Schism: Ecclesiastical Divorce

The long-expected schism in the United Methodist Church finally hit close to home for me. I learned recently that the congregation I grew up in will be voting soon to disaffiliate from the United Methodist denomination. The move to sever ties, as in other congregations, is being officially described as being based on the one true (literal) way to apply “Christian” scripture, values and laws to contemporary issues of ethics and morality.

Hidden among the pious platitudes proof texted from the Bible is the real reason for the denominational divorce. No matter what the Wesley Covenant Association, the architects of the new Global Methodist Church claim, the real reason for the schism is fundamental disagreement over a few sentences inserted into our “Book of Discipline” 50 years ago excluding LGBTQ persons from ordination.

The debate has become more heated in recent years as LGBTQ rights have been recognized in society and not in the church. Instead of transforming the world as forerunners of radical hospitality the church has been playing catch up. Many courageous and progressive UMC bishops have decided to be loyal to the all-inclusive Gospel proclaimed by Jesus instead of the legalistic and exclusive letter of the United Methodist law. The modern day Pharisees in our denomination are calling those bishops and those of us who agree with them heretics subject to hellfire and damnation unless we repent and see things their way.

I wrote a letter to the editor of our local newspaper recently in response to an article describing another congregation’s decision to vote on disaffiliation. In response a member of that congregation wrote his own letter to the paper making the standard arguments and accusations. I had to chuckle over his attempt to rebut my claim that the real issue was LGBTQ ordination and marriage. He cited a church he knows of that has a head usher who is gay. Translation: “We’ll let them in the pews, just not the pulpit,” completely ignoring the central issue of this argument which is ordination. Our current “Book of Discipline,” in similar fashion talks out of both sides of its mouth. It says LGBTQ persons are “of sacred worth,” and in the next breath says that does not make them “sacred” enough to be ordained.

Talking to a friend who is still a member in my home church reminded me that I wrote a short post about all this way back in the pre-covid era. It was after a special General Conference of the UMC was held in 2019 to once more attempt to come to some mutual agreement over this controversial topic which is an existential reality for our LGBTQ siblings. What I wrote then still pretty well sums up how I feel. I titled it “Know When to Walk Away, Know When to Run.”

“If that house will not welcome you shake the dust from your feet and walk away.” Those words from the Gospel of Matthew kept running through my mind as I followed the struggles of the United Methodist General conference last week. Leaving a significant relationship is never easy, but sometimes it is the best choice to make. I have been an ordained United Methodist pastor for almost 50 years. For all but 3 years of my entire ministry my denomination has been arguing over LGBTQ acceptance.

Like Charlie Brown I dared to hope that just maybe this time the General Conference wouldn’t pull the ball away before Jesus could kick a field goal. It pains me greatly that once again my denomination has failed to be the church. Isn’t 47 years long enough to wait for the UMC to produce good fruit? Far too many good people have been damaged by the judgmental policies of our church. Far too much time and precious resources have been wasted fiddling with this unwinable debate while the world burns from hunger, poverty, climate change, racism and rising nationalism.

The world is in desperate need of authentic ministry to the marginalized, the immigrants and oppressed, and a church that cannot even accept its own LGBTQ children so we can all join hands to care for God’s children is not a a church worthy of Christ’s name.

I will of course pray long and hard for everyone wounded again by this rejection and for the rejectors. But I will also be praying about my future relationship to the UMC. My decision may be easier because I am retired. It will be a much harder choice for others in active ministry. I will wait to see what last week’s vote for an even harder line rejection of my beloved sisters and brothers actually means. Like Congress church politics are messy and convoluted. Even those who were in Indianapolis at General Conference are not sure what the so-called “Traditional” plan means. Parts of it were apparently declared unconstitutional by the Judicial Council before the vote which probably means the battle will continue, and even more LGBTQ people and their progressive supporters will be alienated from Christ and his redeeming, inclusive love.

Even though we don’t know what the future holds, these things I do know for sure. God isn’t finished with us yet. For people of faith resurrection always follows death. It may feel like Friday, but Sunday’s coming! The Christ I have come to know and love says, “Come to me ALL (not just those we deem worthy) who labor and are heavy laden.” And in that verse from Matthew where it says to shake the dust from your feet, listen to Jesus’ final warning to those who refuse to welcome God’s blessed ones: “Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgement than for that town.” (Matthew 10:15)

Whatever emerges from the coming schism I for one am ready to shake the dust of judgement and rejection from my feet and align myself with those who are welcoming and inclusive. I don’t know yet what that looks like organizationally, but Jesus knows it’s not the name on the church door that matters. It’s the hospitality inside the fellowship of believers that makes us a church.”

When, Lord, when?

Oh Holy One , I am feeling like pharaoh must have felt during the plagues. Fire, floods, Covid, monkeypox, and the stupidity of gun violence and war bombard me constantly from my newsfeed.

As the anniversary of 9/11 approaches once more I remember those pesky words from Jesus that we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. That was hard then and still is, oh so very hard.

Never did I imagine back then that I would see the day when political foes in our own country would be the enemies that I struggle to love or even forgive!

I know it’s wrong but I find myself longing for the God of Exodus who drowned the Egyptian‘s in the Red Sea. Or even for the God of Mary who promised us that the rich and powerful will be sent empty away. When, oh Holy One? When will justice roll down like waters? When will we beat our swords into garden tools and never learn war anymore? When, Lord, when?

In the words of one who survived one of the darkest hours of human history, Corrie Ten Boom, “Lord if you want these people forgiven you are going to have to do it because I can’t.“

And yet I give you thanks, Lord, for modern day prophets like Diana Butler Bass, Brian McLaren, Nadia Bolz-Weber, and the dear departed Rachel Held Evans. They give me hope even in the depths of despair about the future of humanity.

And it’s not so much for myself that I pray, Holiest One. It is for those I love the most, my children and grandchildren, that I weep. They will inherit the mess my generation has made.

Please send your miracle-working spirit to renew a right spirit within us, to help us repent of the greed that is destroying our planet and the fabric of our society.

Oh how I hope that it is not too late. And I give thanks that in your eternal, cosmic power it is never too late. Amen

Awe, Mystery, and Disgust Part II

I am still processing the act of nature I witnessed in my back yard yesterday when a hawk

decided to drop in and have what I now believe was one of our many wild rabbits for dinner. In fact just looking at this image still gives me chills even though I didn’t witness the actual attack.

When I heard on the news today that this is the 6-month anniversary of the beginning of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine I could not help drawing the comparison to what the hawk in my backyard did to what the hawk in Moscow has been doing to Ukraine for half a year.

It is way to easy to be distracted by all the political foolishness in our own backyards and forget the war crimes and senseless violence the Russians are inflicting on our sisters and brothers in Ukraine. But it is a great disservice to the hawk I saw yesterday at my house to compare it to Putin. The hawk here was doing what hawks do naturally to survive. That’s what raptors do. But there is no natural or just reason for what Putin continues to do to Ukraine.

Cleaning up the remains of my hawk’s dinner was disgusting, but what is happening in Ukraine turns my stomach even more. Are we humans no better than that? Christ have mercy!

Prayer for Freedom

O Eternal Author of all that is, on this Independence Day weekend we celebrate all the freedoms we have, including the freedom to gather here on line and in person to worship you.  We confess we often take our freedoms and privileges for granted.  Help us tap into the well of gratitude we owe to you first and foremost, even as we celebrate the visionaries who dared to declare their independence from Great Britain almost 250 years ago.  Our journey as a nation toward a more perfect union has been a very bumpy ride; so even as we shoot off fireworks and eat too much this weekend to celebrate our freedom, we also lift up our prayers for the broken and divided nation we occupy in this particular chapter of  American history.  

We have come a long way toward fulfilling the dreams of Jefferson, Lincoln, Sojourner Truth, and Dr. King, but we have miles and miles to go before we reach the high ideals of liberty and justice for all.  As we celebrate our own freedoms this year we also pray for those who are not free from food and financial insecurities.  Remind us to pray for those without adequate health care or opportunities for education and training for meaningful jobs.  We pray for those in our nation and others who are not free from the fear of violence in their cities, and for women and girls who still yearn for the wages, rights, and opportunities taken for granted by their male counterparts.  

We offer special prayers for those who are not free from racial profiling and stereotypes that threaten their very lives.  For homeless immigrants around the world and people living on the streets of our own city, hear our prayers, O God.  We weep for our sisters and brothers in Ukraine enduring naked aggression and suffering at the hands of a misguided bully.  But we also pray for all those who feel the need to oppress and are insatiably hungry for power over others.  

Jesus, our Lord and Savior, said he came to set the captives free, and so we pray for true freedom:

Freedom from extreme temperatures, droughts, and storms caused by climate change.

Freedom to be better stewards of your creation.

Freedom from systemic racism and discrimination against our LGBTQ siblings.

Freedom to offer hospitality to all of your children.

Freedom from addiction in all its forms.

Freedom to offer support to anyone struggling with disease and chronic pain.

Freedom from depression and. hopelessness.

Freedom to be open and vulnerable enough to share our own struggles with those who need a friend they can trust to hear their story without fear of judgment.

Gracious and loving God, you already know the cares and concerns of our hearts, yearning to be free.  Send your Holy Spirit to bring blessed assurance to each one worshiping with us.  

Remind us again that your reign of justice and peace does not come with swords loud clashing nor roll of stirring drums, but with deeds of love and mercy.  We know that true freedom will not come until we dwell again in heavenly peace with you.  But until that day comes empower us with the courage to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with you as we offer the freedom of your grace to all we meet.  We ask these things, as well as our unspoken prayers in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen

[Pastoral Prayer for July 3, 2022, Northwest UMC, Columbus, OH]

Dis-United: Realism vs Aspirations

May 2022 will go down in my personal history as one of the most difficult in my life. I have not written a post here for over a month for a number of reasons, including trying to work through my chronic pain to help care for our beautiful 2 acre property. My depression over my failing strength has coupled with despair over humankind’s addiction to violence. From Mariupol to Buffalo to Uvalde bloodshed has colored the news and my Eeyore-like emotional state.

Amidst all the terrible news of current affairs the unmerry month of May has been the scene of schism in the United Methodist Church, my church home for 65 years. That split along with the related political paralysis in our country got me searching for a common thread. There are several, but the one that captured my imagination is the semantic commonality shared by both my country and my church, namely that both share in their names a paradoxical claim to be “united.”

The UMC was founded 54 years ago in 1968 with the merger of two denominations, the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Evangelical United Brethren and is younger than the USA by almost 200 years. Realizing that the word “united” in both cases is more aspirational than descriptive, it still saddens me greatly that in both cases the divisions have widened over their lifespan rather than moved closer to living up to their names.

Case in point: “The United States may have been founded on the idea that all men are created equal, but during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, slaveholding was common among the statesmen who served as president. All told, at least 12 chief executives—over a quarter of all American presidents—enslaved people during their lifetimes. Of these, eight held enslaved people while in office.” (history.com)

The authors of the American experiment in democracy included the damning phrase in our constitution that enslaved persons only counted as 3/5 of a person because those authors were predominantly slave owners. That 3/5 clause was a compromise to “unite” the northern and southern colonies, but at a price we are still paying for today. Systemic racism had already been in existence for over 150 years in those colonies, and the battle over it dominated the country’s politics for 80 years ending in the bloodiest war in our history. But, unlike what most of us were taught in school, that war didn’t solve this existential problem. Systemic racism continued to poison our nation through lynchings, Jim Crowe laws, and outright genocide against Native Americans. That racism may have seemed to go underground for a few years after the successes of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s but reared its ugly head again in the 21st century in the twin evils of birtherism and Trumpism.

It frustrates me greatly that we weren’t taught about this disunited history in school. Our history text books never mentioned the Tulsa massacre of 1921or many other similar atrocities all over the country. We did not learn about the Trail of Tears or Wounded Knee or lynching of black folks for public entertainment sanctioned by the church. Those omissions were not our teachers’ fault. Those ugly parts of our history were so buried and censored that our educators didn’t know either and kept passing those lies along. “United” States? Not even close.

The disunity of the United Methodist denomination is a similarly sad story. I was ordained in 1969 in the first class of ordinands in the infant UMC. Three years later the exclusionary language condemning homosexuality as “incompatible with Christian teaching” was inserted into our Book of Discipline, the rule book governing the UMC, by the first General Conference of the new UMC. And for the next 50 years that culture war has raged, leading to the schism in our denomination.. That Covid-postponed split began to unfold officially on May 1, 2022 with the launching of a new denomination called the Global Methodist Church by those who are opposed to ordination and marriage for LGBTQ people.

So we have these two “united” in name only entities with ever-widening irreconcilable differences. When stuck in that kind of relationship a married couple faces the painful reality that separation and divorce may be the lesser of two evils. Divorce is always messy but sometimes necessary for both parties to survive and flourish. Even Jesus instructed his disciples in Matthew 10:14: “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town.”

Are we at that point in either the UMC or USA? For me the answer is yes and maybe. In the case of the UMC I am convinced that a divorce is necessary. For 50 of my 53 years as an ordained pastor in the UMC the debate over LGBTQ equality in the eyes of God has dominated a large part of our corporate life and consumed so much time and energy that could have been used in more important forms of ministry. As one with first-hand experience with marital divorce I can attest to how much emotional energy is consumed by conflict and pretending to be something we are not. There comes a time in some marriages when the most loving decision is to set each other free, and the UMC is at that point.

As for the USA the issues are far more complicated. Our two major political parties are so far apart on most issues there is little common ground upon which to stand. The Gospel of John tells us that we need truth to set us free and we aren’t getting much truth. The Republican Party has descended to fear-mongering and lies to get or maintain power. Too many individuals are so concerned with inflation and losing our own privileged lives to see the bigger picture. Such short-sightedness means we keep kicking the can of climate change and other critical issues down the road and leaving our children and grandchildren with a bleak future. Any modicum of impartiality and non-partisanship in the judiciary at every level has succumbed to political gamesmanship. Any hope for real election reform to undo the damage caused by Citizens United would have to be enacted by the very lawmakers who benefit from existing laws. That seems to be an idealistic pipe dream.

When we can’t even manage a peaceful transition of power in a Presidential election it seems hopeless to think we Americans could engineer any kind of altruistic or amicable divorce.

For real or even semi-unity in either of these cases a healthy dose of conversion to comply more closely to our founding ideals in the Bible or the constitution respectively would be necessary. Unfortunately the only road to conversion is through confession and repentance, and I see little humility needed to make that happen in our church or nation. If we continue to bear the heavy burden of pretending to be something we are not instead of facing the hard truth of our real history we will never have the courage or energy needed to hear the truth.

But here’s the truth that sets us free. We are still loved even in our division and sinfulness. Our creator’s unconditional love is what sets us free to confess our failures and move toward a more perfect union. It’s that simple and yet so hard because it requires a leap of faith. The alternative is to keep widening the chasm of disunity until it is beyond repair.

Ukraine: Reaping the Whirlwind and Beyond

“Those who have sown the wind will reap the whirlwind.” Hosea 8:7.

The prophet Hosea wrote those wise words over 2700 years ago predicting the fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel to Assyria. The wind they had sown in that case was putting their trust in foreign alliances instead of God.

Fast forward to 2022 CE to a confrontation between Vladimir Putin and the western world.  The civilized world is appalled at the brutal and indiscriminate slaughter of innocent civilians by the Russian dictator. There are many legitimate arguments being made comparing this invasion to Hitler’s takeover of Eastern Europe 80 years ago.

President Biden and the NATO allies are very reluctant to confront Putin militarily or in any way that Putin might construe as an affront to his fragile ego. The comparison of this “inaction” to British Prime Minister Chamberlain’s failed appeasement of Hitler in the run up to World War II is somewhat persuasive, but there is one huge difference. Hitler didn’t have nukes. Putin does, lots of them, and he seems unhinged enough to use them.

In other words, we sowed the atomic wind on Hiroshima and Nagasaki 80 years ago and launched a suicidal arms race with the ever so apt strategy named MAD (mutually assured destruction). Now we are reaping the whirlwind of birthing the nuclear arms race. Our ability to stop Putin’s massacre of Ukrainians is hamstrung by the fear of the very nuclear arms race we invented.

I have no solution to this conundrum. Even though I try to be a pacifist, if there was a way to blow Putin to kingdom come without escalating this whole mess I’d be all for it. No one wants to ignite WW III because we know there will be no WW IV. In my darker days, and there are more and more lately, I am beginning to believe that between humanity’s obsession with violence and our greed that fuels climate change the human race is doomed.

But here’s the thing, that is not as hopeless or as fatalistic as it sounds. Because the God of the entire universe is so much more, well, cosmic than anything our puny little planet amounts to that the loss of this 3rd rock from the sun would barely be a blip on the cosmic screen. That is a harsh pill to swallow for those of us who think we are created in God’s image, a little less than the angels (Psalm 8:5)! Ever since Galileo and Copernicus dared to question the anthropocentric belief that the earth was the center of the universe our knowledge of the infinite nature of space has made us more and more humble, or should have.

I hope and pray I am wrong about the future of humankind. At my age it doesn’t really matter much to me personally, but it makes me sick to think of that bleak future I’m leaving to my kids and grandkids. Is there still hope for humans to learn to live in peace with one another? Could the threat of climate change provide motivation for humans to finally band together to fight a common foe instead of each other? Based on our past track record I don’t see it happening. If the Holocaust, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki didn’t cure our warring madness, what will?

[Note: This post originally ended right here, but about 5 minutes after I posted it I heard that still small voice saying, “That’s not the end of the story.” So I unposted it and added the following.]

Here’s the good news—the whirlwind doesn’t get the last word. The name “Hosea” means “salvation.” And even though Hosea proclaims Yahweh’s anger at Israel he also shares God’s compassionate nature for the Souther Kingdom, Judah.

“But I will have pity on the house of Judah, and I will save them by the Lord their God; (1:7a). But listen to the rest of that sentence: “I will not save them by bow, or by sword, or by war, or by horses, or by horsemen.”(7b). God’s salvation does not come by instruments of death and destruction. Those ways are anathema to the One who dreams of a day when swords are beaten into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks, and the ways of war are learned no more. (Isaiah 2:4)

The biblical narrative has rightly been called the salvation history of humankind. How many times do the chosen people break their covenant with God? How many times is Jerusalem leveled like one of the horrendous images we have from Ukraine? Pick a number, any number, say x. And whatever number we pick the answer to the next question, how many times does God redeem her people, is x + 1.

Even as he proclaims judgment on Israel’s unfaithfulness just three verses later Hosea assures his readers that the alienation and suffering is not the final word.

“Yet the number of the people of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which can be neither measured nor numbered; and in the place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,” it shall be said to them, “Children of the living God.” (Hosea 1:10)

What does this say to our broken, fearful world today? We know not when, where, how or even why God will forgive humankind’s unfaithfulness, but in God’s good time, not ours, it will be done. Even if we destroy ourselves and this precious earth God has entrusted into our care, we and all of creation will live and move and have our being eternally in the cosmic source of all Being. Because we put our trust, not in weapons of death and destruction, but in resurrection that assures us that nothing in all creation, “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers,nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)

Amen

A Prayer of Lament as War Begins — Again!

O My God, the long anticipated and feared war in Ukraine seems to have finally begun. What a sad thing it is that humankind cannot give up it’s addiction to violence. Why do we keep doing the very things we know we ought not do? Why do we insist on labeling some of our sisters and brothers our enemies? My heart is broken that again we have turned our backs not only on lessons we should have learned from centuries of history but also again on your will for peace and justice for all of your children.


And my heart is laden down with regrets and feelings of futility. What can this old tired and retired preacher say or do that I have not done for decades? Did we not learn anything from the other two bloody wars in Europe in just over 100 years ago? How can partisan blinders keep so many American leaders from seeing that Putin is reprising Hitler’s playbook? How can support for Putin from an American former president not be treason? How can I love these enemies foreign and domestic when I want to damn them all?


I’m wrestling with a desire to speak out but fear the political backlash I may get from family and friends who want to keep me in the straight jacket of an apolitical and irrelevant pastoral stereotype? Is not your heart also breaking, loving one? Has it not been broken too many times to count since Cain killed Abel? Massacres, crusades and genocides often waged in your holy name have filled whole chapters of human history. We build monuments and deify military and violent heroes, but we crucify and assassinate messengers of peace. How in your name, O God, can we keep our faith when the forces of evil and darkness seem to be gaining thousands of blind followers each and ever day?


The Christian season of repentance is coming in just a week. Please may we celebrate a solemn and holy Lent this year and call upon the power of your Holy Spirit, the one force stronger than violence and human evil, to save us from our own sinful ways. Christ have mercy! Amen

Respectful Disagreement

Like many wiser minds I have been very troubled about the state of our nation and the world in general. In particular I’m most concerned about the chasm of polarization that seems hopelessly wide and deep, making any productive discourse almost impossible. This impasse is a huge impediment to resolving everything from American culture wars to Vladimir Putin waiting to pounce on Ukraine.

It may seem naive or trite, but what the Judeo-Christian world knows as “The Golden Rule,” “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” seems like such a simple solution to most of the world’s problems. Knowing that words similar to Matthew 7:12 or Leviticus 19:18 appear in other world religions I googled that phrase and, please excuse the pun, I struck gold on my first try. Here’s what I found:

The Saturday Evening Post: cover, April 1, 1961 was a Rockwell collage of a group of people of different religions, races and ethnicity as the backdrop for the inscription “Do Unto Other As You Would Have Them Do Unto You.” Rockwell was a compassionate man, and this simple phrase reflected his philosophy.
“I’d been reading up on comparative religion. The thing is that all major religions have the Golden Rule in Common. ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ Not always the same words but the same meaning.” – Norman Rockwell

Here are Norman Rockwell’s notes on the way that the Golden Rule is expressed
in different religions…

Such a list is an example of what some contemporary theologians (e.g. Richard Rohr, Matthew Fox) would call cosmic or deep ecumenism.

All of that is wonderful wisdom, but I want to share with you a concrete example, a snapshot in time if you will, of what that kind of mutual respect looks like in action. In response to my blog entitled “Leading with Your Head,” (Jan. 30, 2022) I received this comment from a friend and colleague, Rev. Phyllis Fetzer. She wrote,

Hi, Steve, I enjoyed this blog post and thank you for the reminder re: being holistic and not just “leading with our head.” I mean no disrespect when I point out two things about your digression re: traumatic brain injury suffered by (football) players: (1) It’s not a “maybe;” it’s almost a certainty that players will experience damage to the brain. One recent (respected) study showed traumatic brain injury in 110 out of 111 players; that’s basically 100%. (2) May I gently point out to you (and hope that you would do the same to me) that having a lifelong habit of watching football doesn’t mean that that habit can’t change, right? Thinking of other ethical areas where people have said, “I just can’t change because it’s been this way my whole life.” E.g., men referring to women as “girls”. We *can* change in light of new learning, yes? I hope and think that you know that I respect you very much, and am also aware that I’m sure that I have (an) ethical blind spot(s) in some other area. Thanks for the good post.”

Wouldn’t the world be a much kinder and more productive and loving place if we could learn or relearn to disagree constructively and respectfully. I can tell you I certainly receive that kind of feedback with open arms and an open mind rather than putting up my defenses when I feel attacked. And I hope I have learned to live by that old golden rule just a little more thanks to Phyllis.

Toxic Masculinity

“They shall beat their swords into plowshares,
    and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
    neither shall they learn war any more.”  Isaiah 2:4

“Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth. “ Jesus, Matthew 5:5

Are Isaiah, Jesus and pacifists simply naïve optimists, or are they visionaries making a theological statement and not an historical one, a warning more than a prediction?  By worldly standards such comments by Jesus are not taken seriously because most of us cannot begin to entertain the notion, let alone understand, that meekness and vulnerability can be and are the ultimate signs of strength.  

Three of my favorite authors, namely Matthew Fox, Richard Rohr, and Brene Brown have addressed the important topic of toxic masculinity in their recent writings, and those words could not be more timely and critical.  Toxic masculinity is nothing new, but seems to be as rampant and contagious as the Omicron variant of Covid.  The standoff over Ukraine, the January 6 insurrection, the epidemic of gun violence in our cities, violent conflicts over masks on airplanes, and the populist posturing of Donald Trump and his merry band of followers are just a few examples from today’s headlines caused by the “might makes right” way of life. 

My wife and I went to see the new “West Side Story” movie last weekend, and as you probably know the whole plot of the movie centers on gang violence and turf wars between the Sharks and the Jets.  I knew that of course going in to the theater, but this version of that story seems to make the violence and tragedy more realistic and painful than the 1961 version. Or maybe it’s just that I know a lot more about the futility of violence now than I did when watching the original movie through the rose-colored glasses of my youth.  

For my 15 year-old self West Side Story was just a tragic love story.  I didn’t notice anything in the film about racism or social injustice because I knew nothing about racism or pacifism.  I grew up in a pure white community playing cowboys and Indians and war games with my neighbor Jim Shockey.  When I couldn’t be outside my bedroom floor was often covered with little army men on the floor (our video game violence then).  My life ambition as a 4th grader was to be a marine and I dreamed of attending one of the military academies.  My worldview was so narrow that I had no contact with any people of color until I was 20 years old.  

Since West Side Story is more than 60 years old I don’t think I’m giving away any secrets when I say the movie’s tragic ending is a perfect and very moving depiction of how absurd and futile trying to solve conflicts through violence is.

Toxic masculinity is as old as the Genesis 4 story of Cain killing his brother Able.  And in all the millennia since we have made almost no progress at learning to beat our swords into useful implements of peace.  The statue depicting that verse from Isaiah that stands in front of United Nations Headquarters in New York City was erected just three years after the Holocaust, Hiroshima, Nagasaki and all the other horrors of World War II ended.  Hitler and Mussolini and Emperor Hirohito were defeated through force the likes of which the world had ever seen.

The world had been naive or gullible enough to believe WW I as “the war to end all wars,” but only 20 years after the Treaty of Versailles ended that war the sequel debuted with Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland!  Sound familiar?  I do not mean to cast any dispersion on those who joined forces to oppose the Axis armies.  My father was part of that greatest generation who risked and/or lost their lives to stop the evil personified in Hitler.  

Force was met with greater force, but to what end?  History continues to repeat itself.  Hitler and Mussolini are replaced almost immediately by Stalin, the Kim Un gang, Pol Pot, Mao, and the brothers Castro just to name a few 20th century despots.   

We have cold and hot wars, guerrilla and urban warfare almost continuously all over the planet.  We have spent obscene amounts of money on deadlier and deadlier weapons of mass destruction, and greedy American capitalists lead the world in profiteering from making and selling those killing machines.  

How long will the human race pursue this madness?  Until we destroy ourselves and the planet we live on?  One can certainly offer plenty of evidence that our systems of patriarchy have failed to produce a world where we don’t learn war anymore.  I still hope that the emergence of more women in important leadership roles will help diffuse the toxic love of violence and force that has been the human race’s taken-for-granted business as usual for millennia.  But my hope is seriously tempered by the likes of Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert who are just as power hungry, paranoid and militant as their male counterparts.

This is not just a gender issue; it is a moral and existential threat to the human race itself, and it must change because there will be no WW IV.  The U.S. 2022 defense budget is $700,000,000,000, and have you ever heard of any great debates in Congress about passing it?  We have huge partisan wrangling over what we spend on education, the arts, health care and other social programs which cost a small fraction of the defense budget.  The best way to start beating our swords into plowshares is to simply stop making bigger and more deadly swords and spears!  We have enough atomic fire power to destroy the world dozens of times over.  Why do we need more and more?  

Another example of toxic versus heathy masculinity can be seen by comparing these two statements:  1) “Happy is the one who seizes your enemy’s infants and dashes them against the rocks.”  2) “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.”  

Most people  may recognize the latter words as part of Jesus’ Sermon On the Mount in Matthew 5.  But you may be surprised to learn that the first statement is also biblical (Psalm 137:9). The two could not be more diametrically opposed and are exactly why when conflicts arise between Jesus and other biblical writings, as they often do, I choose Jesus.  Not because the way of Jesus is easy but because it is true and the only way to real peace.  As the world teeters on the brink of another cold or, heaven forbid, hot war over Ukraine, we better learn the difference soon.  

Election Blues and Faithful remnants

“The lame I will make the remnant, and those who were cast off a strong nation.”  Micah 4:7

Is it possible to be very pessimistic about the future of American democracy and simultaneously confident in the future of its ideals drawn from the best of Judeo-Christian values?  It is on the horns of that dilemma I find myself as I near the end of my 75th orbit around the sun.  The euphoria I felt a year ago when Donald Trump was soundly defeated in his bid to be re-elected dictator of the U.S. has given way to despair as I watch the democratic party described by Will Rogers when he said, “I don’t belong to any organized political party; I’m a democrat.”  Now that inter-party warfare threatens to doom the Biden presidency and in the process throw open the doors of the US Capitol so the failed coup attempt of January 6 can be successfully completed at the polls in 2022 and 2024.

I have voted faithfully in every election since 1968, but this year I am so discouraged by the way the bitter politicization in our country has infected even local elections for school boards, city councils, and township trustees that I am tempted to throw up my hands and not even vote. Politicians have always exaggerated and lied about reality to get votes, but this year 90,000 Americans have died unnecessarily because political lies have become more deadly than the Delta variant of COVID-19.

As the news plays on my radio or TV I hear Amos warning against the sins of Israel. I see Jesus weeping over Jerusalem because she would not listen to his words of salvation and peace. I see shock on the faces of those who have bought the lie of American exceptionalism as they try to wipe the mark of the beast off their faces on the day of Armageddon.

But deeper than my despair I also know that the reign of God is not dependent on sinful mortals. I feel in my dry bones the salvation history revealed throughout the Scriptures that there has always been a faithful remnant preserved from any tragedy that rises from the ashes of earthly kingdoms to carry on the eternal torch of God’s holy shalom.

There are 82 references to “remnant” in the Hebrew Scriptures.  These references are not about left-over pieces of fabric, but about those who are left out and powerless according to worldly ways.  Through flood, slavery, exile and even execution of the Messiah the solid rock of truth has survived as the foundation of life itself. The earthly power of Pharaohs, Jezebel, Nebuchadnezzar, Herod, Pilate, Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and all the others named and unnamed in our history books is as flimsy as the fakery of the Wizard of Oz.

The creator of our universe will still prevail with or without us, even if we succeed in our blind foolishness and destroy the earth itself. Dr. King was right that the arc of the moral universe is long, so long that we cannot see the end. It is as unattainable for mere humans as the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. So just now we despair because that arc of morality seems twisted and malformed in our finite ability to envision the mystery of the future. But I still dare to believe that it bends toward justice, maybe not in the dwindling short term of my lifetime, but in God’s eternal kairos.

From the perspective of 3/4 of a century of life on this planet this much I know, maybe not in my feeble brain but “deep in my heart,” the great old protest song “We Shall Overcome” is true. That “someday” of justice may not be on any human calendar, but it will come in God’s good time; and on that hope I must hang my hat, especially in such trying days as these.