Wednesday, August 16, 2017

With Nazis There Is No Moral Equivalence

"There is blame on both sides."
"There were very fine people on both sides."
Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also. 
I John 4:20-21

“They are Nazis,” Jurgen Moltmann declared, “and when you are confronted by Nazis you must defeat them.”

Nothing else matters, he insisted, until you get rid of the Nazis.

Moltmann, perhaps the last of the great German theologians of the twentieth century, made that prophetic declaration half a century ago. He was visiting the United States for a theological conference and he was talking about the segregationists in the south.

As my theology professor told the story, Moltmann had insisted  to his fellow theologians that they had no business discussing theology until they had first done something about the Nazis.

I remember thinking that although the segregationists were certainly bad, it was hyperbole to call them Nazis. But the events in Charlottesville this past weekend have proven me wrong. They call themselves Nazis.

Jurgen Moltmann grew up in a secular family in Hamburg. As a teenager he was drafted into the German Army near the end of the war. He was captured by the British and spent several years as a prisoner of war. During that time his captors presented him with descriptions and pictures of the concentration camps at Buchenwald and Auschwitz, and he was overwhelmed with guilt for what his country had done.

While he was held prisoner an American Army Chaplain gave him a New Testament and it transformed his life. “I did not find Christ,” he would later say, “Christ found me.” After the war he completed a doctorate in theology and his reflections on Nazism and the war led him to develop “A Theology of Hope.”

Moltmann could see, as Paul Tillich, Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Reinhold Niebuhr, and others had made clear before him that the absolute claims of Nazism were theological as well as political. And that those absolute claims made it antithetical to Christianity. 

When Moltmann insisted that there could be no theological discussion until Nazism had been addressed, he wasn’t introducing politics into theological discourse. He was recognizing that until they were dealt with, the absolute claims of Nazism made authentic theological discussion impossible.

I think we can say with absolute certainty that Donald Trump has not read Jurgen Moltmann, or any of the great theologians who could see the dangers of Nazism long before the first concentration camps were built. But one doesn’t need a deep understanding of theology and ethics to make a judgment on the events in Charlottesville.

When it comes to Nazis there are not two sides.

After the violence and death last Saturday, the President condemned the hatred and violence “on many sides.” And for emphasis he paused before repeating, “on many sides.”

On Monday he responded to forty-eight hours of nearly universal bipartisan criticism by “clarifying” his Saturday remarks to say that he unequivocally condemned the KKK, the Neo-Nazis, and the white supremacists. He was reading a script and looking very uncomfortable, but he stuck to his text. 

He did not try to spread the blame.

As CNN’s Dan Merica wrote, Tuesday’s news conference was a different story:
“The news conference laid bare his unvarnished view of who was to blame for the violence and what he thinks about the nationwide effort to remove statues of Confederate leaders. Trump's comments were the latest in what has been a jaw-dropping saga ever since the President made his first vague statement on the violence, blaming the conflicts on many sides.’ The comments also made clear that Trump's speech on Monday -- which vociferously blamed the violence on the ‘alt-right’ and neo-Nazi groups who initiated the protest -- was largely a sterilized version of his view.”
David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan leader, felt vindicated. In a Twitter post he said, “Thank you President Trump for your honesty and courage to tell the truth.”

White nationalist leader, Richard B. Spencer, who like Duke participated in the demonstrations over the weekend and has promised to continue protesting the planned removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee, tweeted that, “Trump’s statement was fair and down to earth.”

At the conclusion of the news conference, as he was leaving, Mr. Trump was asked if he was planning to visit Charlottesville. He answered with a question, “Does anyone know I own a house in Charlottesville?”

Actually, he owns a winery.

"I mean I know a lot about Charlottesville," said the President. "Charlottesville is a great place that has been very badly hurt over the last couple of days."

He added: "I own actually one of the largest wineries in the United States, it is in Charlottesville."

Even by the strange standards of this administration it was bizarre and unsettling. His defenders will say that he is not a traditional politician and we need to get used to a very different style. But it was appalling by any measure. And deeply troubling.

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish. 

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Core Message of Christianity

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
Mark 1:14-15

I grew up believing that when Jesus proclaimed the “Gospel,” he was talking about his life and death and resurrection. That was the “good news of God.”

Imagine my surprise when my New Testament professor said that the “good news” proclaimed by Jesus was actually about the Kingdom of God. (Of course if I had paid attention to what I was reading rather than just assuming I knew what it meant, I would have already known that.)

My first thought was that the professor must be wrong. My second thought was that this changed everything.

I thought about that transformational learning as I read a blogpost by Alisa Childers on “Five Signs Your Church Might Be HeadingToward Progressive Christianity.” She lists the five signs as: (1) A Lowered View of the Bible, (2) The Emphasis on Feelings Over Facts, (3) The Reinterpretation of Essential Christian Doctrines, (4) The Redefinition of Historic Terms, and (5) The Heart of the Christian Message Shifts from Sin and Redemption to Social Justice.

These “Five Signs” can be summarized in what she sees as the fatal flaw of Progressive Christianity: A failure to take the Bible literally.

And by literally, she means her understanding of the literal meaning of each story and verse in the Bible. It is, of course, a selective literalism which allows one to make the claim of literalism while ignoring, for example, significant sections of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). And making believe that there is only one Creation story, rather than two. And one account of Noah’s Ark, rather than two.

Biblical literalism claims to take a high view of the Bible, but in reality it denies central elements of the biblical witness. The symbolic language of the Bible is not less than literalism; it is more. Literalism limits the meaning of the text to the words on the paper. An ancient rabbinic teaching says that God is found in the white spaces that surround the black letters of the text. Biblical literalism sees only the letters. For the literalist, there is nothing beyond the text.

Paul said that the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life (II Corinthians 3:6).

But this isn’t just Biblical Literalism, this is Selective Biblical Literalism and the problem is most evident in her last complaint, that “The heart of the Christian message shifts from sin and redemption to Social Justice.”

Childers explains it this way:

“There is no doubt that the Bible commands us to take care of the unfortunate and defend those who are oppressed. This is a very real and profoundly important part of what it means to live out our Christian faith. However, the core message of Christianity—the gospel—is that Jesus died for our sins, was buried and resurrected, and thereby reconciled us to God. This is the message that will truly bring freedom to the oppressed.”
She is correct in saying that the Gospel is both personal and social, but she has the order and the priority reversed. And her assertion that the needs of the oppressed are primarily spiritual rather than material reminds one of the question posed in the First Letter of John, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” (I John 3:17)

Jesus’ preaching was focused on the Kingdom of God. That was the heart of his message. He proclaimed it as a present reality and a future hope. He said it was among us, around us, and within us.

The Romans crucified him for sedition. His invitation and challenge to his disciples was to “take up the cross and follow me.” He was inviting them to be part of the Kingdom of God rather than the Roman Empire. In this new reality, the poor are lifted up and the mighty are cast down. In this new reality the normalcy of violence is replaced by peace and justice. Everyone has a place at the table and everyone has enough.

Jesus stands in a prophetic tradition that sees sin and redemption primarily in social terms.

In Matthew 25, those who have failed to be faithful ask,

“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?”

And the Lord will answer them,

"Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”

The final test is not about what we believe. It is about what we do. Specifically, it is about what we do for those who are on the margins. And so that there can be no mistake in the meaning of the parable, Jesus makes clear at the beginning that the nations will be judged. In other words, this final test is about social justice.

If your church is becoming more focused on Social Justice, then it is following more closely the life and teachings of Jesus.

Faith always begins with the personal and Jesus spoke to his disciples and his listeners in personal terms. He called them to a personal commitment to follow him. But for Jesus, as for the prophets before him, that commitment led to social justice. 

Micah declared God’s commandment to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.” And Jesus referenced Micah’s proclamation when he told his disciples that God desires “mercy and not sacrifice.” Without a commitment to social justice God is not moved by our worship.

Christians have always been tempted to reduce sin and redemption to personal issues. It is easier and less controversial. And no one was ever crucified just for being a good person.

By reducing sin and redemption to personal terms we also reduce the meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion. Walter Rauschenbusch was right when he observed that,

"Jesus did not in any real sense bear the sin of some ancient Briton who beat up his wife in B. C. 56, or of some mountaineer in Tennessee who got drunk in A. D. 1917. But he did in a very real sense bear the weight of the public sins of organized society, and they in turn are causally connected with all private sins."

If your church is focusing on social justice, that’s a good sign that they are trying to be more faithful.

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish. 

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Hiroshima and the Prophetic Vision of Harry Emerson Fosdick

"Blessed are the peacemakers, 
for they will be called children of God.”
Matthew 5:9

“War is essentially the denial of everything Christ stood for.”
Harry Emerson Fosdick

One of our summer traditions is going to the Patten Library book sale. The books sale is part of “Bath Heritage Days,” a festive occasion of craft fares, displays and sales. A few years ago I found a wonderful little book of sermons by Harry Emerson Fosdick called, “A Great Time to Be Alive.” 

Fosdick looks better and better to me as the years go by. When I was in seminary, I thought he was a theological and intellectual lightweight. In my estimation, opposing Fundamentalism was obvious. And didn’t he spend his whole career at Riverside Church, bought and paid for by Rockefeller money? But now, when I re-read “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” I am struck by its relevance for our time. 

Fosdick’s liberal theology, which seemed so pale and lifeless when I was in seminary, now looks both profound and prophetic. Truthfully, I held those negative opinions based almost entirely on what other people had said or written. My opinion changed as I began to read Fosdick for myself. 

Still, I was put off by the title of the book. I assumed that “A Great Time to Be Alive” would be a sugary recitation of happy insights from the 1950’s. Optimism pretending to be faith. A mid-twentieth century version of Joel Osteen. I bought it because I have a small collection of Fosdick books, but I did not expect much.

I was surprised to find a prophetic and remarkably hopeful collection of sermons written and preached during the Second World War. Fosdick’s hope takes account of the stark reality of war, but also looks ahead to the possibilities beyond the war. 

The book was published in the summer of 1944, shortly after the Normandy invasion, when the outcome of the war was not yet certain. He believed it was “A Great Time to Be Alive” because so much was at stake for the future of humanity and every decision mattered existentially and spiritually.

Fosdick had the courage, in that perilous time, to declare that war is always at odds with Christian teaching. It may be necessary, but it is never good. 
“Whether one thinks of what our enemies have done to us—of Warsaw, Lidice, Rotterdam, Coventry—or what we have done to them—‘We literally drop liquid fire on these cities,’ says one expert in air warfare, ‘and literally roast the populations to death.’”
He assumes that we will win the war. Hitler will be defeated and Imperial Japan will be 
vanquished, but the real challenge will be to win the peace, to create a world which is worthy of the human lives lost in war. “Many Americans,” he writes, “would love to save the world if only they could save it without changing their isolationism, without changing their ideas of absolute national sovereignty, without changing their racial prejudices and their economic ideas to fit the new interdependent world.” Sadly, those words are still relevant. We still want to save the world without giving up anything.

In many ways, we did “win the peace.” The Marshall Plan was an incredible effort to rebuild the nations we had defeated, and it led to decades of post-war prosperity. Although we still have a long way to go, we have made great strides in race relations. And the United Nations, for all its shortcomings, is still at the center of maintaining peace in the world. In other ways, we are still struggling to recognize the ties that bind us together and embrace the interdependence of God’s world.

Today, on the anniversary of dropping the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, as we contemplate a chaotic foreign policy and the threat of long range missiles in North Korea, Fosdick’s vision is particularly relevant.

In 2009 the Boston Globe described the Hiroshima bombing this way:
Targeted for military reasons and for its terrain (flat for easier assessment of the aftermath), Hiroshima was home to approximately 250,000 people at the time of the bombing. The U.S. B-29 Superfortress bomber "Enola Gay" took off from Tinian Island very early on the morning of August 6th, carrying a single 4,000 kg (8,900 lb) uranium bomb codenamed "Little Boy". At 8:15 am, Little Boy was dropped from 9,400 m (31,000 ft) above the city, freefalling for 57 seconds while a complicated series of fuse triggers looked for a target height of 600 m (2,000 ft) above the ground. At the moment of detonation, a small explosive initiated a super-critical mass in 64 kg (141 lbs) of uranium. Of that 64 kg, only .7 kg (1.5 lbs) underwent fission, and of that mass, only 600 milligrams was converted into energy - an explosive energy that seared everything within a few miles, flattened the city below with a massive shockwave, set off a raging firestorm and bathed every living thing in deadly radiation. Nearly 70,000 people are believed to have been killed immediately, with possibly another 70,000 survivors dying of injuries and radiation exposure by 1950. Today, Hiroshima houses a Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum near ground zero, promoting a hope to end the existence of all nuclear weapons.
It is sobering to remember that the United States remains the first and only country ever to have used an atomic bomb. The Daily Mail published a stark pictorial of the immediate aftermath of the attack showing horrifically injured survivors wandering through the desolation, picking their way among the corpses just hours after the bomb was dropped. It is particularly chilling to realize that every person pictured would have died of radiation exposure in the weeks and months following the attack.

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish. 

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Maybe We Need Less Hot or Cold and More Lukewarm

And to the angel in the church of Laodicea write: “I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”
Revelation 3:14a, 15-16

Long ago and far away, when I was in seminary, we were sure of almost everything and one of the things about which we were most certain was that the principle problem with the church was that it was lukewarm. 

And nothing could be worse than lukewarm.

The Laodiceans lacked commitment. They were middle-of-the-road moderates. They were the ancient equivalent of modern cultural Christians, observing the forms of Christianity without the content. They had no passion.

Today I take a more tolerant view of that church.

And sometimes when I consider our current impasse over the issues of LGBTQ inclusion or exclusion, I think that in the United Methodist Church we could use a little more of Laodicea.

When the first talk of schism began in earnest a few years ago, I believed that it would not happen. Not because I expected that we would have a sudden epiphany, but because I thought our lukewarm bureaucratic polity would move so slowly that the issue would be settled long before we ever got to schism.

That now appears unlikely.

One of the things I have loved about the United Methodist Church is that historically we have always had a big tent. We could accommodate George Bush and Hillary Clinton, George McGovern and Dick Cheney. At our best we worked together toward common goals. Sometimes we worked both sides of the same issue and at other times we focused on very different concerns. But in all of that we respected each person’s commitment.

Some of us wanted to sing “Onward Christian Soldiers” and others wanted “Once to Every Man and Nation,” but we agreed on “Jesus Loves Me.”

In our current conflict there is a sense in which the very visible issue of LGBTQ exclusion or inclusion serves as a proxy for a conflict that is really about doctrine and biblical interpretation. The Wesleyan Covenant Association, Good News, and the Confessing movement all want to take a much more literal approach to the Bible and to the ancient creeds.

And they want everyone to agree with them.

More than two decades ago I mentored a young man in our church who wanted to be a United Methodist Pastor. When he was turned down at one point in the process, I wrote to the Board of Ministry and pressed hard for his inclusion, arguing that we needed diverse theological positions and that this was an essential part of who we were as United Methodists.

A colleague applauded my efforts and then added a cautionary addendum: “You know, Bill, that’s great that you want Tom to be included. But you need to understand that if they get the majority they will want to have you thrown out.”

And that’s basically where we are.

I’m not sure whether the traditionalists are hot or cold in the sense we see in Laodicea, but they present a faith that is brittle and narrow. And they want me to see it all the same way that they do.

For more that forty years we United Methodists have been doing harm to the LGBTQ folks in our midst, and we have contributed to the broader “Christian” cultural condemnation that surrounds them. We need to stop harming folks. But beyond that we should not expect everyone to conform to the same point of view.

The traditionalists fret about the church “condoning sin” when we elect a gay bishop, ordain LGBTQ clergy, or marry same sex couples. 

But what traditionalists experience today is certainly no worse than what progressives went through fifty years ago when we saw churches and clergy within our denomination perpetrating the sins of racism, segregation, and voter suppression, contrary to positions we took as a church in our Book of Discipline. Today in our Social Principles we support a living wage, gun control, collective bargaining, universal health insurance, immigration reform, and we support programs to combat global warming, but we tolerate opposition by churches and clergy and we do not sanction those who advocate antithetical positions.

Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter proposed an amendment at the 2012 General Conference that ultimately failed, but it described our choice this way:
“We can divide, or we can commit to disagree with compassion, grace, and love, while continuing to seek to understand the concerns of the other. Given these options, schism or respectful co-existence, we choose the latter.”
And then they concluded:
“We commit to disagree with respect and love, we commit to love all persons and above all, we pledge to seek God’s will. With regard to homosexuality, as with so many other issues, United Methodists adopt the attitude of John Wesley who once said, ‘Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may.’”
I know that many United Methodists reject the possibility of “respectful co-existence” as no better than that lukewarm church in Laodicea, but I see it as an affirmation that we are held together by something more than the Book of Discipline.

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish. 

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Donald Trump and the Boy Scouts of America

On my honor, I will do my best 
To do my duty to God and my country 
and to obey the Scout Law; 
To help other people at all times; 
To keep myself physically strong, 
mentally awake 
and morally straight.
The Boy Scout Oath

On Monday evening I watched Donald Trump’s speech to the Boy Scouts gathered for their Jamboree in Glen Jean, West Virginia.

The Boy Scouts deserved better.

He began, not surprisingly, by talking about the size of the crowd, which he somehow seemed to think was there just to hear him speak.

He estimated the crowd to be 45,000 people, which is only a little above the official appraisal.

“You set a record,” he said. “That's a great honor, believe me.”

He told them, appropriately, that this was not a time to talk about politics. And then he gave a speech that was not just political, it was embarrassingly and grotesquely partisan.

He talked about how Boy Scouts make good citizens, and then he said, “The Scouts believe in putting America first.”

To their credit, the Scouts don’t believe in putting America first. At least not ultimately. And anybody who knows anything about the Boy Scouts knows that. It’s “God and country.” In that order.

He talked about draining the swamp and said that Washington was worse than a swamp, it was a cesspool or a sewer. 

The President of the United States told the Boy Scouts that their government was a cesspool. 

Or a sewer. 

Think about that.

He told them repeatedly that the “fake news” media would not cover his speech, that they would say the crowd was only a few hundred, and that they would not show video of the large gathering. CNN and Fox both carried the event live, as did C-Span. And the live cameras were showing the huge crowd even as he told the gathering that it would not be reported.

Another great civics lesson.

He described the Affordable Care Act as, “this horrible thing known as Obamacare that's really hurting us.” And he told them they should pressure West Virginia Senator Shelley Capito to vote for repeal (in spite of the fact that West Virginia is one of the states that will lose the most in Medicaid funding).

And, of course, he told them about election night last November.
“Do you remember that famous night on television, November 8th where they said, these dishonest people, where they said, there is no path to victory for Donald Trump. They forgot about the forgotten people.
“By the way, they're not forgetting about the forgotten people anymore. They're going crazy trying to figure it out, but I told them, far too late; it's far too late.
“But you remember that incredible night with the maps, and the Republicans are red and the Democrats are blue, and that map was so red it was unbelievable. And they didn't know what to say.
“And you know, we have a tremendous disadvantage in the Electoral College. Popular vote is much easier. We have -- because New York, California, Illinois, you have to practically run the East Coast. And we did. We won Florida. We won South Carolina. We won North Carolina. We won Pennsylvania.
“We won and won. So when they said, there is no way to victory; there is no way to 270. You know I went to Maine four times because it's one vote, and we won. We won. One vote. I went there because I kept hearing we're at 269. But then Wisconsin came in. Many, many years. Michigan came in.
“So -- and we worked hard there. You know, my opponent didn't work hard there, because she was told...
“She was told she was going to win Michigan, and I said, well, wait a minute. The car industry is moving to Mexico. Why is she going to move -- she's there. Why are they allowing it to move? And by the way, do you see those car industry -- do you see what's happening? They're coming back to Michigan. They're coming back to Ohio. They're starting to peel back in.
“And we go to Wisconsin, now, Wisconsin hadn't been won in many, many years by a Republican. But we go to Wisconsin, and we had tremendous crowds. And I'd leave these massive crowds, I'd say, why are we going to lose this state?
"The polls, that's also fake news. They're fake polls. But the polls are saying -- but we won Wisconsin.
“So I have to tell you, what we did, in all fairness, is an unbelievable tribute to you and all of the other millions and millions of people that came out and voted for make America great again.
“And I'll tell you what, we are indeed making America great again.”

This is not what Presidents do.

It is not what any other President has ever done.

It is not normal.

A few weeks ago I was invited to give the invocation and the benediction at an Eagle Scout Court of Honor for one of the young men in our church.

The ceremony took place in the United Methodist Church in Gales Ferry, CT. Among the many dignitaries taking part were the State Senator and the State Representative from that district. One was a Republican and the other was a Democrat. I don’t remember which was which. They sat together during the ceremony. They went up together to present their congratulations along with formal resolutions by the Connecticut House of Representatives and the Connecticut Senate. They were friendly and civil and pleased to share in this important achievement. And among other remarks they noted that Republicans and Democrats don’t all hate each other.

If only the President had been listening.

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish. 

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Wealth and Poverty and Taxes

Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you.
James 5:1-6

I do not generally think of myself as a rich person. I think in household income we are outside of the top quintile, but we are still comfortably above the median. That’s in the United States, of course. 

In global terms, I am rich.

And that is an uncomfortable thought, because the Bible is hard on rich people.

The Letter of James is especially hard, but the theme is consistent. When Mary announces the coming of the Messiah, she sings about the poor being filled with good things and the rich sent away empty. Jesus says that it is harder for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus tells the story of “The Rich Man and Lazarus.” The rich man does not directly refuse to help poor Lazarus, he simply ignores him. And for that he is consigned to eternal darkness.

For the Bible, the problem is not wealth, but the juxtaposition of wealth and poverty, and the disparity between rich and poor.

There are warnings about focusing too much on possessions and not enough on justice, and it’s clear that we don’t really own things; we are only stewards of what ultimately belongs to God. But the biblical ideal is for everyone to have enough, “every man under his vine and fig tree.” No one should have “too much,” but the definition of “too much” is flexible and the real emphasis is really on “enough.”

All Christians live with a certain amount of tension on this. We are not called to renounce everything and live in poverty, although some embrace that calling. We are called to live life fully and abundantly, to accept and rejoice in the good gifts of life. 

But if we are sensitive to issues of global poverty and inequality, then our thanksgiving for our own comfort includes a concern for those who have less. And we need to be good stewards, setting aside a portion of what we have to do God’s work in the world.

Within the United States, the gap between rich and poor has increased dramatically over the past three decades. Almost all of the gains in economic growth over that time have been funneled to the wealthiest among us. The middle class is stagnant. The poor have less. And the rich have more. 

We have been redistributing income from the bottom to the top.

The richest 1% of Americans have more wealth than the total combined wealth of the lower 90%. At the same time, the tax rates for the wealthiest Americans are lower than they have been in decades.

Increasing the tax rates for the wealthiest Americans would be a good idea even if we did not have concerns about debt and deficits. A tax increase would slow the rate of increase in the gap between wealth and poverty, and reduce the upward redistribution of income.

Opponents of increasing the taxes of billionaires point out that the richest one percent of Americans now pay approximately 40% of all income taxes. That sounds like a lot until you realize that the richest one percent also have 40% of the wealth. In other words, the amount they pay in taxes is about average. They pay more dollars but they don’t pay at a higher rate. When we compare wealth (not just annual income) to taxes paid, the tax rate for billionaires is about the same as for average Americans.

Raising the marginal tax rate for the richest Americans would make a significant contribution to reducing the deficit. It would be fairer. But it would also be good. And it would be good for the rich as well as for the poor. In the words of the prophet Isaiah:

If you offer your food to the hungry,
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.
Isaiah 58:10-11

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish. 

*A slightly different version of this post was first published on July 15, 2011.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Why the Quadrilateral Matters

Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.
I Corinthians 13:5-6

Writing in “Juicy,” the blog of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, John Scott Lomperis announced the recent decision by the United Methodist Judicial Council to reject the appeal by the active and retired bishops of the Western Jurisdiction for a reversal of the decision earlier this spring against the election and consecration of Bishop Karen Oliveto. But a large part of the post is a series of half-truths and snarky comments about Bishop Oliveto.

I want to focus on my favorite. He writes:
“Oliveto has used her office to launch a totalitarian intimidation tour of seeking out and taking names of any remaining orthodox congregations in the Mountain Sky Area of UMC.”
As a factual matter, people who were there say that she encountered those who opposed her election with grace and openness.

But if we click on the link he uses to support his description of her get acquainted tour of the churches in her Episcopal area, we come to another Lomperis post. And within that report on her tour we come to this:

“While Oliveto repeatedly suggested that Wesleyan theology was somehow a resource for her cause, she relied on rather shallow and long-discredited ideas about Outler’s so-called “Wesleyan quadrilateral” to suggest that “experience” (as she broadly defined it) could somehow nullify the clear teachings of Scripture, without being able to cite any instance of Wesley actually doing that.”

The link to the “so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral” (Scripture, Reason, Tradition, and Experience) brings us to an article in Good News magazine by Paul Wesley Chilcote, a professor at Asbury Theological Seminary. He begins is article this way:
“I will never forget a conversation I had one August afternoon in 1982 at Oxford University with Professor Albert Outler. We were talking about the many terms he had coined over the years. He said rather abruptly, ‘There is one phrase I wish I had never used: the 'Wesleyan Quadrilateral.' It has created the wrong image in the minds of so many people and, I am sure, will lead to all kinds of controversy.’”
Fortunately, Dr. Outler gave a much more complete and nuanced explanation of his “regret” in a 1985 essay in the Wesleyan Theological Journal:
The term “quadrilateral” does not occur in the Wesley corpus—and more than once, I have regretted having coined it for contemporary use, since it has been so widely misconstrued. But if we are to accept our responsibility for seeking intellecta for our faith, in any other fashion than a “theological system” or, alternatively, a juridical statement of “doctrinal standards,” then this method of a conjoint recourse to the fourfold guidelines of Scripture, tradition, reason and experience, may hold more promise for an evangelical and ecumenical future than we have realized as yet—by comparison, for example, with biblicism, or traditionalism, or, rationalism, or empiricism. It is far more valid than the reduction of Christian authority to the dyad of “Scripture” and “experience” (so common in Methodist ranks today). The “quadrilateral” requires of a theologian no more than what he or she might reasonably be held accountable for: which is to say, a familiarity with Scripture that is both critical and faithful; plus, an acquaintance with the wisdom of the Christian past; plus, a taste for logical analysis as something more than a debater’s weapon; plus, a vital, inward faith that is upheld by the assurance of grace and its prospective triumphs, in this life.
At the time he gave us the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, Dr. Outler was the foremost Wesleyan scholar and theologian. And the Quadrilateral came to us in a time when Methodists believed deeply in theological pluralism and embraced Reason and Experience as the necessary companions of Scripture and Tradition. We were proud to say that in the United Methodist Church, “you don’t have to park your mind at the door when you come to worship.”

But the Quadrilateral does not rest on Dr. Outler’s imprimatur alone. 

Although Wesley himself never used the phrase it is easy to see the quadrilateral in his writing. Scripture, Reason, and Tradition were (and are) the foundational interpretive elements of the Anglican theology in which Wesley was nurtured, and even a cursory glance at his writing shows the importance of experience as a key element in his thought.

There may be many reasons why the traditionalists despise the Quadrilateral, but two of them are critical.

First, if we apply the Wesleyan Quadrilateral to questions of LGBTQ inclusion in the full life of the church, we come down on the side of inclusion. Both scientific reason and personal experience weigh in heavily for openness.

Second, in this dispute and in wider context, the traditionalists want to assert a more literal interpretation of Scripture, believing that this has conservative theological and political implications.

On this second point we can easily go back to Wesley himself to observe how he approached Scripture.

In a sermon “On Charity,” based on the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians, he begins this way:
We know, "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God," and is therefore true and right concerning all things. But we know, likewise, that there are some Scriptures which more immediately commend themselves to every man's conscience. In this rank we may place the passage before us; there are scarce any that object to it. On the contrary, the generality of men very readily appeal to it. Nothing is more common than to find even those who deny the authority of the Holy Scriptures, yet affirming, "This is my religion; that which is described in the thirteenth chapter of the Corinthians." Nay, even a Jew, Dr. Nunes, a Spanish physician, then settled at Savannah, in Georgia, used to say with great earnestness, "That Paul of Tarsus was one of the finest writers I have ever read. I wish the thirteenth chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians were wrote in letters of gold. And I wish every Jew were to carry it with him wherever he went." He judged, (and herein he certainly judged right) that this single chapter contained the whole of true religion. It contains "whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely: If there be any virtue, if there be any praise," it is all contained in this. 
Wesley does not believe, as many literalists do, that all Scripture is of equal value. And for Wesley, the importance of a passage is judged in part by reason and experience, even the reason and experience of non-Christians.

An even more telling example is found in his sermon on “Free Grace.” 

With a theological position firmly rooted in Reason and Experience, he declares that the “blasphemous” lie of Predestination is false and it does not matter to him how many passages of Scripture the Calvinists can cite. 

“No scripture can mean that God is not love, or that his mercy is not over all his works.”

Here is the full paragraph from “Free Grace:”
This is the blasphemy clearly contained in the horrible decree of predestination! And here I fix my foot. On this I join issue with every assertor of it. You represent God as worse than the devil; more false, more cruel, more unjust. But you say you will prove it by scripture. Hold! What will you prove by Scripture that God is worse than the devil I cannot be. Whatever that Scripture proves, it never an prove this; whatever its true meaning be. This cannot be its true meaning. Do you ask, "What is its true meaning then" If I say, " I know not," you have gained nothing; for there are many scriptures the true sense whereof neither you nor I shall know till death is swallowed up in victory. But this I know, better it were to say it had no sense, than to say it had such a sense as this. It cannot mean, whatever it mean besides, that the God of truth is a liar. Let it mean what it will it cannot mean that the Judge of all the world is unjust. No scripture can mean that God is not love, or that his mercy is not over all his works; that is, whatever it prove beside, no scripture can prove predestination.
For Wesley, Reason and Experience are not the end he seeks. They are the means. They are tools to be used in the understanding of scripture and of the world. But the fundamental theological affirmation on which everything rests, is grace. Wesleyan theology is always about grace.

In 1984, the bicentennial year of American Methodism, Martin E. Marty interviewed Dr. Outler for an article in The Christian Century.

Marty asked him what he has learned about how one translates the insights of Christian history and theology into a sermon for everyday people. The answer says a lot about Albert Outler and about Methodist theology:
“Three things. Somehow you have to be gracious. Then you have to show graciousness, and talk about it. It can be talked about. Finally, you call forth from people some sort of response to grace as unmerited favor, to the fact that our lives are gifted.” (Pounce: the mind triggers, “This really is a Methodist!”) Life, Outler goes on, “is not merely fortune or luck, good or bad. When we preach, we tell people that God loves them -- and then we let them go.”
And then he concluded, “The preacher has to say, ‘I live by grace. You live by grace. We can therefore be thankful. We can love.”’ 

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish. 

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Disappointing But Not Surprising

Bishop Oliveto (right) and her wife, Robin Ridenour

The LORD is a stronghold for the oppressed, 
a stronghold in times of trouble.
And those who know your name 
put their trust in you, 
for you, O LORD, 
have not forsaken those who seek you.
Psalm 9:9-10

On Thursday the Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church rejected an appeal by the bishops of the Western Jurisdiction to reverse its ruling against the election and consecration of Bishop Karen Oliveto last summer (2016). The Judicial Council is our version of the Supreme Court. In matters of church law they have the final say.

The news is disappointing, but not surprising. It did not seem likely that the people who made the initial ruling earlier this spring would have a sudden Epiphany and see light where just a few months ago they had seen only darkness.

But one always hopes.

The news came to me from John Scott Lomperis, writing in the (oddly titled) “Juicy Ecumenism” blog of the Institute on Religion and Democracy. The IRD is a very conservative group that has been working hard for four decades to undermine the foundations of several Protestant denominations, most notably the United Methodist Church.

“Today,” wrote Lomperis, “I and others received official notification that our denomination’s supreme court, the Judicial Council, had unanimously decided to reject the request from the Western Jurisdiction bishops to reverse their April ruling against the attempt by this increasingly schismatic, numerically tiny region of the United Methodist Church to elevate an openly partnered lesbian activist to be bishop.”

The Western Jurisdiction is trying to live into the Kingdom of God by modeling a more inclusive ministry than what is prescribed in our United Methodist Book of Discipline. Although Lomperis sees it differently, their goal is not to cause schism, but to effect change. The traditionalists, on the other hand, seem to actually want to split the church. And they want the split to come sooner, rather than later, because they can see the movement within the UMC in the United States toward greater acceptance and affirmation of LGBTQ persons as full participants in the life of the church.

His description of Bishop Oliveto as “an openly partnered lesbian activist” is true, but it is not the whole picture. She is a gifted leader, a great preacher, an effective pastor, and an Elder who is by every measure well equipped to her new calling as a Bishop in the church.

In his second paragraph Lomperis makes an important point and then shows us an unpleasant side of this debate.

He notes that “the Judicial Council’s complex ruling ultimately took away any foundation in UMC church law for Dr. Karen Oliveto of San Francisco to indefinitely remain a bishop in good standing, and how more broadly, this ruling fundamentally reshaped our church law to remove what had previously been major barriers to defrocking clergy unwilling to abide by our denomination’s biblical standards for sexual self-control.”

He’s right that the ruling “fundamentally reshaped our church law.” It re-wrote the Discipline, something which the Judicial Council is not supposed to do. And something which traditionalists should oppose.

The unpleasant side is revealed in that last sentence about “defrocking clergy unwilling to abide by our denomination’s biblical standards for sexual self-control.”

Biblical standards for self-control? He means that gay clergy must be celibate whether they are married or not.

The rest of the post is just a series of snarky misleading half-truths about Bishop Oliveto. 

Unfortunately, he reports, “none of this appears to matter to the bishops and other leaders of the Western Jurisdiction or to anyone of whom I am aware in liberal-caucus circles. It seems they are absolutely determined to stand behind their efforts to elevate Oliveto no matter how deeply and widely she and they hurt the church, because her being a partnered lesbian evidently trumps every other consideration.”


Bishop Oliveto was not elected because she is gay and married. 

And she was not elected in spite of the fact that she is gay and married.

She was elected because the delegates saw her as the most qualified leader.

This new ruling from the Judicial Council brings us one step closer to schism. It was not unexpected, but it is deeply disappointing. 

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish. 

Monday, July 3, 2017

Sin Is Not About Sex or Dessert

What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? 
Romans 5:1

In Paul’s letter to the Church in Rome, he argues that God’s grace is always greater than our sin.

Sin and grace are ancient words of the faith.  But they sound oddly out of place in modern life. “Amazing Grace” is not only the most popular hymn for Christians, it is probably the most popular song on the planet.  But that does not mean we are comfortable with grace.  And before we can really understand grace, we need to understand sin.

Contrary to what we see in the popular culture, sin is not about dessert and it is not about sex.

Paul Tillich, one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth (or any other) century, argues that another word for sin is separation.  In his famous sermon, “You Are Accepted,” he contends that to be in a state of sin is to be in a state of separation: separation from God, from others, and from ourselves.

Just as we cannot be born without separating from our mothers, so we cannot exist without separation from our essence, which is with God.  Existence necessarily means separation and estrangement.  We are not only separated from God’s being, we are also separated from God’s will.  And we know that.  If we were not separated from God’s will, then we would never do things to hurt others and ourselves.

We know that we are also separated from others.  That is obvious physically.  But it is more than that.  

Immanuel Kant once said with courageous honesty, that there is something in the misfortune of our closest friends that does not displease us.  When something bad happens to someone else, we are sad, but we are also relieved.  Somewhere deep inside a voice echoes: “Thank goodness it wasn’t me.”  “. . . it’s not my child.”

But our situation is deeper than that.  Our separation is greater.  

One of the hardest things for those who have lost a loved one is that life goes on all around as if nothing had happened.  Even close friends soon go back to their own business.  

Those who have lost a parent, or a child, or a spouse, or a close friend are left alone.  Sometimes people ask why he or she doesn’t “get over it.”  When we are grieving, we feel as if the world should stop, at least for an instant.  But it goes on, as if nothing had happened.  We are separated from one another.  We are estranged.

We are also separated from ourselves, from our best selves.  Sometimes we experience this acutely and we say that we don’t know who we are.  Or when we do something which we know is wrong, we say, “I don’t know what’s the matter with me.”  In the story of the Prodigal Son, Jesus tells us that “when he came to himself” the son decided to return home.

Grace is the opposite of sin.  If sin is separation, then grace is union, or more accurately, reunion.  By God’s grace we are reunited with God, with others, and with our selves.

The word which Paul Tillich uses to help us understand the working of grace, is acceptance.  To experience God’s grace, is to be accepted by God.  God’s acceptance of us enables us to accept others, and even to accept ourselves.

For many years I have used this concept of acceptance as the basis of a benediction.  The general idea came from my late friend and mentor, Bill Ziegler.  To be honest, I cannot say precisely how what I say differs from what he said, and I don’t think that the differences are terribly important.

It begins with the proclamation of God’s grace:

I send you forth with Good News.
That God loves you.
And accepts you just the way you are.

This acceptance is not something we have earned.  It is not something which God will give us after we fulfill certain requirements, after we have been to counseling, or lost weight, or conquered our bad habits.  It is a gift.  And real gifts have no conditions.  God takes us as we are.

This does not mean that we should not change and grow.  I have a long list of things I want to change or improve about myself.  And my family could probably give me an even longer list.  There are plenty of things in our lives that we ought to change in order to become what God calls us to be, but that change and growth is not a condition of God’s acceptance.

The same thing is true in our personal relationships, with children and parents, with spouses and friends.  It is hard for people to change unless they are accepted as they are.  It is that unconditional acceptance, that gift, which gives us the freedom to change and grow.  The gift of acceptance makes me want to change and grow, and that gift also makes it possible.

God’s acceptance is personal.  God loves you and accepts you.  This is not just a general statement.  It is specific and personal.  It is addressed to individuals.

And by that love and acceptance,
calls to you and to me
to accept this day
and this life
as God’s gift.

This is the challenge.  God’s gift calls for a response.  As God accepts us, so we are called to accept, and affirm, and claim, the life that God has given us.

That is not easy.  Unless we are remarkably comfortable, it is not always easy to affirm life as a gift.  When I look out on Sunday morning and see the hurt and grief that people bring to church with them, and realize that there are other hurts that I don’t know about, it would not surprise me at all, if, from time to time, people looked up and thought to themselves, “easy for you to say!”

There are many times when life does not feel like a gift.  And at certain points in my life as a pastor, I have thought that perhaps I should send folks out with some other word.  When people are hurting, what right do I have to tell them that life is a gift?

I felt that concern acutely during the many months that a young friend was struggling with cancer.  But when we were planning his memorial service, he told me specifically that he wanted me to use that benediction.  “I love that,” he said.  “I want you to remind people that God loves them.  And life is a gift.”

We are often more comfortable with yesterday, and we may be more hopeful about tomorrow.  But today is what God has given us, and today is what we are called to live.

To live it to the full.

And we are called to “live it to the full.”  Jesus came that we might have life and have it abundantly.  The apostle Paul said that we are more than survivors.  Our challenge is not simply to endure.  He insisted that we are “more than conquerors” through God’s love.  The great Methodist evangelist, E. Stanley Jones, said that Christians are called to “victorious living.”

Several years ago Bishop Dale White gave a wonderful sermon at the Memorial Service at Annual Conference.  He used Paul’s letter to the Philippians, and his text was “Rejoice, and again I say, rejoice!”  

He recalled hearing Dr. Christian Barnard, the pioneering heart surgeon talk about joy and suffering.  Dr. Barnard spoke of visiting two children in South Africa.  One little boy had lost his eyesight when his father, in a drunken rage, threw a kerosene lamp at him.  Now the plastic surgeons were rebuilding his face.  The other little boy could not walk and had both legs in a cast after several operations.  

When he opened the door to the children’s ward, the nurses were out of the room and these two boys had commandeered a food cart.  One could not see and the other could not walk, but together they careened around the ward at high speed, to the squealing delight of the other children.  

Before Dr. Barnard could think of how to restore order, they crashed into the brick wall at the far end of the ward.  The dishes clattered to the floor and it was a mess.  But the boys were thrilled.  

As he pulled them up, they were laughing and smiling, and one of them proclaimed, “Did you see that?  We won!”

They were winning the race of life.  They were living victoriously, in spite of the odds.

To share God’s love and hope and joy 
with one another.

Finally, we are called “to share God’s love and hope and joy with one another.”  We do this poorly, even on our best days.  But it is still what we are called to do.  And we know that there are times, when we look at one another, when we listen to one another, that God’s grace comes alive for us. What more important work could we have than that?  What greater witness could we give to the Gospel?

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.