A Lament for Unity

“Some take pride in chariots, and some in horses,
but our pride is in the name of the LORD our God.
They will collapse and fall,
but we shall rise and stand upright.” Psalms 20:7-8

I don’t have time to write much today but feel an urgency to respond to the disheartening news coming out of the UK this week. ISIS must be dancing in the streets. Their epidemic of fear has toppled the British Prime Minister and dealt a terrible blow to European unity. I find it very ironic and sad that it was the older population in Britain who voted in favor of leaving the EU. They should be the ones who remember how well Nationalism worked for Europe throughout history and most recently in the 20th Century.

European Nationalism engulfed the entire planet in two horrible world wars and left a trail of death and destruction throughout European history. Why would we want to try it again? Fear does terrible things to the human mind, and there is much to fear in this rapidly changing world we inhabit. But putting our trust in chariots and horses, i.e. strength and force and defensive isolation that turns its back on millions of refugees is not the answer. To resort to abandoning the most hopeful effort at unity and cooperation the world has seen in centuries because of current fear and hardship is short-sighted and tragic.

Those who put their faith in chariots and horses will collapse and fall, but those who put their pride in the peaceful, loving, cooperative ways of the Lord will rise and stand upright. It takes faith and a lot of it to believe that, but the alternative is to try and return to methods that have proven hundreds of times to fail. Come, Holy Spirit, and breathe courage and faith into every trembling heart.

Post Script: I went out to mow my grass after writing the above. I do some of my best thinking on the lawn tractor. Today I had one mowing meditation I want to add. It may be because I am neither young nor fearless, although it was a favorite of mine even when I was young and fearful, but a line from a great old hymn came to mind as I reflected more on the rise of nationalism in both Europe and here in the U.S. It was written in 1931 as nationalism was raising its ugly head in Germany. I’ve never served a church where it is a popular hymn because it is too challenging and uncomfortable, but I think it’s time we listen. The whole hymn is profound, but what echoed in my mind today is the third verse:

“O help us stand unswerving
against war’s bloody way,
where hate and lust and falsehood
hold back Christ’s holy sway;
forbid false love of country
that blinds us to his call,
who lifts above the nations
the unity of all.” “O Young and Fearless Prophet,” by S. Ralph Harlow

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A Response to the Orlando Massacre

“Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” Jesus

Another mass shooting, another record broken for innocent lives snuffed out, more prayers and tears and hand wringing. This one is worse because it targeted the LGBT community and people of color – an all-purpose hate crime. My heart is broken again, but I haven’t yet heard the expected hateful tweets from Trump and his ilk calling for more violence and stronger defense. Trump recently said his favorite Scripture is “An eye for an eye;” which says volumes about his lack of Christian faith. I have intentionally avoided Fox News all day, as I do most days, because I’m not sure I can take much more vitriol and fear-mongering.

I fully expect this tragedy to be used for political gain by Trump, and anticipate he will blame the work of ISIS on President Obama’s “weakness;” so I want to counter that bogus argument right now. To blame the rise of terrorism here and abroad on “weakness” and to call for more guns and more military action in response is to forget recent history and to engage in bad theology. The full context of the Scripture above is as follows:

“ While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; with him was a large crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. 48 Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him.” 49 At once he came up to Jesus and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him. 50 Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you are here to do.” Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and arrested him. 51 Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. 52 Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” Matthew 26:47-52

You can twist the interpretation of that text, and many do, to mean that Jesus was saying those who commit violence deserve to suffer in turn. But that is not consistent with the full life and teaching of Jesus that blesses peacemakers, advises turning the other cheek, loving one’s enemies, and praying for those who persecute you.

Human history is so full of violence against creation and humankind that I don’t know where the origin of that cycle of vengeance could ever be identified. We only get four chapters into Genesis before the first murder occurs! And in that story God marks Cain, the murderer, not to punish him but to protect him from retribution. That lesson was lost immediately.

The warfare in the Middle East goes back before recorded history; so it is difficult to assess blame or to solve that Gordian knot. But that is no excuse to twist more recent history to justify a dangerous political ideology. I would argue that the rise of terrorism in recent years is not because of American weakness but because of unjustified invasions of that region by former President Bush. Those of course were in response to 9/11, which was I’m sure justified in the eyes of the terrorists by US imperialism and the decadence of our society. My point is that there are always those who can find an excuse to get revenge on those we label as “enemies.” But military strength does not bring peace. We are the strongest military power in the history of humankind, and we are still not safe and secure. Violence can never bring peace. World War I sowed the seeds of WWII, which created the Cold War and the nuclear arms race. And on it goes.

And Jesus said, “Put away your sword.” Till the cycle of violence is broken, till we confess our own guilt for profiting from fear by selling more guns and security systems, and selling arms to other countries, the military-industrial complex President Eisenhower warned us about 50 years ago will continue to beget more violence. The U.S. currently gives $5 Billion dollars a year in military aid to Israel, and ¾ of that money is spent back in the US to buy weapons produced by US manufacturers; and the US Congress, which can’t agree on anything else, wants to increase that amount! What price are we paying as our infrastructure and education system collapses while we profit from bigger and better ways to kill each other?

People who are afraid have a hard time hearing Jesus’ words to be peacemakers; so I don’t expect this reminder to be popular in another moment of tragedy. But what we are doing is obviously not working and to double down on violence and power as the solution is not the answer.

Not a Spectator Sport: Matthew 7:24; James 1:22-27

One of my favorite literary characters is Zorba the Greek. Zorba is a daring, brash, risk-taking, fun-loving rascal—all things I admire but am too chicken to try. Zorba is described in the novel bearing his name by Nikos Kazantzakis. The novel is narrated by a character Zorba calls “Boss” because the boss hires Zorba, ostensibly to manage a mining operation for him. In reality, The boss hires Zorba so he can live vicariously through him for a little while.

Zorba is based on a real life Yorgis Zorba that Kazantzakis met on an actual mining venture and the boss, a writer and spiritual seeker/philosopher, is Kazantzakis himself. Zorba chides the boss for being a book worm and “quill driver” because he merely writes about life instead of living it. My love affair with Zorba and Kazantzakis’ other work began 45 years ago when I discovered them in the syllabus of a course on “Theology and the Modern Novel.” I fell for Zorba, but I identified with the boss. I’m much better at observing and reflecting on life than living it in person with gusto.

That same theme shows up in a much more controversial Kazantzakis work, “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Critics of that novel and the movie of the same name mistakenly assume it’s about Jesus being sexually tempted by Mary Magdalene, but they miss the point. Our suppressed attitudes about sex often distract us from more subtle and deeper issues. In The Last Temptation what entices Jesus to abandon his divine mission is not lust, it is the desire to live a “normal,” safe life as a husband and father. Those roles are not wrong, of course, they were just not what Jesus was called to do and be.

On a trip to Boston recently I visited the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. As a child of the ‘60’s it was good to relive a bit of that turbulent period of history. There is the expected pro-Kennedy bias to the museum, of course. There was no mention of the young, martyred president’s human frailties or moral weaknesses. Like all mortals, especially powerful ones, he had has share. But there was also a sense of altruism and service in the Kennedy-Johnson policies so sorely lacking in today’s populist political posturing. JFK’s “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” may sound like a cliché or hopelessly naïve today, but it is far nobler and more Christian than racist slogans to “make America great again.” And it has endured as one of the most famous lines in an inaugural address because Kennedy lived those words he wrote.

No one short of Jesus or Mother Theresa has totally pure motives, but with all their faults, there’s a quality of public service and commitment to justice exemplified in the Kennedys and others of wealth and privilege all the way back to Washington and Jefferson that seems lacking in today’s political atmosphere. JFK failed his physical for military service for a variety of chronic health issues that would have kept most of us on the sidelines. He didn’t have to and probably should not have gone to war. But he used his privileged status, not to avoid service, but to pull strings and join the navy in spite of his medical problems because he felt it was his duty. He’d lived in Europe as a young man in the ‘30’s and knew first-hand the evils of Nazism while most of America was still in favor of isolationism.

After the war Kennedy felt called into politics, not for what it could do for him, but for what he could do for his country. He was already a twice published author and Pulitzer Prize winner (for “Profiles in Courage”) but chose not to be a safe and comfortable spectator/quill driver and instead became an active participant in causes he believed in passionately.

Kennedy’s achievements in his 1000 day presidency are truly remarkable: avoiding nuclear disaster in Cuba, signing the first nuclear arms control agreements, launching the Peace Corps, taking on organized crime, and advancing civil rights and social justice causes than extended American ideals in very significant ways.
He made mistakes in Southeast Asia and domestically, but one does not have to agree with every action or consequence of his policies or legacy to affirm the altruistic spirit of his life. He overcame great physical pain and ultimately gave his life for the country he loved because he chose to be a “profile in courage” instead of just writing about others who did.

In another part of the JFK library is a display I didn’t expect devoted to the life and works of Ernest Hemingway. I was surprised by that until in good quill driver fashion I had time to reflect on why the two share that space. The factual/historical explanation is that Hemmingway’s tragic suicide in 1961 occurred during JFK’s presidency and Kennedy helped assure that Hemmingway’s papers and original manuscripts were collected and preserved.
With all the cold war, domestic and political turmoil on Kennedy’s plate, I asked myself, why would he take time to preserve some quill driver’s papers? My guess is because like Kennedy, Hemmingway was not just a writer; he was a larger than life Zorbatic actor in the narratives he wrote about. He was able to write about the horrors of war because he lived them as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross in WWI. Like Kennedy he foresaw the coming of WWII because he lived in Europe and described the Spanish Civil War as a precursor to another world war.

Why does all that matter to me? Other than the obvious political connections between then and now, a lot of “normal” life has been going on for me since I last wrote here. Grandchildren graduating, having birthdays, my beloved United Methodist Church going through its quadrennial soul searching and public embarrassment about social justice issues, spring time challenges of yard work and gardening chores, coping with the challenges of aging – mine and my father’s; and all the while wrestling with my own temptation to play it safe, enjoy a “well-deserved” retirement, and avoid the conflicts and confrontations of social activism.

All that is far from a new struggle. Twenty plus years ago I wrote a paper about that tension in graduate school and called it “They Shoot Prophets, Don’t They?” Fear is a great excuse for cowardice. “Normal” life concerns and creature comforts are seductive temptresses to avoid faithful living and prophetic witness. Before retirement I often thought I was compromising my values for a parsonage and a pension. Now that only one of those two remains I feel somewhat less constrained to say what I think and feel.

All of that surfaced for me as I reflected on my Boston trip and the realization that “normal” life has kept me from writing here for the last few weeks. With all the critical issues confronting our world and the church right now, that seems like a shirking of my responsibility as a citizen and disciple. Life is a balancing act of tending to both personal and communal needs, and that is very hard work, at least for me.

Part of our responsibility to the larger community is to be informed and think critically about issues that affect the common good. Far too often we have a very limited perspective and base our beliefs and values on what is best for me and those close to me. It’s much harder to think across class, race and social boundaries to ponder and act on what is the just and right thing to do for all of humankind and beyond that to all of creation. We have a tendency to stay within our different comfort zones because, well, they’re comfortable. Intentionally or unintentionally we tend to live, work, go to school and socialize with people who look and think like we do. Historically when immigrants have come to this country, and that includes all of us or our forebears unless we are Native Americans, from the first settlements in this “New World” different ethnic groups, different faith groups, different classes settled together in different locations.

The American melting pot has in reality been more of a collection of separate but unequal boroughs, ghettos, subdivisions, colonies, and territories, from our inception. Now we are engaged again in that struggle Lincoln described so well at Gettysburg to see if a nation conceived and dedicated to unity in diversity can long endure. Unity does not mean conformity. We tend to forget that when we choose up sides and turn our differences into debates instead of opportunities to learn from each other. Our win-lose culture is based on economic and political systems where in order for one side to win someone else has to lose, even though that “losing” side might be 49% of the population.

We saw this win-lose struggle again at the recent United Methodist General Conference where stalemate and status quo left no one satisfied. A truce was called by the Council of Bishops to prevent division of the church and a special commission authorized to study the issues of sexuality that have consumed far too much time and energy and prevented other critical kingdom work for more years than Moses and the Hebrews wandered in the wilderness. I hope that commission will practice what Krista Tippett calls “generous listening” in her book, “Being Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living.” Her insights are so important I want to quote several passages from Chapter 2: “Words: The Poetry of Creatures.”

“Generous listening is powered by curiosity, a virtue we can invite and nurture in ourselves to render it instinctive. It involves a kind of vulnerability—a willingness to be surprised, to let go of assumptions and take in ambiguity.”

“Our cultural mode of debating issues by way of competing certainties comes with a drive to resolution. We want others to acknowledge that our answers are right. We call the debate or get on the same page or take a vote and move on. The alternative is a different orientation to the point of conversing in the first place: to invite searching—not on who is right and who is wrong and the arguments on every side, not on whether we can agree; but on what is at stake in human terms for us all. There is value in learning to speak together honestly and relate to each other with dignity, without rushing to common ground that would leave all the hard questions hanging.”
“But the pressure of coming to agreement works against really understanding each other. And we don’t understand each other.”

“More importantly, you have got to approach differences with this notion that there is good in the other. That’s it. And if we can’t figure out how to do that, and if there isn’t a crack in the middle where there’s some people on both sides who absolutely refuse to see the other as evil, this is going to continue. There’s a lot of pressure, and it’s much easier to preach to the choir versus listening to people who agree with you. But the choir is already there; the choir doesn’t need us. The crack in the middle where people on both sides absolutely refuse to see the other as evil—this is where I want to live and what I want to widen.”

Not bad advice for Congress and our political process either! But generous listening takes time and critical thinking skills that cannot be achieved in a 5 minute speech or a 140 character tweet. It requires a willingness to practice what we write/preach, to be in the words of Jesus and James, “doers of the word and not just hearers.” I want to simply close with those words and encourage all of us to read them with new eyes and generous ears and pray for inspiration and guidance to be both wise observers and daring actors on the stage of life.

“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.” Matthew 7:24

“But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves[a] in a mirror; 24 for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25 But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing. 26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” James 1:22-27