In Bombs We Trust

May 23, 2012

Squeezed in among their constant commentary on cutting spending and reducing the US deficit, republicans have sought out a drastic increase in military spending. The bill the GOP majority-led House of Representatives passed last week brings the Defense tab up to $554 billion.  Going even further, the plan Mitt Romney wants to implement if he gains the presidency would add $2.1 trillion to the US debt total. NPR recently reported on Pentagon officials themselves who were unhappy with the amount the GOP is wanting to add to their budget, saying it was an unnecessary increase which could upset the balance they had carefully worked out with their own current budget projections.

In the concluding chapter of his most recent book (“Speaking Christian”), Christian theologian Marcus Borg writes about the contradictions and conflicts in modern American Christianity. In a country that still overwhelmingly self-identifies as “Christian,”  there are some hard facts that dismay progressive Christian thinkers like Borg. Being “Christian” and “American” can, in Borg’s words, create a “very ambiguous situation.”

  We are the most Christian country in the world–and yet we are the world’s greatest military power. With 5 percent of the world’s population, we account for about half of the world’s military spending. We have over 700 military bases in about 130 countries. Our navy is as powerful as the next thirteen navies of the world combined. Not surprisingly, the United States Air Force is the most powerful in the world. More surprising is the second most powerful air force: the United States Navy. As a country, we are determined to be as militarily  powerful as the rest of the world put together. Though our national motto is ‘In God We Trust’ clearly what we really trust in is power, especially military power.  *p.235-236

Borg contrasts this emphasis on military power with the domestic policies that America has favored over the past 30 years which have resulted in not only the highest income inequalities and disparities separating rich and poor in our own history, but much higher than such gaps in any other industrialized nation as well. So as we have expanded and focused internationally on military might and strength, domestically we have favored tax and social policies which have only benefited the wealthiest people in the country. We as a nation have consistently grown richer, fatter, and more violent at the top end and over-worked, under-paid, under-educated and exploited at the bottom in a nation which overwhelmingly self-identifies as “Christian.”

Now, some quick points for clarification. We are not a “Christian nation.” No, this is not to invite an asinine debate over the religious roots of our country or its founders. The short and simple fact is that one of the most notable early details about the “American experiment” was that unlike the European countries many were fleeing when we became a nation, America steadfastly and intentionally structured things to keep Church and state separate to prevent rule by a particular church body or to have the head of the church also be the head of the state like most other nation-states at that time (I recommend  Noah Feldman’s “Divided by God: America’s Church-State Problem–and What We Should Do About It” , an excellent overview of the history of church-state relations in America).  And yes those that identify as “Christian” when polled about their religious affiliation may run the gamut of the entire Christian spectrum both in theology or ethics and in level of participation and seriousness with which they take that identification. Nor am I trying to make the claim that all Christians are–or should be–total pacifists, although pacifism is a strong thread throughout the history of Christianity and is still held serious by many important portions of the Christian body today. But what is an interesting observation from all of this, at least for me, is that though we may not be a Christian nation we are a nation with a Christian majority, at least for now at this time in our history. If those in this country who call themselves Christian take their religion seriously, how is that reflected in our political scene and the state of our communities today? Related to my last post, “What is Marriage?”, we’ve seen how some take their religious inclinations and make them felt in the political sphere. After North Carolina voted for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage some misguided “activists” celebrated by throwing parties with wedding cakes featuring the traditional groom and bride on top. Crying, praying, and holding vigils to urge on the defeat of equality and then celebrating afterwards is an embarrassment to American Christianity.  As I stated in my last blog, if those who advocate traditional marriage view marriage as a religious institution they should refrain from politically meddling with it and allow churches to decide for themselves, as most already have. Churches of every denominational stripe have factions ready and willing to perform gay marriages and unions yet a conservative body of other churches are taking to the courts to keep others from exercising their own religious freedoms. So it appears that gay marriage is the line in the sand where many Christians wish to hold their ground. I’ve heard those who feel this way express their support of traditional marriage as law relating to their religious beliefs as paramount because they see it as a duty they must work for so that God will bless this nation. Many feel that though church and state are separate, to allow a nation to lose it’s moral footing is an act of abandoning the duty a believer has to “love what God loves, hate what God hates.”  But why this issue and not the much larger issues of war, violence, poverty and inequality?  I believe it’s because the loud vocal opponents of gay marriage find it much easier to condemn something they are not a part of and have no inclination to be a part of; they see homosexuality as a sin and more importantly, they see it as a sin they aren’t tempted by and it is thus an easier target than a sin related to greed and tied up with economic issues that benefit them and would thus link back to them. Of course, there’s also the “ick” factor these opponents often have, rooted in their own prejudices.

So while conservatives are drawing their line in the sand over issues like gay marriage, the political party they are most aligned with is working to increase military spending yet again. Here is where there is a glaring disconnect. If opponents of gay marriage are (as they usually are) biblical literalists, how can they take a handful of passages–an excised line or two from the Torah’s holiness code (removed from and ignoring the dietary, dress, and other cleanliness issues surrounding it), a missive or two from Paul’s letters, and a misinterpretation of one of the oldest pre-history myths in Genesis**–and fight the fight of all fights over gay marriage yet ignore the largest themes of Christian scripture and tradition and remain silent on unchecked military might and mistreatment of the poor? In the Torah (the Pentateuch for most Christians) there are the constant comments to look out for the stranger, for that one outside of the tribe; to protect them, to leave the back portion of your field for any that might pass by in need. Those today who say they stand against gay marriage as a nation so that God will bless them should take a cue from the Old Testament prophets who railed against the state (or the kingdom) when those who claimed to be the People of God abandoned their duty to the poor. Amos, Jeremiah, Hosea and the others didn’t really rail against Israel as a nation because of “social” issues similar to today’s issue of gay marriage, they railed against Israel and warned it would fall most often because once in power, power corrupted, and the people allowed the poor to go hungry, homeless and mistreated. The biggest sins throughout the Old Testament were justice issues, mistreatment of orphans and widows. Turning to the New Testament, issues of war, poverty and justice are clear throughout, most particularly in the person of Jesus (whom those who call themselves Christian are supposed to take their biggest cue from, by the way). By hanging out with his society’s “least of these” and outcasts, by advocating turning the other cheek, loving one’s enemies, and from the Sermon on the mount to the constant concern for those at the bottom of the social and economic sphere, Jesus showed where Christian concern should truly lie.

I’m not saying we should abolish our military and I’m certainly not saying we should become a theocracy and invoke Jesus’ Kingdom of God as a national policy. We live in a religiously pluralistic society. America is more than the professed religious identification of its majority, and anyone who knows anything about religion knows that the bulk of that 80 percent or so who claim to be Christian in this country probably disagree on hundreds of issues, not only political but religious as well. What I am saying though, is that if this many people are Christian, why isn’t more being said about where our economic priorities lie? If this conservative faction of evangelicals is so concerned with gay marriage because of their faith, why are they not concerned about these other issues? If most of them belong to a political party that wants to increase our already huge military budget in a time of real deficit, why aren’t they speaking out?

We can have a strong military that is trained and ready for any defensive measure neccesary and for intervention to save lives and countries in times of crisis for a fraction of what we currently spend. Increasing the already too high amount we spend each year on defense at a time when we as a nation apparently don’t want to pay for grade-school children to have enough qualified teachers assisting them or after-school programs benefiting them, when we don’t want cities to offer public transportation for reasonable hours so that the working poor can hold jobs, when we don’t want to pay to ensure everyone can go to to doctor or hospital when they are suffering or sick or in need of preventive care is absurd. We as a nation should realize that taxes are simply the price we pay to live in a society. The problem shouldn’t be that we pay, but where that money is going. That is the justice issue that too many people ignore. We can keep paying the way we have in recent history, in a way that increases hostilities in the world, sets us up as agents policing the world, dropping drones on villages and often spending millions for small-scale computer updates for a fleet or two, and we can keep structuring our tax system to benefit a small portion of the already wealthy, or we can advocate common sense restructuring. We can use some of our tax money to increase education, provide services for troubled or at-risk youth, provide basic health care for those without it, and give the proper assistance to those who need it so that they can then do for themselves. Where were the tearful vigils outside of the House as they voted to perpetuate a violent domination system rather than make adjustments for positive, life-affirming change?

**I say “misinterpretation” because the Sodom story was really about hospitality as that was the main virtue of consideration at that time in that context. I say “pre-historic” because the fist 11 chapters of Genesis deal with a time before the “recorded history” that begins with actual names, times, etc., esp. of the Jewish tribes, leaders, etc. I say “myth” because most biblical scholars see these stories as holy myth, stories with layers and meanings that may be true but not historically factual. Beyond all that, the fact that the hero of this ancient tale is one willing to offer up his own innocent daughters to a violent and rapacious crowd so as not to offend the hospitality he had extended to the strangers (angels in this case) should give anyone who might invoke it for modern moral/legal guidance serious pause.

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What is Marriage?

May 18, 2012

It’s no surprise that many regard President Obama’s stated support of gay marriage as merely a political gesture. Nor is it a surprise that such an announcement will keep some individuals from voting for him in November.  But shouldn’t that second statement discredit the validity of the first at least somewhat? Everything a President does is “political” in some way, but Obama’s silence and issue-dodging on the issue of gay marriage was far more an act of playing the game of politics than his announcement of support. Obama is a progressive, well educated, urbane and relatively young President so the fact that he has no hatred of gays or prejudice towards them shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. His past actions have showed him as supportive of gay equality issues, from his repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell to his criticism that  DOMA is unconstitutional. No, Obama has realized all along that there are those on the fringes willing to vote for him that he would lose if he became too outspoken on this particular issue before his second term. So he tried to play it safe and it looks like Biden forced his hand a bit, likely making him take that stand a bit earlier than he would have perhaps liked. It seems to me the stand he is taking is one he has wanted to take all along but has delayed for the sake of politics. Certainly that dilemma in general might deserve a bit of criticism but Obama is far from unique in keeping his cards close to the chest until the votes are secure. There’s a primary reason prophets, sages, and radical justice workers generally eschew public office; in the arena of speaking truth to power and working for progress even if it upsets the status quo it usually helps if one is not an integral part of the power structure itself. So although Obama may admire a man like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., his critics are missing an important point when they accuse Obama of failing to live up to the legacy of his idol on issues of equality, war, or even economics, and that is that a man like Dr. King was able to accomplish far more outside of a political office than he would have had he been holding such a position. So, was Obama’s endorsement of support “politically motivated?” I would say I honestly think not–I think he simply came out and said how he had always felt about the issue. His act of delaying doing so was the political move; because Obama knows that he’s going to lose a few votes but it’s very doubtful he will gain any from such a stand. Those already on board with the equality issue might have been disgruntled that more hadn’t been done by the Obama administration in this regard but the alternative vote is eons behind on this issue (and almost every other issue– which is a perennial difference between progressive and reactionary politics) so they almost all would have cast their ballot for Obama anyway.

The focus here really is, what is marriage? Is it a religious union marked by a sacred ceremony? Or is it a political arrangement, a civic union sealed by government approval and bestowing a change in legal status? This is an important question because its answer should help re-frame the debate over gay marriage and (possibly) silence its critics. Marriage has been both religious and political throughout history. The state generally got involved in the “business” of marriage for tax purposes. That is why modern libertarians urge the government out of marriage issues altogether. That would be a solution to many of the current problems but in itself would create others. For the purpose of record keeping, inheritance, legal protections, civil law, and a host of issues that protect women and children, it is important for the government to keep some record of marriage unions. Of course, there are ways out of most of this with a complete restructure of key laws, but we can say that for now government is certainly involved in marriage, so marriage is itself a legal, political institution at least in part. One assumes that most of the hostile critics of gay marriage view marriage as a religious institution. That it most certainly has been in much of history and still is for many today. For Catholics, marriage is a sacrament and many Protestant denominations take a similar position to a lesser degree. For those who are religious, particularly Christian, the idea of marriage as sacramental is a beautiful one. It sees the union of two human beings (traditionally man and woman of course) and the love they share as a mediation of grace. For two partners who are lucky enough to discover a truly good marriage, that can be an apt metaphor–in a life spent together in love, struggle, and all the facets of going through time together as partners they can catch a glimpse of how God loves humanity, how Creator is caught up with and in Creation. It can be a remarkable, though humanly flawed, physical representation of something much larger and more intangible. Of course, judging by what I’ve heard many who’ve experienced bad marriages express, I take it that marriage can be the exact opposite of sacramental as well. So if marriage is religious, if a wedding is a ceremony that binds two together, shouldn’t it be up to the Church? There are some loud religious critics of gay marriage today. Catholic and Southern Baptist leaders have bemoaned Obama’s latest remarks in the past week or two. If the harshest criticism of gay marriage is related to its religious nature, it really seems that the issue is settled already–because there are Baptist, Methodist, Episcopal, Unitarian, Presbyterian, Lutheran and non-denominational church bodies all across the United States right now ready and willing to perform gay marriage ceremonies. Such issues have provoked large church body disputes and splits over the past few decades but the point is that out of such splits there have been born intact denominational bodies who have already decided the issue. Outside of the Christian religion there are similar bodies in most other religions represented in America today willing to perform gay marriages and/or unions, especially Buddhist and Reform Jewish congregations. And what of the non-religious altogether? An increasing number of straight couples opt for a non-religious wedding ceremony each and every year. The point is, if marriage is a religious institution the issue should be settled–for if a gay couple has no problem in finding a religious community honoring and recognizing their union and performing their ceremony, what business is it for the federal government? The only way the religious rights of gay marriage critics would be offended would be if the government forced ALL churches to provide gay marriage services. I find it unlikely that a gay couple would seek out a religious body who actively preaches an anti-gay message to perform their service in the first place, though.

So obviously critics of gay marriage must admit that their real problem with gay marriage is in its political, civic sphere. They do not want the country they live in to recognize the union of a same-sex couple nor bestow legal rights and protections on that couple. They do not want their tax dollars in any way going to benefit that couple. Now, 40 years ago were it left to a popular vote many of the same people not wanting the above recognition going to gays would have voted to not allow them to “mixed race” marriages either. But even if we don’t equate these two issues and we give modern critics the benefit of a doubt, assuming it’s not an issue of prejudice, should the fact that they do not want the country they live in to accept something they don’t agree with be a justifiable position? We all pay taxes to support things we do not agree with. A lot of our dollars go to dropping bombs each year and I see no way to “opt out” of that though I would like to. If you live in a state that utilizes the death penalty, tax dollars go for state-sanctioned death each year. The list could go on. The point is that living in a society often entails paying for things that don’t outright benefit you or that you won’t always agree with. As far as gay marriage, it’s not going to have a financial cost of any significance for its critics just by allowing legal rights, protections, and benefits to gay couples. The statement that “gay marriage will hurt the institution of marriage” is preposterous. No one will force anyone to be married to a member of the same sex! How can a gay marriage hurt a straight marriage? How can anyone else’s marriage directly harm your own? Each couple bears the responsibility of their own arrangement. If conservative religious bodies are concerned with the state of marriage today, they should concert their efforts in stronger marital counseling. They should stress the importance of the decision when a couple considers marriage. They should communicate realistically and evenhandedly what marriage is and can be. They should not idealize nor trivialize it. And they should stress the equality of it for straight couples for certainly there are deeply embedded and outdated patriarchal strains and gender-inequalities rooted in the minds of even the most “modern” couples, perhaps unrecognized. Marriage, like religion itself, all to often gets trapped in a box of outdated perceptions, expectations and prejudices that impede it from becoming the evolving blessing it is capable of being for every time and place it finds itself in.

Yesterday I heard this story on NPR:

From Minister To Atheist: A Story Of Losing Faith

It’s worth hearing for yourself, if you’re interested in such things. For those that didn’t click the link to read or listen to the story, I’ll provide a brief summary before offering the response it prompted me to make. The piece profiled Teresa MacBain, a woman who grew up a conservative Southern Baptist, felt the “call” to ministry at a very young age, and later became a United Methodist Minister (likely because her previous denomination doesn’t allow female pastors). As the pastor of a Florida UM congregation, MacBain spent a lot of her personal time struggling over the “bigger” questions. According to her, asking the big questions in an effort to strengthen her faith actually led her to abandon it. When she ultimately realized she did not believe in what she was preaching, and furthermore that she was an atheist, she was left with a conundrum. Her entire life from career, to prior sense of purpose, as well as her coworkers, friends, family, and community were all tied up in her life as a Christian pastor and her belief in God. So would she remain a closet atheist to hold onto her life as best she could or would she be honest with herself and “come out” as an atheist at the risk of losing her place in her community?

Now, Teresa’s story is not wholly unique. Many believers who devote their energy to learning, growing, challenging and working through their faith go through periods of doubt as a result of their education, be it formal or personal. Many move from a prior way of “being Christian” (or being Jewish or being Muslim, etc.) to a new, much different way that perhaps their old friends and acquaintances don’t quite recognize as the faith they have. Some of these believers lose all sense of faith and no longer see themselves as belonging to the religion they once held so dear. This certainly can include ministers and clergy–the person at the front of the congregation leading the service may be filled with doubt. Some pastors leave their tradition completely when it no longer seems valid to them. Many stories similar to MacBain’s would have left me with little to comment on. My lifelong study of religion and parallel search for how to be authentically spiritual and religious myself has certainly had its periods of doubt, many which continue, some which will (and should) never really end. I’ve certainly changed my affiliation with denominational bodies and theological systems as my thoughts, experiences, relationships, and education have transformed me. The quest for spiritual authenticity is different for everyone. Many who undertake it find it better (or easier, or more sensible, or for whatever reason more acceptable) to abdicate that quest altogether. I certainly empathize with Teresa’s sense of loneliness and fear born out of being “different” in thought than seemingly all of those who surround her. Even on matters much less existential than the existence of God, being politically or religiously different from everyone you come into daily contact with is never an easy struggle for anyone. The sense of dishonesty she felt when it seemed she could never truly say what she believed or felt quite obviously left her in an emotionally claustrophobic place, which is why she must have felt so liberated in her public acknowledgment of atheism.

Yet I feel highly critical at the way she presented her story and the larger issues her story points to in general. I’ve written about “fundamentalism atheism” and criticized some of the vehement exhortations of particular strains of modern atheism on this site before (see a-response-to-ricky-gervais-defense-of-atheism,   the-secular-bible, or concerning-fundamentalist-atheism), yet I understand and respect those who see themselves as Atheists or Agnostics. My own views about God invoke a great deal of panentheism, metaphor, artistic creativity, science, and yes, uncertainty, and the way I reject many current “traditional” views of a “Deity” would likely strike many believers as atheistic as well. I take issue with Teresa as she comes across in her profile not because of her doubt and not because she has “left the tribe,” but because she seems to still be a literalist with a stark worldview; because she seems to be embracing all the fallacies of fundamentalism but this time in an atheist context. Take a look at her “coming out” clip at the American Atheists Conference of this year (linked above). She uses the language of “born again.” She takes the stage and makes a deceleration of faith–she now has the “right” faith and the people deliver their claps in a thunder-roll. Folks in the audience echo her feeling of finally being with the proper belief in-group. She triumphantly intones that she will “burn in hell with you” to her fellow “nonbelievers.” When speaking with her NPR interviewer, she bemoans that sometimes she wishes she could have just not asked the “right” questions,” that she could have just blindly been “like all the other sheep.” She mentions that she never felt as accepted by any group as she did by those who cheered her on at the Atheists conference.

Teresa MacBain presents a problem to any of us concerned with faith communities and religion in America. She presents a problem not in what she asks and not in how she searches–one assumes that she attended a Seminary to become a UM-ordained minister, and the type of thinking she did on her own should have already been prompted in her Seminary. Any worthwhile mainline Seminary in the Country should (and almost always does) throw every big issue imaginable at an aspiring minister. One should have already confronted the “big questions” in such a context, directly staring down any and all doubts. If the doubts are insurmountable after every bit of education, questioning, and soul-searching, then that person should choose another career. A seminary should not be afraid that some are “weaned out” of the clergy-track. Bear in mind, however, this is not about enforcing nor inculcating “proper belief.” MacBain, her critics, and her supporters mostly all got that wrong. She was afraid to have the “wrong beliefs” while in her Church position, she was quite reprehensibly shunned by her community for then having the “wrong beliefs,” and she was over-joyed to find great support at the AAC for having discovered and proclaimed the “right beliefs.” Neither churches nor humanist organizations should be in the business of ecstatically supporting “right belief” as an end-all destination.*  If beliefs don’t lead to better actions and personal positive transformation they are useless. If she is right that the AAU gave her more support than her church  community ever did, good for the AAU and shame on her church. Can the AAU provide her with a community built on personal and societal transformation for the better? For a continual journey and a constant search for vital truth? Can it provide her with the network of people capable of coming together to address the real problems facing each member’s own community and then collectively the national community of the entire board and ultimately the world? Can the AAU continue to support her now, not for daily having the “right beliefs” but for herself in her own context as a human being? Can they see more in her than carbon and tissue and see her as vastly and uniquely important and support her for that, loving her unconditionally but inspiring her to daily become a better her? If all of this is true about the AAU and none of this was true about her church community or the national church body she was affiliated with then she most definitely made the right decision. I have my doubts that the AAU can meet all of those criteria, however (and I’m not saying the Church does either, but it’s supposed to).

The problem that MacBain represents is the modern American Church’s failure to address truth in a progressive yet timeless manner.  She struggled over basic modern Christian problems. Is Jesus the only way? Could a just God punish forever those with “wrong ” beliefs? What about the role of women in the overall Church? These questions have been addressed in many different positive ways over the centuries and clear, strong voices in the modern church were there to speak if she was able to listen. These voices surely addressed her in her Seminary context and if not, her seminary failed her by not showing her all of the options inherent in her faith community. It’s time to move these voices from the sideline to allow them to be heard in all of the church. Agree or don’t, but don’t act as if they have no place in the mainstream consideration of modern Christianity. Voices like Marcus J. Borg who up to his latest book is constantly searching for way to free the ancient creeds and Christian language from their cultural baggage to allow them to speak anew to the most thoughtful of seekers. Voices like retired Bishop John Shelby Spong who spent his career trying open the church to full equality and inclusivity on the clergy and the parishioner level so that women and men, gay and straight, young and old, and those with every level of intellectual doubt could both serve and be served by the Church and find a way to transform the world in a just manner. Voices like scholar Karen Armstrong who has consistently detailed the societal evolution of God, pointing to ancient and “Orthodox” ways in which all three of the monotheistic traditions have had more expansive, progressive, and “non-traditional” views of God. Voices like Desmond Tutu who details the power of full and true forgiveness, equality, and anti-racism. Voices like Martin Luther King Jr., who saw God as on the side of the oppressed, actively engaged in liberation just as the Prophets of old did. Ultimately, if none of these voices were convincing and if none of the other paths of faith (from the active nonviolence and reverence of the Quakers to the liturgical mysteries of the Episcopalians to the life-affirming question-asking Unitarians, etc.) and the thought of converting to another Religion altogether seemed unthinkable, MacBain most certainly should opt out of organized religion. Pursuing all of the options listed above are not for everyone anyway; but labeling everyone who does pursue such paths  as “sheep” and assuming that none of these variations on her faith answer (or depose completely of) the questions that brought her belief to an end is an erroneous and unthoughtful move on her part.

What all too many believers, skeptics, and all in between forget is that the real notion of “God” cannot be proven by theological assertions nor disproved by the modern version of vehement atheism. A Deity can be disproved. Any God that can be unequivocally dismantled ought to face such a fate (to paraphrase an old religious idea). But we all have a God, like it or not. God is whatever we serve, be it money, pleasure, or self. God is whatever we do not fully understand, be it science, nature, or fate. God is that which we love and that which we existentially fear.