History Lessons

I’ve been pondering the current re-emergence of racism in America while reading a history of the contentious and violent 1968 presidential election. This takeover of the party of Lincoln and Eisenhower has its roots in the Southern Strategy of Nixon and the blatant racism of George Wallace and Strom Thurmond. Donald Trump is simply the latest horrible outbreak of the evil virus that has been in this country from its very beginning.

There has been attention drawn to the 14th Amendment recently by Trump’s unconstitutional assertion that he can abolish birthright citizenship with a stroke of his pen. The scary thing is that if he retains control of all three branches of government next year he probably can and will. That’s what dictators do.

But here’s the history lesson we need to remember. The 14th Amendment, along with 13 and 15, that abolished slavery and granted citizenship and voting rights to African American men (women had to wait another 60 years to vote along with their white sisters), all three of those amendments were adopted during Reconstruction. That means the southern states never did and never have adopted those basic human values because their economy and heritage was founded on enslaving and abusing other human beings.

On my most depressed days I wonder if Lincoln was wrong to try and preserve this deeply divided union. Maybe we would have been better off as two separate but unequal nations?

But then the Holy Spirit taps me on the shoulder yet again and whispers in my ear, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)

And my hero Nikos Kazantzakis shouts in the other ear, ““My prayer is not the whimpering of a beggar nor a confession of love. Nor is it the trivial reckoning of a small tradesman: Give me and I shall give you. My prayer is the report of a soldier to his general: This is what I did today, this is how I fought to save the entire battle in my own sector, these are the obstacles I found, this is how I plan to fight tomorrow.” (Nikos Kazantzakis, “Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises”)

Where does that faith and courage to fight the good fight come from? The clue is this other quote from Kazantzakis that is his epitaph: “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.”

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Flags, Idols and Outrage Burnout

Because life has been busier than usual for me the last few weeks I have not posted anything here. I know, you conservative friends have been relieved, but it doesn’t mean I haven’t been reflecting on the myriad of news events in our broken world. I’ve been busy in part because my dear wife had rotator cuff surgery four weeks ago and has been unable to use her right/dominant hand and arm. I’m glad to be her “right hand man,” and I have a whole new appreciation for all she does and for the loving ministry of caregivers everywhere. She’s still got a few more weeks in her sling, but we are grateful that she’s recovering very well.

The other reason I’ve not written was something I couldn’t identify until recently. You know the feeling you get when you’ve got something wrong but you’re not sure what, and how it helps to get it diagnosed and have a name for it? Well I heard someone on NPR last week who gave a name to what I’ve been feeling about the current political malaise in our country and world. She called it “outrage burnout.” There is such a string of astonishing unjust and stupid actions taken by the President, his Attorney General, his cadre of crazy lawyers, ICE, etc. that before you can respond to one outrage there’s two or three more. I’m convinced it’s a very clever political strategy to simply wear down the opposition before the midterm elections. So with that caveat, here’s a post I started a week or so ago while waiting for my wife at a Doctor’s appointment. You will notice it is a bit dated but I believe it is still relevant enough to be worth your time.

When I was ordained a United Methodist pastor 49 years ago this month one of the traditional questions the bishop asked me and my fellow ordinands was “Are you going on to perfection?” We dutifully, if suppressing a chuckle, gave the acceptable answer which is “yes.” If asked that now in this penultimate stage of my life I’d have to say “Probably not!” The point of that question is that like any milestone event in life, e.g. graduation, marriage, bat mitzvah, ordination is just that, a milestone on a long journey and not a destination. It is also there as a not-so-subtle reminder that all of us, clergy alike and maybe especially clergy are FHB’s – fallible human beings standing in the need of God’s grace.

Since that day in 1969 I have learned many things about my own fallibility and the dark side of human nature that have convinced me beyond a shadow of a doubt that “perfection” is not achievable in this life—not even close.
In fact, one of the biggest issues I’m dealing with in my 72nd year of life is dismay that humankind seems to be moving further from perfection at an alarming rate. For most of my adult life I have been comforted and inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s statement that “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Lately however I find myself questioning which way that arc is bending. My biggest regret about my ministry is that both my church and the world seem even more divided and imperfect now than they did 50 years ago.

I will spare all of us the litany of evil and depressing events that bombard us daily like a biblical plague of locusts. It is hard to decide which of the seven deadly sins is most prevalent on any given day. But for the sake of argument let’s just tackle the first two the Ten Commandments. The top two of the Decalogue can be summarized: 1) Have no other gods but Yahweh, and 2) Worship no idols. I am thinking of those two just now because of the “to kneel or not to kneel” debate going on between NFL football players, NFL owners, and President Trump.
The NFL recently, in my opinion, violated the first amendment rights of their predominantly black players by threatening to fine anyone for not standing during the national anthem. President Trump raised the ante by harkening back to the good old “America love it or leave it” days of the 1960’s anti-war protests to question if anyone defying the NFL rule even belongs in this country! Do you suppose he will also deport all the Amish, Mennonite and Jehovah Witnesses who also refuse to bow down to any empire’s graven image? Those groups have been exercising their right to freedom of expression for decades, but then again they’re white so that must make a difference.

The Supreme Court ruled in the middle of World War II no less that Americans have the right not to stand for the national anthem. Why does it matter? Because God and God’s values of justice and equality for all of humankind trump, pun intended, any human law or allegiance. That’s what the “under” means in “One nation under God.” And by the way all national laws of any nation are human laws. For a more detailed discussion of what Professor Robert Jewett calls “zealous nationalism” vs. “prophetic realism” see my post on “Biblical Politics,” Nov. 5, 2012.
The flag controversy began as a protest against police using excessive and too often fatal force, against black people, especially those who are unarmed. That’s a legitimate justice issue and needs to be addressed in any and all peaceful means; and kneeling players succeeded in bringing attention to that cause. But President Trump and the NFL have misconstrued their protest by trying to make it about patriotism and respect for the military. Intentionally or not that is a diversionary tactic to avoid the important issue of racial justice, the central moral issue of all of American history.

When a flag or any symbol becomes more important than the divine issues of truth and justice it has become an idol. Whenever loyalty to country or party supersedes loyalty to truth we are worshipping a false god. When I was a Boy Scout many decades ago there was a badge called “God and Country.” I don’t know if there is such an award in scouting now, but I hope not. That title equates God and Country as if the two are synonymous. They are not. Every nation, tribe, race, organization or group of FHB’s is by definition imperfect–in other words needs to always be “going on to perfection.” We the people of the USA have not and will never “arrive,” and therefore always are in need of positive and constructive criticism. That is what the first amendment so wisely is intended to protect and why it’s number one.

As for the NFL, let’s just say I’ll have more free time this fall on Sundays and Monday nights as I exercise my freedom to boycott their ill-advised rule.

P.S. As I was writing this my wife asked me a very good question about freedom of expression. This was during Rosanne Barr’s fifteen minutes of fame where her show was cancelled by ABC because she tweeted some racist comments about Valerie Jarett who was a member of the Obama administration. The difference is that Rosanne’s comments were degrading and libelous, defaming the very being of an African American woman. The NFL protest call attention to a social justice issue in order for it to be addressed. Rosanne slandered another human being in the cruelest of racial stereotypes that have no redeeming or critical value (and was a repeat offender of such behavior). Yes, she later apologized, but hateful speech is like the proverbial toothpaste that cannot be put back in the tube once it is expelled. On the other side of the political aisle a few days later Samantha Bee was guilty of using very crude speech about Ivanka Trump, and she was just as wrong and perhaps more so because her comments were not a late night tweet but a scripted pre-taped commentary on her TV show. So far as I know Bee has gotten off with much less punishment than Rosanne, and that is yet another example of how justice and human decency are being eroded by the partisan vitriol polluting the environment we all live in today.

Bottom line is that freedom of e xpre4ssion has never been an absolute right. The over –used example is that no one is allowed to induce panic in a crowded theater by yelling “fire” when there is none. Freedom must be tempered by the higher values of truth and respect for the greater good of others and the community.

The flag debate is not new but an on-going dialogue that will always be going on to perfection, even when it moves one step forward and two back. Never has the need for the balance between individual freedom and communal responsibility been more needed than it is today. The secret is in the first commandment. If we truly put the higher power of being itself that we call God first and foremost in our loyalties and obedience then other issues fall into place and greed, materialism, nationalism, sexism, and racism will not rule our thoughts and actions. Of course humankind has been trying to live up to that high ideal for 4000 years or so. We’re not close to arriving, and that is discouraging; but by the grace of God we continue on the way, even when the goal seems hopeless. For to continue seeking God’s way when all seems hopeless is the very meaning of faith.

May the Fourth

There were lots of Star Wars jokes this week about “May the fourth be with us,” but in a time that seems like a galaxy far far away the fourth of May has a more somber meaning. Forty-eight years ago four students at Kent State University were shot and killed by National Guardsmen sent there to control anti-war protests.
I was a student in 1970 at a liberal seminary 120 miles from Kent. Most of us at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio were opposed to the Viet Nam War; so we felt the pain of that tragedy from a particular point of view. Like many campuses our school was shut down after the shootings. The difference at Methesco, as we called it then, was that classes weren’t cancelled because of student protests. The Administration and faculty did it and called us all together to pray and discuss what we might do to respond to this tragedy and the animosity and anger dividing our nation.

It was a time not much different than our own where America was divided over a war that had dragged on far longer and cost more lives than was acceptable. Two presidents had promised to end the war and failed, and two prominent peace advocates had been assassinated just two years before. The move that set that fatal May day into action was President Nixon’s decision to secretly expand the war by invading Cambodia. Campuses all over the country erupted in violent protests and civic and college leaders at all levels struggled with how to restore order. Tragically people died at Kent State and 10 days later at Jackson State in Mississippi where two were killed and 12 wounded. The latter never received enough publicity. Some say it was racism because those students were black, but whatever the reason the loss of life added to the whole tragedy of that decade.

I want to emphasize that no one I knew blamed the guardsmen for the Kent State deaths. Those young men were about the same age as the protesters, which means they were my age; and I know I would have been scared to death in their shoes. If there’s blame to be had it belongs to President Nixon and Governor Rhoades and the Ohio state leaders who put the guard in that untenable position. But the blame game was of no use, and I’m grateful to my mentors at Methesco who helped us learn that lesson but instead helped us brainstorm more constructive responses.
It’s hard to find silver linings to some clouds, but if there were any benefits from the blood shed on those two campuses one would certainly be that those deaths forced the nation to a deeper examination of why we were in Southeast Asia. I believe May 4, 1970 was a turning point in the court of public opinion that brought our involvement in that war to an end sooner than it would have happened otherwise.

On a personal level that week had a profound impact on me and my ministry. The way our seminary community came together and how we responded put practical flesh and bones on the lessons we had learned academically about the imperative of the church to be engaged in social justice ministry. It was thing to study commandment to “do justice” (Micah 6:8); pleas for “justice (to) roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:24); visions of “beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks…and not learning war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4); or Jesus saying peacemakers are blessed (Matthew 5:9) and warning that “those who live by the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52) but quite another to apply those idealistic teachings to the nitty gritty of life and death issues.

After a good deal of discussion our seminary community decided on a two-prong approach to that May 4th. Knowing that there was deep division both within the church and the political community about the war we decided to try and address both. The decision was made that a delegation from Methesco would contact a nearby seminary with a much more conservative approach to theological and social issues to see if a dialogue between the two schools could help us both understand the other’s point of view. I was not part of that group so I don’t remember any particulars of what came from that discussion.

The other approach was for a group of us to travel to Washington DC and see if we could meet with Congressional representatives to express our concern and desire for peaceful resolutions of differences both within our nation and in the international community. We were young and poor then and full of energy; so three of us decided to save time and money we would drive straight through that night to DC, meet with whomever we could during the next day and then turn around and drive home the next night. I can’t even imagine doing that today, but it turned out to be one of the best bonding moments of my seminary career. The two guys I shared that 24-hour adventure with are still two of my best friends 48 years later.

We did meet with some representatives but came away feeling those men were much more concerned about protecting campus property and establishing law and order than they were about the human costs of the war or the issues the protesters were trying to raise. That too was a good lesson in patience and practical theology. Change and solutions to complex social issues do not happen overnight. Prophetic social justice ministry requires persistence. The issues change in each generation, but the need for people of faith to engage in relevant, messy, controversial issues never changes. There is always a need for the church to speak truth to power because the haves very rarely are willing to share their power with the have nots.

The three of us who were punchy and sleep-deprived when we completed our 24-hour marathon those many years ago are still active in retirement trying to discern God’s word for our day and trying as best we can to address social justice issues. May the force of truth and justice always be with us.

Earth Day, Science and Religion

I spent Earth Day morning participating in one of the hundreds of Marches for Science held around the world today. I am not a scientist, although there was a time when I thought I would be. I did well in science and math in high school, and inspired by the 1960’s space race and my hometown hero Neil Armstrong I began college in a pre-engineering program. All went fairly well until I hit calculus and suddenly an earlier call to ministry started feeling like a much better fit for me.

So I mingled at the Ohio Statehouse on a chilly Saturday morning (void of any global warming benefits) with a few thousand other people of all ages feeling a bit out of my element. The speakers at the rally were all from the scientific community, and except for a few mentions of God when we sang “America the Beautiful” there were no official theological overtones to the program. I was pleased to see a couple of people from my church and a theology professor from my alma mater there.

I should say that my awareness to the issue of theology and religion was heightened by the fact that I am currently reading “Why Religion Matters” by Huston Smith, a very weighty tome that explores the impact of what Smith calls the Traditional and Modern worldviews. The former for Smith represents a theological/mystical perspective and the latter a purely scientific one. I readily admit it has been too many years since I studied philosophy for me to do justice to Smith’s argument, but he makes one distinction which I found very helpful, and that is when he distinguishes between “science” and “scientism.” He describes the difference like this: “Scientism adds to science two corollaries: first, that the scientific method is, if not the only reliable method of getting truth, than at least the most reliable method; and second, that the things science deals with—material entities—are the most fundamental things that exist.” (p. 64)

Theology and religion on the other hand deal with the mysterious and more ambiguous questions of meaning and purpose that lie beyond or deeper than any knowledge scientific experiments can provide. So while my co-marchers today were chanting about “peer reviewed research” and “scientific data,” my motivation for being at the rally had more to do with the Psalmist’s assertion that “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it; for God has founded it on the seas, and established it on the rivers.” (Psalm 24:1-2) I didn’t take time to make a sign for today’s march, but if I had mine might have had a footnote that said “marching for science (not scientism) AND faith.”

I hasten to add that scientific and theological worldviews are not mutually exclusive, even though they have often been characterized as foes. Speakers at the rally today celebrated a long list of illnesses that have been eliminated by medical science; they praised improved air and water quality made possible by environmental protection initiatives. And they legitimately, in my opinion, criticized short-sighted attempts by the Trump administration to cut back on important funding for the very programs that have given us a quality of life we take for granted.

I fully support the need for the NIH and the EPA. History should teach us that unregulated capitalism and free market motives quickly give into profit over prophetic concern for the general welfare and long-term preservation of God’s creation. So the political motives for today’s marches are grounded in the very theological issues of stewardship of what is not ours but God’s. It is good and necessary to celebrate all the advances in knowledge that scientific research has provided. But science without the safety net of theology always comes to the edge of human knowledge—the edge of mystery where we must take the proverbial leap of faith and trust in the source of being itself that some of us call God.

That partnership between science and faith was captured in my favorite sign among the hundreds held by marchers today. It contained this quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Science investigates; religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge, which is power; religion gives man wisdom, which is control. Science deals mainly with facts; religion deals mainly with values. The two are not rivals.”

If we are going to save our planet from human foolishness we need to join hands and work together, scientists and people of faith, government and private industry, young and old, and people of every political persuasion. There is no time or energy to waste on false battles between different perspectives or worldviews. I heard an interview on NPR this week about someone dealing with working class populations that are too consumed with just staying alive to go marching for science or the environment. The reporter said, “They don’t care about polar bears, they care about jobs.” The one to whom the earth belongs and all that is in it says we need to care about both. A nation that can eliminate polio and smallpox can figure out how to put people to work. If we can send people and spacecraft into outer space we can establish social justice and turn back climate change.

It’s a matter of priority. Those urgent human problems will not be resolved by building ugly walls or more obscene methods of mass destruction. The scientific method itself is proof that our hypothesis that war will solve human differences is blatantly false. How many times do we need to run that experiment before we realize it is a false hypothesis? All of the world’s great religions are based on a better hypothesis that the way to world peace is to love our neighbors, and that includes caring for mother earth that is our common home.

On my way to the march today I heard a piece on NPR about a woman who has started a support group for people who are suffering from anxiety about climate change and what it means for our future and especially for that of our children and grandchildren. She did it because she realized that there were lots of other people like her who were feeling isolated and powerless in the face of the forces denying the very existence of climate change. I confess I suffer from some of those same feelings and if that support group wasn’t in Utah I might join up. My own personal struggle with powerlessness took the form this week of not deciding until the last minute if I was going to the march today. My skeptic voice kept saying it won’t make any difference, your arthritis won’t like the chilly temperatures, you have too much else to do around the house. But the stronger voice was the one that argued for responsible stewardship, discipleship and citizenship, a pretty powerful combination.

And I’m very glad I went. It felt wonderful to be part of a movement that stretched far beyond downtown Columbus, to feel connected with the earth and with kindred souls who share a common purpose. That sense of belonging was summed up nicely in one of the other songs we sang at the rally before the march, John Lennon’s “Imagine:”

“Imagine all the people sharing all the world,
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope some day you’ll join us
And the world will be as one.”

Speak Truth to Power

In his book “Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale” Frederick Buechner challenges preachers to tell the whole truth of life and the Gospel with the closing line from Shakespeare’s “King Lear.” Buechner says, “…in the last act, the good and the bad, the wise and the foolish, the weak and the strong, all die alike, and the stage is so littered with corpses there is nobody much left except Edgar to stammer the curtain down as best he can. What he says is this: ‘The weight of this sad time we must obey; speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.’” Buechner offers this commentary: “They are not the most powerful lines in the play, but they are among the most telling because in them it would seem that Shakespeare is telling us something about himself and about the way he wrote his play…. In the interest of truth-telling there seems to be no risk Shakespeare is not willing to run as if from the conviction that if the truth is worth telling, it is worth making a fool of yourself to tell.”

It is the weight of the very sad times of political and social chaos in our country that demands that this foolish old preacher say what I feel and not what I ought to say.

I have watched President Trump and his band of billionaires violate the most sacred tenets of the US Constitution in his first month in office, and since only a few Republican representatives and Senators have had the courage to stand up to Trump’s authoritarian bully tactics I figure it’s time to add my voice to those who fear the consequences of his heavy-handed ways. I doubt that it will do a bit of good since the system of checks and balances built into our Constitution are currently suspended until enough Republicans realize the mortal danger we and the world are in if the current pattern of oppression and selfish nationalism is allowed to continue.

I continue to hope that sooner rather than later moral courage will override blind party and ideological loyalty in enough members of Congress to prevent the worst of the damage. But in the meantime innocent immigrant families are being torn apart, US citizens are being detained at airports for hours because they have “Muslim” names, and hate crimes and murder are being committed in the name of putting America First. This is wrong in the name of Christian values that proclaim that how we treat the “least of these” is how we treat Christ himself (Matthew 25:31-46). More than at any time in 150 years we are in a struggle for the soul of America like the one Lincoln described at Gettysburg “to see if this nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.”
There is hope that Congress will do its job and investigate the Russian connection to the Trump campaign and administration. Those of us who remember Watergate know what a long and painful process that kind of inquiry can be. Whatever the truth is about the firing of General Flynn, and Mr. Trump’s business connections and potential conflicts of interest, and the meddling of the Russians in the electoral process, we need to know the facts before any verdict can be rendered. That investigation needs to occur, but I do not believe we can afford to allow this President to wreak havoc on marginalized people and on our environment for as long as that process will take. And we don’t need to.

We already have ample evidence to take action against this President and begin impeachment proceedings. On January 20 President Trump swore to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, and he has failed to do so in the first month of his Presidency. I am no Constitutional expert, but here’s what the Frist Amendment of the Constitution says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The Founding Fathers believed those basic freedoms were so central to our democracy that they spelled them out in the very first item in the Bill of Rights. Freedom of religion and freedom of the press are the cornerstones of a free and open society. Faith-based people and reporters are on the front lines of the truth tellers in our society, and therefore the first people that authoritarian governments try to silence. Yes, I realize the amendment says that Congress shall not abridge those freedoms and so far it’s been executive orders and policies that have banned people from Muslim countries and excluded critical media from White House access. I’ll leave it to the lawyers to haggle over the technicalities while Rome burns, but it seems like common sense to me that if Congress can’t abridge those freedoms then neither can the President.

And it is Congress’s job to provide checks and balances and control a President who violates his Constitutional duties. If they fail to do so then they too are breaking their vow to uphold the Constitution. The Founding Fathers understood the weaknesses of humankind well enough to know what great power can do to even a well-intended person. We forget at our peril the wisdom of Lord Acton: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I believe that President Trump does believe he is doing what is best for the U.S. and what he promised to do during his campaign. The problem is that we do not live in an isolated nationalistic world. Fear is turning people all over the world into self-centered nationalists who are willing to sacrifice the best qualities of humanity for a false sense of security.

Yes the future is scary. It always has been. I wrote after the Brexit vote (“A Lament for Unity,” 6/25/16 post) that the history of centuries of bloody wars in Europe flowed from nationalistic fear, and now that misguided populism is spreading like a virus all over the world. Like it or not modern technology has created a global economy that we cannot put back in the bottle. We need forward-looking vision about how to adjust and thrive in a global community. We can’t retreat back into an isolationist, industrial age that is no more. To do so is only going to fan the flames of hatred and make us less secure, not more.

Prayer for the Human Family

As my regular readers know I have strong political opinions about the current situation in Washington and its repercussions around the world. I strive to make sure those opinions are theologically grounded. After prayerful consideration of the crisis over immigration policy that has unfolded over the weekend I have decided to offer a prayer for unity and compassion for everyone involved rather than add to the often polarizing debate about political positions and constitutional interpretation. The inspiration for this prayer comes from my understanding of Judeo-Christian Scripture but also from a very secular source.

That secular source is from a marketing slogan used by one of my favorite breakfast restaurants, Bob Evans. (Full disclosure note: My son is a V-P in marketing for Bob Evans, but I would like this slogan regardless of family ties.) Our church has been doing a sermon series on myths and sayings that aren’t in the Bible, and I’d like to propose that this one could very well be. The slogan which is on the walls of many of Bob’s restaurants is this: “We treat strangers like friends and friends like family.”

Dear God, creator and sustainer of all creation, God of radical hospitality, you have taught us in Scripture and through Christ and faithful Jesus followers to be people of love. You warn us that it is not enough to love those who love us back, but to love even our enemies and those who persecute us. You have instructed us via prophets and parables all the way back to Leviticus to love our neighbors as ourselves. But we often forget that love of neighbor extends to all the Samaritans and Syrians and Somalis longing to be free.

Forgive us when we forget that your inclusive love requires us to welcome dialogue with our political foes and to enter into those conversations with open minds free from judgment about the motives of others. Help us temper our zeal for justice with open ears that can hear the concerns and fears of those we disagree with. Help us to lower the decibel level of the discourse as we strive to treat others with the same respect we want for ourselves and those we advocate for. Forgive us when we are more concerned with being right than reaching peaceful solutions to complex problems. Gently remind us when we are more determined to win an argument than to know the truth.

Teach us your patience, Lord, and remind us to double and triple check our facts before we post or tweet or share any information that may be counterproductive to the ultimate cause of peace and justice for all of your children. Give us minds that thirst for truth and learn from history, to see the many logs in our own eyes before we judge others about the specks in theirs. We have much in our American history for which we need to repent, O God of mercy. You know us better than we know ourselves. Grant us the courage to search the depths of our own sin. Remind us of our own shameful record of injustice against people of color, women, and our LGBT sisters and brothers. Send your Spirit to help us not be shamed by guilt but to benefit from our past transgressions and from those of others so we can learn and grow in our faith from this political crisis.

Touch our hearts O God in ways that empower us to live up to your high expectations for us. May your Spirit burn within us with a compassion for families that are separated, for students and business travelers stranded in foreign lands, for everyone who fears for their uncertain future. Let us not become so embroiled in the political struggles of our own nation that we surrender to 24/7 news fatigue. Do not let us lose sight of the fact that millions of human lives are at stake and will be impacted by our own action or lack thereof. Do not let us belittle our own significance with a false humility that can silence the voices of the many crying in the wilderness. Do not cease to remind us that we are to treat the stranger in our midst as we would treat our own family and friends, that radical hospitality is not an unreachable ideal or a clever marketing slogan but Gospel Truth.

Lord, there is much fear consuming our nation and world. There is fear for safety and security, fear of political impotence and fear of excessive power. Help us acknowledge and face all those fears with the confidence of your children who know that only perfect love casts out fear. You are the unshakable foundation of our faith and the only true source of perfect love. Without you we cannot imagine how the overwhelming crises of our world can be resolved. But you are the God of exodus and exile, of crucifixion and resurrection. No political crisis has ever silenced your voice. In the tumult and chaos of protests and partisanship, whisper again to us the assurance once more that neither powers nor principalities, death nor life, nor anything else in all creation will ever separate us from your love. Thanks be to God.

A Requiem for Truth?

Every pastor has had one or more difficult funerals to preach where it is hard to find something good to say about the deceased. As we bury 2016 that’s how I’m feeling. So many celebrity deaths, so much death in Aleppo and the Sudan, in Orlando and Brussels and Berlin that we are in danger of becoming numb to grief as a survival mechanism. While Prince and Princess Leia made the headlines, there was another casualty last year of greater magnitude than all of the other losses combined, and we are in grave danger of that death causing a plague that could bring about the demise of democracy in the U.S.

I’m talking about “truth.” The date of death is unclear because truth died a slow death by inches as 2016 progressed (or regressed). It may have been on November 8 or early on the 9th, or maybe Truth was taken off life support on December 19 by the Electoral College.

Saturday Night Live was one of first to recognize it on November 12 with a brilliant tribute to Leonard Cohen who died that week with Kate McKinnon’s mournful singing of “Hallelujah.” There’s a multitude of things the exegesis of that song could include, but the phrase that refuses to let go of me is “Love is not a victory march; it’s a cold and broken Hallelujah.” At the end of the song McKinnon, speaking both for herself and the character she portrayed during the election campaign, looked into the camera and said, “I’m not done fighting and neither should you.”

Perhaps like Mark Twain the reports of Truth’s demise are greatly exaggerated. As a pastor I said all the right words during the Advent season about hope, and light shining in the darkness, even as my heart was breaking for my country and for those who were so blinded by their fear and anger that they watched Truth die and didn’t raise a finger to help.

The Gospel of John (8:31-32) addresses Truth this way: “Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Truth will set you free? Free from what, sin? Free from false religiosity? If we read further in that chapter we find that Jesus leaves the temple at the end of John 8 – not just physically but spiritually. He shakes the dust off his feet and walks away from liars who cannot handle the truth of his Messiahship.

There’s been a lot of talk in the political arena about conflict of interests, and it’s a bipartisan issue. It includes not only the President Elect and his cabinet nominees, questions about the Clinton Foundation, and a Democratic Governor Elect, Jim Justice, the richest man in the state with deep investments in the coal and gas industry just to name a few. But there is also a huge issue of conflicts of interest for clergy and other faith leaders. We are called to perform both priestly and pastoral functions, to do the impossible job of simultaneously comforting the afflicted while afflicting the comfortable with words and actions that speak truth to ecclesiastical and secular power in the name of God’s reign of justice. In some situations speaking truth may set a faith leader free from a paycheck, a parsonage, and a pension or even from life itself. The reason that calls to ministry require such courage and faith are seen comfortably from a distance in the early Christian martyrs, but when more recent prophets like Martin Luther King Jr. and Dietrich Bonhoeffer come to mind the cost of discipleship and truth become much more challenging. We don’t like to be reminded that the same word in Greek is translated as both “witness” and “martyr.” As we celebrate his birthday this weekend there is no more fitting or powerful tribute to the power of Truth than Dr. King’s “Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last.”

I also find hope for Truth in the young. We often hear Isaiah’s words at Christmas that “a little child shall lead them” and apply them to Jesus. But there’s another child in the Christmas story, and without her courage and faith the story would be drastically different. Mary the mother of Jesus was just a teen when she accepted God’s outlandish news about her impending pregnancy. And once the unbelievable news is confirmed by the witness of her kinswoman Elizabeth, it is in the mouth of this innocent youth that Luke puts the powerful words of truth we have come to know as the Magnificat: “God has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (Luke 1:51-55)

That is Truth, and it is ignored at great peril by those in power who fail to heed its warning. It is ignored at great peril by Christians who focus their attention only on the cross and resurrection and ignore the prophetic teachings and actions of Jesus that got him crucified.

Everyone knows churches are packed on Christmas and Easter and much less so the other 50 Sundays of the year. That is unfortunate for many reasons, but the one that bothers me the most is that C & E Christians miss out on the whole truth of the Gospel that can truly set us free from the idolatries of worldly materialism and the refusal to face the truth of our individual and corporate sins. People who hear only the stories of Easter and Christmas either consciously or not skip the passion and just show up for the resurrection – celebrate the birth of sweet little Jesus boy, and then drop out for the rest of the story about the slaughter of innocents, and the flight into Egypt to avoid the assassins of truth. (Read or reread the rest of the Christmas story in Matthew 2:7-18.)
And it’s not just an old story but one that is as relevant as today’s headlines. The Magi today would show up at Trump Tower, and God knows we don’t need more gold there. We worship false gods of power like those of King Herod when we threaten to restart the nuclear arms race. Sure making more weapons of death is good for Wall Street, but at what cost? Over 50 years ago a Republican President and World War II hero warned us about the death-dealing military-industrial complex: “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” Dwight D. Eisenhower.

It’s not easy but we must search hard for hope in the ashes of Truth’s funeral pyre. When I look hard enough I see a few embers still glowing in the rubble – young colleagues and elders still willing to fight for truth at all costs. Too often it seems to me that liberal Christians are hamstrung by our sense of ethics. The religious right has no scruples about broadcasting a false prosperity gospel of hate and fear, but when truth tellers walk the fine line of non-partisanship we contribute by omission to the death of Truth itself. We are not free. Perhaps it’s time to give up our tax-free status as non-profits in order to be prophets of truth?

I am still hopeful that a renewed and stronger prophetic voice will be awakened by the rattling of nukes and the building of divisive walls. The great hymn’s words are truer than ever, “O young and fearless prophet, we need your presence here.” And some old prophets too that are set free by no longer having conflicts of interests that silence our voices.

Cohen’s lyrics about a “cold and broken hallelujah” sound forlorn if we focus only on the “cold and brokenness” around us, but they are not the final word. Even as we acknowledge the brokenness of our lives and our world, the final word, the refrain is still HALLELUJAH, praise to God from the depths to give us wisdom and courage for the living of these days. Truth will survive if those who can handle it dare to proclaim it even when and especially when we feel cold and broken.

Good riddance 2016, and praise God for a new year full of promise to those who refuse to bow the knee to Herod.