Showing posts with label Noteworthy Christians. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Noteworthy Christians. Show all posts

Friday, September 30, 2011

Mary Harris Jones (a.k.a. “Mother Jones”)

After reading Mother Jones magazine for the first time, I became interest in its namesake and did a little research. I learned that “Mother Jones” (the woman) had a fascinating perspective, which in many ways is actually quite apropos to the focus of this blog.

Mary Harris Jones lived a long life from 1837 until 1930.

Mary Harris was originally from Cork County, Ireland. Her family were Catholics. They were tenant farmers in Ireland. She immigrated to North America with her family as a teenager.

Miss Harris received a Catholic education in Toronto, Canada. She later worked as a teacher in a convent. Eventually, she moved south to the United States and married George E. Jones of Memphis, Tennessee. He was active in an iron molders’ union.
Early in her adult life, Mrs. Jones tragically lost her husband and all her children in a yellow fever outbreak. She had had four children. They were all under the age of five when they died. What an unimaginable loss for someone to bear.

However, Mrs. Jones apparently did not wallow in her grief. Instead, she turned her sorrow into productive outlets by pouring her considerable energies into labor organizing. “Mother Jones,” as she became known, was active in helping to form unions and was affiliated with the Socialist Party of America. She is particularly remembered for her leadership in fighting against the exploitation of child labor.

Mother Jones was apparently an effective labor leader in part because she was such a gifted orator. She was famous for using humor and spirited rhetoric to inspire audiences. Some of her more famous quotes include:

“I'm not a humanitarian, I'm a hell-raiser.”

“If they want to hang me, let them. And on the scaffold I will shout ‘Freedom for the working class!’”

“Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.”

“Some day the workers will take possession of your city hall, and when we do, no child will be sacrificed on the altar of profit!”

“Injustice boils in men's hearts as does steel in its cauldron, ready to pour forth, white hot, in the fullness of time”

“Often while sewing for the lords and barons who lived in magnificent houses on the Lake Shore Drive, I would look out of the plate glass windows and see the poor, shivering wretches, jobless and hungry, walking alongside the frozen lake front. The contrast of their condition with that of the tropical comfort of the people for whom I sewed was painful to me.”

Interesting quotes.

Mother Jones is remembered as a passionate fighter for workers’ rights. Many modern people think of her as a godless communist. However, in reality, she had pretty traditional beliefs. Indeed, in many respects one might say she was a “conservative.” For example, Mother Jones was outspoken against female suffrage. She was famous for having said:

“working men deserved a wage that would allow women to stay home to care for their kids.”

I also read that Mother Jones blamed neglectful mothering as the root cause of juvenile delinquency.

As I understand her biography, if she was a radical leftist, it was simply due to class-based, economic concerns. She was not consistently left-wing on all issues. Other famous Mother Jones quotes include:

“I have never had a vote, and I have raised hell all over this country. You don't need a vote to raise hell! You need convictions and a voice!”

“I preferred sewing to bossing little children.”

“That is, the wife must care for what the husband cares for if he is to remain resolute.”

In light of all this, Mary Harris Jones seems like a rather curious inspiration for the modern magazine bearing her nickname.

Deuteronomy 8:17

If you start thinking to yourselves, "I did all this. And all by myself. I'm rich. It's all mine!"—well, think again. Remember that God, your God, gave you the strength to produce all this wealth so as to confirm the covenant that he promised to your ancestors—as it is today.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Border Ministries

This post follows up on the prior one, which discussed the recent Border Forum at my church. This post includes more information about various Christian ministries and efforts to raise consciousness of the humanitarian tragedy along the border.

The Episcopal Diocese of Arizona has a Border Ministries program. The link below has information at it. The members of my church who visited the border recently indicate the program consists of just one priest and a few interns.

The Reverend Seth Polley (who shepherds St. John’s parish in Bisbee and St. Stephen’s in Douglas) is very active in border issues and leads that Border Ministries program. The website for St. John’s is available at the link below.

Reverend Polley has had a blog, which is available at the link below. It has not been kept current, but his perspective is interesting to read.

The Presbyterian church has also been active in border ministries. They have founded “Frontera de Cristo,” which can be translated as “Christ’s Border.” Frontera de Cristo is a vibrant program with opportunities for short term and longer term service projects, and various outreach and advocacy efforts. During their trip to the border, my fellow congregants learned about the Café Justo cooperative program for fair trade coffee development in Mexico. Frontera de Christo also hosts the weekly precession in the desert that I referenced in the prior post. Take a look at the organization’s website below; they have some insightful pictures and information about things that are happening along the border.

My fellow congregants also visited a clinic in Naco on the Mexico side of the border. The link below contains some information about that clinic, which is sponsored by Christians on the American side of the border.

Members of my church also visited the desert near the border and learned of the work of a non-denominational faith-based organization called “Humane Borders,” which helps to alleviate the suffering and prevent the deaths of migrants. Among the organization’s activities, they have established a network of water stations where migrants can get clean water while they are in the desert and exposed to brutal conditions. The organization’s website is available at the link below.

Finally, my fellow congregants visited the Centro de Atención al Migrante Exodus (“CAME”) in Agua Prieta on the Mexico side of the border. It is a ministry of the Catholic church and provides short-term food and a place to stay for people who have attempted unsuccessfully to migrate to the U.S. In recent years, the U.S. Border Patrol has returned migrants to Mexico, but to a different place than their point of entry into the United States. As a result, the returned migrants are often disoriented and even unsure where along the border they have landed. CAME meets the acute needs of such migrants as they attempt to figure out what to do next. The link below is an old article, but contains a brief mention of the CAME ministry in Agua Prieta.

Exodus 12:49

There shall be one law for the native and for the stranger who sojourns among you.

Leviticus 19:33

When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong.

Leviticus 25:35

If your brother becomes poor and cannot maintain himself with you, you shall support him as though he were a stranger and a sojourner, and he shall live with you.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Cause Within You by Matthew Barnett (Commonality Despite Differences)

I was inspired not only by the individuals Pastor Barnett described in his book, but by the commonality I saw in our Christian faith. He and his father come from the Assemblies of God, which is a denomination quite different from any church I’ve ever attended. I’m quite confident that Pastor Barnett and I would disagree on a number of theological points. But I was so encouraged that those points are not ones that he focused on in his book. Instead of emphasizing theology that might be divisive, he emphasized the tremendous needs of people and the imperative of trying to meet those needs. He takes seriously the call to be the hands and feet of Christ.

In his ministry, Pastor Barnett works with gang members, felons, people who use drugs, prostitutes, undocumented migrants and a host of other “outcasts.” Many in society look down upon such people. Sadly, many Christ followers mirror that same disapproval and condemnation. I was encouraged that Pastor Barnett did not seem to share that type of attitude. Instead, his writing seemed to evidence over and over again a tremendous compassion for such individuals. He describes heartbreak, not revulsion, when he is on Skid Row and a prostitute propositions him. He tells the story of a young gang member who used drugs, but in whom he saw leadership potential in ministry. In describing the story of Jim Bakker, Pastor Barnett did not go into the gory details, but simply talks in generalities of Mr. Bakker’s fall from grace and incarceration. The focus is not on the sin, but the redemption. I really admired that attitude.

I was also tremendously impressed when Pastor Barnett wrote about evaluating one’s ministry based on God’s metrics, not society’s. With humility he shares that when he moved to Los Angeles, he initially focused on building a great church with masses of people. He realized the futility of that goal when the small congregation he inherited shrunk to zero attendance! Hitting rock bottom in his ministry made him realize that he was focusing on his own goals, not God’s. Pastor Barnett had an epiphany that he needed to serve the many people in Los Angeles who were struggling and suffering. That was his calling, not building a church with huge numbers.

Pastor Barnett also wrote that when celebrating the 15th anniversary of the Dream Center, he sensed that the party the staff threw was not the appropriate way to mark the milestone. He knew that was the world’s way of celebrating—feasting and patting themselves on the back. As a more appropriate way to mark the milestone, Pastor Barnett felt moved to spend time (day and night) on Skid Row. He felt moved to be with the people he was trying to serve to better understand their plight. Those around him feared for his security, but he was undeterred. It was a moving experience once the initial terror wore off. I respect and admire his approach to celebrating. It is an example of radical love and courage to follow Jesus. It is also a reminder to reject the world’s values in favor of God’s. Being a Christ follower is supposed to be a counter cultural endeavor.

I sometimes get very discouraged by the great divisions in the church. And I am depressed at how Christ’s message gets warped to support politics and policies that to me are the antithesis of what Jesus would advocate. I feel hopeless at the attempts of fellow Christians to impose their own view of Christianity on secular society. But my faith in the church is restored to some extent when a Christian like Matthew Barnett, who I is so different in theology and social attitudes, clings so tightly to what I understand to be Jesus’s core teachings—loving and serving all of God’s precious children without judgment no matter what they have done in their lives.

Romans 14:10

You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister ? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat.

Friday, February 11, 2011

St. Anthony Foundation in San Francisco

For me, one of the highlights of the law professor conference was an optional service project at the St. Anthony Foundation in the Tenderloin district. It is a Catholic ministry serving the homeless and the poor.

The volunteers coordinator gave us professors an insightful talk about the backgrounds of the clients of the Foundation, the complex poverty issues in the Tenderloin area and the specific challenges encountered by the Foundation’s clients. I was surprised to hear that many of the clients of the Foundation are not homeless, they have jobs but do not earn enough to support themselves. They often do not show up early in the month, i.e., soon after payday. But they come seeking services once their meager funds for the month have been exhausted and they can no longer afford to buy food.

She explained that there are six basic demographic groups who are served by the Foundation: (1) the homeless, (2) the disabled and senior citizens who are dependent on government assistance, (3) families with children, (4) those who are mentally ill or have substance abuse problems, (5) veterans and (6) recent immigrants. She noted that these different groups overlap in many instances, but the identification of these groups helps one understand how clients come to need the services of the St. Anthony Foundation. She also mentioned that people in the latter category (i.e., recent immigrants) were most likely to escape the poverty of their current situation.

The volunteers coordinator explained that the people who have homes are in single room occupancy units in the Tenderloin. Typically their homes are the size of a closet, have shared bathrooms and have no facilities for preparing food. She noted the difficulty of families surviving under such circumstances—taking shifts to sleep, not getting nutritious meals, and not having a place for children to study or play.

I was privileged to be in a group of volunteers who were put to work in the St. Anthony Dining Room. The Foundation expressly does not use the term “soup kitchen” because that is impersonal; they would like the clients to build community over their meals, like people do at their family’s kitchen table.

After a brief training, I was set to work carrying trays of food to the clients sitting at tables. I was quite nervous. I’ve always been impressed by waiters and waitresses for their ability to carry trays of food and drink without dropping anything. I’ve been grateful that I had other avenues to earn a living because I frankly doubt I would be able to hold down a job as a waitress. Nonetheless, I am happy to report that I did not drop anything on any of the clients at the St. Anthony Dining Room. (Phew!)

Later, I was assigned to bus tables, which surprisingly I found to be even more of a challenge than delivering the trays. Many people did not finish their “juice” (which resembled Kool-Aid) and I had to balance lots of full cups in my bussing tub without spilling it all over myself, the floor or the clients. It was not easy.

And towards the end of my shift, they asked that I go around to serve clients water. This turned out to be quite a task because I could only manage to carry a couple of cups in my hand at a time and a lot of folks were thirsty! My water service was frequently interrupted as I ran back for more cups. As a result, there was a lengthy wait to get water if one was not inclined to drink the “juice” that came standard with one’s meal. Lugging a huge pitcher of water also hurt my wrist after a while. Consequently, I was very impressed by the petite nun who cheerfully handled water duty the entire time I was in the Dining Room. She seemed to be a regular at the St. Anthony Dining Room, and seemed to know many of the clients. Assuming she does water duty on a regular basis, I’m guessing she has arms of steel at this point.

I was extremely glad to have had an opportunity to work at the St. Anthony Dining Room during my visit to San Francisco. It was heart-breaking and humbling. There were several women with young children in the Dining Room. As a mother myself, that brought some moisture to my eyes. Parents want the best for their children. We can tolerate deprivations that impact just us, but I cannot imagine the agony of not having the basics to provide for one’s own child. See mothers with young children in the St. Anthony Dining Room was an important reminder of how fortunate my children and I are. And it frankly made me angry that in this country of abundance other children do not have the same experience.

Several things struck me while I was serving clients in the Dining Room. First, the folks were waiting in long lines to get into the modest sized room with tables and it was pretty cold outside. As a wimpy gal from the Sun Belt, being outside briefly was hard for me that day. The folks in that line were clearly very hungry to be waiting like that for a chance to get inside. The room itself was pretty cold. I don’t think there was any heat, but at least the wind was not blowing on us. I had worn a t-shirt because I thought I’d get messy; I was freezing though I was constantly moving around the Dining Room.

The clients of the St. Anthony Dining Room were very grateful for the meatloaf, mashed potatoes and doughnuts served that day. To take some food with them, many of the clients were shoveling extra helpings into flimsy sandwich baggies provided by the St. Anthony Foundation or filthy plastic containers the clients had brought with them. They understandably did not want to be hungry later, but I worried that the baggies were going to break and make a mess. I was also worried that they might get food poisoning from the way they were transporting food for later.

Despite the fact that folks were really hungry, few of them ate the bread or the fruit that was served on their trays. We volunteers felt bad that so much food was going to waste. A wise friend of mine volunteering that day guessed that it may have been an issue with the clients’ teeth. The bread that had been donated for lunch was French bread and sourdough. The fruit served was apples. The volunteer coordinator later confirmed my friend’s guess. Apparently, the city of San Francisco did not provide dental services to the poor, but would pay to have teeth pulled. The volunteer coordinator indicated many of their clients simply had few or no teeth. They probably would have loved to eat the tough bread and fruit, but were not physically able to do so. Meatloaf and mashed potatoes were more manageable.

Though the bread and fruit were not popular with the clients, many of them were enthusiastic about the little slabs of butter placed on each tray. Some of the clients were going around to various tables asking if anyone had any butter left over. I wasn’t sure what that was about. My wise friend indicated she thought they might use it for lip balm in the cold. That made a lot of sense. I had forgotten to bring lip balm with me that day and after just a matter of hours my lips were sore and chapped. I cannot imagine what would happen if you lived on the street exposed to the harsh San Francisco cold and wind.

Another thing that struck me about my visit to the Dining Room was the ways that the clients spoke to me. As a gal who is originally from the South, I instinctively “ma’am” and “sir” people I don’t know, and my mama taught me to say “please” and “thank you” early and often. Many of the clients seemed a little surprised by such courtesy, but they seemed to really appreciate it. Many extended it right back to me. They would thank me for serving them or they would voluntarily reach across the long table to hand me something I needed to pick up. Several ladies complemented me on my curly hair. Some of the clients read the name tag I was given by the volunteer coordinator and would make a point to thank me by name. Some of the clients called me “dear,” which seemed sweet.

I have to admit a few of the male clients called me “honey” and “sweetheart.” Those names were sort of borderline, but seemed generally well-intended. However, one gentleman called me “baby,” which didn’t sit real well with me, but I was mature enough to not get riled up. Another client was pretty rude to me and insinuated that I was deaf and/or not too bright when I was trying to serve water to a ridiculously large number of thirsty people and couldn’t stop what I was doing to serve him right away on the other side of the Dining Room. Again, I didn’t get bent out of shape. I’ve served under-served communities at many times in my life, and have found that sometimes people who continually are disrespected and dumped upon just need to vent a bit. None of us likes to be treated like that and it can be hard on one’s dignity. I understand that and am grateful my own dignity has not taken such dings over the years.

The St. Anthony Foundation’s website is available at the link below. Theirs is an extensive and very important ministry. I know they also always need funding. Things are particularly difficult for them right now because government grants have dried up and in the current economy demands for their services have risen.

Luke 18:7

Now, will not God bring about justice for His elect who cry to Him day and night, and will He delay long over them?

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Vilification and Violence…and President Obama’s Leadership

Not long after the Tucson shootings, Sheriff Clarence Dupnik of Pima County, Arizona made statements blaming the recent heated rhetoric and political vitriol for the shootings: “When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government. The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous." He added that Arizona had become a "mecca of prejudice and bigotry.” (With the latter comment, he seemed to be referencing Arizona’s notorious S.B. 1070.) Sheriff Dupnik attracted both jeers and praise for encouraging a toned down approach to political discourse.

I must admit that when I first heard of Sheriff Dupnik’s comments I instinctively praised his statements in my mind. My initial gut reaction was that he was right. I have been dismayed by the violent imagery used in some political websites and the uncompromising, intolerant tone employed by some in recent civic discourse. GOP senatorial nominee, Sharron Angle, made references several months ago to “second amendment remedies” in fighting government opponents she viewed as “tyrannical.” To me, that was probably the most chilling political vitriol because of the explicit linking of violence to political disagreement. However, I don’t think Ms. Angle was alone in her views; she was just more up-front and transparent about her attitude.

I do still believe there is a lot of merit to encouraging a more civil approach to politics. But I don’t think it is entirely fair to blame the Tucson shootings on politicians like Sarah Palin (as some have). By all accounts, the Tucson gunman was a very troubled man; he had serious issues that may have prompted violence even in a more temperate political climate. Not long after the Tucson shootings, NPR had an insightful report on the motivations of past political assassinations. The bottom line of their report was that political assassinations are rarely politically motivated.

I listened to President Obama’s speech at the Tucson Memorial Service. His words broke my heart, but also encouraged and up-lifted me. When he was done with his speech, I prayed with moist eyes in thanksgiving for such a wise president.

For those who have questioned President Obama’s assertion that he is a Christian, I think his speech provided ample evidence of the sincerity of his faith. President Obama could have easily pointed a finger at the over-the-top, inflammatory, anti-government rhetoric of many on the right. Many would have thought him justified. After all, he has been the recipient of incessant, ridiculous, baseless attacks against his faith and his citizenship. The current minority leader of the Senate has publicly announced his party’s priority of blocking the president from achieving any of his goals simply to ensure he does not win re-election. In that context, Mr. Obama had the right to chastise those on the right who have attacked him mercilessly with such an over-the-top approach.

But President Obama did not use the attention focused on him in that speech to chastise the right. Instead, he rebuked those on the left who were tempted to point fingers at the right for the Tucson shootings. President Obama called for us all to recognize that we share much in common and to work to make this country as good as Christina-Taylor Green believed it was. He encouraged us to recognize our interdependence and to work for the common good. He also encouraged us to recognize that relationships are more important than anything else in our lives. At a time when he could have sowed more anger and division for political gain, President Obama opted to not do that. In some ways I was surprised that he did not go in that direction. I was very proud and humbled by his speech.

Having grown up in D.C., I don’t tend to get idealistic about politicians. Despite being a pretty optimistic person in most situations, I tend to be pretty cynical about the motives of politicians. But President Obama’s speech lured me away from that cynicism and gave me great reason to admire him. I am grateful for his leadership, and in my own small way, in my own little corner of the world, I too want to make this a better country so that the hopes of idealists like Christina-Taylor Green and Gabriel Zimmerman will be vindicated.

Luke 6:27-37 (New American Standard Bible)

"But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,
bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.
"Whoever hits you on the cheek, offer him the other also; and whoever takes away your coat, do not withhold your shirt from him either.
"Give to everyone who asks of you, and whoever takes away what is yours, do not demand it back.
"Treat others the same way you want them to treat you.
"If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.
"If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.
"If you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners in order to receive back the same amount.
"But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men.
"Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
"Do not judge, and you will not be judged; and do not condemn, and you will not be condemned; pardon, and you will be pardoned.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Lessons from Dr. King in an Era of Incivility

This weekend at church, as our pastor led us in praying for our congregation, our community and the world, we prayed in thanksgiving for the “life and ministry of Dr. Martin Luther King.” That phrase has stuck in my mind.

We often hear Dr. King’s name invoked in secular, political contexts these days. And many gloss over the fact that Dr. King was a Christian pastor and his civil rights work was rooted in biblical teachings. I like using the phrase “ministry” to describe his work. I think it is very apropos. As Christ followers, a basic tenet of our faith is that God created all human beings in his image, and each one of us is infinitely valuable. We also believe we are part of the Body of Christ, and all parts are critically important. There are no second class citizens in the Body of Christ.

As I have been thinking about the gift of Dr. King’s life and ministry, it occurs to me that he provided us a wonderful example to follow in our current climate of uncivil public discourse. Two points from his ministry seem particularly helpful.

First, Dr. King was courageous and fair in flagging injustices. He didn’t just tell his flock to suffer through the indignities and dangers of Jim Crow. Dr. King had vision to decry long-established social norms that brought misery and kept African Americans from fully developing their potential. He encouraged people in the pews to go outside and peacefully demand justice outside the walls of their church.

Second, as Dr. King was flagging injustices, he did not demonize those who opposed his work. Instead, he appealed to our better nature and spoke in terms of brotherhood. Even after his home was bombed and his family was nearly killed, Dr. King preached love, not violent retaliation.

In “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King used the occasion of his incarceration to take time to respond to Christian leaders who had condemned his civil rights work. The text of the letter is available at the following link:

It is a beautiful, eloquent, wise letter written under challenging circumstances. Had I been in Dr. King’s shoes, I would have been sorely tempted to name-call the critical leaders to whom he was responding. At the very least, I would have wanted to use sharp language to call them hypocrites. The spirit is willing, but my flesh is weak. A more mature Christian than me, Dr. King refrained from such unproductive pettiness. He opens the letter calling the condemning clergy “men of genuine good will” and expresses his aspiration to respond to their criticisms in “patient and reasonable terms.” He clearly succeeded. In the letter, he is firm in pressing for the cause of social justice, but Dr. King’s words are full of respect, humility and love. They are a tremendous example for us all to follow at any time in human history. But they seem to have particular resonance in this current American climate.

One of my favorite parts of the letter is when he responds to charges that his actions have been extremist in nature, Dr. King writes:

But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as
I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of
satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: "Love your
enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for
them which despitefully use you, and persecute you." Was not Amos an extremist
for justice: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an
ever-flowing stream." Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: "I
bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus." Was not Martin Luther an
extremist: "Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God."

Another passage that also speaks to me is the following:

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states.
I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in
Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught
in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.
Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford
to live with the narrow, provincial "outside agitator" idea. Anyone who lives
inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its

May you have a blessed day, gentle reader. May you be enriched by the words of our brother, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Hosea 10:12-13

Sow with a view to righteousness,
Reap in accordance with kindness;
Break up your fallow ground,
For it is time to seek the LORD
Until He comes to rain righteousness on you.
You have plowed wickedness, you have reaped injustice,
You have eaten the fruit of lies
Because you have trusted in your way, in your numerous warriors

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Thy Kingdom Come by Randall Balmer (Abortion, Homosexuality and Divorce)

Randall Balmer begins Thy Kingdom Come questioning the “odd choice” of the Religious Right to choose abortion as its defining issue to consolidate power in the 1980s because of the movement’s emphasis on biblical literalism and the paucity of biblical references to the abortion issue. Moreover, he notes those in the movement had taken inconsistent positions on the “right to life” in supporting capital punishment and “various armed conflicts.” Nonetheless, he explains that in the 1980s abortion was viewed as a political issue that had traction despite weak biblical arguments.

With similarly weak biblical arguments against homosexuality, Balmer notes that at about the same time the Religious Right pushed aside much clearer condemnation of divorce in the New Testament to focus instead on homosexuality as a rallying cry. He describes this as a politically motivated use of selective literalism to “locate sin outside of the evangelical subculture” by “designating as especially egregious” the conduct of others. Balmer asserts divorce was “too close for comfort” because many fellow believers had transgressed that prohibition (including Ronald Reagan, an early hero of the Religious Right). Balmer points out that to be consistent with their aim of making abortion illegal, the Religious Right ought to be expending equivalent effort to make divorce illegal (not just more difficult to obtain).

Balmer also notes hypocrisy on the abortion issue. Reagan and George H. W. Bush campaigned hard on antiabortion rhetoric, but never delivered on promises to outlaw abortion. Balmer also talks about the construction of an “abortion myth” that the movement began in direct response to the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. He explains that in reality few Christians paid much attention to the decision when it was first issued, and those who did generally viewed it favorably. Instead, Balmer musters evidence that the inspiration for political activism was actually the 1975 IRS attempt to rescind the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University ("BJU") due to its racially discriminatory policies. Balmer asserts abortion was a much more expedient rallying cause that the tax status of BJU.

1 Timothy 4:11 (The Message)

Teach believers with your life: by word, by demeanor, by love, by faith, by integrity.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America: An Evangelical's Lament by Randall Balmer (Sep. of Church/State)

This book was a revelation to me. I read it not long after it was published in 2006. It was a time when I felt increasingly alienated from the media’s portrayal of Christianity as well as many local faith communities in Texas where I was living at the time. When I read the words of Jesus in the Bible, I was at a loss to understand how they could be used to support preemptive war and economic policies favoring the wealthy, as well as to foster hostility towards efforts to protect the most vulnerable in our society and the health of our fragile planet. However, until I found Thy Kingdom Come, I had begun to feel like one of the only folks who saw any type of a contradiction.

Dr. Balmer’s Preface begins:

I write as a jilted lover. The evangelical faith that nurtured me as a child and
sustains me as an adult has been hijacked by right-wing zealots who have
distorted the gospel of Jesus Christ, defaulted on the noble legacy of
nineteenth-century evangelical activism, and failed to appreciate the genius of
the First Amendment. They appear not to have read the same New Testament that I open before me every morning at the kitchen counter.

Randall Balmer is a professor of American religious history. One of the aspects of Thy Kingdom Come that I found most compelling was the historical commentary he provided to put into perspective the relatively recent attempts in the United States to impose religion on government. Although he is a committed Christian and well-versed in the Bible, Balmer makes clear he is not a theologian. He explicitly leaves to theologians the analysis and interpretation of Scripture.

As someone with many friends and family who belong to Southern Baptist congregations, I enjoyed reading of the history of the Baptist tradition. Balmer traces its roots to reformers in sixteenth century Europe who were deeply suspicious of church-state entanglements. In the New World, the Baptist tradition took root under the leadership of people like Roger Williams and Isaac Backus, who championed the ideas of separation of church and state. Williams was concerned that state endorsement of religion would diminish the authenticity of faith. Backus shared such concerns and noted that Jesus “made no use of secular force” in establishing the first Gospel church. Later, in the nineteenth century, George Washington Truett, characterized the Roman Empire’s embrace of Christianity as disastrous because “when Constantine crowned the union of church and state, the church was stamped with the spirit of the Caesars.” Truett also championed the concept of religious liberty as the “chiefest contribution” of America to civilization; he also declared it “preeminently a Baptist achievement.”

Balmer then compares the traditional Baptist scorn for mixing religion and government with the modern trend of many Baptists to meld the two. Since the late 1970s, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) was taken over by conservatives. (Ironically, this took place during the presidency of a Southern Baptist, Jimmy Carter.) Since that time, the SBC has aligned itself more and more with the political movement of the Religious Right. Balmer gives examples of Baptist leaders advocating a mixing of religion and politics in the context of court rulings on school prayer, same sex marriage, reproductive choice issues, and the posting of the Ten Commandments on public property. Indeed, some leaders mentioned in the book are promoting the notion that the separation of church and state is a “myth” propagated by political opponents.

Nonetheless, historian Balmer builds a persuasive case that religion tends to flourish in societies where it is independent and not supported by the state. Indeed, I have witnessed this phenomenon first hand when I have traveled abroad. In countries where the government provides financial support to churches and/or regulates the activities of the church, I have been saddened by the way religion is marginalized in society. Certainly I witnessed this when I have traveled to the People’s Republic of China, and worshipped with local Christians. But I have also seen this happen in Europe, a traditional Christian stronghold in the two centuries since Jesus walked on this Earth.

When I lived in Europe for a school year in the 1990s, I traveled a fair amount around the continent and worshipped at a number of churches in the towns I visited. There were not as many churches as one typically encounters in the United States. Moreover, many of the church buildings are no longer even used for worship. Instead, many are vacant structures left to decay or are in decent shape physically but have been reduced to mere tourist venues. The churches that do open their doors for worship services typically have just one or two services each week, and have just a handful of worshippers at even the most popular services. When I lived in Europe, I was often one of the very few persons under the age of 60 in the churches I attended. I always wondered what would happen when those worshippers died or were physically unable to come to church any more. I was not sure if the folks who were middle aged at the time might take their place, or if there would eventually just be no worshippers.

In his book, occasionally Balmer does step aside from his role as historian and does inject a bit of theology:

But I know of no concept more radical than Jesus’ declaration of love.

This radical notion of love doesn’t comport very well with most
political agendas. Politics and politicians concern themselves with the
acquisition and the exercise of power, whereas the ethic of love, more often
than not, entails vulnerability and the abnegation of power. For the Religious
Right, the quest for power and political influence has led to both distortions
and contortions—the perpetration of the abortion myth, for instance, or the
selective literalism that targets certain sexual behaviors for condemnation,
while ignoring others. History, moreover, teaches us the dangers of allying
religion too closely with politics. It leads to intolerance in the political
arena, and it ultimately compromises the integrity of the faith.

This last line rings true to me and causes me particular concern. As a citizen and patriot, I am concerned about the intolerant attitudes displayed in our political arena these days. That is not good for our country. But perhaps more importantly, as a Christ follower, it disgusts me that the beliefs I hold so dear are betrayed by some Christians and non-believers for short-term political exploitation.

Ultimately, it is all in God’s hands. As a Christian, I believe my creator is omnipotent. He can install whomever he chooses in the White House, Congress or any other political office. Even the longest serving politicians are in office for only a finite political term. We human beings forget that God’s time line is much longer. To turn our back on his teachings in order to gain earthly power for a brief period, it astoundingly short-sighted, imprudent and tragic.

Matthew 22:21

Then he said to them, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's."

John 6:15

So Jesus, perceiving that they were intending to come and take Him by force to make Him king, withdrew again to the mountain by Himself alone.

Mark 8:36 (Amplified Bible)

For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his life [in the eternal kingdom of God]?

Friday, October 8, 2010

Hispanic Heritage Month & Cesar Chavez

At my school, the Hispanic Law Students Association (HLSA) has been doing an amazing job to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month. They have been sponsoring a series of events focusing on legal issues affecting Hispanic Americans. I’m awed by the series they have coordinated.

HLSA has also been providing a series of wonderful editorials to our school’s newspaper. I’m excited that HLSA has decided to continue to give voice to issues of concern to them even after Hispanic Heritage Month is over; they have established a new blog. You can access it at:

In keeping with the theme of this blog, I’d like to express my own appreciation for Hispanic Heritage Month by focusing on the life of Cesar Chavez, a man who falls within the proud heritage of progressive Christianity.

Cesar Chavez was born in Arizona in 1927, but moved to California during the Depression with his family. Indeed, he spent most of his life in California. His family were migrant agricultural workers. They were also Catholic Christians.

As he was growing up, Chavez was able to attend school only sporadically because his family moved a lot to do farm work. He had limited formal education, but Chavez was self-taught and an avid reader. He was a gifted orator and organizer.

Those who know of Cesar Chavez think of him as a civil rights leader. He was one of the founders of the forerunner of the United Farm Workers. Interestingly, Chavez initially got involved with labor organizing because of Father Donald McDonnell, a Roman Catholic priest who was active on social justice issues.

Chavez has been called the “Chicano MLK” because he promoted the use of nonviolent means to achieve progress on social justice issues. Indeed, Chavez cited both Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. King as influences.

The year before he died, Chávez was awarded the Pacem in Terris Award in 1993. It is a prestigious Catholic peace award which has been bestowed annually since 1964. Other recipients include Dr. King, Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa, Bishop Tutu, and Lech Walesa.

When I was an undergraduate at the University of Texas at Austin in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I was privileged to get to hear Mr. Chavez speak on several occasions. He was a quiet, unassuming speaker, but he nonetheless captivated his audience with a firm morality and dignity. Although in retrospect, I heard him speak in the final years of his life, he spoke each time with great passion and focus about current issues facing farm workers. He was committed to the cause of doing justice throughout his life.

Deuteronomy 16:20 (New International Version)

Follow justice and justice alone, so that you may live and possess the land the LORD your God is giving you.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Letters to the Editor on the “Ground Zero Mosque” Controversy

I’ve mentioned several times in this blog my affection for community newspapers. In the West Valley View, local residents often write letters to the editor to debate current events (and blow off steam). In some ways I love the fact that my neighbors are so passionate about issues in our community. On the other hand, many of the letters are so filled with intolerance and bitterness. At times, I cannot bear to read them or can only bring myself to read a few. I have friends in my community who read the West Valley View, but deliberately skip the letters to the editor. Others have shared with me that they no longer even open that newspaper because of the ugliness of the letters to the editor.

In late August, I read two published letters to the editor in the West Valley View, which got my attention. One was a beautiful letter from a Christian pastor, who was speaking out against “anti-Muslim hysteria.” Instead he was encouraging grace and tolerance for our Muslim brothers and sisters. I was encouraged that for once the secular public was hearing the perspective of a Christian who was speaking love for--and not condemnation of--Muslims.

But next to the pastor’s letter was a letter more typical of the type published in the letters to the editor in this community newspaper. A woman wrote to denounce others who had dared to speak out against “anti-Muslim hysteria.” She claimed such attitudes were indicative of “political correctness” and demonstrated ignorance about the real issues at stake in the “ground zero mosque” controversy. Her point was essentially that if we allowed a mosque to be built near ground zero, the terrorists will view that as a victory for their side. For a number of reasons, I found the last line of her letter particularly heart-breaking: “This mosque, if allowed to be built, would not show the world American tolerance but American naivety and stupidity.”

Both of these letters were published in the August 31st edition of the West Valley View, and are available at the link below:

I had never before written a letter to the editor, but those two letters from my neighbors spurred me (for differing reasons) to compose a response. I wrote in support of the pastor’s words, and to rebuke the misguided words of the other letter. My letter was published in the September 10th edition of the newspaper, and is available at the link below:

Like many Christians, I get tired of secular representations of my faith that are inaccurate. I believe it was Pastor Rick Warren who has noted that in recent years the Christian voices that are most often heard in the secular media are simply those that are the loudest. Like it or not, the secular media is an important vehicle for non-Christians to learn about Christianity. In this day and age, the media is very influential in shaping people’s attitudes and beliefs on a number of topics. However, when the secular media only pays attention to the loudest voices in the large and diverse Christian community, the impression that is often left is inaccurate. For example, a common misimpression is that Christianity is a religion of intolerance against sexual minorities and adherents of other religions, among others in our society. But I think any fair reading of our sacred scripture indicates that Christ modeled and advocated the opposite approach. He repeatedly reached out to the shunned and the isolated. His message of unconditional love was not just for one group, but for all human kind. In essence, I wrote my letter to the editor to echo the perspective of Pastor Souers and to show the community that popular impressions of Christianity don't necessarily hit the mark. In writing my letter, I tried my best to provide a more accurate Christian witness.

Proverbs 31:9

Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.

Ecclesiastes 4:12

Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.

John 13:34 (New International Version)

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.

1 Peter 3:8 (New International Version)

Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Christian Leaders’ Response to the Controversy over President Obama’s Christian Faith

I was encouraged to read that recently a number of Christian leaders signed an open letter denouncing the baseless speculation over the authenticity of President Obama’s Christian faith. Signatories included famous leaders like T.D. Jakes (author, pastor and televangelist), Jim Wallis (author and president of Sojourners), Donald Miller (author), Rich Stearns (president of WorldVision), Kirbyjon Caldwell (a pastor in the Houston area who is close to the Bush family), as well as a whole bunch of folks with lower profiles. I also found it encouraging that the signatories came from a number of Christian theological perspectives including nondenominational, Presbyterian, Baptist, Seventh-Day Adventist, Moravian, Catholic, Episcopalian, Pentecostal, United Church of Christ and a few others.

Information about the letter is available in the article in the link below.

Deuteronomy 32:3

I will proclaim the name of the LORD.
Oh, praise the greatness of our God!

Psalm 15:1-3

LORD, who may dwell in your sanctuary?
Who may live on your holy hill?
He whose walk is blameless
and who does what is righteous,
who speaks the truth from his heart
and has no slander on his tongue,
who does his neighbor no wrong
and casts no slur on his fellowman

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Dom Hélder Pessoa Câmara and the Consequences of Structural Injustice

Because of his famous quote mentioned in the prior post, I was curious to know a more about Dom Hélder Pessoa Câmara and did a little research.

Câmara is perhaps best known for having written "Spiral of Violence," an influential essay that has been characterized as a work of liberation theology. Câmara wrote the essay in 1971; the Cold War and the Vietnam War provided important context for his views. The essay links structural injustice with escalating rebellion and repressive reaction. In the essay, Câmara praises Gandhi as a prophet. The essay is hopeful; Câmara expresses confidence in the future because of the promise of the world’s youth.

An English translation of "Spiral of Violence" is available at the following link:

In 1973, Câmara was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. In 1975, he won the Pacem in Terris Award, which is a prestigious Catholic honor that has also been bestowed on Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa, Sister Helen Prejean and Lech Walesa, among others.

Psalm 146:7 (New King James Version)

Who executes justice for the oppressed,
Who gives food to the hungry.
The LORD gives freedom to the prisoners.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Dom Hélder Pessoa Câmara and the Communist/Socialist Label

At some point, I came across an intriguing quote:

"When I give food to the hungry they call me a saint; when I ask why the poor
are hungry they call me a communist."

The words are attributed to Dom Hélder Pessoa Câmara, a Brazilian Roman Catholic priest and archbishop. He lived from 1909 until 1999.

This quote is appealing to me because it describes an old ploy that is unfortunately still being used today to discredit people who raise concerns about structural impediments to justice. I guess with the fall of the Soviet empire twenty years ago, the term “communist” no longer gets thrown around. Now days, they instead throw the term “socialist” at folks who raise structural concerns about economic and/or social justice issues. The term has such a negative connotation in our modern American culture that just labeling someone or some proposal as “socialist” is often enough to make it unpopular. No one wants to be associated with the term because it is toxic and will ensure that most Americans will discount your positions.

It particularly frustrates me when fellow Christians throw out the phrase “socialist” to discredit their brothers and sisters in Christ. I’ve heard conservative Christians refer to more progressive Christ followers as embracing “more of a socialist philosophy” than a “Christian world view” when such progressive Christians advocate ideas like universal health care or rolling back tax cuts for high income taxpayers. The implication seems to be that such ideas are not Christian. It is implied they are inspired by Karl Marx, not Jesus Christ.

This attitude makes no sense to me. I grew up at the end of the Cold War, and witnessed the implosion of the Soviet Bloc as a young adult. I don’t know anyone who seriously thinks a command economy is a feasible or desirable policy alternative. People of my generation saw Marxism as a miserable, failed experiment that has mercifully ended in most parts of the world.

I don’t think anyone can deny that the Bible is full of concern for the poor and other vulnerable members of society. That is a pervasive theme that one just cannot miss with even a casual reading of the text. By contrast, the accumulation of wealth and property was just not a core value of our Lord. Indeed, at his encouragement, Jesus’s followers often sold or left behind their belongings before they joined his ministry. Jesus often warned against the love of money and accumulating material possessions.

Christ also taught us to love and care for one another. Indeed, the early Christians took this teaching so seriously that they lived communally. They pooled their resources and try to provide for all within the Christian community. I myself am certainly not looking to join a Christian commune, but pooling and sharing resources has always been a quintessentially Christian thing to do even if we haven’t always done it to the same (extreme) extent of the early Christians. And of course, Jesus himself astutely noted that some of us have more to contribute to the community’s resources than others.

Job 36:15 (King James)

He delivers the poor in their affliction,
And opens their ears in oppression.

Psalm 10:18 (GOD’S WORD Translation)

In order to provide justice for orphans and oppressed people
so that no mere mortal will terrify them again.

Luke 12:48 (American Standard Version)
And to whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required: and to whom they commit much, of him will they ask the more.

Mark 12:41-44 (Amplified Bible)

And He sat down opposite the treasury and saw how the crowd was casting money into the treasury. Many rich [people] were throwing in large sums.
And a widow who was poverty-stricken came and put in two copper mites [the smallest of coins], which together make half of a cent.
And He called His disciples [to Him] and said to them, Truly and surely I tell you, this widow, [she who is] poverty-stricken, has put in more than all those contributing to the treasury.
For they all threw in out of their abundance; but she, out of her deep poverty, has put in everything that she had--[even] all she had on which to live.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A Place Called Simplicity

My husband is not a big computer guy. He is not into video games, he doesn’t spend time on the ESPN website, and he isn’t into social networking. I guess as parents of young children we have too many other things on our plate in this season of our life.

The one exception is a blog called “A Place Called Simplicity.” (A link is below.) My husband is rather fascinated by the blog. I rarely read it myself, but he is always telling me about new postings. As a result, I feel like I’m a vicarious follower of the blog.

The blog’s author is a woman in Colorado named Linn. Her husband was a lawyer, who had a successful practice, and later became a pastor. I believe Linn has been a professional counselor of some sort. In the blog, she has shared her story of battling infertility and then being moved to adopt children—a lot of children! I believe they have ten. Some are adults, some are young kids, and there are some at various stages in between. The children are of various races—Caucasian, Asian and African. They were adopted from several different countries.

The blog features pictures of the children, and describes various joys and challenges in their lives. The family has endured all kinds of horrible tragedies that have been memorialized in the blog—illness, house fire, a stalker. Yet their faith in God never seems to waiver. And indeed, their faith is repeatedly validated as minor miracles occur. Even in their times of struggle, God always seems to find a way. My husband is fascinated by their experiences, and enjoys tuning in to read the latest posts.

Though I rarely visit the blog myself, I find it fascinating as well. It you read some of the older posts on adoption, you hear about this woman’s passion to do God’s will in caring for orphans. Clearly, this is her calling in life. Her passion for her children, and her openness to bring new children into their family are awe-inspiring. I hear about all she has done for children in need, and feel like our family has really dropped the ball.

Linn’s narrative obviously strikes a chord with many. Visitors to her blog make mine pale by comparison. She has over a thousand followers, and has had over a million hits to the blog since its inception. Amazing!

Recently, my husband and I have been concerned for this family we don’t even know. Linn has shared on her blog that a double whammy has hit. She has battled a number of serious health issues over the years, but in the past she has been healed or otherwise been able to persevere. Recently, she has had some troubling symptoms and had to have a biopsy of her thyroid. The results were inconclusive, but something seems to be very wrong. They are doing more tests and consulting with other doctors. However, the second half of the double whammy is that they just lost their health insurance.

I’ve known people who faced life-threatening illness and did not have health insurance. It is not a good situation. So, my heart breaks for anyone going through that. It is bad enough to be facing serious health issues, but even worse if you are not sure you will be able to get access to treatment to save your life. The situation is even more heart-breaking when young children are involved.

My husband and I have been touched by Linn’s response to her current situation. She says she is going through a variety of emotions, but is very buoyed by the prayers of her readers. Linn reports in the blog that she is hugging her children a lot and making memories. My heart breaks for her children.

I realize that not everyone who reads my blog is a person of faith. But if you are, I would encourage you to lift Linn and her family up in prayer.

John 14:18 (New International Version)

I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.

James 1:27 (New International Version)

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Footprints of God—Paul: Contending for the Faith (2004)

I think the Apostle Paul is fascinating, so I recently rented this documentary about his life. It is part of a multi-volume series, “The Footprints of God,” but this is the only one I have ever watched. It was produced by a Catholic film company.

To be quite honest, my husband couldn’t get beyond the cheesy film techniques. The narrator was an American who dressed a bit like the Crocodile Hunter. His analogies and theatrics were at times a little over the top. My husband kept laughing and shaking his head.

I agreed the documentary’s style had a high cheese factor, but I was able to overlook these cinematic foibles. I thought the film did a great job of telling St. Paul’s story in greater detail than a lay person can glean from just reading the Bible. The documentary wove together coherently many different parts of the New Testament, as well as the research insights of historians, anthropologists and archeologists.

I would characterize the film as being like an episode of Rick Steves’ show if he became a televangelist with a Catholic bent. The narrator told the story of St. Paul’s life while traveling to the various places the apostle lived. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to visit the places where the people described in the Bible lived, so it was fascinating to at least see what those varied places look like via film.

There were several aspects of the film’s telling of Paul’s life that struck me in particular. I have always been amazed at the conversion story of Paul. A devout, zealous Jew goes from persecuting Christians to becoming the most celebrated Christian evangelist and missionary of all time. What a dramatic 180! The film talks about Paul’s prior confidence in the righteousness of his own observance of the Mosaic laws and persecution of the Christians. Then he has a miraculous encounter with the post-Easter Jesus, who asks “Why are you persecuting me?” The narrator emphasizes that Jesus did not ask why Paul was persecuting the church or his people, but “me.” The film talks about how that encounter laid the foundation for much of Paul’s later theology.

Subsequent to the encounter, Paul is humbled; he is physically blinded and led to Damascus like a child. The Bible tells us that the miraculous encounter on the road to Damascus convinced Paul that some of his most strongly held beliefs had been incorrect. What tremendous humility Paul must have had to accept that. It is probably human nature to be very confident in our own beliefs and think others are wrong. I’m not sure all of us would have had Paul’s humility to admit he had not been as correct as he thought. What a great example for the rest of us.

The film also describes Paul’s later presentation to the leadership of the early Christians, and how he spent a number of days alone with Peter, who gave him instruction in the faith. How remarkable that Peter, who had much to fear and mistrust from Paul, was able to see that God was going to use Paul to spread his message of unconditional love. And it was striking that Paul, the learned scholar, would humble himself to take instruction from Peter, an uneducated fisherman. How amazing that God can use each of us, regardless of our backgrounds, to do great things. I admire Peter’s courage. And again, I admire Paul’s humility.

It was also amazing to me that Paul was almost constantly in trouble with the authorities. He was often jailed, or he was fleeing those who wanted to arrest him. I guess I had not previously thought of St. Paul as an outlaw. But indeed that is exactly the point that the film made. The film demonstrates quite dramatically the daring escapes Paul made to avoid capture by the authorities, and it describes how he was often fleeing just one step ahead of the law. It is interesting to me that Paul did not just turn himself in to authorities when they were looking for him. On at least one occasion, God did perform a miracle to get him out of jail. And Paul trusted God fully, constantly putting himself in harm’s way to do what he understood to be God’s will. Paul survived all kinds of things that ought to have ended his life, e.g., shipwrecks, a snake bite, a stoning. As a result, Paul did not have reason to fear the authorities. But perhaps Paul did not equate compliance with misguided human laws or fallible human authorities with compliance with God’s will.

Acts 16:25-26 (King James)

But at midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were loosed.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Rated R: Republican in Hollywood (2004)

Rated R: Republican in Hollywood is an hour long documentary by Jesse Moss, who honestly admits his ties to the Democratic Party at the beginning of the film. He describes the impetus for the film as the election of Republican Hollywood icon, Arnold Schwarzenegger, as the governor of California. Moss viewed the timing as ideal to explore issues including whether the liberal reputation of the entertainment industry is deserved, and whether Schwarzenegger is an anomaly (or whether there are other conservatives in Tinsel Town).

To explore these issues, Moss interviews a number of Hollywood conservatives including Drew Carey, John Milius, Lionel Chetwynd, Vincent Gallo, Michael Medved, Pat Sajak, Ben Stein, Sam Haskell and Patricia Heaton. (I have to admit I had not heard of most of these folks before watching the film.) Rated R: Republican in Hollywood seems to do a fairly good job of sensitizing viewers to the apparent difficulties of “conservatives” in the entertainment industry including ideological bigotry that limits career opportunities, as well as the hypocrisy of “liberals” who shun those with opposing political views. However, the film brushes over specific ideology and lumps a seemingly diverse group together as if they were ideologically homogenous.

The interviews rarely give hints as to why the various interviewees are Republicans such that they should be included in the documentary. It is not clear what these individuals actually believe that makes them “conservatives.” Indeed, it is noted that Schwarzenegger himself is not considered to be a true conservative by many due to his stance on hot button issues such as abortion rights. In his interview for the film, Drew Carey indicates he actually considers himself to be more of a libertarian.

For purposes of this blog, I had hoped that the film might explore the motivation of Christian Republicans in embracing the GOP. In that respect, I was disappointed.

Although I disagree with her on many political issues, Patricia Heaton is rather a fascinating person to me, and I was initially excited to see that she was featured in the film. Heaton is probably best known for her Emmy winning role in Everybody Loves Raymond. She has also been outspoken about her Christian faith. She produced the film Amazing Grace, a biopic of William Wilberforce, the English MP whose embrace of Christianity inspired his long fight to end the slave trade. Heaton is a consistent life ethicist, which means she has take “pro-life” positions against embryonic stem cell research, abortion rights, euthanasia and capital punishment. I have read that she apparently supports gay rights to some degree, and is affiliated with Feminists for Life. Nonetheless, her interview in Rated R: Republican in Hollywood glosses over her faith and her reason for affiliating with the GOP. The interview makes it apparent that she was an enthusiastic supporter of George W. Bush, but it is not clear why.

Even more disappointing, the film spotlights Act One, which is described as a Christian screenwriting group founded by a former nun. Moss never explores why this particular group should be included in a film about Republicans. Per their own interviews, the other people featured in the documentary seemed to be well-aligned with the GOP or at least with conservative causes and candidates. But the political affiliations of these Hollywood Christians was just assumed and not actually explored. I was left wondering if all of the Act One Christians were actually Republicans. To me, that would seem an amazing coincidence. As a Christ follower, who has not aligned herself with the GOP, I certainly did not appreciate the film’s apparent assumption that the Hollywood Christians were all Republican. This just perpetrates the seemingly well-entrenched myth that all Christians are political conservatives. In turn, this implicitly feeds the misimpression of many that Christianity endorses militarism and economic Darwinism.

I assume that Moss chose to gloss over ideology due to time constraints with his film. Unfortunately, that decision helps to crystallize Christian stereotypes that have been especially prevalent during and since the presidency of George W. Bush.

Ephesians 4:1-3

“I...urge you to walk worthy of the calling you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, accepting one another in love, diligently keeping the unity of the Spirit with the peace that binds [us].”

Friday, July 2, 2010

Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality by Donald Miller

The last post spotlighted an essay written by Donald Miller. However, some readers of this blog may have no clue as to who Donald Miller is. I myself had never heard of him until I went to a Women of Faith conference several years ago, and heard him speak. He and Max Lucado were the only male speakers. Miller was probably the youngest person who spoke to the conference. He spoke on the history of the church; he described how the church has often reflected the mainstream secular culture through the centuries. Most of the other speakers spoke about very personal struggles in their lives and/or shared humorous anecdotes, so Miller didn’t fit the mold at the conference. Although I may have been in the minority in that auditorium, I found him very engaging and soon after the conference sought out his books.

Miller has written several books, but his break-through was his second book, Blue Like Jazz. It was published in 2003. It is an autobiographical collection of rambling essays about Miller’s life and his personal struggles to live out his Christian faith. Blue Like Jazz is the only of Miller’s books that I’ve gotten around to reading, but I enjoyed it very much.

Miller was raised in Houston, Texas by his mother in a single-parent home. When he was in his early 20s, he left Texas and traveled to Portland, Oregon where he now lives. Blue Like Jazz describes Miller’s experiences in Portland while he audited courses at Reed College (a notoriously liberal Liberal Arts school) and as he grew in his faith community at an atypical church called Imago-Dei.

Although Miller is very close to my age, his writing is similar in style to that of Relevant. In other words, it is down-to-earth, cool and edgy. The following passage is illustrative of his style:

The goofy thing about Christian faith is that you believe it and don’t believe
it at the same time. It isn’t unlike having an imaginary friend. I
believe in Jesus; I believe He is the Son of God, but every time I sit down to
explain this to somebody I feel like a palm reader, like somebody who works at a
circus or a kid who is always making things up or somebody at a Star Trek
convention who hasn’t figured out the show isn’t


When one of my friends becomes a
Christian, which happens about every ten years because I am such a sheep about
sharing my faith, the experience is euphoric. I see in their eyes the
trueness of the story.

Blue Like Jazz describes several of Miller’s closest friends, many of whom are Christians who defy traditional stereotypes. They are hip, worldly, non-conforming counter-culturists with an appreciation of intellectual and artistic pursuits. The cast of characters includes Andrew the Protestor, Tony the Beat Poet, and Reed students Penny and Laura. His friend, Curt Heidschmidt, cusses frequently and hates going to church, but tithes faithfully.

In Blue Like Jazz, Miller comes across as a man who wants to explore the world and stay true to his faith. He seems to delight in getting to know people of very different backgrounds and to find commonality even though they don’t always share his religious convictions. He reminds me of a Christian Jack Kerouac.

Miller’s politics are left of center. He sometimes displays bitterness towards the conservatism and the Republican Party, which were important parts of his up-bringing. But in Blue Like Jazz, he doesn’t seem to be particularly active in a different political party or movement. Instead, he seems to be more concerned with issues that are important due to his faith. At one point in the book, Miller describes attending a protest rally with his friend Andrew the Protester when President Bush came to town:

Andrew’s sign said ‘Stop America’s Terroism’—he spelled terrorism wrong. I felt
empowered in the sea of people, most of whom were also carrying signs and
chanting against corporations who were making slaves of Third World labor; and
the Republican Party, who gives those corporations so much power and freedom. I
felt so far from my upbringing, from my narrow former self, the me who was
taught the Republicans give a crap about the cause of Christ. I felt a long way
from the pre-me, the pawn-Christian who was a Republican because my family was
Republican, not because I had prayed and asked God to enlighten me about issues
concerning the entire world rather than just America.

Subsequent to writing Blue Like Jazz, Miller delivered the first night's closing prayer at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, and has served on President Barack Obama's Task Force on Fatherhood and Healthy Families.

Mark 13:10-15

Jesus' disciples came to him and asked, "Why do you use nothing but stories when you speak to the people?"
Jesus answered:
I have explained the secrets about the kingdom of heaven to you, but not to others. Everyone who has something will be given more. But people who don't have anything will lose even what little they have. I use stories when I speak to them because when they look, they cannot see, and when they listen, they cannot hear or understand. So God's promise came true, just as the prophet Isaiah had said,
"These people will listen
and listen,
but never understand.
They will look and look,
but never see.
All of them have
stubborn minds!
Their ears are stopped up,
and their eyes are covered.
They cannot see or hear
or understand.
If they could,
they would turn to me,
and I would heal them."

Monday, June 21, 2010

Guest Blogger Reverend Roger McClellan on the Progressive Christian Alliance

In the spring of 2008, four pastors from Alabama, Florida and Georgia began sharing some of their disillusionment with much traditional church structure and dogma. As the discussions progressed, a vision of a different type of church began to coalesce. All of us were drawn to a progressive Christian ethos, and had learned much from our associations with organizations such as The Center for Progressive Christianity and Network of Spiritual Progressives; but we felt that there was a need to transcend the typical definitions of both "denomination" and "network" and not only try to connect Progressive Christians, but also to organize ministries with similar vision even calling ministers and organizing local communities of progressive faith. As a result of these discussions and the perceived guidance of the Spirit, the Progressive Christian Alliance was born.

From the inception of the Progressive Christian Alliance, we have had a vision for reaching out to “the least, the lost, the left behind, and those for whom religion has become irrelevant." We see this position to be very much in line with the teachings of Jesus, teachings that have sadly fallen into neglect. The Church has often become such an institution that it spends more time and resources maintaining itself than reaching into the world beyond itself. As a result we have seen more and more people pushed to the margins and even outside the doors of the church. Progressive ideals or un-orthodox beliefs are unwelcome, as are different cultures or orientations. What remains are many different church institutions ministering to the core groups within their doors, and paying little mind to those outside the doors; those who differ from what they consider the norm.

So, when we in the PCA were trying to paint a picture of our vision; we settled on the following principles:

1. We consider ourselves Christian. We chose this particular and unusual language out of a recognition that oftentimes the institutional church attempts to set litmus tests of orthodoxy or tradition that define what Christianity is to them. In truth, however, no church institution has the ability or right to judge the soul of a person. That right and responsibility lies solely upon the shoulders of God. Therefore, we seek to avoid the traps of orthodoxy and grant grace to one another by affirming that we seek to serve God, and follow our understandings of the teachings of Jesus, to the best of our ability. We seek to judge no one, lest we be judged by the same unfair and inaccurate standards. We embrace those on the margins or outside the margins of orthodoxy.

2. The Progressive Christian Alliance maintains a focus on Social Justice. We believe that the gospel of Christ calls us to minister to the last, the lost, the least, and the left-behind of society, as well as those for whom church has become irrelevant. Jesus and the latter prophets of Judaism speak extensively about caring for the poor, the hungry and the marginalized in society, recognizing them all as God’s creation. Unfortunately much of this focus has been lost in the institutional church as it has become more and more concerned with maintaining its own identity and growth. As a result, the rights of many of God’s own children are widely ignored by those that profess to worship God. We embrace those on the margins of society, as Christ himself taught.

3. We respect theological diversity. Faith is not about concrete answers, religious absolutes, creeds, or dogma. Faith is about the search for understanding, the raising of important questions, the open honesty of having doubt, and the realization that no one has it all completely right nor does any human hold all the answers. Therefore, we recognize and affirm those whose faith systems fifer from our own; recognizing that many streams flow from the same source. Furthermore, we recognize that truth and understanding often are nurtured by the open exchange of thoughts and ideas from diverse sources. We embrace those around us; those on the margins of tradition or practice.

4. We affirm the dignity of all of God’s children and welcome all to take their rightful place at God’s table. We recognize that in Christ there is no gender, no orientation, no nation or race. We are all heirs to the kingdom. Often, the institutional church has sought to exclude those of different race, gender or orientation from participating fully in the life of the church. We find these practices anathematic to the teachings of Christ, therefore we readily and heartily welcome all to their rightful place at the table that God has prepared. While we applaud the efforts of many denominations to formulate inter-communion agreements with other denominations, we feel that these inter-communion agreements do not adequately recognize the value and beauty of diversity. The PCA, rather, practices an Open Communion, recognizing that the Table of Communion is not ours to govern, but God's.

There are also many churches who seek to fully include those of other races, genders or sexual orientations, and we applaud those efforts; but by writing this inclusivity into our organizational DNA, we hope to avoid the political and dogmatic struggles that accompany such efforts so that we can concentrate more fully on the task at hand.Many have asked, “With all of this inclusion, where then is your identity? Simply: that is our identity. Inclusion. A church for those who don’t like church and a church for those who love church but seek to lovingly correct it. We strive to embrace all and welcome all: those pushed to the margins or outside the margins. In so doing, we have our own identity, a church on the margins for those on the margins.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Kristin Chenoweth

Kristin Chenoweth is an actress and singer from Oklahoma. She is known for her beautiful blonde hair, distinctive speaking voice, and beautiful singing voice. She is a famous Broadway star, but has also appeared in films.

Chenoweth was raised a Southern Baptist. As an adult, she remains a committed Christ follower, but is not committed to one denomination. When in California, she apparently attends a non-denominational church. In New York, she has indicated she attends a Methodist church. She has described herself as a “non-judgmental, liberal Christian.”

In 2005, Chenoweth released an album of Christian music. In support of the album, she appeared on The 700 Club. She later expressed regret for appearing on the program. She indicated that the "Pat Robertsons and Jerry Falwells of the world are scary."

Later that same year, Chenoweth was dropped from a scheduled appearance at a Women of Faith conference because she had expressed support for gay rights.

More recently, Chenoweth has made news by condemning an article in Newsweek that suggested gay actors could not effectively portray straight characters.

Luke 6:37

"Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A Village Called Versailles

I recently saw a wonderfully moving documentary on PBS’s program Independent Lens. A Village Called Versailles told the story of the Vietnamese American community in New Orleans before and after Katrina. Their story was largely overlooked by the mainstream media, but I had heard snippets of their experiences over the years. It is an amazing story that the film tells in greater detail.

The film begins by explaining how this group of Vietnamese refugees initially came to New Orleans, and settled in a cluster of apartments called Versailles in New Orleans East. The trauma of their escape from Vietnam after the fall of Saigon, and their journey to the United States was heart-wrenching. The film shows how the refugees worked hard for over 30 years to rebuild their lives and build a strong community in their new homeland. Then Katrina hit.

The Vietnamese American community of Versailles was devastated when the levees broke. The community was forced by rescue workers to go to the convention center, where they languished for days. Then they were eventually placed on buses for evacuation centers in Texas and Arkansas. The experience was particularly painful for the older Vietnamese Americans because it was so reminiscent of their initial arrival in the U.S. as refugees. Perhaps because of that prior experience, they were arguably even more determined than some New Orleanians to return. One elderly man was interviewed for the film, and explained that when he was forced from his home in Vietnam, he could have no hope of ever returning. But he was determined to not be permanently forced from his second home, New Orleans. That was not an option. The film focused largely on the community’s efforts to return to New Orleans and rebuild their community.

For purposes of this blog, I would like to focus on the role of the community’s church. Most in the community are Catholic, and Mary Queen of Vietnam Church has been the spiritual center of the community. The pastor, Father Vien, helped organize the parishioners as the waters began to rise after the levees broke. When the community was evacuated from New Orleans, he traveled great distances to visit his flock and minister to them in person. He also began rebuilding the church almost immediately. Footage shows him on the roof of the church with a hammer in hand in the blazing sun. Just weeks after Katrina, they were able to begin having mass again. Parishioners drove hours and hours on Sundays just to participate in worship at their home parish. It was a huge encouragement to the scattered community, and served as a major impetus for members of the community to return.

As the city began to rebuild, plans initially were made in a vacuum to not repopulate much of New Orleans East. Then Mayor Nagin used emergency powers to establish a major storm debris landfill on the edge of the Versailles community. The Vietnamese American community was outraged. They feared the toxicity of the landfill would be the death nail in their community, and they wouldn’t stand for it. Under the leadership of their priests, Fathers Vien and Luke, the community organized and protested effectively to close the landfill. The community had not been active in politics before, but through the leadership of their priests and the galvanization of their community, they found their political voice. It was particularly beautiful to see the elderly residents of Versailles participate in rallies. They had escaped a totalitarian regime that stifled freedom of expression. They were fighting for the continuity of their community.

I also found it very moving that the people of Versailles organized events to reach out beyond their own ethnic community. They held masses and candlelight vigils that were attended by Vietnamese Americans as well as African Americans. Currently, Mary Queen of Vietnam Church offers services in Vietnamese, English and Spanish.

John 13:35

By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.