Monday, September 25, 2017

Sign Me Up

A book that shaped my mistrust not only of the Vietnam War in particular but the United States government in general was Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, a novel about the Air Force during World War II. I’m sure it was no accident that the Vietnam conflict was getting into full swing when it was published in the 1960’s.  I’m constantly amazed how current events manage to awaken my memories of the book.

Now here comes a flurry of demands for athletes to stand during the National Anthem. To kneel, remain seated, or hide out in the locker room is labeled by many as un-American.

In Catch 22 Captain Black is passed over for promotion, and in retaliation plans the Glorious Loyalty Oath Campaign demanding that the men of the bomber squadron sign more and more loyalty oaths before they can do their work. And taking it up a notch he insists that they not only sign oaths, but recite the Pledge of Allegiance and sing the National Anthem before they can do anything, including eat their meals. The whole farce is finally concluded when Major ________ de Coverly returns from Rome, sees the long lines of singing and signing men in the mess hall, and demands, “Gimme eat!”

For me, this whole anthem business is misguided. Somehow it has been connected with respect for the flag, a symbol that has a multitude of meanings for those who do, or don’t, revere it. I am deeply appreciative of the sacrifices so many have made for freedom. I am also aware of the many who have sacrificed for more power, more money, or for nothing. The danger resides in having enthusiasm drift into flag (or national) idolatry.  Biblically that’s a risky road. There is a difference between having an appreciation for one’s freedom and granting Congress, the President, the military, or the police carte blanche when it comes to employing force. There is an even greater danger when one applauds everything the government has done in the past, regardless of how greedy or craven.

Jesus and the Prophets were closely attuned to caring for the poor, feeding the hungry, and protecting strangers in their midst.  My assumption is that this included immigrants. They were remarkably indifferent to or even critical of nationalism and, for that matter, capitalism. But if we are really fortunate maybe someone will come up with a rule about applauding profit motives – and we can sing songs about it.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Resistance and the Bandits

When I was recently asked, “How do you join the resistance?” I had to interpret the question. What I think was meant is, how do you join the resistance movement against the Trump administration?  While I have never been politically active, I can relate to many of the issues raised by those who are extremely uncomfortable with the actions of this president. His insistence on limiting government controls on business, along with abandoning the public school system, trashing the environment, cutting financial support for the poor, and pressing for a “whites only” society in America are appalling to me. Plus I think he’s a bully.

That being said, I am not a protest marcher. Nor am I a big fan of Hillary Clinton, who is just too glib for me.  And I‘m not convinced that large gatherings do anything more than reassure the people who gather that they aren’t alone. So from one perspective, I don’t really want join the political resistance movement. The need to join the broader resistance against greedy self-centeredness, however, seems pretty straightforward to me. I join the resistance by being committed to a set of values. As Timothy McCarthy put it,   “Values are essential, not only to resistance, but to social change. We need to be able to say what’s wrong and we also need to be able to say what we would want to be right and how we might get there.”

What I want to be right is my posture toward others – being unwilling to do things at their expense in order to have an advantage over them for myself. Nor do I want to participate in or applaud the actions of those who take that course. As to how we might get there, it has to do with an awareness of one’s values and actions. And it would be easy to get caught up in unimportant particulars. As Carlo Capolla wrote, “From action or inaction each one of us derives a gain or a loss and at the same time one causes a gain to someone else.” It’s impossible to keep an accounting of everything we do and say. We probably get to social change by focusing on the major things, not the insignificant ones. Capolla also wrote that “always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.” [1]  Which is pretty much beside the point.

More to the point is that when one person takes an action by which he makes a gain causing another person a loss, he has acted as a bandit. The perfect bandit is one who robs you without causing you any extra loss or harm. He steals $50 and you lose $50.  But there are few perfect bandits. Imperfect bandits are those whose gains result in fewer or more losses to others. A leader who deports 100 innocent people so he can gain the power to deport another hundred people, or so he or she can feel important,  is an imperfect bandit. And then there are the stupid people who insist on causing harm to other people without deriving any gain. Drunk drivers who kill others are at the top of the list. I haven’t decided whether many of our political leaders are bandits or just stupid, but I don’t want to end up in either camp.


  1. Cipolla, Anthony, The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity. See .


Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Breitbart Values and Mine

Just when I had repented, on hands and knees, for wasting hours listening to political ads, speeches, and talk show wisdom, and promised God I’d follow only holiday sales commercials in the weeks to come, I got sucked in again. I was victimized by the editor of Breitbart, the “news” outlet of Donald Trump’s office gopher, Steve Bannon.

It was really a harmless article in response to Kellogg’s boycott of Breitbart. "Kellogg's decision to blacklist one of the largest conservative media outlets in America is economic censorship of mainstream conservative political discourse. That is as un-American as it gets.” The site said it has a community of 45 million loyal readers “who are also a powerful consumer group that reflects the values of mainstreet (sic) America.” (David Ng, L A Times)

I’ve recently struggled to define my own values. Now I see the suggestion that American values can be reflected by a media outlet. So I wondered what those values were, and whether I embraced them.

Hunter Lewis suggests that value systems are often based on emotion. “In particular, they all share three features, corresponding to three basic emotional needs. First, they all focus on a particular group of people, a “chosen” people to use the biblical metaphor. Membership in this group automatically provides emotional security. Second, they all propound a particular way of life or a particular way of organizing society, belief in which provides an emotional identity. For example most of us identify ourselves not just as Americans (members of a group) but also as defenders of an American “way” of democracy and free enterprise. Third, they all require an emotional stimulus, usually expressed as an enemy, a devil, … often another group of people.” (Lewis, H. A Question of Values, p. 87)

To say than one consumer group shares the same emotional values, let alone reflects those of main street America, is a stretch. It is more likely that the person or organization propounding the values is the one being defined. As Bertrand Russell pointed out, a proposal of values is the art of telling others what they have to do to get along with us.

So what values do the folks at Breitbart embrace? Social Darwinism comes closest: the religion of selfishness, winning, and power. “Life is about survival; survival is accomplished through power and dominance; the purpose of life is therefore to gain control of others through whatever means are available, however brutal or coercive, because might is always right” (Lewis, H. p. 208). Or as Ng noted on a visit to Breitbart headquarters, “The door to the main conference room is emblazoned with the hashtag #War — a mantra Breitbart instilled in his team.”

My values are different. George Nye, a colleague and mentor, probably expressed them best in a recent Facebook post:

“While reflecting on how to hold a steady course & make my way thru a "brave new world" of fake news, hatred, violence & betrayal, a reminder came to me: To know what is right is important; but to have the interior power to do what is right is even more important. That power comes from my acceptance of the truth that the 1st Commandment really is 1st. That command is my ultimate authority; all others are lesser authorities which must fall in line under that one. Then, come what consequences may come from my current surroundings, I shall do that which is loving, honest, just & compassionate to the best of my ability, regardless of what others choose to do, in order that I may stay the safe course thru the dark waters. For you & I are citizens who, for good or ill, help shape who we will be as a community, as a people, as a nation.“ (George Nye, Facebook 12/04/16)

I deeply suspect that Breitbart values differ from American values. I’m certain Christian values differ from main street America’s ethics as well. We’ve walked into the prophecy of Jefferson Airplane:

When logic and proportion have fallen sloppy dead
And the white knight is talking backwards
And the red queen's off with her head (Jefferson Airplane, “White Rabbit”)

No war for me, thanks. I’ll stick with George.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Safe Places, Sacred Spaces

It took me awhile to get the symbolism: a safety pin for a safe place. Some of my friends have embraced the idea: “…people across America are attaching safety pins to their lapels, shirts and dresses to signify that they are linked, willing to stand up for the vulnerable. It’s a matter of showing people who get it that I will always be a resource and an ally to anyone and everyone who wants to reach out,” said Kaye Kagaoan, 24, a graphic designer from the Philippines who lives in Brooklyn. “When I saw it on Facebook, it was so simple. It resonated with me.”

But safe places are just a first step toward sacred spaces, which are more biblically defined. They surface in the Old Testament where God has been deemed present. In Genesis we’re told that at Bethel “Jacob set up a stone pillar at the place where God had talked with him, and he poured out a drink offering on it; he also poured oil on it.” (Genesis 35:14) And when Joshua crossed the Jordan at the border of Jericho, he “set up at Gilgal the twelve stones they had taken out of the Jordan. He said to the Israelites, “In the future when your descendants ask their parents, ‘What do these stones mean?’ 22 tell them, ‘Israel crossed the Jordan on dry ground.’” (Joshua 4:20-22)

New Testament thinking is a bit different. The spaces aren’t geographically defined like in the Old Testament (even tho’ Israel today is rife with memorials, monuments, plaques and inscriptions: “Jesus walked here!”). Instead it is more the sense that a sacred space is one where Jesus resides; where God has been, or is, present. 

I don't always have this awareness. Not, more often than not. I'm learning, however, that the rewards of having a disciplined awareness are great, and possessing it lays the groundwork for the moral actions required of a Christian. "Such a space is essential for moral action because it is within it that 'questions arise about what is good or bad, what is worth doing and what is not, what has meaning and importance for you and what is trivial and secondary.'" (Volf, M. quoting Charles Taylor in Captive to the Word of God, p. 48)

Thus a sacred space is a safe place, but extended: one where those who are different are accepted and even loved, certainly, but also where enemies are forgiven, nonviolence is practiced, and God is proclaimed through the ministry of Jesus. Sacred spaces are where Christians are agents of Christian practices. We are hospitable, but we are also agents of love, restoration, and justice.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Reflections on John 4

A Reflection on John 4

Jesus asks an expert in the law, “How do you read?” (Luke 10:26) He might well have asked the corollary question, “How do you listen/speak?” After all, speaking and hearing in conversation is more than an exchange of facts. It is a way of framing our culture, relationships, and identities. Conversations are central to the life and ministry of Jesus. Eugene Peterson points out that “Jesus’ words flourish into conversations and discourses … with all sorts of people.” [1]
As my friend and mentor Barnett Pearce said many times, it is helpful to look at conversation to see what is done and made. This differs from looking through a conversation to determine what is said and what facts are behind it. Walter Brueggemann points out, “We have become critically knowing and busy with explanation … insisting the Biblical text yield dogmatic certitudes it does not offer.”[2] By looking at the text and not through it, we can focus on its mystery, and discover how people do or do not provide ways to move forward in their relationships.
The meeting between Jesus and the woman at the well (John 4:1-30, 39-42) is presented by John as a person-to-person conversation. Jesus’ request for a drink of water leads to her request for the water he offers. “She begins to realize he is no ordinary man and calls him at first a prophet (v. 19), drawing on Samaritan traditions, and then a Messiah (v. 25), a term which takes her out of her own traditions.”[3]
In this conversation the woman shifts her perception of Jesus as “a Jew” (v. 8) to “the man who told me everything I ever did.” (v. 29) It is her sense of curiosity about water and worship, and the willingness  of Jesus to address her as a person rather than an object, that allows the conversation and thus their relationship to continue, constructing a new social reality. As a result many more Samaritans “became believers.” (v. 42)
By approaching dialogue in this way we observe several questions and responses that lead to a new cultural situation. When Jesus asks for a drink the woman might have said, “No. You are a Jew.” Instead she opens the door to move forward by asking, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (v. 9) She is intrigued with his response about living water and how it might benefit her.
Jesus explains that this water “wells up to eternal life.” (v. 14) When she doesn’t understand the distinction Jesus challenges her about her husband, and she identifies Jesus as a prophet. Then she goes further, inquiring about what kind of worship is valid. Jesus responds by saying, “A time is now coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.” (v.23)  She “knows” that Messiah is coming, and Jesus reveals, “I who speak to you am he.”
Compare this to the many times in John where responses and statements truncate relationships instead of moving them forward. The man Jesus heals of blindness is met by the Pharisees, not with curiosity but with animosity. Their adversarial responses result in “they threw him out.” (9:34) Likewise Jesus is accused of blasphemy (10:33), effectively ending any further relationship with him.
In our adversarial political system it is common to find truncating responses. Democrats, Republicans, and Socialists alike find many ways to converse. Too often they spend time thinking of ways to refute what the other person is saying, solidifying their own positions instead of listening to the other. They do not attempt or consider how to move forward; instead they set the existing relationship in concrete.
The same is true in our church conversations. Too often suggestions for new approaches to music in worship, building renovation, or leadership structure are met with “That won’t work;” “We can’t afford it;” or “We’ve never done it that way.” These responses, devoid of curiosity or an effort to gain deeper understanding, allow neither the conversations nor the relationships to move ahead and construct something new and better.
Interfaith dialogue is often just as barren. We frequently enter it with broad, unfounded assumptions about what the other believes and intends. “Christians want to deprive us of our culture – That’s what they’ve always done.” “Muslims wish to invoke Sharia Law in the United States and take over the country.” Actions are performed with little or no consideration to what the reaction of others might be. “We draw cartoons of Muhammed because we’re entitled to freedom of speech,” without thinking about the violence that may result when others find the drawings deeply offensive to their culture, relationships, and selves.
As with Brueggemann’s description of textual criticism, the same can be applied to our conversational approaches. We have become critically knowing and busy with explanation.  By doing so we empty them of their unfamiliarity – and mystery. The woman at the well and her community are left with a multitude of questions they might pose to Jesus as he returns with them to Sychar. “Can you tell us more about the nature of living water – about what worship means to you – about what it means to you to be the Messiah? How do you understand spirit? Truth? How might we Samaritans and you Jews settle our differences and act more respectfully to each other?”
The same sort of curiosity can equip us to be inviting in our political and religious conversations. To do so it’s necessary to take a breath before we make or respond to a statement and ask, “How can I move this conversation – and our relationship, forward, instead of saying something that will terminate it, demonize the other, or prove them wrong?” We make our social worlds in our conversations, and we can strive to make them better.

Pastor Mike

[1] Peterson, E. Christ plays in ten thousand places. 2005: Grand Rapids, Eerdmans Publishing Co.
[2] Brueggemann, W. The word that redescribes the world. 2006: Minneapolis, Augsburg Fortress.
[3] Coloe, M.L.  God dwells with us. 2001: Collegeville, MN, Liturgical Press.