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.