Trump: A Joke No Longer

maxresdefaultGiven the state of our nation and world today, I often feel like this: “Yesterday all my troubles seemed so far away, now it looks as though they’re here to stay. Oh, I believe in yesterday. Suddenly I’m not half the man I used to be, there’s a shadow hanging over me. Oh yesterday came suddenly…… Now I need a place to hide away, Oh, I believe in yesterday.” (The Beatles)

Martin Niemoeller’s words are quoted often and have always inspired me, but until recently they were just a nice philosophical abstraction. Never did I dream they would become an honest to God existential warning for me and my contemporaries living in our blessed democracy. I was wrong.

I learned more about Niemoller last year in a biography about another contemporary clergy of his, in “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy” by Eric Metaxas‎. It was there I realized even as the storm clouds of Trumpism were gathering that Niemoller’s words were a painful confession of his own failure to act out of Christian compassion to save his sisters and brothers from the Nazis until it was too late for them and for him.

Although he is most famous for the quote above Niemoller was taken in by Hitler along with his fellow Germans. “Niemöller’s sermons reflected his strong nationalist sentiment…. Niemöller believed that Germany needed a strong leader to promote national unity and honor. When Hitler and the National Socialist Party emerged, touting nationalist slogans and advocating autonomy for private worship of the Christian faith, Niemöller voted for the Nazis—both in the 1924 Prussian state elections and in the final national parliamentary elections of March 1933. Hitler espoused the importance of Christianity to German nationality and Christianity’s role in a renewal of national morality and ethics (sound familiar?) leading Niemöller to enthusiastically welcome the Third Reich. Niemöller later confessed that even Hitler’s antisemitism reflected a more extreme version of his own prejudice at that time.” It was only much later after Hitler’s fanatical power was firmly entrenched that Niemoller awoke to the error of his ways and became an active opponent of the Nazi terror. He was imprisoned in several concentration camps for 7 years for his opposition until he was liberated by the Allies at the end of the war. (Above quote and more information available in “Niemoller: A Biography,” http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10007391).

For good or ill I have tried to avoid public statements about partisan politics in my 40 plus years as a pastor. Call it wisdom or professional survival or cowardice, the truth is that the only two times I am aware of that anyone complained about my ministry to church authorities were two times that I could no longer be quiet about political issues and candidates that I felt strongly were in opposition to Judeo-Christian values and principles. We are now again in one of those “if we are silent the stones will shout out” (Luke 19:40) moments when to paraphrase Lincoln, we are engaged in a great struggle to see if “this nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.” That may sound melodramatic, but I believe it to be true.

I will not be one who regrets not speaking up at this critical juncture of history. The racist, nationalistic, xenophobic rhetoric of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz is too much like that of Hitler to ignore it and hope saner heads will prevail. Trump bragged the other day after his victory in Nevada that he “loves uneducated people.” Of course he does. He is leading a war on critical thinking and shouting down rational, civil discourse verbally and with vulgar, shallow Tweets. His Twitter campaign is brilliant in its strategy. No in depth dialogue can occur when utterances are limited to 140 characters.

A friend and I were discussing in bewilderment yesterday how self-proclaimed Christians can support a candidate who espouses in no uncertain terms blatantly unchristian values. We started listing the values Trump trumpets, and I realized it sounded like a recitation of the 7 Deadly Sins of the Roman Catholic tradition. I double checked the list: greed, lust, wrath, gluttony, pride, envy and sloth/laziness. I’ll give him a pass on the last one, but Mr. Trump certainly seems guilty as sin on the other six. It’s one thing for a secular society to embrace “Greed is Good” as a motto but quite another to allow anger and fear to blind oneself to the crass character of a leading contender to become the most powerful person on the planet. No matter how you feel about any other political or social issue, do you really want someone as volatile and undisciplined as Trump having his finger on the nuclear trigger?

The test for being a Christian is not just claiming the label; it is taking up a cross and following Jesus. As we all make these critical political decisions about the future of our world, let us not confuse what the radical right is peddling with the Christian Gospel. Read the parts of Scripture that say: “Pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18). “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:43-44). “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword” (Matt. 26:52). “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:28-31).

These are critical times that call for acts of courage and faith. As tempting as it seems, don’t just seek a “place to hide away” or fail to learn the lessons of history so we are condemned to repeat them. Niemoller waited too long to speak up, but we dare not be silent.

John Wesley for the Supreme Court

John_Wesley_by_George_Romney
It is a sad but expected reality that Justice Scalia’s vacant seat on the Supreme Court has become a political hot potato while it is still warm from his long years of influential service. My appreciation for Scalia has grown immensely since his death as I have read moving stories about his friendships and respect that bridged ideological divides with Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Elena Kagan. Such bipartisanship is an endangered species in our polarized world and needs to be recognized and celebrated. I must confess that I was guilty of stereotyping Justice Scalia based on his conservative and often controversial legal opinions, and I vow to relearn yet again the danger of such narrow thinking.
(Follow this link to read Ginsburg’s tribute to her friend and legal rival: http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2016/02/14/read_justice_ruth_bader_ginsburg_s_touching_statement_on_scalia.html, and http://www.cnn.com/2016/02/14/opinions/david-axelrod-surprise-request-from-justice-scalia/ for Scalia’s respect for Justice Kagan.)

Having said that, this unexpected vacancy on the court creates a valuable opportunity in this election year for all of us to learn and grow in our understanding of the importance of the court and the different philosophies represented in the selection process that have tremendous impact on the direction our nation will go moving forward.

I don’t know much about the judges who have been mentioned to fill this vacancy thus far, but it occurred to me that we United Methodists have a great candidate in one of the founders of our denomination, John Wesley. As you can see from his picture he has the wardrobe for the job. The problem of course is that Wesley is not available since he died over 300 years ago. But I would still like to propose that Wesley’s thinking can shed some valuable light on the selection process.

Wesley developed a very useful paradigm for making ethical decisions. Wesley’s quadrilateral, as it is known, lists four sources of input that should be consulted when making ethical decisions: Scripture, Experience, Reason, and Tradition. The balanced model Wesley provides honors the importance of all four components while realizing that they are all created by fallible humans and therefore can be found to be in need of correction by the other three legs of the quadrilateral.

Making ethical decisions with fewer than all four components of the quadrilateral is like sitting at a table that has one leg shorter than the others, and therefore wobbles like a teeter totter every time anyone leans on it.
There are many examples of complex ethical dilemmas that we postmodern 21st century citizens must come to grips with. Laws and traditions that worked in previous generations may no longer be viable when new knowledge provided by reason and experience is factored into the equation. Examples include biomedical decisions, the viability of military force to solve differences in a nuclear age, and attitudes toward people with a different sexual orientation. (I wrote about some of these issues in more detail in a July 22. 2014 post, “Tradition: Only Part of the Formula.”)

“Originalism” or “Textualism” are the labels used to describe Justice Scalia’s approach to the legal system and the Constitution. I am certainly no legal scholar, but my understanding of that philosophy is that it strives to interpret legal questions according to the original intent of the framers of the Constitution. That approach is loaded with biblical and theological implications, and Wesley’s quadrilateral speaks directly to the need to in both law and theology to keep learning and growing in our understanding of justice in the rapidly changing world we live in.

My problem with Originalism is that it seems to argue that a group of wealthy white men who accepted slavery and denied equal rights to women should have the final word on how to live in a democracy today. That’s like trying to live by Levitcal law in the 21st century. The framers of the constitution were men of tremendous vision and courage, but limited as we all are by our cultural and historical context they knew nothing about Aids, Zika, climate change, AR-15’s, black holes and gravitational waves, globalization, or nuclear annihilation, just to name a few. But like Wesley the authors of the Constitution did have the wisdom to know that the laws of the land must be flexible in the face of changing revelations about human nature and the natural order. Realizing the need for reason and experience to make mid-course corrections they made provisions for amending the constitution and did so immediately with the addition of Bill of Rights.

With the same wisdom Wesley’s inclusion of reason, experience and tradition as necessary qualities for interpreting the Scriptures recognizes the on-going process of revelation. As the United Church of Christ reminds us, “God is still speaking.” Jesus did the same thing when he said repeatedly “You have heard it said…but I say to you…” (Matthew 5:21-48). Without the constant deepening of our understanding of God’s creation and God’s will as both our scientific and theological wisdom increases we would still live in a flat earth society with a vengeful, fearsome God and would celebrate the Sabbath on Saturday.

Does that mean reason and experience represent a straight line of upward progress toward a perfect just and peaceful world? Obviously not. We cannot escape our human fallibility in matters of faith or of law. There is no perfect candidate for the Supreme Court or any other office, but seeking persons who balance respect for our foundational documents, be they Scripture or Constitution, with the value for applying our God-given ability to reason and learn from our experience and past traditions would be my litmus test in the selection process.

Giving Up ALGAE for Lent

HolyLentThere are plenty of things I could give up for Lent this year that would improve my health and well-being, both physically and spiritually, but the one I have chosen to focus on is anger and frustration. This is a life-long struggle for me as a highly competitive and perfectionistic person. Those qualities are not all bad and even useful when trying to achieve some goals in life, but when it comes to being at peace and satisfied with my life, not so much. Maybe it’s an age thing, but being at peace has become much more important to me than winning a golf game or achieving economic or academic “success.”

I’ve done a pretty good job of concealing my angry side from most people. My professional persona is one of a caring, compassionate pastor and teacher. But my family and close friends have seen me break golf clubs in frustration, chase referees down the court at a high-school basketball game, or pitch temper tantrums when the difficulty of a home improvement project exceeds my limited skills or problem-solving ability far more often than I would like. So for all the times I have embarrassed any of you, my sincere apologies.

My decision to focus on anger as a barrier to peace this Lent is in large part because of an excellent course I am participating in called “Peace Ambassador Training 2.0.” Sponsored by the Shift Network, this is a 12-week web-based series of seminars focused on Mindfulness Meditation as a way to achieving more inner peace that can lead to peacemaking in the world. We are almost half way through the 12 weeks, and I had a breakthrough aha while meditating this morning as some things from our classes came together for me in a powerful way.

Last week’s class, led by Colin Tipping, was about radical forgiveness as a necessary ingredient in the recipe for peace. My insight this morning was how well forgiveness fits into the overall framework of this class. In our very first session Sister Jenna shared a helpful way to remember some basic shifts that are necessary to achieve a more peaceful state of being. She says we need to remove the ALGAE from our lives. ALGAE is an acronym that stands for Anger, Lust, Greed, Attachment and Ego. The quick, easier-said-than-done version of Sister Jenna’s teaching is that we need to replace Anger with Peace, Lust with Innocence/Purity, Greed with Satisfaction/ Joy, Attachment with Love, and Ego with Self-respect.

That’s obviously a God-sized transformation, but in my meditation today I saw more clearly how other the parts of that ALGAE formula contribute to anger for me: ego – not ever wanting to be wrong or out of control – being disrespected for my opinion or actions and not having “all my wisdom” given its due. If I replace ego with self-respect then I am not dependent on the praise or respect of others. To have self-respect I have to let go of regrets and painful memories, i.e. forgive myself and others. If I have self-respect I don’t need things I am attached to that feed my ego an unhealthy diet. There is also no need to lust after others or things if I’m at peace with myself, and therefore no need to be angry about not getting what I want/deserve, i.e. what I think I am entitled to. I love how that all comes together – now to just learn to live it and get it out of my head and into my being. “I believe Lord, help my unbelief.” (Mark 9:24)

Footnote: I was reminded how challenging this can be even as I was writing this piece. In a hurry to capture my thoughts before they left me and dealing with competing family commitments that were impinging on my consciousness as I wrote, I made numerous spelling errors as my brain tried to rush faster than my fingers could type. My old default reaction of frustration and anger quickly kicked in, only making the typing that much worse. New habits take time. The experts in self-help say it takes 21 days to change a behavior pattern. My personal experience is that it takes longer to teach old dogs like me new tricks. And the bigger the changes, the more time and the more spiritual help I need. That’s why the 40 days of Lent are a great time for me to ask for God’s help in giving up the ALGAE in my life.

To that end I draw hope and inspiration from “Guide My Feet,” a wonderful African American spiritual we sang at a recent worship service:

Guide my feet while I run this race.
Guide my feet while I run this race.
Guide my feet while I run this race,
for I don’t want to run this race in vain!

Search my heart while I run this race.
Search my heart while I run this race.
Search my heart while I run this race,
for I don’t want to run this race in vain!

Amen!