I stumbled across the following blog post as it was trending and being shared on social media by friends and acquaintances. I read it, thought about it and couldn’t stop thinking about it—so I took the time to write out a rather lengthy comment addressing most of the author’s points honestly seeking debate or conversation because despite this post apparently going a bit viral there were no comments. Apparently that’s because the author isn’t approving any comments on her page or at least on this article. So,  I’m tailoring my comment into a straightforward post for my own page since I took the time to write it.  To see exactly what I’m responding to please visit the above link and read her piece first. I want to stress that this is not an “attack piece” or anything of the sort; just browsing the rest of her blog leads me to believe she is a devout, authentic, strong-willed and genuinely good person of integrity. Which, to be honest, makes her posted endorsement of Trump all the more shocking to me—but I know many other people much closer to me (folks I actually know) that share her sentiment. It’s not just the videoed folk s shouting racial slurs at Trump rallies or the neo-nazis on the dark corners of the alt-right internet who support Trump, it’s almost half of our fellow citizens. I feel that no matter what happens in this election we have to find a way to discuss these issues, to debate and to discuss and most of all to find a way to agree on facts, tools of reason or logic and basic neighborly decency.

Also, I will note I’m just about done in every sense of the word with current year politics. They’ve exhausted me unlike any year in memory and I’m sure I’m not the only one. I’m over feeling shocked at an ever lowering of the bar, I’m over the visceral hatred between different groups in our own country and I’m over the disintegration of facts and discourse. So maybe this is my last political post for the foreseeable future.

First, I want to address the author’s claim that Hillary Clinton has done more to contribute to rape culture than Donald Trump. Obviously, measuring the actions of any two individuals to determine their personal role and impact on the overall culture as a whole is difficult if not impossible so in some ways we can only use them as categorical examples, representative of many other similar individuals. But the author makes two specific claims—one, that as an attorney “she [H. Clinton] has reduced the jail time of rapists” and two, that she “helped cover up the abuses done by her husband.” Regarding the first point, I assume she is referring to the Kathy Shelton rape case. I would recommend a recent recap of that event in the Washington Post, a pretty reliable source not known for a “liberal bias.” * The issues about that case are complex but of primary purpose as it relates to Hillary Clinton is that she was working for a legal aid clinic serving the poor and was appointed by the court to represent the accused rapist of Shelton. Court appointed attorneys have to represent the client they are appointed to and to do less than their best job in such cases goes against our entire legal system.  Hillary stated she was not thrilled to take on the case but she did and as a young attorney did her job just as any other appointed DA would. So unless we believe that the accused parties in court cases don’t deserve legal representation I am not sure how this incident is an indictment against Hillary. Regarding the second point, to the best of my knowledge there hasn’t been any reliable evidence from a reputable source tying Hillary Clinton to any sort of cover up of Bill’s extramarital affairs. It appears to all non-biased observers and reporters that all of Bill’s extramarital affairs were carried on without Hillary’s knowledge and thus she was a victim of his affairs. So the only thing she can be fairly accused of is of not divorcing her husband when she discovered the affairs. Of course standing by a partner and seeking reconciliation isn’t typically a bad thing in conservative minds which is why this is an odd accusation from that corner of our politic but regardless her choice to not divorce her husband is her right alone.

This author may very well  be right that we are well past picking a President based on character and I’d argue that history has shown many great leaders are of bad character and many bad leaders are of good character—in a pluralistic society character matters only so much as it influences or reinforces the culture itself however. In the case of character Trump vs. Clinton we have on the one hand a man who has used his power and wealth to harass, degrade and assault women. This is evident by his video-taped conversation with Billy Bush where he openly stated he kissed and fondled women without their permission. This is evident by claims from beauty pageant contestants (as young as 15) that he knowingly walked in to inspect them when they were in the nude. That he smiled and allowed Howard Stern to call his own daughter “a piece of ass”. Then of course there are claims from women who worked in his companies that he forced himself on them, kissed, harassed and threatened them. And a claim that he raped a 13 year old girl that is pending in the courts now. This doesn’t even account for comments he has made about women (“you have to treat them like shit”) the deaf/mute (“retards”), Mexicans, refugees, African Americans, etc.  On the other hand you have Hillary who worked at a legal aid clinic where she once defended a rapist as a court assignment and who didn’t divorce her husband and instead reconciled with him after his extramarital affairs came to light. Just on these issues alone (sticking to ones brought up in the linked article) one definitely influences rape culture and one definitely does not. Trump exemplifies that power and wealth allows you to behave how you want and that seeking permission is not necessary for sexual contact. This models for younger males and females what behavior is appropriate and what they are worth. Just last week a friend of mine in an airport overheard two college students joking about the airport workers and flight attendants loudly within her earshot, specifically about groping them. When she confronted them they said “we’re voting for Trump”.

The author is correct that a third-party vote in this election will simply be a vote by default for the winning candidate. I agree that voters should vote for a front-runner, I just happen to believe that the candidate they should vote for is Hillary Clinton because any vote not for her may allow Trump into the White House where he can do unimaginable damage to our economy, environment, international relations, domestic race relations, refugee crises and advancing rape culture.

Now, regarding what the author defines as the “real issues” of this election:

  1. National Security: The author claims that Hillary wants open borders. Trump claims Hillary wants this as well. The facts however are that all of her proposed immigration plans thus far increase funding for border patrol and call for deportation of violent criminals and those who pose realistic threats while also allowing for sanctuary cities and a path to citizenship for nonviolent undocumented workers who are contributing to US society. The “open borders” claim refers to a speech Hillary gave to bankers in which she claimed: “My dream is a hemispheric common market with open trade and open borders, some time in the future, with energy that is green and sustainable…powering growth for every person in the hemisphere.” She is speaking about unfettered international trade, green energy and a global marketplace though even if she also meant unfettered migration of people (which doesn’t seem likely) she is also speaking in a utopia-positive prophetic manner. This of course is a very biblical (people not commerce) vision one more traditionally “Christian” than walls and borders which the Gospel ignored and prayed to cease. A good analysis of the “open border” Clinton claim is available at Politifact. ** I am glad the author recognizes the heart-breaking reality that is the Syrian refugee crisis. Some humanitarians are referring to it as the holocaust of our time. We will be judged by history in how we dealt (or did not deal) with this crisis. I also agree with the author that refugee crisis or not we should screen those who enter our country—which we do already. We have a very intensive vetting process of refugees.  In fact, refugees are screened more extensively and heavily than any other segment of our society in the US which is why the majority of threats, violent crimes and terrorist acts on US soil have been perpetrated not by refugees but US citizens. Terrorist watch organizations estimate far-right racial KKK style hate groups are by far the most likely groups to commit terror acts on US soil. During this point the author also goes on a tangent about gun owning citizens (which to be fair can be a national security issue)  and that taking away guns from citizens just leave them at risk of attack from a criminal who does not care about gun laws. It’s worth noting that Hillary, like Obama, has no intention of confiscating America’s guns though she does want to pass basic regulation like prohibiting those on terrorist watch-lists from purchasing guns and instituting universal background checks. Most Americans, according to polls, agree with these common sense approaches. Gun rights and gun laws are a complex subject from understanding the 2nd amendment in history (“well regulated militia” to “citizen soldiers” e.g. National Guard) to debating how that applies now but a good deal of research can be done utilizing what other countries have tried and done. In short, criminals may not care about gun laws but with less guns in circulation there are less non gun-owning non-criminals to steal from but regardless, Hillary has no intention of confiscating all guns and this is a false alarm claim just as it was with Obama to sell more firearms which is why the NRA (now a lobbyist for the gun manufacturers rather than a hunting and sports shooting conservation group) loves these worries.
  2. Economic Stability: Like many others, the author believes that since Trump is a businessman he will run this country like a business and as President running our country will be his job. The author writes that Trump refused to pay taxes or bad workers as good business practices. Stories have shown he stiffed good workers as well and we’ll leave the tax question alone now other than to say that’s a lot of funds for schools, military, roads, fire and police etc. that went unpaid. But Trump’s record as a businessman isn’t that great which is likely a large reason he doesn’t want his tax returns released—he’s probably not as rich as he says he is and doesn’t like people who say so. Regardless, financial experts think he’d be richer if he’d just invested his money in index funds and left it alone. *** He started out rich with connections and since has lost a lot of money for a lot of people bankrupting companies along the way. As actual billionaire Mark Cuban recently pointed out—name one person who has claimed Trump helped them personally become richer or more successful, one person he’s mentored, one lasting business claim he successfully can make. Furthermore, you can’t run the country like you run a business. You’d never intentionally create a national debt by absorbing state debts as Alexander Hamilton did in our country’s first administration in a private business but you do in the government because it creates the index for all federal government functions. “Wealthy people are usually successful business people who EMPLOY other people” is also a highly debatable claim as a huge percentage of the wealthiest individuals do not employ anyone, run any company or contribute to society—they simply inherit a good deal of money or make money by having money invested.
  3. Supreme Court- The author is correct that this is important. She and I would disagree however as I believe severe damage could occur if the court drifts too far to the right. But even assuming a far-right Supreme Court would be a good thing, what makes you think Trump would appoint anyone you like or that such a nominee would get through the House? Heck, he may even appoint his sister who is a judge (Elizabeth Trump Grau) and she is very liberal.
  4. Pro-Life – Avoiding an entire discussion on this issue as it’s never-ending (though you can read my previous post on the subject here) I will simply say though the author and I may disagree on this issue I understand the importance of this issue to many voters and that it often pushes many to become single issue voters simply over the passionate beliefs they have about it. But if we look at history we find previous Presidents post RoevWade who were pro-life, even adamantly so and fundamentalist about it (Reagan) yet nothing happened to roll back abortion access rights. Even while George H.W. Bush “came around to the issue” at Reagan’s prompting, his son George W. as an evangelical was even more stridently pro-life; yet Laura, Barbara and Nancy remained by all accounts pro-choice and nothing did change. There have even been times in history in which the Republicans had control of the House, Senate, Court and Presidency and nothing changed to roll back abortion access and legality. It’s been alleged that keeping abortion legal and using anger directed at it works better to fire up a base and win elections. My opinion remains that if you are pro-life you should: refrain from having an abortion; support policies that reduce the desire for women to seek abortions; and encourage laws and practices that value and support life from childhood through old age encompassing the rights and livelihood of immigrants, refugees, the less fortunate and the “other”. In fact abortions go down, as they have under President Obama, more under Democratic presidencies due to policies which support the social safety net, increase access to birth control, and promote women and child health.

PS: The author adds a PS that she supports Trump because his first “hire” was Mike Pence, a man (according to the author) of “character, faith and integrity.” However it is likely Pence would have lost re-election in his own state had he not been scooped up by Trump as he failed Indiana economically and in the undermining of the social safety net. An AIDS epidemic broke out due to Pence’s delay and early refusal to sign a needle exchange bill, LGBT teens were directed into “conversion therapy” which has historic notoriety for increasing teen suicide and depression rates (not to mention no evidence of “working”), factories shipped overseas, etc. Pence’s role thus far as VP seems to be to deny Trump has said what he has said or that he meant something else and I don’t consider that indicative of “integrity” in any way.

So, these are the points I posted as my comment challenging the author’s assumptions. I do this not to be vindictive but to challenge her to consider her points and evaluate them for factuality. We are losing something in this election—respect for facts, respect for debate, respect for reason and tools of logic. We are doubting the veracity of our entire democracy, of the party system and of the value in public service and government. We are losing respect for considered rational yet kind conversation with those with whom we disagree.  Recent studies and stories have shown that we don’t just disagree on issues but WE DISAGREE ON FACTS. We tunnel-vision into our catered news while rejecting the “Media” for not agreeing with us, we reject science when it conflicts with our feelings or preferences and we overlook the parts of history that don’t justify the narrative we want to tell. This is dangerous stuff and if we don’t create a space where we can discuss with compassion the issues that face us and seek ways to equip everyone with the tools of discernment we are doomed.

I spent so much time on this author’s post not because of who she is or really even the points she makes but because her piece is indicative of those I know that agree with her but that are kind, decent and seemingly rational folks.  There’s no arguing with those who resort to character assassination and racist rhetoric, there’s no debating with those who approach this election with sheer panic and misplaced fear of their own place in the world but there should be a place to discuss the issues with those who simply disagree.

I will also end with a caveat–Hillary is by no means a perfect person or a perfect candidate and though I strongly support her now and believe her to be an honest, hard-working person who will make a solid President she was not my first choice either. Once she is elected I will be critical of her–of her military enthusiasm and role in perpetuating endless wars, of her refusal to reign in Wall Street excess, etc. But I will not dehumanize her or work against her in any way that might prevent genuine positive progress.

*https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2016/10/11/the-facts-about-hillary-clinton-and-the-kathy-shelton-rape-case/

**http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2016/oct/12/donald-trump/trump-ive-been-proven-right-about-clinton-wanting-/

***http://www.moneytalksnews.com/why-youre-probably-better-investing-than-donald-trump/

****https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/10/15/americans-now-live-in-two-worlds-each-with-its-own-reality/?postshare=5451476708300360&tid=ss_fb

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 The-American-Labor-Movement

This past weekend we Americans celebrated Labor Day. For most of us this primarily means the last 3 day weekend and unofficial end of the summer season. That is, those of us lucky to have a 3 day weekend and as someone who spent many years in retail and service jobs (and direly hopes never to return to those fields) I realize how lucky to have that day off I am and was this year.

 
There are, by my count, at least 3 other holidays in the summer season Americans celebrate in some way tied to the military—Memorial Day, Veterans Day and Independence Day. Though Memorial Day is for those who lost their lives in military service, Veterans Day is for all who served and the 4th is our national holiday of independence all in practice run together in modern America as a sheer celebration of military service itself and those soldiers, living or dead, who served in the American military.
 
 
Labor Day is a celebration of other types of service and though I have seen some advertisers and citizens co-opt it as another celebration of a specific type of service (military and law enforcement) it is in fact a celebration of those brave women and men who have and continue to fight the Labor battle, a battle that is (or at least should be) nonviolent. Labor Day is a celebration of those—like Mother Jones, Baynard Rustin, Pete Seeger—that did so much to uphold American ideals by protecting the rights and dignities of the average US citizen. Their hard work, strength and courage resulted in the 8 hour work day, the weekend, child labor laws, safety standards and so much more.

 

Sadly you do not see much celebration and focus on Labor Day and its heroes in pop culture, advertising or general conversation. We have so many days in which we celebrate those who gave so much in a specific type of service (military) it seems odd  we can’t celebrate another equally important type of service. While WWII veterans certainly protected US citizens, the Labor movement did so equally—though instead of protecting us from an outside threat they most often protected us from home grown threats, countering those indignities and advantages taken on us by the robber barons and their modern descendants who would crunch the lives of the average worker under the boot of a larger profit margin. Why do we not celebrate these people, their work and their cause with as much fervor as we do our military veterans?

Because sadly “Labor movement”, along with “unions” and so many other terms and concepts have been titled controversial. Today in America if you say “union” (or “immigrant” and many other separate issue words) you are a traitor to “the free market” and “the real America”. Plus, it’s easier to celebrate heroes in the more traditional manner. America respects force; nonviolent organizing and advocacy is not as recognizably “heroic.”

Today the overwhelming majority of unionized workers are white-collar government employees and teachers. The blue-collar workers who established the unions in the first place to protect the rights of everyday coal miners, steel workers and factory employees have given birth to generations who benefit from that sacrifice so much so that they no longer recognize the need for that institution that got their field to a place of dignity. The vast amount of workers in the retail and service sector could benefit so much from an equally healthy and vocal union to raise their work and pay to the standards of those other blue-collar fields but many companies (ahem, “walmart”) will fire an employee for breathing the word “union”. Not to mention that the news and political punditry absorbed by so many who would benefit from that institution have been erroneously convinced that it would do them more harm than good and that when all is said and done their employer wants what’s best for them already.

We know where the Labor movement got us in the American workforce. If we take just a moment to look at the state of affairs today–the vast economic inequality, the shrinking middle class, the increasingly wealthy voracious 1%–we can clearly see the need to continue the effort, to stoke the Labor Movement’s passion once again. Perhaps this can start with truly celebrating the heroes of the movement’s past. That is afterall why it is a national holiday.

This time I’m broadening the topic to discuss God as an Effect in a Nation, period. If, as I suggested, we only know something by its effect and are therefore experiencing God in the public sphere on a daily basis whether we “believe” in God or not simply because a majority of our population acts at least on occasion on the premise that God exists and is an influence on their behavior, then we get a sense of God as an expression of the people. Last time I mentioned how much in contrast the modern “public religion” version of God in America differs from the alleged source and inspiration for this God. Therefore, one could very well argue that America’s God  bears some resemblance to Its scriptural and historical inspiration but is  markedly different than the God of the early Christian church. This God is a nation’s God; patriotism is clearly in the mix as modern Americans simultaneously praise “God and Country,” ask fervently that God “Bless America” (and often imply “and no one else”), and pray in public politics. Certainly this is not new; this has been a gradual development with peaks and valleys and at least some such praise is expressed merely as “lip service” to constituents and believers. Yet if something only exists as it has an effect, this is a real “God” that we see acting in American politics. There is a Christian precedent for this God; “Queen and Country” and the Church of England; nation-churches throughout Europe; and of course Constantine’s Christian Empire. All of these examples differ drastically from the early Christian church and the historical Jesus of  course, both of which worked in spite of  nation and often in contrast to nation. The “Kingdom of God” certainly wasn’t an allusion to the then current Roman empire. Yet perhaps this expression was a rupture from the “normal” evolution of nation and God. Another similar rupture would have to be Siddhartha and the early Buddhists as a king renounced the kingdom for a higher path.
If we trace the evolution of Western religious theism, the earliest examples we have to study are the Greeks. The Greeks celebrated a pantheon of gods–gods who were exaggerated humans with emotions, whims, and often nefarious plans. Worship of the gods was intrinsically tied up with celebrating the state which was the sole purpose of individual life. These aspects of worship were amplified in the Classical Roman religious expressions when worship at the temple and prayers to the gods and the emperor were the focus of public morale and societal participation. Greek gods and Roman gods and the worship thereof were tied up with national identity inseparably.

It’s worth noting that the first monotheists, the Hebrews, did not separate national identity from religion either. Hebrews initially worshiped their God solely while acknowledging the existence of other gods. As that belief evolved into a pure monotheism, the importance of their religion as a nation of people remained. After the destruction of the temple and the diaspora, text and tradition replaced nation but of course in our modern day a nation of Israel once again exists. Though it is inhabited by a huge percentage of secularists, the religious Jews around the world (and many Christians by extension) still place a large religious significance on the nation as an expression of their heritage and faith. Also, many secular Jews devote their religious attention solely to Israel as a nation as their religion. National identity has also played a large role in the history of Islam. Though strict monotheism and an emphasis on the universal intent of the faith–i.e. this is a religion for all not just the original Arabian people–it was also a religion that even in the early days was inter-related with the civic activities of the people,  politics were viewed through a religious lens, and the success of the nation was seen as part of the religion.

So judging by the evolution of theism, it may be that early Christianity (and to some extent diaspora Rabbinical Judaism) is an aberration in the history of God. At most points in history one’s support of the state was inextricably linked with one’s worship of a higher power. Perhaps this is a pull that for the average person is unavoidable and why modern America exemplifies this in contrast to both its religious and political roots.

index

I’m still heading in the direction I hinted at in my last post, but in honor of February and Martin Luther King Day I want to take a step back and discuss King and later, race just a bit. I will admit that anytime a white male discusses race perils loom from every angle as opportunities for missteps abound; and it’s up for debate whether those who haven’t lived experiences themselves even have a place in such conversation in the first place.That being said, I’m going ahead to do so at least in two posts. The first is an appreciation of Martin Luther King Jr. directly related to my last post. The second will be a discussion of film in relation to race in 2015 (“Good Films are Good Films–What’s Race [or politics] got to do with It?”).

So here goes. I’ve written about King in the past in honor of the holiday we’ve named after him. I focused then on his passionate embrace of nonviolence, rejection of militarization, and the prophetic voice he gives even now decades after his assassination. The “whitewashing” of King remains a danger in popular culture, especially from conservative pundits. It’s easier to celebrate King in a US holiday for a perceived rosy “we’re all one family there is no race” stance. It’s harder for some to acknowledge his struggle to redress poverty, to decry the violence of rampant unchecked capitalism, his opposition to Vietnam, his staunch active nonviolence. This is the man who preached non-violence but kept a hand-gun in his house before receiving his first death threat. At which point he connected the dots and realized he had to live non-violence on a personal level just as he expected society to do so–so against the advice of his companions in the civil rights struggle, he got rid of it. Who does that? Who decides to give up their previously owned firearm at the very moment where even many who refuse to have one consider acquiring one? Dr. King does that–he lived out a “Christian” example of radicality that quickly illuminates the fact that very few real “Christians” have ever lived. It’s hard for mainstream America to celebrate that King.

In the days of Ferguson and Eric Garner, it’s easy to imagine for any scholar or student of King and his legacy where his voice and mission would lay vis-a-vis such events. The reactions provoked and expressed in recent months have quickly shown that in some ways, we haven’t really made as much progress as we’d hoped in the US in regards to race relations. I’m sure the racism and anger expressed by so much of the media and the average white populations throughout the country in recent months seemed eerily familiar to those who lived through the civil rights movement. It’s easy to admire King posthumously–to say what you would have done, how you would have helped and how you would have viewed the overall milieu of King and his action in its heyday now, divorced from that atmosphere. So many who claim they would have been on board with King have clearly shown by their reactions to Ferguson and the conversation it’s brought to the spotlight that they most certainly would not have been on King’s side or active in the civil rights movement even on a vocal level of support.

I’ve read a lot of books about Martin Luther King Jr. and I’ve read a fair share of his original writings, letters, and sermons. He’s been a hero of mine since I can remember. I truly think that learning about him at an impressionable age formulated my views of race and instilled in me the primal feeling that racism is basically just ignorance–and irrational. I truly spoke up about issues of race when I was fairly young and my big mouth often got me into trouble. There wasn’t a lot of diversity in the schools I grew up in, and I remember the racist jokes on the bus and in the lunchroom. I remember how I reacted to those jokes and statements as well. Unfortunately I fermented my own prejudices in doing so that I can sense in me to this day. My reaction to a “redneck” telling such a joke or story was to make fun of them, call them every name I could think of, and usually get punched–I was pretty small before my growth spurt and it took me several punches and altercations to realize that making fun of someone isn’t the best way to advance your cause. My prejudice that formed in such early experiences was a hatred of “rednecks” and I became quite fond of labeling many people “white trash,” which when you think about such words is a pretty de-humanizing phrase.

Michael Eric Dyson wrote a wonderful book on King, “I May Not Get There With You.” He received a fair share of flack for presenting King warts-and-all and tackling head-on the scandals and less glamorous aspects of Dr. King. What emerges is a completely human man full of faults and frailties–but one who was nevertheless a man who accomplished tremendous things, vowed himself to the highest of causes and selflessly pursued the path of justice. Dyson concludes after mulling over every possible “dark” aspect of King’s character and legacy that nevertheless, King was (and to this day remains) the greatest American to live. He accomplished more for the future and made the world a better place far more so than any US President. He accomplished what he did as a private citizen–he exemplified civic responsibility (even when that responsibility means protest) to the fullest and he lived out a love greater than any one we’ve seen in our country’s history to this point. Recognizing King as a real human being with struggles of his own elevates humanity and showcases the potential we all have. Breaking him free from the shackles of a motionless icon and into a living breathing human is an antidote to the cult of personality and the idleness of hero worship.

My struggle with King now relates to my struggle with faith and religion. Dr. King has always been the example I point to when someone claims religion is the root of evil and destructiveness. Sure there are civil rights advocates outside of organized religion; some  have even been overlooked for their contributions because of their different views (folks like Baynard Rustin). King may have earned a PhD in systematic theology but if that’s all he had done he would be a footnote. He earned his place in history by living out systematic theology. He saw justice as the overall arc of the universe. love as the motivating force, and God intimately concerned in those who populated this earth. He saw his work as being the hands and feet of Christ and he organized with an entire community of faith to bring about great change and progress through radical love. Can such greatness be achieved if it is just rooted in secular humanism? Maybe. Maybe not. I’m going to explore that in upcoming posts but I welcome your thoughts now.

So in the prologue to this series of blogs, I recounted an interaction between myself and an acquaintance in which I detailed a use of scripture as the grounding for an opinion that acquaintance had on weather in relation to science, climate change, etc. As I begin moving this conversation along, making observations on how scripture is used in modern America today, both blatantly and subtly, actively and subconsciously, and by both the “religious” and the “non-religious,” I once again have a particular acquaintance (a different person) in mind. I am picturing this particular person and their rather common invocation of scripture coupled with their complete disinterest in “history” as a starting point to look at a larger theme common in the use of scripture today in many parts of the country. This particular person is very “religious”,  places great emphasis on church attendance, participating in praise and worship, and values  reading scripture. This person mentions reading the Bible often. This person also claims to have no interest in “history,” to be bored by it as a subject completely. I recall a particular time when I was with this person and someone else had a book on the history of Rome and this person commented that that “must be the most boring book imaginable.” This, briefly, inspires this observation on scripture and history. Because history, and most certainly the history of Rome, is integral to the comprehension of scripture, in this case the Bible. The history recounted within the four gospels took place roughly 2000 years ago in land occupied by the Roman government. The history of the Christian church most certainly occurred in relation to Roman history. So it is interesting that that particular book happened to evoke such a comment from someone who takes the Bible and Church so seriously. I say this not to deride my acquaintance  I use this interaction simply as a springboard to this theme as it plays out in many ways among individuals and even entire groups around the country. History and Scripture are intimately, irrevocably intermingled and a comprehension of one requires at least a consideration of the other.

Now, I must issue some concessions. Yes, it is possible to be “religious” or “spiritual” and to be bored or disinterested in “history” as an academic or intellectual subject. Furthermore, it is certainly possible to overplay history vis-a-vis religion in that much of what has been done in academic religious scholarship over the past 200 years has often placed too emphasis on historical context. Modernity brought a drive to religious scholarship to ground all scriptural claims and concepts in “provable” scientific expression and historically “accurate” and verifiable accounts. Whatever could not be rationally apprehended was deemed suspect, often even jettisoned completely. Post-modernity brought a drive to religious scholarship to deconstruct the scriptural stories to their story components, to study them as narrative text alone. I admit that in recent time I have been drawn to academic religious scholarship (post-postmodern) and study that seeks to bridge these two aspects and reintroduce more ancient means as well, a practice of scriptural reasoning that takes seriously the fact that scripture is scripture for those who hold it to be so and that recognizes that it is true for the communities who live its truth out—to witness God and Scripture as the Effects produced in the world by groups of people across space and time. That being said, this certainly does not mean history can be done away with vis-a-vis scripture. For History is on-going and we are a part of it. Scripture, and scriptural interpretation, and the habits that interpretation and belief give rise to, occurs in history irrevocably tied to past and future, to tradition and as yet to occur interpretation.

But let’s step back and be more grounded for a moment. For my acquaintance who values the Bible, who reads and meditates over it on a regular basis, and who attends a Christian Church–why should “history” matter? I assume this person has no need to historically deconstruct the Gospels, for example. She does not want to pull out a Gospel Parallels text and compare how the Gospels diverge on certain points and then try to check each account with some sort of extra-biblical source to accept or reject each claim on a case by case basis. For her, these passages are “true,” (and she wouldn’t use the quotation marks either) and the lessons imparted by them are salvific, eternal, real. She seeks to modify her behavior by what she learns from them and hopes for a better tomorrow by living them out. So why care about the original context of the passages? Because she cannot truly live out what she reads without understanding the historical context of what she is reading. For example, if she wants to take Jesus seriously, then unless she wants to relegate him to “only” a saving figure who matters in terms of death and resurrection alone and as grasped “spiritually” by her in the present, then she has to take seriously his teachings–his words and deeds as recounted by scripture. If this is the case, then she must understand the context of the parables–she must understand the lived reality of Jesus and the people he ministered to. Facts that matter historically regarding Christian scripture include the fact that Jesus was a Palestinian Jew who lived under Roman military occupation and that the people he preached to and who were most attracted to his message were marginal folks as well–outcasts, the “least of these.” If you don’t understand why “tax collectors” were so hated–they were Roman collaborators who often exploited their neighbors for a cut of the government profit–and you don’t understand the social importance of sharing food with someone at that time–it often signified friendship, even acceptance, and communion–then you don’t understand the significance of Jesus breaking bread with the tax collectors. From the historical significance of who Jesus ate with and ministered to, in relation to the cultural stigmas that faced most of them in that time, you can then extrapolate positive ethical actions to today–the marginal and the outcasts of our own time and what is expected of a true follower of Jesus in this time.

History matters for proper scriptural understanding because in light of history, one who takes scripture seriously can discern what to apply to today and in what way to do so and what to leave as a product specifically of its cultural context. Christian Evangelical Ethicist David Gushie (in books like Kingdom Ethics and The Sacredness of Human Life) discusses a Christ-centered hermeneutics of interpretation. If a Christian takes seriously the example of Jesus in making decisions, why would this cease to be so in matters of scriptural interpretation? For after all  Jesus constantly references scripture in the Gospel stories. Jesus was a Jew for whom the Hebrew scriptures deeply mattered. Yet Jesus felt free to interpret those passages in light of current circumstances, to sift them for highlighting particular threads and downplaying others. If scripture is a conversation across history, then its voice is sometimes an argument with itself since not all verses from all books are going to be consonant. Jesus highlighted particular threads for a particular message. So for a Christian today, to follow Jesus in how Jesus read scripture is to follow the same lens of interpretation that Jesus did, to highlight the aspects of justice, care, concern, reparation, etc. that he did. To attempt to do this in a community requires an understanding of what has come before, a fairly deep comprehension of history. One, preferably in a group of honest seekers, seeks to understand the context of what Jesus referenced and taught, the context of his own time in implementing what he brought forth, and the context of the Church’s long history of attempting to, and often failing to (and those failures in history are equally worthy of study) live those truths out and continue on the same journey. A failure to comprehend the history that such striving has taken place in can lead to making the same mistakes previous generations have made. Doing so in the realm of ethics, spirituality, and justice can be more than a little dangerous.


I traveled out of Virginia, through West Virginia and across Kentucky to visit family on Thanksgiving week. You can notice a lot of things on that long stretch of road if you pay attention. A similar trek a few years ago spurred my first real blog about environmental ethics vis-a-vis Appalachian Coal Country, which you can glance at here. Back then I mentioned that a candidate perceived as anti-coal has no hope of winning office in my hometown and county, and that certainly proved true in this past election as Romney took more than 70 percent of the popular vote in most Western Kentucky counties, and I would wager that the primary reason for this is the result of Big Coal cementing a popular perception of President Obama as “anti-coal” and thus”anti-coal miners,” but more on that in a bit.

What is highly noticeable as you head through West Virginia is the type of business that does well–it’s not that much of a stretch to claim that if you need to give anyone directions in much of West VA and you mention any visible points of reference, chances are they include coal mines, strip clubs, casinos, and possibly the gigantic anti-Obama billboards that litter the highway. All across the state drivers are heralded into “Obama’s No-Job Zone,” despite the fact that the above mentioned businesses seem to be doing the same amount of business they have for the past ten years or more. I have no idea if those billboards will remain now that the election is over and the current president won’t be able to run for office again in the future, but it will not surprise me to see those same billboards remain where they’ve been for the past 4 years, stirring up anti-Obama sentiment to keep a certain populace antagonistic toward any progress or speech regarding alternative energy sources.

Coal is a fascinating subject with a long strange history and it’s amazing that it has become such a political flash point in many geographic areas in the year 2012. In the months leading up to the Presidential election and in the days afterwards countless people made their every Facebook status in some way tied to coal and the fear that the President has an agenda to take away their jobs. It is in the personal arena where people work and hope to be able to continue to do so to take care of their families that the issue of coal ceases to be one of capitalism and large-scale economics or environmental ethics and instead is one of day to day life and making ends meet. It is in this way that many big-picture thinkers fail to grasp why there is so much hesitancy in the south to embrace progressive environmental policy.

While I was in in Kentucky I heard many comments on coal. One friend said that if he ever happened to mention global warming at all, as he did in the case of recent hurricane sandy, people accuse him of “hating coal” and “wanting people to lose jobs.” I also heard that education is sorely lacking regarding transitioning to future energy sources–that people only hear “they want to take our jobs away” and never hear anything about transition employment, new job development, or even scientific rationale for such changes.. And of course, I have incessantly heard accusations that Obama wants to undermine the occupations of those in the coal industry. The President is in the undesirable position of disappointing those on practically every side of this particular issue. Those in the environmental movement have been very disheartened on his slowness to act in progressive energy policy–in 2012, as the Kyoto Protocol is fast approaching its expiration, this President has been very slow to wean the nation off of Big Dirty Energy. He has even fostered the Oil and Coal business–he really has not slowed it down, it has often slowed itself down in the internal struggle to keep up with yet another dirty energy, the much cheaper natural gas yielded from frakking. Those on the right, especially those in the coal and oil industry, have been led to believe that the President has waged an all-out assault on their way of life–$1,500,000 in Oil/Coal campaign contributions can convince a populace of anything. This is the President who never once mentioned “Global Warming” or “Climate Change” in any of the Presidential debates. But by funding other energy sources and limiting drilling on protected federal land (thank you FDR) he earned the ire of the entire industry.

The problem persists though. No amount of advertisement money can change scientific fact. Global warming is real and it is caused by the greenhouse effect–the greenhouse effect is a result of carbon emissions, which are the result of the burning of fossil fuels. Coal produces the most carbon emissions in its use in comparison with all other fossil fuels, but oil is a close second and we use more oil than coal. Changing weather patterns, melting ice caps, and ever intensifying storms are the living proof that we face due to our dependency on burning dinosaur bones. We continue to break heat records and for the second year in a row the northeast suffered through a hurricane. We are approaching the tipping point and the only way to salvage a future for life on this planet is for us to cease our use of these toxic substances. The good thing is that we can do so–we have the ability to switch to other sources of energy that are renewable and massively available–wind, solar, and other green energies. We can run cars and heat homes without burning fossil fuels but the transition time is here.

I do not wish for anyone to lose their job. Many people I care deeply for have jobs tied to the coal industry. I want those that work in the Coal and Oil industries to find fulfilling, well paying work elsewhere. I’ve had my fair share of bad jobs and I know how soul-crushing bad work can be. For those that mine and hate it, I hope the next industries will be much more to their liking; for those that truly enjoy the work they do tied with these industries, I hope they can find something they like as well or more. Transition is scary–having a bad job, having no job, having a new job, leaving a job you like, any one of these factors is a stress and I can empathize with every one of those aspects myself.  I want the workers of the coal region to find transition jobs when possible. All industries change, and all old forms resist new forms, this has always been the case. But the people of the coal field have been led to believe that they need this industry and that they cannot make it without it–this is not true. This industry has always exploited the workforce and the natural environment of every spot it has taken root, eking out all it can and then moving on. Crushing poverty remains in the areas where coal and oil “used” to employ. No jobs, no industry, no commerce, no technology and no viable way of life remains in such places when entire generations have disappeared into the mines and onto the rigs without plotting ways of life for the future  The industry only pays a solid wage now because the people came together, unionized, and fought for the right to a secure life. Now is a similar such time–the people need to take a role in their own future and be leaders in the next, new, bigger, better industry that awaits.

Here are few possible solutions for how to couch discussions on the environmental needs at hand for the coal regions. One is of financial and economic empowerment: fossil fuel dependent areas must come to view alternative energies as a challenge to build, train, and retake their place in what comes next rather than waiting and being outsourced from their own livelihood  Another way to express the issues at hand is in the area of religion. Ironically, some of the most fossil fuel dependent occupational areas in the the country are also some of the most self-identifying religious ones as well, and the majority self-designation is far and away Christian. Christian teaching and belief points to a Creator, and therefore a Creation. Many liberal churches have made “Creation Care” a central point of faith and ethics for decades now, and it is high time this idea is translated to the more conservative churches. Seeing our responsibility as human beings to care for the blessing this world is should be a no-brainer. Once the idea of the damage done by our current way of life is truly expressed, the need to make a change follows directly.Creation Care as an ethical call for action to even the most “conservative” of churches can enliven Christians to take ownership of their actions, to fight against policies and patterns that endanger, damage, and hurt life on this planet and that are already hurting some of the most vulnerable portions of humanity.

Driving out of Kentucky in the early hours of the morning I passed rolling lines of filled coal trucks. Seeing those trucks roll along, I thought of perception and how it differs so vastly. Where I look and see the perpetuation of a dangerous system, one that makes a lot of money for a group of a very few on top who pay those who do the hardest most dangerous work to earn them their profits as little as they can get away with (which thankfully for many families has been a living wage in recent generations). I see that small group on top as one fully aware of the damage they cause–even the climate science research funded by the Koch brothers turned out to second the majority opinion, and world news has reported for years now how oil and coal magnates plan new areas of development around predictions of changing patterns of weather and land. I see all that–others see a home-grown economy, a living wage, a system of  economic independence and a way to pay for their family’s needs. It’s time to merge those two perceptions–for the workers to realize they can be a part in what comes next and that they deserve a living wage no matter what energy source we must use in the modern day. I must see that any viable plan for the future involves education, training, and as painless as possible transition to good jobs. They must see that this earth is finite and that the system they work in does daily damage to it–but that it’s okay, this has not always been known. Now that it is known, it’s time to take part in what comes next. Sustainability does not mean complete abdication of what we enjoy, how we live, or where we congregate. Sustainability can be a way of life that embraces all the things we love about our life and culture but finds new ways to do those things in a way that can continue on so that future generations can enjoy them too. I can be as much of a Luddite as the next person, and there are things about traditional ways of life and resource usage that I am quite partial to. It’s about trade-offs though, and this is the biggest trade off of our time–how to dump the Old Energy and claim the new one as efficiently and non-destructively as possible. The time is running out though.

From “The Unwritten” # 37, p 7 by Mike Carey and Peter Gross. Vertigo (DC) Comics, 2012.

Stories matter. More importantly, myths matter. Grand narratives we often leave unverbalized or even unacknowledged largely shape the way we “see” the greater meaning of all that is around us, and can imperceptibly affect even the tiniest of our daily actions. Even in this post-modern and quasi-secular age, the stories we tell or internalize are a major factor in shaping our identities, nations, cultures and ultimately our shared world.

This is hardly an original observation. Many thinkers and writers have carved entire careers out of exploring the universal presence and power of myths, as most notably in recent decades Joseph Campbell did. Yet when we apply those concepts to beliefs “closer to home,” many lose all perception of the true power and “truth” factor possible in “myth.” John Dominic Crossan–an Irish Catholic ex-monk, retired professor, and a pubic academic who writes history and theology mostly regarding the historical Jesus–  writes in his spiritual memoir and autobiography “A Long Way From Tipperary” about the difficulty of expressing the truth of myth and the true power (and potential) of parable. Throughout his career he has found the answers he gives in response to interviewer’s questions condensed into soundbites and “quotes” that leave off the positive half of his expressions, turning the exhortations of truth he provided in conversation into sterile skepticism on the printed page. In the past when Crossan has been asked as a historian if there was an “empty tomb” or a witnessed, physical, “resurrection,” he may have answered as a historian in the negative; but as a Christian he has wholeheartedly affirmed “resurrection,” and that affirmed truth is one that for Crossan runs far deeper than reconstructed and quantifiable “facts” ever could. Many in the Church itself miss this point very regularly, so perhaps the secular media should be forgiven for doing so as well, though not for cutting off an answer so as to package it in a manner suitable to the story they wanted to tell before they bothered to do the interviews in the first place. But the fact remains that many don’t understand or perceive “faith” as “trust,” as an intentional personal alignment with a cause (or “force”), often expressed and grappled with through Myth–it is difficult, scary, and even unlikely for anyone to fully understand how truth can be expressed experientially and spiritually through Holy Myth until they begin to tiptoe into those metaphorical waters. A literal, physical, empty tomb is all that many (Christians and non-Christians alike) can possibly equate with “Easter” or “Resurrection.” For Crossan, alignment with and commitment to a way of living and believing and expressing oneself in and through holy Myths that counter the grand and most often violent secular (and/or nationalistic) myths is a mindset and lifestyle that runs much, much deeper than affirming or negating a set of “facts” with little or no thought given to what that affirmation (or negation) means afterwards.

Much of the problem comes from the degradation of the term “myth” as it is used in Western parlance. We label something a “myth” when it is untrue in the same way we have degraded the affirmation “I believe” to apply only to things we choose to believe  without “facts” or are “unsure” of, or when they at best counter hard evidence-based claims and at worst are completely irrational. Liberal theologians like Crossan, Borg and Spong all have had a hard way to go in expressing the reverence they have for the Christian terms and concepts they have worked to reframe and update to a public who hear only the internalized negativity of the words they use to express their new approach to “truth,” even when those “new” approaches fall more fully in line with long-standing and ancient perceptions than fundamentalist or materialist claims which are more a product of the enlightenment than of faith history.

A religious friend of mine once said that no great truths could be expressed through fiction. Stories are for escapism, fun, but they have no real depth, he claimed. Now, even though those that express their faith in terms of “Holy Myth,” grant that Myths (with a capital M) are much more than “stories” in that they convey (eternal) meanings instead of just distraction and entertainment, it still seems unlikely that one who can find no truth in even the greatest of art or literature can find comfort in a faith that readily claims to find truth in Myth. For those that hold their religion in such a light, once the rationalistic ground for their belief systems is shattered for them personally, their faith must be abandoned. This is why “faith” and “religion” can be so easily damnable for both fundamentalists and hard-line atheistic materialists.  The fact is that without story we are not fully human. As humans, language was born as a stepping stone to better accommodate stories. Before that we scrawled our stories on cave walls in stick figures or expressed them around a fire with grunts and hand motions. It is stories that signify there is more to us than there is to less-evolved species, or at the very least that we are more aware than those other species are. Stories are the foundation for not only art, literature, music, drama, and film but also the recording of history and the concepts, interpretations and worldviews that spring from recognizing we are living in a stream of history, that we are not the first nor the last generation to exist. Story crafts culture, story is the cornerstone of civilization. Stories are the ground that holds up philosophy, religion and politics. Stories unite us in relationships, they are the family history we create and keep alive by telling stories of what grandpa did without a fact-checker to run down comparisons between this time and last time’s telling of the tale. Stories unite us in nations as they find form in anthems and folk songs recounting the exploits of nation-founders and heroes. More imporantly, stories lay the ground-work for worldviews which a person draws on when they argue the necessity to build a nation (or a people or a place) where all are welcome and can be provided for; and as with worldviews, stories (when they attain the level of Myth) can be good or bad, can inspire greatness or evil. Which is the point for someone like Crossan; the fact that he found great similarities between the story of Caesar Augustus and the story of Jesus did not trouble his faith. In the “flipping” of that story, Crossan sees the early Christian community affirming that Caesar is not the Son of God, that Jesus is. That the life of a Jewish peasant who preached nonviolence and a direct relationship with God was far more important and eternal the life of a self-proclaimed deity who spread and maintained power through violence and imperialism. For Crossan, the Myth of a holy birth in which the mother is a willing participant with a holy God in a sacred union was much more a story to align oneself with than the ancient tales of gods who forced themselves on unwilling women. For Crossan, a life shaped by the person of Jesus in which truth, equality, mystic union with God, and the work towards a kingdom devoid of the separation between rich and poor, a world devoid of injustice and war is a life worth living. Crossan’s words were once cut off to make a headline reading that a “scholar says Jesus was a peasant with an attitude” without including the concluding phrase of that sentence, which was that “as a Christian I believe that attitude is the attitude of God.” This is the story that Crossan chooses to believe, this is the Holy Myth he finds ultimate truth in and it is where he has devoted his life. He acknowledges that his Myth isn’t the top of a cornered market, that other paths have valid truths. But it remains for others to forcibly align themselves with the holy Myth that seized them if it happens to do so. To negate the story, to dispel the Myths as if they have nothing to teach us in our era is to get rid of most of what drives us to transform life and the world for the better. The enlightenment gave us many things  but what it began the process of taking away was the full appreciation of story. It led to movements in modernism that create a false dichotomy between truth and myth, between “fact” and “story.” We must find a way to reclaim that now; even the “story” of evolution can fill the role of Holy Myth. I heard a sermon recently that called Darwin’s work “our Creation myth,” and the pastor invoked it as that and also as much more, expressing it as the best way we now have to talk about how we came to be and seeing in it the interconnectedness of all that is and the responsibility that entails. These concepts have been expressed by religious believers of many different creeds and callings, but the point is that holy Myth has not yet closed its doors if we do not allow  it to do so or force it to happen. We participate in an ongoing story and it is up to us to ensure the sacredness and vitality of that story.

From “The Unwritten” # 37, p 13 by Mike Carey and Peter Gross. Vertigo (DC) Comics, 2012.

*The pictures are from the most recent issue of “The Unwritten,” a masterful comic series (also available in a series of graphic novels/trade paperback) by Mike Carey and Peter Gross. Carey writes and Gross draws a masterful series dissecting story, myth, pop culture, religion, philosophy and history in a visceral yet thought-provoking way.

Grace: Redefined ?

September 26, 2010

Is “Grace” a dirty word?

By its dictionary definition, grace means “beauty of form,” or “a pleasing or attractive quality.” Other definitions include “favor or good will,” “mercy,” and “pardon.”  In Christian theology, Grace usually adapts these definitions to become God’s Love, God’s favor, God’s pardon, God’s influence, or as the good folk(s) who posted it on Wikipedia word it [under Grace (Christianity)] “a spontaneous, unmerited gift of divine favor for his [God’s] children- a favor most manifest in the salvation of sinners.” Overlooking the obvious lack of inclusive language which in a “dictionary” definition in 2010 borders on theistic silliness, the Wiki for this obviously comes down very specific on one (which isn’t the only) traditional interpretation of this “grace” concept.

As a religion student, I have experienced an overload of grace these past few weeks–in concept that is. Studying Medieval Theology in one course and  Reformation and Catholic Renewal Theology in another course, I’ve been pouring over the nuances various Christian intellectuals have devised in working out what this grace thing is all about and who it is truly for. In other areas, say in my study of Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism, I’ve yet to find a strong parallel to the concept; is Grace in this manner unique wholly to Christian thought?

There’s a world of difference between “God’s Love, freely given” and “God’s favor, freely given.” Favor translates to preference, as in “chosen,” as in: God picking one person (or group) over another. This is an old concept, one that predates the towering thought of Augustine whose radical approach to the doctrine of grace shadowed over every version to emerge after in theological quandaries of grace; the idea of God “choosing” and having favor for one over another is actually found in scripture itself, notably “Jacob have I loved but Esau I hated.” Paul quotes that Genesis passage in his letter to the Romans, a letter that was pretty much the sum total of Martin Luther’s theology and arguably Calvin’s as well. The concept of election is one of the many threads that runs throughout the entire Old Testament and that concept was given a baptism and thus seen through a Christian lens in the letters and documents that became the New Testament.

Yet…election as expounded by Christian thinkers starting with Augustine in 4th century CE is something quite different than election as followed by most Jewish thinkers, believers, and expounders of the Hebrew scriptures. Election for the Israelites meant they were chosen by God to be a special people. That choseness resulted in responsibility; that election held those in Covenant with God to be keepers of Torah and to be the people through whom God would transform all of the world. As I understand it, the Israelites were elected to be held to a higher standard, to be set apart, to live and be the way that God’s love would be shown to all of the world. The status of being God’s elect for those descendants of Abraham and Moses came with an obligation to do justice for all–to be mindful of the stranger, the outsider of the clan and people, but not with the goal of bringing that outsider into the faith; typically in history Jews have not thought others must be Jewish to be in right standing with God.

So, as I mentioned earlier, as of yet I haven’t found a true parallel to the Christian concept of grace in other faiths. In Islam, the law can be held by any who submits to God–one isn’t expected to wait to be chosen, one simply must submit to the One true God and keep God’s commands and ultimately “salvation” comes through that submission. In Hinduism (though that’s somewhat of a misnomer since Hinduism is a wide range of beliefs and practices amongst its sects), karma isn’t based on anything arbitrary–you pay the price for your actions, you are not chosen to be born a certain way. In Buddhism, enlightenment is not a random outside placed benefit, it is something one must strive for. And as just discussed, Judaism sees election as a responsibility more than a reward.

Christian theology starting with Augustine did something quite different, however. Augustine wrote in favor of free will and one’s personal involvement in salvation early in his career, but claimed that grace simply wouldn’t allow him to hold to such false perceptions–in the end, Augustine submitted to what he felt was a rather hard doctrine but one that was true and reflected the Sovereignty of God–grace for some, but not all. For Augustine, Grace became the will of God. Grace is God’s favor for some–God’s act of placing a person in a particular time and place, that they might be born in a context in which they would hear the gospel, accept it as true, live it out, and persevere until the end. Grace became an all encompassing act, one reflecting God’s utmost sovereignty; God has such complete control and acts in such particular attention to the details that no one will attain salvation without God arranging every detail in a way that they will hear and accept the one exclusive and particular truth. Furthermore, no one can know who is truly given that gift of grace because for it to be real it must “persevere” until the end of that persons life; one might be dying in a hospital bed yet be undergoing a transformation born of grace and the rest of the world would not know it; one might lead a perfectly moral life until the day they die yet “slip into sin” that very day, hours before dying and thus ruining the whole run. Yet all the while, these events are ultimately through the actions of God. No one can choose to do the good in Augustinian thought–one can, in their human sinfulness inherited with birth, only opt for evil. The act of doing good, the act of accepting truth and persevering is a gift of God–it is Grace–and it is given freely by God with no personal merit earning it . One cannot even prepare for God’s grace–it comes when it does and it is irresistible. A person can neither reject nor pursue it. This works out to justice for Augustine because only God is good and due to Augustine’s conception of original sin, we are all born deserving hell and damnation so the very fact that God opts to “elect” even a few is merciful.

Now, Augustine’s view of Grace, though radical at the time of it’s introduction, became the norm in most aspects; it was from that perception that all later Christian thinkers worked, either in favor or in opposition to it. Prosper of Aquitaine worked tirelessly in defending and spreading this view at the beginning of the medieval period before developing his own unique view which separated Grace into 4 categories (running the gamut of general grace which is love for all to the real saving grace which is only for a few). Eventually near the end of the Medieval period, those like Julian of Norwich hinted at a universal grace which would result in the love and salvation of all in the end (though Universal Salvation had already been teased at and worked on by, to name one person, the brilliant early Christian theologian Origen who was later declared a heretic). Then came the time of the Reformation and grace became a key concept in the division between the Catholic Renewal and the formation of Protestant churches. When the dust settled, protestants like Luther and Calvin held tightly to a freely given, unmerited grace that is irresistable and for some, not all; this grace is saving and a person cannot work towards or even prepare themselves for it. Grace works to make our sinful self appear righteous to God since Christ “stands in” for us through his living sacrifice (which opens the whole can of atonement since it assumes substitution atonement is the correct view from the start, an issue there isn’t space for here). For Luther, you can never be good enough so the idea that Grace is random and free and not contingent on any good works was very freeing; his anxiousness and certainty of burning in hell could be abated and he could relax in the knowledge of his own justification and head to the pub for beers. Calvin held to the same basic theory but rather than relaxing as a result of believing it instead began the process of Puritanically structuring Genevan society to reflect “proper” Christian piety to display the affect and proof of justification. Now for Catholic Renewal Theology, on the other hand, as expressed at The Council of Trent and in books like Teresa of Avila’s autobiography, a person must do a bit of work in their own justification. Those like Teresa wrote of “preparing” one’s self for spiritual depth by praying no matter how difficult it might seem. The Catholic Church came down on the side of salvation coming through both faith and works, that a person must prepare themselves for receiving Grace. Even though that preparation is aided by God it still involves the choice and active participation of the individual.

Okay…so wading through and contemplating these various looks at Grace and salvation, trying my best to understand them, I began pondering how odd it is that a word that sounds so compassionate can mean so many things that are exclusive, cold, and even distant.  I’ve written on this site before about things like salvation and even posted my own reformulation of the main articles typically contained in a statement of faith, and I realize my ideas and opinions take on a much more pluralistic view of things so much of traditionally exclusivity I reject out of hand. I also realize that in the past, even in earlier articles on this site, I’ve rejected positions without attempting to fully understand them. When I first jumped back into studying religion and theology, I came down fast and hard on disproving or discrediting a lot of traditional views in favor of the “correct” ones I had discovered; a lot of that came from my own hang-ups, of seeing the drastic difference between the type of theology and church I had found after years of not having one and the type I thought I had known and rejected. To be honest, my raking over the coals of a figure like John Piper occurred when I didn’t fully understand the basis of the theology he was trying to reclaim, specifically that of Augustinian Grace.  So looking now at Augustine and trying to be objective, I will say that there is beauty and care in it; the idea that God moved every molecule to choose you as an individual must seem like pure awesomeness to one who accepts it. It pictures a detailed and fully involved God who is concerned with every detail and the belief that you are one of God’s chosen must give an incredible since of “somebodyness” to a person, especially someone who has and is facing terrible situations. Furthermore, this theory can fit nicely together in a package with scripture, church, and service. The idea that this concept can be found in scripture is not false; it links together nicely and it is certainly a thread there to see and hold to. I think a view of inerrancy in conjunction with a theology that holds biblical authority at the highest works well with this theory.

But…I don’t think this theory is a must, certainly not in the way that Augustine did. He felt it caught him and forced him to declare it even though he personally felt it to be a cold and hard doctrine. I see many other threads that run through scripture–the care for the stranger, the struggle for liberation, the radical inclusiveness of God’s love, the importance of good works, the here and now ever present yet needed-to-be-worked for Kingdom of God, the healing ministry of Jesus, etc. Everyone has a canon-within-a-canon, that set of passages and books that highlight a persons theology and if the Predestination and Original Sin crowd have Genesis and Romans, I hold even stronger to James, Luke, Exodus, sayings of the prophets and particular Psalms, etc. Furthermore, since I feel Scripture is holy more because it has become so through communal history and I believe that it is only in instances where the Spirit moves through a reading of it that it truly becomes the word of God, I certainly don’t put it at the top of my list of authority nor do I hold to a theory of inerrancy. I reject original sin for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which is that I don’t hold to a literal Adam and Eve story (and yes, I’ve heard more post-modern views that attempt to keep it even in recognizing that story as Mythic). I don’t doubt humankind’s ability to do tremendous evil, and I certainly see that being born into systems of oppression and injustice assuredly start us off in a world of sin, but I do not start at Augustine’s starting point which assumes we all deserve damnation (well, I don’t hold to a traditional hell view either).

So I’m seeking a redefinition of the word Grace; where too often in the past it has come to signify exclusiveness, particularity, and the damned, I see it better defined by its other definitions- “beauty of form,” and “God’s love.” Grace is an inherent goodness of God; God by God’s very essence is the quality we perceive as love in the purest sense. God runs through all of creation and God is creation and all of creation came from that first spark of creation when God divided out and God continues to divide and spread and move outward, creating galaxies. Grace emenates from God and is there all the while, waiting for us as humans to recognize it, open ourselves to it, be filled with it and thus be filled with the Spirit; Grace is the beauty and goodness of God and God’s creation that not even the vileness of injustice, opression and sin can truly destroy. Grace is there for all of us if we choose to let it take us over. Once it does, we are free from the shackles of misguided goals and systems and our ultimate goal is then salvation of self (peace, contenment, love) and the work for justice so that all might receive that same gift. Grace is here and now and also afterwards in whatever truly awaits those it fills.

Peace.

Guns, God, Government

April 14, 2009

guns

In America, especially in the south, if you want to anger someone those above 3 topics pretty much are a way to do so. Perhaps in many areas, guns most of all.

A startling piece on Sunday nights “60 Minutes” profiled the brother of a girl who was shot and killed at VA Tech. The brother, to make a point, attended a Virginia gun show and within an hour had purchased a dozen guns, many of them assault weapons, without having to provide an ID or go through a background check. Virginia is a state with few gun sell restrictions, and the gun show loop even allows people in the parking lot of gun shows to sell weapons directly from the trunk of their cars. The brother of the VA Tech victim was asked if he was even once asked to show identification. He responded that it happened a few times, but each time he refused and was told that for 50 dollars more (or a trip to the parking lot to purchase the gun outside) they would go ahead with the sell.

The sells of guns have shot up dramatically this year. Due to the recession say some, and to the Obama presidency say others. In past recessions, people have stocked up on canned goods and blankets. This time around it’s guns. Gun lobbyists have stated that people are right in thinking that were there a complete economic meltdown, there would be nothing better than guns to get them prepared to survive and gather food (quite a bit of Doomsday Prophecy). As to the Obama presidency, conservatives fear he will bring back the Clinton ban on assault weapons and seek to close the gun-show loophole.

The gun lobby fiercely argues against  bringing back the ban on assault weapons that was in place under Clinton and repealed under Bush. As for waiting periods, that gun show loophole that allowed the VA tech brother to purchase multiple weapons without waiting was responded to by a NRA spokesman in VA with “the second amendment doesn’t say anything about a waiting period before your right to bear arms.” No, the second amendment doesn’t mention waiting periods, or the right to bear assault weapons, nuclear bombs or hazardous material for firebombing either.

A great book on this subject is “Out of Range: Why the Constitution Can’t Win the Battle Over Guns”  by Mark V. Tushnet.  It’s really quite a balanced book, written by a Law Professor at Harvard who claims to be rather disinterested in the debate on personal levels, feeling it’s not a priority on his list of national concerns. He debates both sides and ultimately concludes that each has winning and losing arguments and that the debate must be resolved outside of the constitution, with information and decisions based on further sources because the constitution  doesn’t fully answer this question for us in this day and age. We thus have to look at court precedents, modern interpretations, changing atmospheres as well as original intent.

What truly seems like common sense though, is that regardless of whether the founding fathers intended the right to bear arms with a well armed militia for personal, state and national protection to extend to a personal, private ownership of any citizen at any time or if the original intent is currently fulfilled by having an established national guard and technological advances that negate the necessity, there are a few factors that fall outside of the second amendment when it comes to guns.

No matter what, common sense should tell us that had the forefathers predicted AK47’s in inner cities being used by street gangs or in drug cartels moving throughout the world, there may have been some warning and restriction. There should be no argument against bringing back the ban on assault weapons—at least no logical, sensible, compassionate argument. Military grade weapons have no place in the hands of a private citizen. They exist only to destroy large numbers of people in short spans of time. As for increased background checks, extended waiting periods and closing the gun show loop? Yet again there is no decent argument against these things. Someone going to a gun show should have to provide ID and undergo a background check, the same as they would if they were to go to a gun shop. As for folks to be able to legally sell weapons out of the trunk of their car in the parking lot at such gun shows, it’s almost enough to make one feel lawgivers in Virginia simply aren‘t thinking clearly.

The problem is, as Tushnet points out, for many people this issue is bigger than just guns. Many feel it is a part of the “culture wars,” liberals vs. conservatives, cities vs. rural areas and so on. We need to get past that and make solid judgments in regards to issues that affect the health and safety of everyone living in this country.

Oddly many of those in the south who want no gun restrictions and pride themselves on carrying concealed weapons also are deeply religious, or at least historically so. I understand hunting, especially to provide food. I understand target practicing as a sportsman. Beyond that, carrying weapons with the intent to use them if necessary on another human being is however a form of violence. I’m sure that’s a comment liable to make many angry, yet I have to stress I don’t feel that such an action makes someone a violent person. I completely understand the feelings, emotions and drives that cause many to carry a weapon or keep one in their home solely for “home protection” and to, in theory, keep their loved ones safe (the stats show that simply keeping a gun in your home increases your chances of dying by gunshot dramatically, but that‘s another story). I also know that many jobs require people to carry weapons strictly for the protection of self and others with the intention to shoot to kill if necessary. Yet to invoke the God aspect from the title of this article, carrying, buying or owning a weapon for any reason other than to hunt for food or target practice for sport is a, albeit possibly subtle in some cases, form of violence. Christianity is rooted in nonviolence, so it’s simply odd that many Christians are so vocally pro-gun. Regardless of the actions of the church in low-points in history and the attitudes of many who call themselves Christians, Jesus spoke of complete non-violence yet many of those that praise his name today follow it with “pass the ammunition,” at least metaphorically. I understand self-preservation, defense and a desire to be prepared. Yet can’t those that want guns for that reason view them almost as a necessary evil and not be so enthusiastic about them? Can’t we all agree that restrictions on the sell of and type of guns can be imposed to help curb needless violence? Yes there are many factors that lead to the violence that permeates society, American society in particular. Yes, there are other avenues that must be explored. Yet a step in the direction of moving guns to the area of hunting, emergency and sensibility only is direly needed.

Many notable advocates for non-violence have addressed the issue of the limits of pacifism. A future article on this site will be concerned with how various leaders in the field, Gandhi, MLK and the Dalai Lama have dealt with this issue. That’s it for now.

lostgospelq

I’ve been reading a lot about the historical Jesus, and I’ve plowed through classical and traditional views by eminent and overwhelmingly intelligent scholars like N.T. Wright as well as liberal and revisionist Christian thinkers like Marcus Borg. I’ve read overviews by non-religious philosophy and history professors who’ve attempted evaluate without bias what can be known historically in regards to Jesus. I’ve got a long way to go but right now what is sticking out for me and resonating in ways that such things haven’t in years is that Jesus was a social prophet (as Borg excellently writes in one of his chapters in his and Wright’s co-authored “Jesus: Two Visions”). He was in fact a revolutionary, in the highest and most honorable sense of the word. He spoke out against oppressive government and corrupt hierarchy. The wealthiest in the city controlled the economy and the law not to mention the church. Jesus condemned any practice that took advantage of the poor within the Roman empire as well as all practices of military expansion that wrought havoc on those outside of the Roman empire. His act of over-turning the money changing tables in the temple likely put him on watch by the Roman authorities and his teachings like those just mentioned led to his execution.

This is what I feel much of my church history left me out on, this respect for and awe of the life of Jesus. So much emphasis is paid on his death, his crucifixion, the “passion play.” Jesus’ short life and even shorter public ministry is what reverberates today…his message was what “sin and the grave” could not hold. His teachings were “resurrected,” they lived on and will live on regardless of what churches and societies may do intentionally or unintentionally to miss out on the truth and impact of their message. Much of my study into the historical Jesus made mention of the “Q” source, an author and his scrolls labeled “Q” which many intelligent scholars and historians believe to be the earliest and most accurate teachings, parables, sayings and words of Jesus. The writers of the earliest gospels were believed to have had “Q” scrolls as a primary source to base their work on. I found a copy of “The Lost Gospel Q” by Marcus Borg in my local library and in it he gives a brief overview of the long history of the Q documents and then reprints the words of Jesus, directly translated from Aramaic into English. So we’re able to read the sayings of Christ, before they were filtered through Hebrew and Greek into Old English and before they were incorporated into Gospel writers who likely lived many decades after Christ died. So hopefully, these words are as close to what Jesus actually taught that we today can see. It’s astounding, and it’s evident that the teachings centered primarily on looking out for the poor, hungry and downtrodden. These were calls to social justice, a rally cry for helping those that society overlooks. Of course the most “revolutionary” stance Jesus took and instructed others to follow suit in is that of complete and total forgiveness. To always forgive those that trespass against us. To settle things peacefully between our brothers and sisters and ourselves without resorting to war, courts or rulers. To give what we have to those that have not, to love unconditionally and to strive to make this world better than it is. I think such simply stated yet often difficult to follow instructions are far too often “lost in translation” when many pastors speak, many Christians act and many people pray.

See, I keep thinking about the disconnect. I’ve also been reading a book a religion journalist wrote, “The Fall of the Evangelical Nation.” The author, Christine Whicker, speaks of the large gap between what the public thinks evangelical Christians believe and what they actually believe. The same gap appears between what many of their leaders say the groups believe and what the actual members of the group believe. The gap is also often present between what members of the congregation say (or sometimes even think) they believe and what they actually believe (and do). Whicker has spent a career covering religious issues for many papers and grew up in the Evangelical church. Her grandfather was a southern Baptist preacher, and she seeks to point out the good and kind-hearted nature of the types of evangelicals she grew up around, the type of aspects that get overlooked in the media perceptions of evangelicals. As such, it’s a fair and even handed book. Much of it deals with her prediction of the coming “collapse” of the conservative mega churches as well as explorations of what it really means to be an evangelical. Anyway, the points I want to bring up here from that book are the times that “gap” becomes present in the subjects she interviews. The fundamentalist Christian women in abortion clinics awaiting their own procedure who subscribe to the beliefs of and attend a church that wishes to repeal the right to choose that they are currently taking advantage of. The traveling evangelical pastor who is caught having sex with another man while representing a church body that accuses all homosexuals as partaking of a “lifestyle of sin.” I recently read an article about the California Prop 8 debacle and it was mentioned that the San Francisco Catholic Bishop that helped craft PR ads accusing gay marriage of being “dangerous to children” was the same Bishop who initially called reports of sexual abuse in one of his congregations “mere horseplay.” Many have made the point that the large-funding by the Mormons that wanted so desperately to define marriage as being “between one man and one woman” belonged to a church founded by a man with dozens of wives. This disconnect is infuriating to me. So many “Christians” lose sight of the real important messages. So many “Christians” seek to alienate, disparage and judge others and that is the very opposite of Christ’s teachings. I saw on the news this morning of a woman who’s young infant son almost died from “water intoxication” because she was watering down her baby formula to stretch it until WIC would allow her to get more of it. (Apparently infants under 1 can only have so much water in their diets or it can kill them, unknown to me as a childless twenty something). The recession hit’s the health of children the hardest, one expert mentioned in regards to this story. So once again, as mentioned in my “A New Definition for Pro-Life” article, I ask: are those that are “pro-life” interested in supporting policies that seek to usher in universal health care or at least expanded programs to help the less fortunate? WIC was cut back drastically during the Bush administration, did those that are pro-life wince?

I have a confession to make. It’s obvious that the most important and revolutionary concept of Christ’s teaching is still far out of my reach. I rant at pro life and homophobic people but if I were really like Christ I would be out doing too much and loving those I disagreed with too much to waste my space here condemning them. Such is the paradox I can’t best at this point in my life I suppose. The disconnect I speak of is present everywhere, and I often see it in myself as well. As a liberal and an embracer of progressive politics I believe in equality and helping all others, but after close to a decade of working in jobs dealing with the public sector from the service side (retail, restaurant, etc.) I’m the first to admit people are hard to like and hard to love with alarming frequency.

That’s all for now, I apologize for the very disjointed and wandering article….more on target with more focus next time, I assure you.