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.

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Bump Stocks and Log in My Eye

Some of my readers have probably been pleased that I have been less “political” in what I’ve posted in recent weeks. There are several reasons for that, but one of them is not that I am less concerned about the state of our nation and world. I became a part-time pastor again this summer and that has affected my writing in a couple of ways. Given more pastoral duties means less time for other things, including writing. The writing I have done has been primarily sermons and prayers. Secondly with the privilege of being a pastor of a congregation comes an expectation to handle political matters tactfully and in a non-partisan way.

I did not realize how much I felt constrained by that non-partisan expectation until I retired and wasn’t serving a congregation. I felt liberated to speak my mind more freely, and now that I am back in a formal relationship with a congregation that freedom is one of the things I miss most. As a student of persuasive communication I know full well that effective communication requires a meeting of minds, a shared understanding and respect for one another’s ideas and feelings. That’s a quality of community that is sorely lacking in our bitterly divided nation and world.

No meaningful communication occurs across the chasm of ideological extremes where we view others as enemies (political or foreign) instead of as fellow humans doing the best we can to make sense of the lives we have been given and the world we inhabit. So my philosophy of ministry is one of trying to understand what people believe and why they hold those beliefs so I can then facilitate a process of faith development that moves all of us toward the peaceable kingdom God covets for us and all creation.

I am not always successful at being empathetic and understanding, and as one who is very uncomfortable with conflict I fear I have been too timid during most of my ministry to share my true thoughts and feelings because I feared that to do so would be unpopular. I greatly admire my colleagues who have the courage and faith to speak prophetically about controversial issues.

I recently saw a list of the 15 most popular hymns of all time. I don’t know how the list was compiled or how scientifically valid the methodology was for surveying people, but the list was pretty much what I expected it would be: “Amazing Grace,” “How Great Thou Art,” “In the Garden,” “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” “It is Well With My Soul” etc. All 15 hymns on the list focused on personal salvation and holiness. What was lacking was the other half of the Gospel, what John Wesley called “Social Holiness.”

I imagine that such a list might have inspired the prophet Amos to proclaim the lines that are part of the lectionary for this week: “Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an overflowing stream.” (Amos 5:23-24) I don’t know how long Amos would have lasted in a church pulpit but I do believe that we dare not ignore the biblical imperative to be agents of social justice.

I cringed this week when I saw a Facebook meme that hit much too close to home. To paraphrase it said, “Don’t be nice. Jesus wasn’t crucified for being a nice guy.” I often encouraged my preaching students to heed the advice of Ephesians 4:15 that tells us to “speak the truth in love.” Looking back on my career as both a preacher and teacher I fear that I have erred on the side of love in that equation and sugar-coated or omitted hard words of truth. As a pastor I often criticized myself for sacrificing prophetic truth in exchange for a parsonage and a pension.

Ironically it has almost always been the case that when I have dared to speak my true understanding of God’s will about controversial issues of social justice someone that I least expected to agree or appreciate those views has let me know they did. For example in today’s news there is not much that is more divisive than people’s views on gun violence and the second amendment. It has become a partisan political issue when it should be seen as a basic human problem to be solved. But most politicians are afraid of the NRA and dependent on financial support from the gun lobby. So even though a majority of Americans are in favor of stricter gun legislation a majority of Senators and Representatives are unwilling to risk their office and its perks to oppose a vocal and powerful minority.
This morning I read an article in the Columbus Dispatch that reported that Congress has passed the buck on dealing with the sale of “bump stocks” that transform semi-automatic rifles into automatic rifles/machine guns (which are illegal) to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives instead of acting on it themselves.

Immediately after the massacre in Las Vegas there was widespread agreement including even the NRA that those devices needed to be banned or “restricted.” But as the news cycle moved on to sex scandals and other mass killings, the mood shifted, the NRA changed its mind, and Congress lost its political will to act.
After reading that article I wrote the following note to my two Senators and my Congressional Representative: “I was appalled to read in this morning’s Columbus Dispatch that Congress has done nothing about bump stocks after the Las Vegas massacre. Stop passing the buck and do something to stop this insanity of gun violence. It is way past time for someone to have the courage to stand up to the NRA. We need to reinstate the ban on assault weapons but in the meantime banning devices whose sole purpose is to circumvent the law should be a no-brainer.”

I also posted that message on Facebook with some fear and trepidation that it would be too “political” for a preacher. But again I was pleasantly surprised at the number of “likes” and even some “loves” I got in response. Some of those positive responses were from people I didn’t expect would agree with me. I would never have known had I not had the courage to say what I was feeling.

I wrote the above part of this post in the wee hours of the morning, and then when I went to bed and couldn’t get to sleep I realized that I had been guilty of seeing the “speck in my legislators’ eyes and ignoring the log in my own” to paraphrase Jesus in Matthew 7:5 and Luke 6:42. As is often the case I am often most judgmental about things in others that I don’t like about myself. It’s easy to criticize political leaders for not living up to the profiles in courage standards I expect of them, but much harder to admit I do the same thing. I don’t always say what I truly believe, and I certainly don’t always live up to the values I hold dear. Peer pressure, societal or professional expectations and other human weaknesses get in the way of speaking the truth in love. If I am honestly and fairly judged by my ideal goal of living up to the profound standards of Micah to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God” I am in deep trouble.

When I shared my late night insight about being guilty of living out of integrity with my values with my dear wife this morning Diana cut to the chase as she does so well. She said, “That’s true of every job. We all have to make compromises and concessions to employers who control our livelihood.” If those compromises create too much cognitive dissonance or inner turmoil with our consciences we can say “no” to that employer and choose a different path. Those are very hard decisions that try our souls, and that is why we all stand in need of a generous helping of God’s grace.

Well, this blog certainly took an unexpected turn. It was good for my own introspection. Thanks for listening. If it was helpful for you too that’s a bonus.

Let Justice and Righteousness Flow

Many advocates of church growth argue that politics and controversial social justice issues should be kept out of church pulpits and classrooms because they will produce conflict and drive prospective church members away. The resulting prosperity gospel/cheap grace messages may indeed increase attendance in the short run. Praise services that resemble rock concerts more than worship services entertain attendees and may produce a feeling of spiritual euphoria, but do they also challenge participants to examine their lives, confess their sins, individual and corporate, and deepen their faith in ways that address human need in relevant and effective ways? That seems to me a question the Jesus I know would want us to ask ourselves regularly.

Those who argue that political and social issues don’t belong in church simply have not taken seriously the Hebrew prophets, the liberation history of God’s people from slavery and political oppression, nor Jesus’ own confrontation of the powers and principalities of Rome and the established religious authorities of his day.
A clergy colleague of mine told me recently about his experience at a 50th high school reunion in a wealthy suburban neighborhood. Asked to offer a prayer before the reunion dinner, he took the opportunity to reflect briefly on how much the world had changed since he and his classmates had graduated. Among other things he pointed out that the total population of the world has doubled in the last half century. So far so good, but then as they say he stopped preaching and went to meddling. He said, “That means there are a lot more poor people in the world that we who have been blessed with a good life and good education need to be concerned about.” While some of his classmates appreciated that observation, many others were upset and expressed anger that he had spoiled their celebration by asking them to think about unpleasant things.

I don’t know what my friend said in reply, but here’s what the Hebrew prophet Amos says God would say to them: “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” (Amos 5:21-24).

The Hebrew word for justice is “mishpat,” a much more inclusive term than what we often mean by our English use of the word “justice.” We have departments of justice, and we talk about justice being served or people getting their just desserts, all of which are about retributive justice or retribution, i.e. getting even for a wrong that has been committed against a person or society. The Judeo-Christian concept of justice, however, is also about distributive justice, meaning a fair and equitable distribution of life’s necessities to all of God’s children. Those necessities include not just material items required for survival, but basic human rights. It is both kinds of justice that human nature at its best strives for in memorable words to live by like “liberty and justice for all” in our U.S. pledge of allegiance and in Jesus’ Golden Rule encouraging us to “do unto others as we would have them do unto us.” (Matthew 7:12).

Like all important matters, concern for justice requires balance. Many years ago I heard Bishop Peter Storey from South Africa preach a sermon on the need for a balanced approach to theology and how we do church. His advice is even more relevant 30 years later. The image he used that has stuck with me all these years was of a bird with one wing. He said that a church that emphasizes either evangelism or the social gospel to the exclusion of the other is like a bird with one wing that simply goes around in circles.

As main line churches decline in membership at a frightening rate there is understandable concern for the survival of the church. But concern must not be allowed to grow into panic that clouds judgment. Desperate people do desperate things, and far too many desperate churches and church leaders water down the gospel to the point of irrelevance in an ill-advised attempt to survive and “grow.” My mother used to say that the church is only one generation from extinction, and while there is some wisdom to that observation, Amos reminds us that God is more concerned about the quality of our faithfulness to God’s will than the quantity of church members or the size of our church buildings or budgets.

Church growth advocates will argue correctly that the Gospel needs to be proclaimed to the vast numbers of people in our nation and world who have not heard or have not responded to it, but it is the whole Gospel that is needed, not the one-winged bird of either extreme in the theological debate between liberal and conservatives within the church. All of us, regardless of our theological or political convictions need a personal relationship with God that casts out our fears in whatever form they take. That’s the assurance of personal salvation for all eternity offered in Christ’s death and resurrection. It is also the first meaning of the cross and the foundation of Christian faith upon which the rest of the household of faith must be built. But the foundation of a house is not a whole house, just a necessary first step in a much larger process.

Assurance of eternal life is such a powerful promise that the temptation to embrace that gift and stop there on our faith journey is very strong. The desire for heavenly peace alone is the false hope and danger that Amos points out for those who are eagerly awaiting “the day of the Lord.” In a classic “be careful what you wish for” warning, Amos offers these ominous words: “Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord! Why do you want the day of the Lord? It is darkness, not light; as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake.” (5:18-19).

Why such harsh condemnation? Read the earlier chapters of Amos to understand why Amos believes God has lost all patience with Israel and other nations for their disobedience to God’s will and especially their unjust treatment of the poor. Is Amos exaggerating to get Israel’s attention? Is he like an exasperated parent who loves a wayward child so much and fears for his/her well-being so deeply that emotions overflow?

Context is always critical in Scriptural interpretation. The Hebrew understanding of the nature of God in the 8th century BCE was far more legalistic and judgmental than the God of grace Jesus proclaims 800 years later. But let us not be lulled into a cheap grace sense of complacency by an overreliance on God’s mercy. I am as grateful as anyone that the God revealed in the New Testament grades on a curve, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Gospel makes very serious demands on anyone who wants to follow Jesus.

Amos warning that a just and righteous life is expected of us is not discounted by Jesus in the least. Jesus invites any disciple to “take up a cross and follow me” (Luke 14:27). The cross of the resurrection is also the cross of sacrifice and service on behalf of God’s kingdom and God’s children here and now. (The examples of what this looks like in Jesus’ teachings are too numerous to mention here, but would certainly include the difficult standards of loving one’s enemies (Mt. 5:43, Lk. 6:27), turning the other cheek (Mt. 5:39), forgiving 70 x7 (Mt. 18:22), “what you do to the least of these you do unto me. (Mt. 25:45), and if someone demands your coat, give him your cloak as well (Mt. 5:40).

Righteousness is the other quality demanded by God in Amos 5:24. Righteousness means being in a right relationship with God and all creation. That’s raising the bar very high. In fact none of us gets there. Even Jesus says, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God” (Mk. 10:18 & Romans 3:10). So if Jesus can’t even meet that standard, what hope is there for the likes of you and me? Are we asked to do the impossible? That would be an unjust request, and we do not serve an unjust God. It’s also why we all stand in the need of grace. But what it absolutely does not mean is that we throw up our hands and give up. Our own human limitations are not an excuse for ignoring the hard parts of the Gospel but a reminder that we can and must do better than we are doing when justice and righteousness are but a trickle instead of an everflowing stream.

We Americans live in the richest nation in the history of the world and in one where 10% of the people control 75% of wealth. No one but the 10% could possibly consider that just. President Kennedy once said, “When we make peaceful revolution impossible we make violent revolution inevitable.” We are seeing rumblings of such revolution today in the streets of Hong Kong. Students of history know about labor riots inspired by injustice in our own country in the 1890s (Google the Haymarket riot or the Pullman strike, or Coxey’s Army). Our economic history is like a roller coaster of bust and boom cycles because we fail repeatedly to learn the lessons Amos was warning us about 3000 years ago.

Someone smarter than I will have to figure out the economic and political details, but what I do know is that as long as the driving values of our lives are comfort and prosperity and not justice and righteousness, we’d better not be longing for the day of the Lord/judgment day/the second coming.