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.

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When All is Lost, It’s Not!

HolyLent
“Turn, O LORD! How long?
Have compassion on your servants!
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.” – Psalm 90:13-14

My Lenten encounter with Psalm 90 has taken a very humbling turn. Focusing on this Psalm during these first few days of Lent has shown me how very little I know about the Psalter, and that is not a good feeling. Maybe I “knew” more about the theology, structure and purpose of the Psalms in my seminary days, but I am embarrassed to admit how little this part of the Hebrew Scriptures has informed my own theological journey over the last four decades.

In particular Psalm 90 has reminded me that like the Pentateuch the book of Psalms is divided into five books. That may not sound terribly relevant to most casual readers of the Bible but it is. The divisions of the Psalms correspond to different historical contexts and the ensuing theological issues God’s people were facing at different points in the long relationship the Hebrew people had with their God. The fact that Psalm 90 is the opening chapter in Book IV of the Psalter is therefore significant as is the fact that it is the only Psalm attributed to Moses.

The plea for God to turn (repent) and have compassion on God’s servants in verses 13-14 is always relevant because we fallible humans are always in need of God’s forgiveness. But this plea is more than a generic mea culpa. Book IV of the Psalms addresses a huge theological crisis for the Hebrew people. When the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and carried many of the Hebrews off into exile in 587 BCE the Hebrews lost what had been the three most important elements in the foundation of their faith for hundreds of years: their land, their monarchy and their temple. Book III ends with the plaintive lament asking why God has abandoned them. “How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever? How long will your wrath burn like fire? Lord, where is your steadfast love of old, which by your faithfulness you swore to David?” (89: 46, 49)

It is in response to that desperate plea for compassion from God that Psalm 90 begins by imagining a response from Moses and a time before Israel had land, temple or monarchy, but only God to rely on. One ancient manuscript calls this Psalm “A prayer of Moses the prophet, when the people of Israel sinned in the desert.” That reference is to the golden calf affair in Exodus 32, one of the few other references in all of Scripture where God is asked to repent. In that case Moses begs God to repent of God’s anger toward his rebellious children when they melt down their jewelry to fashion an idol to worship because they can’t wait even 40 days for Moses to come back down from his summit meeting with God. God is so angry that he plans to destroy the people right there in the desert, but Moses convinces God to repent and to keep covenant with his children even though they have broken their promises yet again.

Now in exile the Psalmist is asking God to turn/repent of the judgment on Israel’s sin that has resulted in loss of land, temple and the supposed security of an earthly king. The prophets have tried in vain for decades to warn the people of Israel about placing their faith in the false gods of political power and materialism. Amos is perhaps the most direct and reflects the tenor of those warnings that went unheeded: “Thus says the Lord: For three transgressions of Judah, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they have rejected the law of the Lord, and have not kept his statutes, but they have been led astray by the same lies after which their ancestors walked. So I will send a fire on Judah, and it shall devour the strongholds of Jerusalem. Thus says the Lord: For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals—they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way.” (Amos 2:4-7).

A contemporary prophet and biblical scholar, Walter Brueggmann, describes the current crisis in American Christianity in unsettlingly similar terms: “The crisis in the U.S. church has almost nothing to do with being liberal or conservative; it has everything to do with giving up on the faith and discipline of our Christian baptism and settling for a common, generic U.S. identity that is part patriotism, part consumerism, part violence, and part affluence.” It’s the same message we get when Jesus warns us in the Sermon on the Mount, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.” (Matt. 6:19). From Moses and the prophets to Jesus, the word of God is constant and true, and we still don’t have ears to hear.

That’s why we need Lent every year (or more often). It’s time to ask for God’s compassion on our misplaced principles and values, on our false gods of comfort and prosperity and selfish pride. As individuals, as a church and as a nation Lent is examination time. What do we need to beg God to forgive us for? Where in our lives do we need God’s compassion? And the Psalmist reminds us loud and clear that there is nothing that will truly satisfy our hunger but God’s steadfast love. Even when we lose everything we treasure and value–land, temple, monarchy or whatever our personal versions of those things are, God’s love is constant and eternal. And because it is, even in the exile of fear, loneliness, failing health, economic or political chaos “we may rejoice and be glad all our days.” Thanks be to God.