in the assurance that the world was moving toward a man made fulfillment. Postmoderns have no such assurance. They have no story to inhabit that gives their life meaning.

So when we see what may be (and is, unfortunately quite successfully by fanatical “scholars”) characterized as a holy and noble struggle for justice we should not be surprised that youth, who have been challenged to little more than achieving middle class banality in pursuit of more expensive gadgets, are excited by the prospect of entering a heroic story that gives their life meaning. Even acts which were taught as too brutal for “civilized” people can be justified in pursuit of such a cause.

In the West, “progress” replaced religion as the binding social narrative of the modern era. The postmodern era has no narrative, so people, especially young people, are left to find meaning wherever they can. If terrorist violence provides that meaning, and we want to end the violence, we must offer a better alternative.

The end of extremism is tied to the pursuit of authentic justice. I want you to listen to the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., who gave his life in the pursuit of justice to counter the extremism that destroys. In his Letter from A Birmingham Jail King wrote about the strategy of non-violent confrontational protest:

And now this approach is being termed extremist. But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . .” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

Extremism cannot be tied to one or any religion. We will not see the end of extremist violence until we make the pursuit of justice our holy cause.

[1] Crawford, John. The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell: an Accidental Soldier’s Account of the War in Iraq. New York: Riverhead Trade, 2006.

Thomas Merton Prayer

January 13th, 2015 No comments
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