Thursday, December 31, 2009

God Has a Dream by Desmond Tutu

When I was in high school and living just outside of Washington, D.C., South Africa’s brutal system of racial segregation and oppression—apartheid—was one of the leading social justice issues of the day. The outrageous unfairness and brutality of the situation in South Africa made it a no-brainer. Everyone I knew was against apartheid. Some of us also protested at the South African embassy, signed petitions and boycotted companies that did business in South Africa. During this period, a soft spoken man in a funny clerical outfit attracted attention for his efforts to fight apartheid with nonviolent means. His name was Desmond Tutu. In 1984, he won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. During this time, I was still a staunch atheist. I admired Desmond Tutu, but conveniently ignored the facts that he was a Christian and his activism was rooted in his faith. I suppose at the time, I thought of it as a freak coincidence.

Over the years, as I embraced and grew in my Christian faith, I’ve come to admire Archbishop Tutu even more. His book God Has a Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time is eloquent and beautiful. Each chapter begins with the words “Dear Child of God” and then relays in an intimate tone Archbishop Tutu’s thoughts on a specific religious theme. To illustrate these themes, he writes on personal, historic topics including his own role in helping to bring about the end of apartheid. But he also brings insights from less high-profile experiences such as being a family man and a local church leader. He gives practical advice on living God’s will in a variety of roles and situations, from being a spouse to being a parent to to being a driver stuck in a traffic jam. He does all this with pervasive references to Scripture, and a down-to-Earth sense of humility as well as a little humor. It is a concise, but beautiful book of passionate love and unwavering hope.

The book was published in 2004, at a time when the Christian voices most often heard in the media (and in most churches in the part of Texas where I was living) espoused very rigid interpretations of the Bible, as well as conservative positions on social and political issues. However, in the book, Archbishop Tutu bears witness to a more tolerant, more inclusive Christian viewpoint. He writes in unequivocal terms to denounce the mistake of marginalizing women in society and the church. He also writes with acceptance and love of homosexuals.

One of my favorite parts of the book is at the beginning. Archbishop Tutu writes:

“During the darkest days of apartheid I used to say to P.W. Botha, the president of South Africa, that we had already won, and I invited him and other white South Africans to join the winning side. All the ‘objective’ facts were against us—the pass laws, the imprisonments, the teargassing, the massacres, the murder of political activists—but my confidence was not in the present circumstances but in the laws of God’s universe. This is a moral universe, which means that, despite all the evidence that seems to be to the contrary, there is no way that evil and injustice and oppression and lies can have the last word. God is a God who cares about right and wrong. God cares about justice and injustice. God is in charge. That is what had upheld the morale of our people, to know that in the end good will prevail. It was these higher laws that convinced me that our peaceful struggle would topple the immoral laws of apartheid.

Of course, there were times when you had to whistle in the dark to keep your morale up, and you wanted to whisper in God’s ear: ‘God, we know You are in charge, but can’t You make it a little more obvious?’”

I agree with the archbishop and share is confidence. But of course, I’ve never had that confidence put to the same kind of test that he and other black South Africans endured. I am awed and encouraged by Archbishop Tutu’s faith. I pray that if I am ever put to such a test, mine will remain just as strong.

Deuteronomy 23:5 (Contemporary English Version)

But the LORD your God loves you, so he refused to listen to Balaam and turned Balaam's curse into a blessing.

Psalm 59:16 (Contemporary English Version)

But I will sing about your strength, my God, and I will celebrate because of your love. You are my fortress, my place of protection in times of trouble.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Robert Park

The news media has reported that an American, apparently Robert Park, illegally crossed from the PRC into North Korea last week and was almost immediately taken into custody by North Korean authorities. The story has not received a tremendous amount of attention in the mainline press. I’m rather fascinated by both Mr. Park’s decision to go to North Korea, as well as the relative lack of interest by the American media.

Mr. Park is apparently 28 years old and from Tucson, Arizona. He also has family ties to San Diego, where his parents and brother live. Mr. Park is Korean American. He is also a devout Christian. When he entered North Korean territory, it is reported he stated, "I am an American citizen. I brought God's love. God loves you and God bless you." It is also reported that when he entered North Korea, he had a letter for Kim Jong Il which read: "[God] loves you and wants to save you and all of North Korea today. Please open your borders so that we may bring food, provisions, medicine, necessities, and assistance to those who are struggling to survive. Please close down all concentration camps and release all political prisoners today, and allow care teams to enter to minister healing to those who have been tortured and traumatized." Mr. Park’s father, Pyong Park, has stated that his son said “I'm not afraid to die as long as the whole world, every nation, pays attention to the North Korea situation."

Robert Park apparently has done a lot of work with his church for a number of years. It has been reported that he ministered regularly to the poor in Nogales, Mexico (across the border from Arizona). He went to South Korea last summer and apparently prolonged his stay because he was so deeply touched by the plight of the North Korean people. His mother explained, “He felt their pain so much.” Mr. Park had been in the PRC ministering to the needs of North Koreans who were escaping their country, but he reportedly gave up that effort because of the PRC government’s policy to return such North Koreans to their home country, which exposed them to harsh punishment. In San Diego and Tucson churches, prayer vigils have been organized on behalf of Mr. Park. In San Diego, Rev. Madison Shockley said, “Robert is doing what God called on him to do. We call this speaking truth to power."

Personally, I’m not sure what to make of Mr. Park. Part of me thinks he is a misguided young man who has risked an international uproar with the crazed dictator of an already unstable and dangerously closed society. However, another part of me admires Mr. Park's apparently profound love and empathy for the misery of North Koreans, and his willingness to sacrifice his own life in a desperate attempt to bring attention to a forgotten region of great suffering. Indeed, it makes me ashamed that I myself haven’t been more concerned about the people of North Korea. But at the end of the day, I’m not sure if Mr. Park has more in common with Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab or Oscar Romero.

I am also fascinated by the relative lack of interest in this story by the mainline American media. In many media reports, Mr. Park is described as a “missionary.” However, I’m not sure what that label means exactly in his context. Perhaps the secular media just doesn’t know how else to label a young man who goes to a reclusive nation proclaiming God’s love. In fact, I wonder if Mr. Park’s apparent religious motivation for going to North Korea may be responsible at least in part for the relative lack of media interest in this story. I suspect that many in the mainline media instinctively think proclaiming God’s love as a motivation for anything—let alone the potentially suicidal act of illegally entering North Korea—is evidence of being mentally unbalanced (or at least dim witted).

Luke 1:78-79

God's love and kindness
will shine upon us
like the sun that rises
in the sky. On us who live
in the dark shadow
of death
this light will shine
to guide us
into a life of peace.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Congregational Spotlight: Travis Park United Methodist Church in San Antonio, Texas

As noted before in this blog, in the modern era, many non-believers have unfortunately come to view Christianity as a subcomponent of conservative politics and to simply equate the faith with political stances against legalized abortion, same sex marriage and taxes. Such a view of the faith tremendously distorts the message and ministry of Jesus Christ, and is one of the motivations for this blog. As a result, I would like to spend some time in this blog focusing on more positive examples of the church in order to provide a more balanced and a more accurate view of the faith. In that vein, I am beginning an occasional series of posts that I will call “Congregational Spotlight.”

It is probably helpful to note that I personally do not necessarily agree with or endorse 100% of the things espoused by the leaders of each of these spotlighted congregations. Contrary to popular misconception, Christ followers are not a homogenous group. Heck, even my husband and I do not see eye to eye on every topic. God made each of us to be unique with our own perspectives. Consequently, I do not think it is necessary to agree on every detail to spotlight a particular congregation.

The first congregation I would like to spotlight is Travis Park United Methodist Church (TPUMC) in San Antonio, Texas. When our family is in San Antonio visiting relatives, TPUMC is the church we typically attend. Our children enthusiastically refer to it as the “cookie church” because at the end of the service, volunteers are in the hallway with trays of cookies that they offer to people as they leave the church building. This is one the highlights of my gourmand kiddos’ day! I admit the cookies are pretty tasty, but that is hardly the reason I wanted to spotlight this particular congregation.

TPUMC was founded in 1846, which is ancient in Texas terms. (Texas became a state in the union in 1845.) TPUMC is located in downtown San Antonio in a lovely old building amongst well-appointed hotels like the St. Anthony and the Menger. It is close to the tourist revelry of the River Walk. The church also sits cattycorner to Travis Park, a public park that is home to a number of the city’s homeless population. For this reason, the church has long had a robust ministry to the homeless. Its Corazon Ministries program is the umbrella for its homeless ministry programs. (In Spanish, the word "corazon" means "heart.")

TPUMC states it is “grounded in history and vision” and its people “seek to live and love as God does: passionately and unconditionally.” The church also believes that “God calls us on a journey forward, to break down the walls of prejudice, and to embrace all our brothers and sisters.” As a result, the church’s motto is “We serve and learn with brothers and sisters from all walks of life: rich and poor, housed and homeless, gay and straight, black and brown and white, secular and sacred, PhD and GED.” That diversity is evident when we attend the 11 a.m. “celebration” service. There are conservatively-dressed older white folks, young people in hip jeans, biracial families, same sex couples, and tired-looking people in tattered clothing. The 11 a.m. jazz band and choir are a composite of very talented folks from different backgrounds. Their music really energizes the diverse congregation.

One of the most moving bible studies my husband and I have ever attended was an adult Sunday school class at TPUMC, which was attended by a number of homeless folks. It is hard to know for sure, but beyond the pastor who faciliated the class and his assistant, my husband and I might have been the only attendees who were not homeless. A couple of the other attendees frankly slept through the class, presumably due to a rough night with no place comfortable to sleep for an extended period. But the (many) others were very engaged in the pastor’s morning lesson. Many of them had brought their own bibles to consult during the lesson. My husband and I were pretty quiet during the class, but the other attendees answered the pastor’s doctrinal questions knowledgeably and responded to his more open-ended questions with moving, personal testimonies of their faith. They gave us a lot of food for thought. They also taught us powerful lessons about judging people without even listening to them and discounting a person’s insights due to their exterior appearance. It was very humbling.

A link to TPUMC’s website is provided below. If you have occasion to visit San Antonio, I encourage you to visit the “cookie church.”

Matthew 22:37-40

He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

West Valley View editorial on Christmas

I am a fan of community newspapers. I like to read the West Valley View (a secular periodical) because it informs me of the geographic area where I live. It also has a vibrant editorial page, where my neighbors in the West Valley passionately proclaim their political views and rip to shreds those of their opponents. (Long live the First Amendment!)

Recently, the newspaper ran a really interesting editorial about how the religious meaning of Christmas has been exploited and degraded in our culture. The editors do not mention Focus on the Family’s “Stand for Christmas” Campaign explicitly, but that campaign seems to be the implicit target of the editors’ anger. The link below pulls up the editorial, which is entitled “Would Jesus Celebrate Christmas?” Food for thought.

Luke 12:33 (Wycliffe New Testament)

Sell ye those things that ye have in possession [Sell ye those things that ye wield], and give ye alms. And make to you satchels that wax not old, treasure that faileth not in heavens, whither a thief approacheth not [whither a thief nigheth not], neither moth destroyeth.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Friends of God: A Road Trip With Alexandra Pelosi (2007) (The Film's Title)

The title of the film comes from the song “Friend of God” by Israel Houghton. Perhaps I am wrong, but my impression is that Ms. Pelosi chose the title in order to insinuate that the Christians featured in the film were self-righteous people who believed themselves to be God’s chosen people and/or to have special insights as to God’s will. Again, that subtle message does not serve the purported aim of the film to help the rest of society to better understand Evangelicals. Moreover, it distorts and misrepresents the song, from which the film’s title is taken.

Israel Houghton’s song is not a boastful song. Quite the opposite. The song begins with humble questions that are typically sung softly:

Who am I that You are mindful of me
That You hear me when I call?
Is it true that You are thinking of me?

The chorus rejoices in the answer to these questions:

I am a friend of God
He calls me friend.

The song is based on James 2:23, which references Isaiah 41:8. The point of these passages is that the Creator of the Universe loved Abraham so much that He called him his “friend,” a term that denotes intimacy and love. As the spiritual descendants of Abraham, God loves us all in the same way. This is a beautiful, powerful concept to many if not most Christ followers. It is the essence of the Good News of Christ—that God loves each us very deeply and personally.

If one listens carefully to the lyrics, it is clear that Houghton’s song is not at all boastful or self-righteous. Instead, the song actually expresses great humility and awe that despite being relatively powerless human beings our omnipotent Creator loves each of us so ardently and intimately.

James 2:23 (Holman Christian Standard Bible)

So the Scripture was fulfilled that says, Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him for righteousness , and he was called God's friend.

Isaiah 41:8 (Holman Christian Standard Bible)

But you, Israel, My servant,
Jacob, whom I have chosen,
descendant of Abraham, My friend

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Friends of God: A Road Trip With Alexandra Pelosi (2007) (Trying to Understand Evangelicals or to Mock Them?)

Alexandra Pelosi was born in San Francisco and lives in New York City. She is the daughter of Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives, and the granddaughter of the Democratic politician, Thomas D’Alesandro, Jr. Alexandra Pelosi is a former journalist who began making political documentaries for HBO in the 2000s. Her most recent film was Right America: Feeling Wronged, which chronicled the failed 2008 McCain bid for the presidency and the subsequent plight of disappointed Republicans. With such a pedigree, it probably comes as no surprise that Ms. Pelosi tends to be left of center culturally and politically. In interviews, however, she has expressed that she tries very hard to be fair and not simply portray conservatives as freaks or fanatics. When watching Friends of God: A Road Trip with Alexandra Pelosi, that assertion is pretty hard to swallow.

In the film, Ms. Pelosi does not visit with people whom I would consider to be typical Christians. There are no visits to the local youth group sorting cans at a food pantry or a men’s group meeting for a monthly Bible study/pancake breakfast. Instead, Ms. Pelosi introduces us to a much more unusual slice of the American Christian population as her road trip crisscrosses the South. (Aren’t there Christians outside of Dixie?? Or is it just easier to lampoon the subjects of the film when they speak with a drawl?)

The film kicks off the road trip with a visit to Lakewood Church in Houston. Predictably, it is noted that the Church’s current facility is humongous—it is the city’s former pro-basketball arena. Ms. Pelosi also introduces us to a Bible-themed theme park in Florida that is attempting to compete with Disney World. The Christian Wrestling Federation (complete with cheesy costumes) and Cruisers for Christ (a club for Christian automobile enthusiasts) are also spotlighted. Ms. Pelosi interviews a gentleman who spends tens of thousands of his own dollars to erect huge, towering crosses in prominent locations near high traffic roadways. She also shares footage of a seminar where young children are shown evidence that the Theory of Evolution is a lie. Later smug adults are interviewed to explain why they believe in Creationism and why Evolutionists are not well-educated. Ms. Pelosi and her camera also visit a bank-style drive-through church where a Christian in a teller booth provides motorists with a quick prayer before they drive off into the sunset. And in between these vignettes, we are shown lots of religious billboards with bumper sticker type humor and/or scary warnings.

One of the few times Ms. Pelosi’s road trip ventures outside the South, she visits the New Life Church in Colorado Springs and interviews its pastor, Ted Haggard. In one particularly bizarre scene, Pastor Ted boasts that Christians have the best sex lives, and to prove his point he impulsively asks two of his stunned parishioners how often they have sex with their wives and how often their wives have an orgasm. Due to the reactions of the parishioners, the scene is actually painful to watch.

To open the film, Friends of God begins with silent text indicating that shortly after the documentary was shot in 2006, Pastor Ted’s affair with a male prostitute became publicly known. My sense after watching the whole film was that the news of the scandal was likely received with glee by the makers of Friends of God because it just added to the freak show nature of their film. Indeed, Ms. Pelosi’s next film focused just on the scandal: The Trials of Ted Haggard.

Friends of God was produced at a time when the news and entertainment industries (are they really separate industries any more?) were still reeling from and trying to dissect John Kerry’s narrow loss to George W. Bush in 2004. The semi-hysterical tag line from the election had been that Christians were the secret to W’s success. The press and pop culture particularly focused on the influence of an apparent subcategory of Christians: the Evangelicals. Pelosi and HBO plugged this documentary as an attempt to better understand Evangelicals, who were an increasingly influential cultural and political force.

Personally, I get a little wary whenever the term “Evangelical Christian” is even used. I hear the term most from people who are not Christ followers, particularly as they try to describe the relative political success of George W. Bush and other socially conservative politicians. In my life, I’ve attended a lot of different churches. In my experience, the term just doesn’t come up. People don’t say things like “I’m not an Evangelical, I believe in the Theory of Evolution” or “This is an Evangelical Church, liberals beware.” That just doesn’t happen. Indeed, I’m not sure what the term “Evangelical” even means. I’ve looked it up in several dictionaries, but the definition is fairly broad and technically describes a good number of Christians. Heck, per some definitions, I even appear to be an Evangelical. But I don’t think that is what the news and entertainment industry intend when they use the term. Their aim seems to be to describe the narrower slice of Christians who vote in elections inspired by conservative positions on hot button issues like abortion, gay marriage and the teaching of evolution in public schools. My perception is that such use corrupts the term “Evangelical” just like the term “Christian” has been corrupted in recent years.

Although Alexandra Pelosi is polite to her interviewees and does not exhibit towards Christians the overt hostility demonstrated by others in pop culture, Friends of God just cannot fairly be characterized as an honest attempt to better understand Evangelicals. The film sets such a freak show tone that Pelosi’s clear message is that Evangelical Christians are quite different from us normal folk. Such an approach does not promote understanding, it promotes further polarization. If Ms. Pelosi had focused on more mainstream individuals, the result might have been different.

Ephesians 2:14-16

“Christ has made peace between Jews and Gentiles, and he has united us by breaking down the wall of hatred that separated us. ...He even brought Jews and Gentiles together as though we were only one person, when he united us in peace. On the cross Christ did away with our hatred for each other.”

Saturday, December 12, 2009

God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It by Jim Wallis (Final Thoughts)

In a chapter entitled “The Ties That Bond: Family and Community Values,” Wallis shares his thoughts on the “Controversy over Gay Marriage.” But those thoughts are not shared until well into the chapter. Instead, Wallis devotes much time describing how he thinks family values are under attack in our culture.

Wallis decries reality T.V. shows that encourage the paid participants to have sex with one another, and relays the observation of a friend that such arrangements fit the definition of “prostitution.” Wallis also queries how Fox can get away with “preaching conservative politics and family values in their news and commentary shows while produce such a sleazy lineup of ‘entertainment’ programs.” He also notes that the 2005 Super Bowl half-time show was made infamous by the baring of Janet Jackson’s breast, but in actuality that was simply the “crude climax” to a crassly sexualized half-time show and a barrage of violent and sexualized images in the commercials. Wallis says:

“You want to know why people join the religious Right? It may have less to do with wanting to take over the country than being desperate to protect their kids from the crass trash and degrading banality that media conglomerates like Viacom (which owns both CBS and MTV) seem to think is just fine family entertainment for Super Bowl night. Fortunately, my kids were in bed before the half-time show, but next year we may just go with Mary Poppins in the other room.

Again, some people think that only right-wing conservatives care about such moral pollution. Wrong. Most parents I know, liberal or conservative, care a great deal about it, as do most self-respecting women and men. It defies ingrained stereotypes to suggest that a healthy, moral consistency applies to personal and sexual ethics as well as to social and political values. It’s time to break out of those old ideological shibboleths and forge a unified front against the amoral corporate agree that violates all our ethics—personal and social—by creating a system that sells beer and breasts in the same advertising plans just to make a buck.”

Later in the chapter, Wallis adds:

“Being new parents ourselves, with two young boys, Joy and I talk to lots of other parents. Our experience suggests that mothers and fathers across the political spectrum now regard parenting in America as a countercultural activity. When I make such a statement on the road, all the parents in the audience begin nodding their heads—whether they are political liberals or conservatives. The values of a materialistic and hedonistic culture are clearly arrayed against our raising children with moral and spiritual values.”

Proverbs 22:6 (New International Version - UK)

Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it

Friday, December 11, 2009

God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It by Jim Wallis (Wallis's Views on Abortion)

Wallis has some interesting comments on the issue of abortion: “Religious and political conservatives often raise the issues of abortion and gay marriage. I have clearly disagreed with the Democrats on abortion, believing that Christians can be both progressive and pro life. I’ve urged the Democrats to be much more respectful and welcoming of pro-life Democrats. Someday, a smart Democrat will figure out how both pro-choice and pro-life people could join together in concrete measures to dramatically reduce the abortion rate by focusing on teen pregnancy, adoption reform, and real support for low-income women. That would be so much better than both sides using the issue as a political football and political litmus test during elections, and then doing little about it afterward.”

Wallis also stated: “If the Democrats could be persuaded by both good political sense and sound moral values to moderate some of their positions by becoming anti-abortion without criminalizing an agonizing and desperate choice, and being pro-family without being anti-gay, they would change politics in America by giving permission to millions of voters who would naturally vote for them except for the cultural and moral divide they feel with Democratic language and policies.”

Wallis warns that political “liberals generally fail to comprehend how deep and fundamental the conviction on ‘the sacredness of human life’ is for millions of Christians, especially Catholics and evangelicals, in forming their view of abortion.” Such “pro-life” Christians may be economic populists, feminists, and even radical on other issues of peace and justice. Wallis decries a political litmus test amongst Democrats that alienated Robert Casey from the opportunity to speak to the party convention in 1992 and 1996, and “virtually forced” Jesse Jackson to change his pro-life views to run for president. Wallis also criticizes the Republicans as too rigid on their pro-life platform, and as not vocal or active enough in efforts to bring down the number of abortions in our country. By contrast, Wallis endorsed the emphasis of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin on a “seamless garment of life” that links the “life issues” of abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, nuclear weapons, poverty, and racism.
Deuteronomy 30:11-20 (King James)

11 “For this commandment which I command you today is not too mysterious for you, nor is it far off. 12 It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend into heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ 13 Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ 14 But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it. 15 “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil, 16 in that I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in His ways, and to keep His commandments, His statutes, and His judgments, that you may live and multiply; and the LORD your God will bless you in the land which you go to possess. 17 But if your heart turns away so that you do not hear, and are drawn away, and worship other gods and serve them, 18 I announce to you today that you shall surely perish; you shall not prolong your days in the land which you cross over the Jordan to go in and possess. 19 I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live; 20 that you may love the LORD your God, that you may obey His voice, and that you may cling to Him, for He is your life and the length of your days; and that you may dwell in the land which the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give them.”

Thursday, December 10, 2009

God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It by Jim Wallis (Wallis's Views on Homosexuality)

Wallis says he supports gay civil rights and legal protection for same-sex couples. He admonishes liberals for not being vocal enough on issues affecting the family. But he condemns the religious Right’s “mean-spirited crusade” against gays. He states: “To say gay and lesbian people are responsible for the break-down of the heterosexual family is simply wrong. That breakdown is causing a great social crisis that affects us all, but it is hardly the fault of gays and lesbians. It has very little to do with them and honestly more to do with heterosexual dysfunction and, yes, ‘sin.’ Gay civil and human rights must also be honored, respected, and defended for a society to be good and healthy. It is a question of both justice and compassion. To be both pro-family and pro-gay civil rights could open up some common ground that might take us forward.”

Wallis also comments: “We can make sure that long-term gay and lesbian partnerships are afforded legitimate legal protections in a pluralistic society no matter what our views on the nature of marriage are. But the question of gay marriage is important; it is a major issue in the religious community, and it is unlikely to be resolved for many years. Many in churches and the society believe that the long-standing and deeply rooted concept of marriage as being between a man and a woman should not be changed, but same-sex couples should be granted the rights of ‘civil unions.’ That’s still my own view. For others, only gay marriage fulfills the requirements of equal protection under the law. There are at least three different views being debated in the churches. Most Christians still believe that the sacrament and theology of the church on marriage should not be altered, while others are exploring new rites of church ‘blessings’ for gay and lesbian couples committing to lifelong relationships, and still others want full sacramental inclusion.”

Leviticus 11:10, 42 (New King James Version)

But all in the seas or in the rivers that do not have fins and scales, all that move in the water or any living thing which is in the water, they are an abomination to you.
Whatever crawls on its belly, whatever goes on all fours, or whatever has many feet among all creeping things that creep on the earth—these you shall not eat, for they are an abomination.

Leviticus 18:19-30 (New King James Version)

19 ‘Also you shall not approach a woman to uncover her nakedness as long as she is in her customary impurity. 20 Moreover you shall not lie carnally with your neighbor’s wife, to defile yourself with her. 21 And you shall not let any of your descendants pass through the fire to Molech, nor shall you profane the name of your God: I am the LORD. 22 You shall not lie with a male as with a woman. It is an abomination.
30 ‘Therefore you shall keep My ordinance, so that you do not commit any of these abominable customs which were committed before you, and that you do not defile yourselves by them: I am the LORD your God.’”

Monday, December 7, 2009

God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It by Jim Wallis (Wallis's View on Fundamentalism)

Jim Wallis states that at heart he is a nineteenth-century evangelical born in the wrong century before the movement was “humiliated as a result of the famous Scopes trial in 1925.” Before that time, fundamentalism was often socially allied with the Left to support economic reforms that would benefit its mostly working-class constituency. However, Wallis observes that modern fundamentalism has moved to a theocratic movement, which “is really a betrayal of the biblical faith that regards political power much more suspiciously.” Wallis states that like the Taliban and al Quaeda the religious Right “desire their religious agenda to be enforced through the power of the state.” Wallis characterizes this as “primarily, a religious mistake.

Wallis expresses that with the move to theocracy, modern fundamentalism too easily justifies violence as a tool for implementing its agenda.” He also notes that “fundamentalist arguments for violence quickly become more political than religious.” He notes, “It’s always striking to me that when I listen to the Christian fundamentalist justifications for violence I don’t hear them asking that question, ‘What would Jesus do?’ From a fundamentalist Christian point of view, shouldn’t that be the key question to ask? What is more ‘fundamental’ to Christianity than Jesus? Perhaps the teachings of Jesus most unpopular with Christian fundamentalists (and other Christians too) are his statements about loving our enemies and not just seeing the ‘specks’ in your adversary’s eye, but also the ‘log’ in your own.”

In reflecting on our nation’s reaction to 9/11, Wallis criticized “American Bush theology” consisting of a struggle between “good and evil—we are good, they are evil.” Wallis stated, “we are not the good. That’s bad theology. Jesus teaches us to see the beam in our own eye, and not just the mote in our adversary’s eye. George Bush is a Methodist, but he sees no beams in the American eye.” Wallis contends, “We must act so that the world will not be remade in the image of the terrorists; and we deny the terrorists their victory when we refuse to be changed into people of God has not called us to be.”

Wallis also gives examples to support his conclusion that George Bush has made the same mistake “over and over again of confusing nation, church, and God. The resulting theology is more an American civil religion than Christian faith.” For example, at Ellis Island, making a speech to mark the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Bush stated, “This ideal of America is the hope of all mankind...That hope still lights our way. And the light shines in the darkness. And the darkness has not overcome it.” Wallis points out that the last two sentences are derived from the Gospel of John in the New Testament. However, in the Bible, the light is the Word of God and the light of Christ. By contrast, Bush’s reference of light is to America and its values.

Wallis suggests that this “bad theology” is being used to justify empire building and that the United States is beginning to resemble the Roman Empire. Of course, such an analogy is particularly poignant coming from a Christian like Wallis. The Roman Empire persecuted Jews in Jesus’ time, and also persecuted Christians after Jesus was crucified. Wallis repeatedly uses the term “Pax Americana”—a play off the term “Pax Romana.” As a more effective and theologically more enlightened approach, Wallis suggests following the prophet Micah, who emphasized that common security was the most effective means of self-defense.

Micah 4:3-4 (New Living Translation)
The Lord will mediate between peoples and will settle disputes between strong nations far away. They will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will no longer fight against nation, nor train for war anymore. Everyone will live in peace and prosperity, enjoying their own grapevines and fig trees, for there will be nothing to fear. The Lord of Heaven’s Armies has made this promise!

John 1:1-5 (New American Standard Bible)

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being.
In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men.
The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It by Jim Wallis (Religious Leaders and Political Power)

There is a fascinating passage of God’s Politics where Wallis compares “the two major faith-inspired movements of the last fifty years that have tried to influence national politics: the black-church-led civil rights movement of the 1950s and the 1960s and the religious Right movement of the 1980s and 1990s, exemplified by Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition.”

Wallis’s comparison is based on part of his reading of Blinded by Might by Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson, who were former leaders of the religious Right. Wallis writes in God’s Politics that the religious Right “bristled with pride” when the media publicly gave them substantial credit for Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980. Shortly thereafter, Falwell entered a packed auditorium with an ecstatic crowd on their feet as “Hail to the Chief” was played. Wallis states, “All of a sudden, conservative evangelicals who felt ignored and ridiculed for so long in the cultural backwaters of American life, almost since the infamous Scopes trial in the 1920s, were now in the national spotlight and getting their pictures taken in the Oval Office with the president.” Falwell and Reagan spoke regularly, and when Reagan was about to nominate Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court, Reagan asked Falwell to “trust my judgment.” Wallis states, “Perhaps anxious to be a player, a winner, an insider, Falwell went along, and a series of compromises began. Direct mail strategy and fund-raising came to dominate the religious Right’s political agenda over previous moral concerns. Political success defined as keeping political power, eventually became more important that the issues that initiated the formation of the religious Right in the first place. It’s an old story.” Thomas and Dobson lament in their book that little of their Christian agenda has actually been accomplished, and the religious Right have failed in their mission.

Wallis also noted that liberal religious leaders have also been “mesmerized by political power.” He observes that many were “reduced to defending Clinton’s indefensible moral behavior in a sexual and political scandal (or at least maintaining an awkward silence). Access clearly has its price.”

In contrast to those religious leaders who seek access and proximity to political power, Wallis observes that the civil rights movement succeeded because it was morally based and politically independent. The movement’s strength and base was not primarily inside politics, but rather at the grassroots. This helped its efficacy; it changed the way the American people thought about race and sought to affect the values of the culture. Wallis concludes, “The religious Right went wrong by forgetting its religious and moral roots and going for political power; the civil rights movement was proven right in operating out of its spiritual strength and letting its political influence flow from its moral influence. Other great social causes led by religious communities—abolition of slavery, child labor reform, women’s suffrage, and so on—all followed the same strategy.”

John 12:24-26 (The Message)

"Listen carefully: Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat. But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over. In the same way, anyone who holds on to life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you'll have it forever, real and eternal.
"If any of you wants to serve me, then follow me. Then you'll be where I am, ready to serve at a moment's notice. The Father will honor and reward anyone who serves me.

Friday, December 4, 2009

God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It by Jim Wallis (Politicians' Use of Religious Issues)

Wallis is critical of Democrats’ hesitancy to speak in religious terms. He rejects Howard Dean’s admonition to stay away from the issues of “guns, God, and gays” and to focus instead on jobs, health care and foreign policy. By contrast, Wallis approved of John Kerry’s references to Scripture and his own faith during the 2004 presidential election. Wallis suggests that those references were simply too few and too late in the campaign to have been politically successful.

Wallis notes that in declining generally to discuss overtly religious topics, Democrats have essentially been playing to Republican hands and letting the GOP define the terms of the debate. He states, “The ‘religious issues’ in an election get reduced to the Ten Commandments in public courthouses, gay-marriage amendments, prayer in schools, and, of course, abortion.” Wallis is adamant that there are a much wider array of political issues with religious significance including combating terrorism, remedying poverty, preserving the environment, and eradicating racism from our society.

I myself am very sensitive to his concern that the “religious issues” have been erroneous circumscribed to abortion and gay rights. However, many progressive Christians like myself have been repulsed in recent years by the exploitation of faith to achieve fleeting political power. I would not want the Democrats (or any other political party) to follow the tragic and misguided approach of the Republicans in that vein. I think there is a fine--though perhaps somewhat elusive--line between honestly referring to one’s faith as a guide to one’s political decisions, and exploiting the faith of voters to gain their political support. The former is transparent and natural. The latter is horrifying and completely lacking in integrity. I don’t understand God to be vengeful, but I certainly believe he is omnipotent. Consequently, I would not want to test my understanding that he not vengeful by consciously exploiting his Word for earthly gain!

Nonetheless, Wallis raises an important point that Christ followers should broaden our sense of “religious issues” in the political sphere. Both abortion and homosexuality are mentioned in Scripture in only fleeting ways (if at all). By comparison, poverty and justice are pervasive themes. However, I’m not convinced it is the responsibility of politicians to remind us of that. It seems to me that is more the responsibility of each Christ follow as he/she studies God’s Word, and also the responsibility of our church leaders to guide us in our understanding of the teachings of Scripture.

Matthew 8:3-4 (The Message)

Jesus reached out and touched him, saying, "I want to. Be clean." Then and there, all signs of the leprosy were gone. Jesus said, "Don't talk about this all over town. Just quietly present your healed body to the priest, along with the appropriate expressions of thanks to God. Your cleansed and grateful life, not your words, will bear witness to what I have done."

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It by Jim Wallis (Prophetic Voice of Religion)

Jim Wallis is an Evangelical pastor and the founder of Sojourners. He has written several books, and this particular one was written in 2005. At the time, much of the country was still dissecting the 2004 presidential election, and the role of conservative Christians in re-electing George W. Bush in a very tight race. Wallis notes that after the election, the media focused on the “moral values voter.” A poll revealed that 80% of voters, who said “moral values” were the most important issue influencing their vote, had voted for Bush. Wallis points out that such polls are flawed. Abortion and gay marriage are typically viewed as being key to “moral values” politics, but Wallis notes that is a simplistic and incorrect way to look at the issue. Poverty and war are also “moral values” issues, but that point is overlooked by the media and pollsters.

In God’s Politics, Wallis is critical of religious leaders like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson who claimed that God was on the side of George W. Bush and Christians had a duty to re-elect him in the 2004 election. He decries single issue voting, and raises the importance of analyzing political candidates based on issues with biblical roots like caring for the poor, protecting the environment, respecting human rights, avoiding wars and truth telling.

Wallis laments the “enormous public misrepresentation of Christianity” in the media which has led to people around the world thinking that the Christian faith “stands for political commitments that are almost the opposite of its true meaning.” He asks, “How did the faith of Jesus come to be known as pro-rich, pro-war, and only pro-American?” He notes that the religious Right tends to focus only on sexual and cultural issues while ignoring the “weightier matters of justice.” Wallis states, “Most people just don’t get it, because they know that Jesus was on the side of the poor and the cause of peace. The politics of Jesus is a problem for the religious Right.” He observes, “The religious Right’s grip on public debates about values has been driven in part by a media that continues to give airtime to the loudest religious voices, rather than the most representative, leaving millions of Christians and other people of faith without a say in the values debate.”

However, Wallis is also critical of leaders on the left who want to negate or diminish the important role of spiritual values in shaping social policy. He warns that “[t]he spiritual component in all this is absolutely crucial. An understanding of how sacred the blessing of life is must undergird all our efforts for justice and for peace....each of those forgotten souls [the poor and victims of war] was made in the image of God and carries that sacred value.”

Wallis advocates a “genuinely ‘prophetic’ spirituality to the urgent need for social justice.” He clarifies that “[p]rophecy is not future telling, but articulating moral truth,” and the “prophets diagnose the present and point the way to a just solution.” Wallis states: “In politics, the best interest of the country is served when the prophetic voice of religion is heard—challenging both Right and Left from consistent moral ground. The evangelical Christians of the nineteenth century combined revivalism with social reform and helped lead movements for abolition and woman’s suffrage—not to mention the faith-based movement that directly preceded the rise of the religious Right, namely the American civil rights movement led by the black churches. The truth is that most of the important movements for social change in America have been fueled by religion—progressive religion. The stark moral challenges of our time have once again begun to awaken this prophetic tradition.”

Wallis explains the power of prophetic religion with a specific example from our country’s recent past. After the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted, Dr. King met with President Johnson to tell him that the next critical step was passage of a voting rights act. Johnson was sympathetic, but explained he had used all of his political capital to get the civil rights law passed and a voting rights act just wasn’t a political possibility. Instead of giving up, Dr. King and the SCLC began organizing a protest on the Edmond Pettus Bridge in Alabama. On Bloody Sunday, civil rights protestors were beaten savagely by Sheriff Jim Clark and a large group of white police officers. In response, two weeks later, hundreds of clergy from various Christian and non-Christian denominations across the country came to Alabama to take part in the march from Selma to Montgomery. The civil rights struggle had become a religious one for many of the participants, and the whole nation was watching. Five months afterwards, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was enacted by Congress. King and his allies had shifted the debate and public opinion to enable President Johnson to boldly go to a joint session of Congress to call for a voting rights act. Wallis gives other examples of such prophetic religion such as Desmond Tutu, Alan Bosak and Frank Chikane of South Africa, Oscar Romero in El Salvador, and church leaders in the Philippines during the reign of Ferdinand Marcos and in Poland during Communist rule. He also notes the success of Christian organizations like World Vision, Bread for the World and Habitat for Humanity, and the faith-inspired movement of Jubilee 2000.

Wallis asks, “With the Republicans offering war overseas and corporate dominance at home, and the Democrats failing to offer any real alternatives, who will raise a prophetic voice for social and economic justice and for peace?” Wallis answers the question by stating there has never been a clearer need for leadership by churches and the religious community. However, Wallis warns that to be effective, prophetic voices need to not just protest but to offer alternatives. He states: “Many people will engage in protest, but even more are likely to follow an alternative that offers a better way. To offer an alternative is always more challenging than just protest; it requires more work, creativity, and risk. Like many others, I came of age during the 1960s, when the struggle for justice was embodied in the archetype of protest. We learned our lessons about politics in the streets, and the habit of protest is still deep within us. But protest can become static and formulaic. The aim of effective and transformative protest should be to illumine a society to its need for change. In other words, protest must be instructive to succeed, more than destructive. It should, at its best, point the way to an alternative, rather than just register the anger of its demonstrators. Protest must not become just a ritual of resistance, offering a laundry list of grievances.”

Observing a recent time when prophetic religion was absent, Wallis lamented the lack of a “serious national debate before” invading Iraq. He blamed the lack of debate on the Bush administration, which “seemed to equate dissent and even debate with a lack of patriotism.” Wallis quotes from a sermon given by the Reverend Peter Gomes at about that time where he stated, “This is a frightening time, and if one cannot speak out of Christian conscience and conviction now, come what may, then we are forever consigned to moral silence...What is and has always been lovely about our country is our right and our duty to criticize those in power, to dissent from their policies if we think them wrong, and to hold our alternative vision to be as fully valid as theirs.”

Matthew 10:27 (New Living Translation)

27 What I tell you now in the darkness, shout abroad when daybreak comes. What I whisper in your ear, shout from the housetops for all to hear!

Amos 5:24 (New International Version - UK)

24 But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!

Matthew 23:23 (New International Version - UK)

23 Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices— mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law— justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Advent Conspiracy Campaign

In contrast to the “Stand for Christmas” campaign, I really appreciate the “Advent Conspiracy” campaign. The four pillars of the latter campaign are to (1) worship fully, (2) spend less, (3) give more, and (4) love all. Those are some principles I can really support. A link to the “Advent Conspiracy” campaign’s website is provided below.

In recent years, particularly as we became parents and we grew in appreciation of the voluntary simplicity movement, my husband and I have done our best in our own little part of the world to reclaim Christmas as a meaningful religious celebration. We have drastically cut the amount we spend on gifts. We have spoken with our relatives and have agreed to not exchange presents among the adults. Instead, we each use funds we might have otherwise spent on gifts to help make the holidays brighter for others. (I deliberately use the term “holidays” in this context because the beneficiaries of our efforts are not necessarily Christ followers who would celebrate Christmas or might celebrate it only as a secular holiday.)

For many years when we still lived in Texas, our extended family pooled our funds to buy gifts for abused children in foster care. (The following link to the Child Advocates website provides information on the Santa’s Wish List program, which is amazing: Each year, my husband and I took our own daughters shopping with us to help us decide how to use our budgeted funds to get as much on each of our assigned children’s wish list as possible. Even though our daughters were initially toddlers when we began participating in the Santa’s Wish List program, it was a great way to involve our children in the process, to help them understand that not everyone is as fortunate as we are, and to be grateful for our many blessings.

My husband and I also get our kids involved in deciding how to spend certain funds we’ve designated for the Christian anti-poverty charity, World Vision, which has a terrific Christmas catalogue:
Our daughters have enthusiastically selected mosquito nets, ducks, fishing gear, soccer balls, and other items to gift children in developing nations.

During advent (i.e., the season before Christmas), my husband and I try to emphasize within our own family the religious meaning of Christmas. I’m sure the grandparents think we’re scourges, but we’ve flat out told our daughters that there is no magical man named “Santa Claus” who flies around giving out toys on Christmas Eve. We explain there was once a nice man named St. Nicholas who gave presents to kids whose mommies and daddies did not have a lot of money. Now people dress up as Santa Claus to remember what a good man St. Nicholas was. We are honest with our kids about the Santa Claus myth for a variety of reasons, but a key reason is we want them to know the religious truth about Christmas and not get distracted by the secularization of the holiday.

Our family typically goes to church on Christmas Eve. On Christmas day, we stay home and enjoy each other’s company. In doing so, we deliberately try to down play the role of gifts. We have some for the kids, but we try to emphasize the spiritual reason for the holiday and spending time together as a family. We devote a lot of the day cooking yummy foods and playing games together. But one of the highlights of the day for us is making a homemade birthday cake for Jesus. We decorate the birthday cake with whatever the kids want, e.g., sprinkles, icing, candles, etc. One year they asked how old Jesus was so they would know how many candles to put on the cake. We explained the situation and then we mutually agreed to just put a dozen or so candles on the cake to avoid triggering the smoke detectors. At dinner time, when it is time to bring out the cake, we turn off the lights and illuminate the candles to sing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus. Fortunately, Jesus is pretty generous and he lets us eat all of his birthday cake.

Luke 1:46-55

The Magnificat: Mary’s Song of Praise

Mary responded,
“Oh, how my soul praises the Lord. How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior! For he took notice of his lowly servant girl, and from now on all generations will call me blessed. For the Mighty One is holy, and he has done great things for me. He shows mercy from generation to generation to all who fear him. His mighty arm has done tremendous things! He has scattered the proud and haughty ones. He has brought down princes from their thrones and exalted the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away with empty hands. He has helped his servant Israel and remembered to be merciful. For he made this promise to our ancestors, to Abraham and his children forever.”

Monday, November 23, 2009

Focus on the Family’s “Stand for Christmas” Campaign

On its website, Focus on the Family has recently indicated it is about to launch its annual “Stand for Christmas” campaign. The conservative Christian group has been upset that some companies leave the word “Christmas” out of their advertising or fail to mention “Christmas” by name as it greets customers. Below you will find a link to Focus on the Family’s announcement that the 2009 “Stand for Christmas” campaign will get underway soon.

Oddly enough, the past website posts on the campaign no longer worked when I was researching and drafting this blog post. As a result, I’ve instead provided a third party media description of the campaign from the Rocky Mountain News:

In the past, “Stand for Christmas” has published lists of retailers that are characterized as either “Christmas-friendly,” “Christmas-negligent,” or “Christmas-offensive” based on their use of the word “Christmas” in advertising and in stores. When I first heard of this campaign last year, I was frankly horrified. I became aware of it when listening to a local Christian radio station, and I was even more horrified by the enthusiastic response of listeners calling in to vow a boycott of stores that did not receive a “Christmas-friendly” label.

I too have been disgusted by what Focus on the Family refers to as the “secularization of Christmas.” However, to me, that secularization happens when we throw the word “Christmas” around too loosely, and it becomes more associated with an accumulation of material goods than with the birth of our Lord. I don’t see a connection between the birth of Jesus in a humble manger, and tying a big bow around a fancy car as an extravagant gift for your spouse. I think it blasphemes God to use the miracle of his son’s birth to encourage people to line up in a frenzy on Thanksgiving to await a turn to participate in a (sometimes deadly) stampede in a big box store. Even when no human being loses his or her life, where are the “family values” in such an experience?

While Focus on the Family is offended when sales clerks wish shoppers “Happy Holidays,” it offends me when retailers use the term “Christmas” in any way to justify their end of year marketing. To be clear, I certainly don’t begrudge the retail sector their end of year sales, which are critical to their ability to survive a competitive sector of the economy. But I just don’t appreciate them using Jesus in a sacrilegious way. I’d much prefer “holiday” advertising to “Christmas” advertising.

Though we are all Christians, the folks at Focus on the Family and I disagree on this issue; we seem to have a fundamentally different perspective on the significance of Christmas in American society. As I understand, the “Stand for Christmas” campaign is based in large part on the notion that the United States is a Christian nation and the roots of our holiday marketing are the religious holiday of Christmas. Perhaps I’m mistaken, but my understanding is that Focus on the Family wants to reemphasize those roots and stress the notion that we are a Christian nation (whatever that means). I disagree with that approach for several reasons.

First, I am pro-pluralism and anti-theocracy. I love Jesus, but think it is antithetical to Christianity that anyone would be forced to share my enthusiasm. It is a basic premise of Christian theology that God does not force himself on us, and instead we are each given free will to decide whether or not to follow him. Moreover, I am confident that if anyone studies Christianity, they too would embrace it. But I’m not in any way threatened by people who choose not to. Such a choice saddens me for a variety of reasons, but it’s not in any way threatening.

Second, Christmas is a sacred, beautiful holiday, and it is very important to me that it be preserved as such. It is not beneficial to anyone to have non-believers forced to wish store patrons “Merry Christmas” out of a type of political correctness. Moreover, it is frankly disgusting to me that Jesus’ birthday would be tossed around as an excuse to entice more customers into stores or to rack up debt on one’s credit card. That is not what Christmas means to me.

Matthew 21:12-13

Then Jesus went into the temple of God and drove out all those who bought and sold in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. And He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a ‘den of thieves.’”

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Christ the King Sunday

Today is the feast of Christ the King. The feast day was instituted in 1925 in the Catholic church by Pope Pius XI, but other Christian denominations have since adopted the feast—including Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians and Methodists.

In establishing the feast day, Pope Pius XI issued an encyclical called Quas Primas. The text of the encyclical is available at the Vatican’s website: It summarizes the scriptural bases for understanding Jesus to be a king, and then it explains the characterization. Pope Pius XI quotes Cyril of Alexandria who had explained that Christ had “dominion over all creatures, a dominion not seized by violence nor usurped, but his by essence and by nature.” The encyclical then states:

“This kingdom is spiritual and is concerned with spiritual things. That this is so the above quotations from Scripture amply prove, and Christ by his own action confirms it. On many occasions, when the Jews and even the Apostles wrongly supposed that the Messiah would restore the liberties and the kingdom of Israel, he repelled and denied such a suggestion. When the populace thronged around him in admiration and would have acclaimed him King, he shrank from the honor and sought safety in flight. Before the Roman magistrate he declared that his kingdom was not of this world. The gospels present this kingdom as one which men prepare to enter by penance, and cannot actually enter except by faith and by baptism, which, though an external rite, signifies and produces an interior regeneration. This kingdom is opposed to none other than to that of Satan and to the power of darkness. It demands of its subjects a spirit of detachment from riches and earthly things, and a spirit of gentleness. They must hunger and thirst after justice, and more than this, they must deny themselves and carry the cross... It would be a grave error, on the other hand, to say that Christ has no authority whatever in civil affairs, since, by virtue of the absolute empire over all creatures committed to him by the Father, all things are in his power. Nevertheless, during his life on earth he refrained from the exercise of such authority, and although he himself disdained to possess or to care for earthly goods, he did not, nor does he today, interfere with those who possess them. Non eripit mortalia qui regna dat caelestia.”

Matthew 16:24-28

Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? For the Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then He will reward each according to his works. Assuredly, I say to you, there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.”

Friday, November 20, 2009

With God on Our Side (2004) (Choosing to Be an Advisor, Not a Prophet)

To me, the most fascinating part of the film came in the discussion of Reagan’s first term as president. After the election, Jerry Falwell held a press conference where he spoke with pride of a president and congress committed to helping conservative Christians enact laws and implement policies to make abortion illegal, permit “voluntary school prayer,” and restore America’s military might. In an interview for the film, Jerry Falwell later spoke of the feeling of “elation” from that election victory. Similarly, Ed Dobson (the vice president of the Moral Majority) spoke of the thrill of eating lunch at the White House. The film notes that in helping Reagan win the presidency, conservative Christians relished their proximity to power.

Early in Reagan’s first term, there was a vacancy on the Supreme Court. Falwell describes in the film that he was on vacation with his family when Reagan called him to tell him of his decision to nominate Sandra Day O’Connor to the Court and to ask Falwell to not raise opposition immediately. Anti-abortion activists were concerned about O’Connor’s pro choice voting record in the Arizona state senate. Nonetheless, Falwell explains in the film that he did agree to keep quiet and ultimately became a supporter of O’Connor’s nomination.

Ed Dobson then explains this decision with a “biblical paradigm.” He noted that in politics one could choose to be an advisor or a prophet. Dobson states:

If you choose to be a prophet, then you don’t have a lot of influence on the political reality, but you are always free to speak what you perceive to be the truth for the current historical moment. Or you can be an advisor with a sense of truth, a sense of value, but your objective is simply to influence the process. And I think the Moral Majority moved from a prophetic role into more of an advisor role and lost some of its ability to speak against, even the administration it was for.

To me, it seems clear that Dobson is saying the Moral Majority deliberately chose to compromise their sense of truth in order to have a seat at the table with Caesar. That is a stunning admission. In my own opinion, it was also a frightening, tragic choice.

Matthew 12:18

"Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations.”

Luke 4:5-8

“The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to him, ‘I will give you all their authority and splendor, for it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. So if you worship me, it will all be yours.’ Jesus answered, ‘It is written: Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’”

Thursday, November 19, 2009

With God on Our Side (2004) (Mainstream Media Attitudes Towards Christians)

To me, one particularly intriguing segment of With God on Our Side was the film's focus on the news media’s reaction to Jimmy Carter when he first burst onto the national political scene. Carter professed that he was a “born again” Christian and declared that the most important thing in his life was his relationship with Jesus Christ. The film shows the media’s confusion over such statements.

Ken Briggs, the Religion Editor of the New York Times, explained that Carter’s profession of faith caught most mainstream reporters off guard. They had no idea what he was even talking about. Most reporters didn’t know what an Evangelical was. Briggs mentioned that to most reporters Carter’s description of his faith appeared “back-woodsy,” Southern and thoroughly suspect.

Cal Thomas, an Evangelical TV reporter and commentator, noted that the Washington Post had written that they didn’t know much about “this sort of thing” (referring to Carter’s faith) because they didn’t know any of “these people.” Thomas was incredulous that Evangelicals were referred to as “these people” and a major newspaper was unable to find any. He asked rhetorically, “What does [this] mean? Are they from another planet? Do they not have telephones? Are they unable to read books?”

Actual news footage is shown of Harry Reasoner asking Carter what that “born again business” was all about and whether Carter’s cabinet would be filled with Baptists. There was also footage of John Chancellor on the NBC Nightly News assuring viewers that the news program had investigated the religious meaning of Carter’s born again experience. With a note of surprise, Chancellor announced they had determined it was apparently not a rare phenomenon and others had experienced it as well.

Cal Thomas noted that millions around the country guffawed at the media’s need to investigate Carter’s faith experience to determine it was not odd. He analogized it to a hypothetical situation where the media investigated African Americans to determine they were indeed human or investigated women to determine they were in fact equal to men. Thomas said, “It is amazing to hear something like this from an educated person.”

Carter’s Press Secretary, Jody Powell, commented that most reporters at that time would never have gone to church every weekend unless it was going to advance their career in some fashion or otherwise produce some tangible benefit. As a result, the media were skeptical about Carter’s faith. Powell explained that they could not imagine Carter’s faith was sincere and felt there must be a cynical, exploitative motivation to going to church.

John 3:1-8 (Holman Christian Standard Bible)

There was a man from the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Him at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher, for no one could perform these signs You do unless God were with him."
Jesus replied, " I assure you: Unless someone is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God."
"But how can anyone be born when he is old?" Nicodemus asked Him. "Can he enter his mother's womb a second time and be born?"
Jesus answered, " I assure you: Unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I told you that you must be born again. The wind blows where it pleases, and you hear its sound, but you don't know where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit."

Sunday, November 15, 2009

With God on Our Side (2004) (School Prayer As Political Motivation)

With God on Our Side insinuates that conservative Christians began to affiliate with the Republican Party after the Supreme Court determined that institutionalized prayer in the public schools was unconstitutional. This was apparently a galvanizing event. Frankly, I’ve never understood the “school prayer” issue. Those who are most active on the issue seem to phrase it as a question of permitting children to pray in school. However, this is of course quite misleading.

Prayer is typically a personal and quiet discipline. It can take place any time and any where without others even being aware. Such prayer is certainly not forbidden in public schools or anywhere else in our country. I’m very confident that such prayer take places constantly in most if not all public schools. Indeed, when I was a kid, I myself participated in such prayers all the time. Instead, the hot-button legal and political issue technically involves whether there will be institutionalized group prayer during the school day. I’m not sure why anyone would advocate that kind of prayer in a public school. Who would lead such prayer? If you have people of different faiths in the classroom, then one of two things will happen. Either the prayer will be watered down and made vague to avoid contradiction of the theological beliefs of some in the class, or the prayer will be more specific and will offend some teachers, students and/or parents. Neither option seems desirable to me.

Further, my thinking on the whole school prayer issue was crystallized when I was a grade school teacher (prior to attending law school) and realized the main focus of teaching is classroom management (i.e., maintaining order so kids don’t get out of line such that chaos prevents learning). I’ve seen first hand that classroom management and institutionalized worship are not happy bedfellows. My first year as a teacher I taught sixth, seventh and eighth graders in a Catholic school where we had institutionalized prayers several times each day and we attended mass as a group at least once a month. Initially, I was very excited about these group worship opportunities, but I soon came to dread them. Kids will be kids, and in my experience as a teacher even “good kids” are not inclined to be spiritually devout when their peers are around. It used to offend me deeply when my middle school students were playing during prayers or mass. Instead of showing respect to God, many would use the distraction and the gap in discipline to pass notes or communicate to one another in other covert ways. It was disillusioning to me that instead of being a leader or role model of faith to these young students, I was reduced to having to hand out demerits for infractions during prayer times or mass. Pragmatically, it was also very concerning to me that such a system likely turned many kids away from God at a critical, difficult time in their lives. Because of these experiences, I vowed that if I were ever a parent, I would never send my kids to a religiously affiliated school where God was mandated. Trying to force religion unfortunately has the opposite effect of what is intended. I would not recommend it to anyone.

As a teacher in a religious school, not only did I see that forcing kids to worship in a group setting was unsuccessful, I also used to be very concerned about the kids in the school who did have a budding faith in God. I worried about the impact on them when they saw their classmates being so disrespectful. Maybe some of them began to see faith in God as un-cool or silly as a result. Peer influences mean so much to young people. I would have much rather taken the kids with a budding faith in God to a church service of mature, respectful Christ followers. That would have provided better, more supportive role models. However, that was not an option.

With regard to the legal and political “school prayer” issue, I’m further perplexed because those who seem to be most adamant about the need for institutionalized group prayer in school tend to be from faith traditions where a personal, intimate relationship with God is emphasized. Such a relationship is primarily developed by an individual’s one-on-on time with God. Realistically, it does not seem that such a personal relationship is fostered by forced, impersonal group prayer in a secular setting. Instead, people are supposed to come to their own personal decision to accept Christ into their heart or to reject him.

Moreover, in such faith traditions, spontaneous prayer is typically emphasized over rote formulaic prayer. Pragmatically, it seems to me that such formulaic prayer lends itself best to a pluralistic, secular group setting where different faith traditions are represented. Only if one writes down and tweaks the wording of a given prayer ahead of time can one be sure to avoid references or phraseology that will offend some of the people being led in prayer. In my own opinion, that type of rehearsed precision tends to defeat the purpose of prayer. I am just not sure what proponents of institutionalized group prayer in public schools would hope to achieve.

Matthew 6:5-8 (Contemporary English Version)

When you pray, don't be like those show-offs who love to stand up and pray in the meeting places and on the street corners. They do this just to look good. I can assure you that they already have their reward. When you pray, go into a room alone and close the door. Pray to your Father in private. He knows what is done in private, and he will reward you. When you pray, don't talk on and on as people do who don't know God. They think God likes to hear long prayers. Don't be like them. Your Father knows what you need before you ask.

Friday, October 30, 2009

With God on Our Side (2004) (History of the Conservative Christian Political Movement)

I found this documentary to be absolutely fascinating because I’ve been perplexed by the embrace of Republican politics in recent years by conservative Christians. This documentary meticulously traced the development of the affiliation of conservative Christians with the GOP through interviews with many of the most influential members of the Religious Right. But frankly, even after watching the film I’m still perplexed. Watching the film, I felt like Alice in Wonderland. Everything was mixed up, nothing made sense. The dialogue was like Jabberwocky. I just don’t understand how one can believe Jesus’s teachings lead us to support the policies of the GOP. If he were here, I certainly don’t believe Jesus would be endorsing any political party or politician; he did not advocate meddling with Caesar but was submissive to secular government. Moreover, the GOP’s positions have never seemed pro-God to me, so this particular political alignment just baffles me.

With God on Our Side traces the history of the conservative Christian political movement and seems to suggest the first spark was the Supreme Court decision disallowing institutionalized prayer in the public schools. This notion stumped me. When I was in elementary school, there was no institutional prayer, but I prayed all the time for God to help me traverse all the mundane challenges of the school day. However, in a pluralistic society, I cannot imagine why anyone would want teachers, administrators or even students to lead public school classes in group prayers. Now that I am a parent, I want my husband and me to take the lead in our kids’ spiritual formation—with the support of their Sunday school teacher and our pastor. I simply cannot fathom why the “school prayer” issue would galvanize devout Christians to rally around the Republican Party.

The film also describes Billy Graham’s implicit endorsement of Nixon as a watershed moment for the intersection of conservative Christians with GOP Party politics. However, Jerry Falwell is interviewed in the film and describes that Graham himself would later say that decision was a mistake. After viewing the rest of the film, I was confused why the rest of the prominent conservative Christians interviewed did not learn from that mistake and subsequently refrain from embracing politicians.

The film chronicles the conservative Christians’ short-lived excitement and then complete rejection of Jimmy Carter. This was also confusing to me. They seemed to be convinced of the sincerity of Carter’s beliefs, but dismissed the importance of their common faith in favor of a series of political litmus tests of questionable biblical authority. That rejection of Carter was even more confusing to me as the film describes their embraced of his opponent, Ronald Reagan, in 1980. Reagan was divorced, not even a church-goer and was married to a devotee of astrology. In essence, the conservative Christians chose a secular Hollywood actor with smooth oratory skills over a devout, born-again Christian from the South. I just don’t get it.

As With God on Our Side described the increasingly close alliance with the GOP in the 1980s, I actually began to feel bad for the conservative Christians interviewed. It seemed so clear that they had compromised their most sacred beliefs in vain, and were used by the politicians they supported. The film makes it clear that the Reagan administration wooed conservative Christians prior to elections, but after elections ignored their political agenda in favor of economic policies that were not the concern of the conservative Christians. However, instead of realizing the folly of such a close political alignment, the film shows that conservative Christians in the late 1980s and 1990s turned to new strategies to gain greater political influence and government power. Such efforts culminated in the rise of George W. Bush.

Matthew 18:1-5

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, "Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?"
He called a little child, whom he placed among them. And he said: "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes a humble place—becoming like this child—is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

John 6:15 (New Living Translation)

When Jesus saw that they were ready to force him to be their king, he slipped away into the hills by himself.

Luke 23:39-43 (Today’s New International Version)

One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: "Aren't you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!"
But the other criminal rebuked him. "Don't you fear God," he said, "since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong."
Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. "
Jesus answered him, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise."

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Which Jesus?: Choosing Between Love & Power by Dr. Tony Campolo

Despite its relative brevity, I found this book to be quite powerful. Dr. Tony Campolo is a scholar of sociology, and the author of many books. Which Jesus?: Choosing Between Love & Power is a tiny book that could fit in your pocket, and is only about 80 pages in length. It succinctly makes the case that Christians ought not seek power to exert influence, but should instead choose the path of sacrificial love.

Campolo begins the book by reminding us of the events surrounding Jesus’s death. It was the Jewish celebration of Passover. The local Roman authority, Pontius Pilate, asked the crowd to choose which prisoner they wanted to free during the celebration. The New Testament tells us that there were two candidates: Jesus and Barabbas. Campolo explains that in seminary he learned it was odd that the Gospel writers refer to the other candidate by his last name, Barabbas (which meant “son of Abbas”), and did not use his first name. Some have observed that this anomaly might make sense if Barabbas’s first name was Jesus, which was a common name at that time. Perhaps the Gospel writers were attempting to distinguish between two men with the name first name. This theory inspired the book’s title and provides a metaphor explored in the rest of the book.

Campolo offers readers a biographical sketch of these two men. They lived at a time when Israel was suffering under brutal oppression and tyranny by Roman conquerors. Both men were from the town of Nazareth, which was known as a hotbed for radicals. Campolo compares Barabbas to Osama bin Laden; Barabbas was essentially a terrorist trying to challenge the Roman authorities through violent means. Campolo characterizes Barabbas as a tough hothead, who must have been fairly charismatic to attract a following of fellow terrorists, the Zealots.

In turn, Campolo characterizes Jesus Barjoseph (i.e., the son of the couple Mary and Joseph) as sharing Barabbas’s “zeal for revolutionizing the nation,” but having chosen to effect change in a vastly different way. He explicitly rejected Satan’s offers of worldly power; he quoted Scripture and declared that he would save the world through sacrificial love instead of exercises of power. Campolo explains Jesus Barjoseph rejected the use of coercive power in favor of self-giving love on the cross. The book notes the wisdom of that choice; the violence of the Zealots ultimately was disastrous for the Jews. In A.D. 70, a Jewish revolution was defeated in bloody fashion by the Romans. The temple was destroyed and thousands of Jews were massacred.

After comparing and contrasting the two men in the biblical story, Campolo asks readers: “Do we want Jesus Barjoseph, who comes in love, or Jesus Barabbas, who comes in power?” He notes that by nature people seem to understand and feel secure with power. Indeed, power is the choice made by most of us. Campolo discusses the truism that whoever exercises the most power in a relationship exercises the least love, and whoever expresses the most love is exercising the least power. But he points out that the use of power rarely succeeds in the long term; it primarily instills fear, which can eventually be overcome. Campolo asserts that those in history who have accomplished the most have done so without coercive force but through nonviolent love: Jesus Barjoseph, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Campolo speaks out against modern American Christians whom he says take up the ways of Barabbas in trying to impact society with Christian values imposed through the exercise of political power. Instead, he advocates that with regard to personal moral issues, Christians ought to use loving persuasion rather than powerful coercion to get people to live according to what we believe is right. Campolo states he wants “people to freely choose what they believe and do, as long as it doesn’t threaten the property or physical well-being of others.”

Which Jesus?: Choosing Between Love & Power was published in 2002, not long after the devastating terrorist attacks of September 11th. In the book, Campolo observes that it had become “dangerous to quote Jesus Barjoseph in many churches since September 11” because many Christians did not want to hear that we are supposed to love our enemies, do good to those who would harm us and return good for evil. Campolo warns that we are embracing the ways of Barabbas, and dismissing the words of Jesus Barjoseph as “unrealistic ideals.” Campolo makes a persuasive case for the transformative strength of love to bring lasting, positive change to our world.

Matthew 5:14-16, 38-48

"You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”

"You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972)

At our church’s recent service in remembrance of St. Francis of Assisi, our pastor mentioned in passing the Franco Zeffirelli film, Brother Sun, Sister Moon, which depicted the life of Francis. My husband and I had never heard of it, so we rented it shortly thereafter. Stylistically, the film was a bit dated, but we really enjoyed the substance.

My husband and I have always been drawn to the story of St. Francis (Francesco di Bernardone) because of his emphasis on the fundamentals of Christ’s message: the unimportance of material things and loving God’s creation (human and otherwise). The film certainly focused on these aspects of Francesco’s life, but also did a good job of putting his life in historical context. Living in the United States in the twenty-first century, I don’t find particularly shocking Francesco’s decision to renounce his birthright to live a life of simplicity ministering to lepers and other marginalized human beings. But in Francesco’s day, that decision was astounding and deeply disturbing to many.

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when he lived, the church had become a hierarchical institution that resembled and rivaled earthly kingdoms. As dramatized in the film, bishops and dukes engaged in power struggles and had separate armies. The wealthy enjoyed positions of privilege and the poor were neglected--even in church. In the film, one of Francesco’s closest friends and first followers was another son of privilege who returned from the Crusades embittered by the experience. Francesco and his followers essentially dropped out of traditional society. They roamed the area of Assisi singing praises to God, restored a dilapidated church, and lived off the food given to them by others. They wore rags and were filthy. Local people of influence complained that Francesco was corrupting the cream of the crop of Assisi.

The climactic moment of the film comes when Francesco and his followers walk to Rome and gain an audience with the pope. The Vatican resembled an earthly king’s ornate court. Francesco and his group arrived with dirty bare feet and tattered robes. The night before their audience, they slept on the street in front of the Vatican. When they were admitted, they looked out of place amongst all the finely dressed people in the pope’s reception hall. When Francesco quoted scripture to them, the people in the hall were aghast. They considered it blasphemy and heresy to have quoted the words of Jesus to them. The film ends after the pope throws off his elegant robes and steps off his throne to speak with admiration with Francesco and humbly kiss his filthy feet.

In a time when the church had established an earthy kingdom of great power, just repeating to the powerful the words of Jesus was shocking and even dangerous. In an odd way, it seemed reminiscent of the situation in the United States in the early twenty-first century.

Mark 10:35-37, 41-45

Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. "Teacher," they said, "we want you to do for us whatever we ask." "What do you want me to do for you?" he asked. They replied, "Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory."
When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. Jesus called them together and said, "You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."

John 13:1-5, 12-17

It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples' feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.
When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. "Do you understand what I have done for you?" he asked them. "You call me 'Teacher' and 'Lord,' and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them."

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Sojourners Blog & Colbert’s Satire of Justice Scalia

The Sojourners website features a blog called “God’s Politics.” It has a variety of short articles not published in the magazine. I enjoy reading it when I have time.

The link below this paragraph pulls up a post from the “God’s Politics” blog that discusses Justice Antonin Scalia’s recent remarks at oral arguments in the Salazar v. Buono case, and contains a clip of Stephen Colbert’s very funny satire of those same remarks.

For those unfamiliar with the Salazar case and/or the legal issues raise by the case, a little background may be helpful.

The United States Constitution is our nation’s most fundamental legal authority. Adopted in 1791, the First Amendment to the Constitution states:

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.

(emphasis added) This one compact provision contains several distinct guarantees, but the first is commonly referred to as the “Establishment Clause” because it prohibits the establishment of a national religion or even the preference of one religion over another. The Establishment Clause was enacted due to our Founding Fathers’ rejection of the European tradition of churches that were officially sanctioned by the government. Membership in the state church was typically required to hold government posts, and was often a pragmatic necessity for acceptance and advancement in civil society. During the Colonial era, the Church of England had been imposed as the official church of the colonies. The Founding Fathers thought that approach to religion was unwise. They preferred freedom of conscience and freedom of religion instead of a state-sponsored religion. (Indeed, many social scientists point out that in societies where religion is free from government meddling, religion tends to flourish most, but where religion is supported or endorsed by the state, religious devotion tends to be much weaker.) Additional information about the Establishment Clause can be found at the link below this paragraph.

The issue of religious symbols on government property has generated a number of court cases over the years. The First Amendment guarantee of the “free exercise” of religion ensures that churches and individuals can display religious symbols on their own property. However, the Establishment Clause prohibits such displays on government property (e.g., courts, parks, etc.) because such displays are an implicit endorsement of a particular religion. The link below this paragraph provides more information about the legal issues in such cases.

The Salazar case involves a challenge to the presence of a Latin cross about six feet tall on the top of a prominent rock outcropping on federally-owned land in the Mojave National Preserve in California. The case was brought in 2001 by Frank Buono, an observant Catholic who displays a Latin cross in his own home. Mr. Buono has served his country through out his life; he is a veteran and a retired employee of the National Park Service. He brought the suit because he objected to the implicit governmental endorsement of one religion by allowing the erection of a prominent religious symbol on government property. While the case was pending, Congress designated the cross as a war memorial to honor World War I veterans. Additional information about the Salazar case can be found at the link below.

Earlier this month, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the Salazar case. At that time, Justice Scalia made several comments that seemed to diminish the religious significance of the cross and insinuate that the cross was merely a secular symbol. The Sojourners “God’s Politics” blog post above criticizes Justice’s Scalia’s comments and includes Stephen Colbert’s comical satire of Scalia’s denial of the religious symbolism of the cross.

Parenthetically, in interviews, Colbert has professed to be a man of faith. He is a practicing Catholic and has taught Sunday School.

John 19:17-18, 30, 20:11-16 (New American Standard Bible)

They took Jesus, therefore, and He went out, bearing His own cross, to the place called the Place of a Skull, which is called in Hebrew, Golgotha. There they crucified Him, and with Him two other men, one on either side, and Jesus in between.

Therefore when Jesus had received the sour wine, He said, "It is finished!" And He bowed His head and gave up His spirit.

But Mary was standing outside the tomb weeping; and so, as she wept, she stooped and looked into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white sitting, one at the head and one at the feet, where the body of Jesus had been lying. And they said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping?" She said to them, "Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him." When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, and did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?" Supposing Him to be the gardener, she said to Him, "Sir, if you have carried Him away, tell me where you have laid Him, and I will take Him away." Jesus said to her, "Mary!" She turned and said to Him in Hebrew, "Rabboni!" (which means, Teacher).

1 Corinthians 1:17 (New American Standard Bible)

For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not in cleverness of speech, so that the cross of Christ would not be made void.

Colossians 1:20-22 (New American Standard Bible)

And through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven. And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach.