Category Archives: Current Events

Pluralism and Election Politics

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How different might this election cycle have been had more voters been willing to be curious about, understand, accept, or even embrace a pluralist nation, rather than panic in the face of “the other? – Kate Blanchard

Kate Blanchard, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Alma College, asks a very important question. If we think that engaging in interfaith activities and education is just a nice “add-on” to the more important work of ministry in our churches, we are sadly mistaken.

And if part of our hesitancy of doing  it is that people within our congregations might disagree on some of the issues that will be raised, we need to buckle up and prepare for the ride.

It would be strange if there were not differences of opinions and beliefs within a group of people – even in our credal, doctrinal churches. Trust me; if you allow people to express themselves and ask questions without fear of being branded heretics, you’ll discover a wealth of theological perspectives. Maybe that’s why so many leaders don’t want to ask!

But the truth is that people do have minds of their own, they do think about spiritual and theological matters, and they do form opinions about other belief (and non-belief) systems.

A wise leader would be willing to enter into the experience of interfaith and intrafaith discussions, not in order to tell people what to think and believe, but to facilitate the process of discovery.

As Professor Blanchard’s question articulates so well, this isn’t an abstract matter. There are concrete consequences to our avoidance of the challenges of pluralism. 

 

News Flash: War on Christmas Is Over

waronchristmas2It’s safe to say “Merry Christmas” again. So says Corey Lewandowski, former campaign manage for the president-elect, declaring victory on the War on Christmas. “It’s OK to say, it’s not a pejorative word anymore.” One of the main contributing factors in this so-called war, according to Lewandowski, et al has been President Obama’s refusal to say it. Despite evidence to the contrary (see a video compilation of President Obama saying “Merry Christmas” over and over again), many people still think that Christmas has been under attack.

I suggest that what is really going on here is the belief of many that it’s Christianity itself that is under attack. The fourth chapter of my book, The INTRAfaith Conversation is entitled “A Question of Identity” because our increasingly diverse world is challenging our assumptions about who we are. This makes us anxious.

Not that this anxiety is unique to Christianity. In her book, That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist: On Being a Faithful Jew and a Passionate Buddhist, Sylvia Boorstein  reflects on the popularity of Buddhism: “I think the alarm people express about Buddhism has more to do with instinctive fears about tribal survival than philosophical error. I think it’s the natural, self-protective, genetic response of tribes.” images-1

Amidst all this religious diversity, our Christian tribe is anxious. And when we’re anxious and afraid, we’re not readily able to process facts and rational arguments. So one response is to retreat into an exclusivist, triumphalism that claims that we’re right and every one else is wrong. At the other extreme is the unexamined assertion that “we’re all worshipping the same God anyway.”

In the middle is where intrafaith conversations can help. Respectful sharing, listening, and  relationship-building can bridge the divide between those for whom “Merry Christmas” is a sacred cow and those who are able to encompass a multitude of traditions within their “Happy Holidays.”

Maybe when we take the need for this kind of conversation seriously, we’ll finally get to the place where it’s not a matter of saying either “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays,” but “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays.”

29f2c9c011b394443742889cfaef-merry-christmas-vs-happy-holidays-is-happy-holidays-part-of-a-war-on-christmas

 

If God Is an Authoritarian Bully . . .

unnamedWow! I just read a blog post equating the evangelical Christian version of God with He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named (HWSNBN) and describing them both as authoritarian bullies.

Thankfully I don’t believe in a God who, according to some mysterious criteria, chooses to grant some people their wishes and not others, who saves some and not others, who allows some to live and not others , who favors some people over others, and demands our groveling adoration. Sign me up for #notmygod!

But a lot of people evidently still do believe in this kind of God . And according to the blogger, the president-elect is a mirror image of the evangelical community – which explains why 81% of white evangelical voters chose HWSNBN as their leader.

If this isn’t a good reason to keep on putting forth a progressive alternative, I don’t know what is. Not that I think all evangelicals are alike. And there is certainly a movement within evangelical circles that is less judgmental and more social justice oriented. Read, for example, The Evangelicalism of Old White Men Is Dead bNot Normal, Not Now, Not to Come by Sojourners’ Jim Wallis.

But even there, I’m aware of the lack of women’s voices or awareness of the misogyny rampant in much of conservative Christianity. In the article by Wallis (who I do admire greatly), he states that an “explicit message of the Incarnation is that Jesus the Christ’s arrival will mean ‘peace on earth, good will toward men.'”And he closes with the gloriously prophetic Magnificat, a proclamation marred for me by the plethora of ‘he,’ ‘his,’ and ‘him.’

And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

But try this – from The Inclusive Bible: The First Egalitarian Translation (with one little substitution from The Message:

Mary said,
“My soul proclaims your greatness O God, and my spirit rejoices in you my Savior.
For you have looked with favor upon your lowly servant,
and from this day forward all generations will call me blessed.
For you, the  Almighty, have done great things for me, and holy is your Name.
Your mercy reaches from age to age for those who are in awe before you.
You have shown strength with your arm; you have scattered the proud in their conceit.
You have deposed the mighty from their thrones and raised the lowly to high places.
You have filled the hungry with good things, while you have sent the rich away empty.
You have come to the aid of Israel, your servant, mindful of your mercy virgin-mary-stylized1
the promise you made to our ancestors – to Sarah and Abraham and to their descendants forever.”

This is no Mary, meek and mild. This is an authoritative prophet, speaking for a God of compassion and justice. This is the God I love and in whose name I will resist the authoritarian bullies of the world.

If our recent election has brought to the fore the differences in what Christians believe about the Holy One, that is all to the good. People need to know that there’s an alternative to the great cosmic bully.

Can We Cross INTRAfaith Boundaries?

divisionsI happened to see a question submitted to answers.yahoo.com: “What is the difference between interfaith and intrafaith boundaries?”

Someone replied: “There is no such thing as intrafaith boundary.”

I was relieved to see that of the six responses to that reply, all were thumbs-down.

If we didn’t know that Christianity has intrafaith boundaries, we certainly know it now that election polling results are in.

According to The Washington Post, 80% of white evangelical Christians voted for He Who Shall Not Be Named (HWSNBN), even though a group of 100 evangelical leaders posted a declaration before the election stating that they would “not tolerate the racial, religious, and gender bigotry that (HWSNBN) has consistently and deliberately fueled . . .” Divisions within evangelical Christianity continue to widen, as Jim Wallis, evangelical author and founder of  Sojourners, said he felt Christians who voted for Trump “ought to be embarrassed.”

Progressive Christianity, of course, is used to being out of the mainstream. But now, many are declaring a new area in American Christianity. In What Progressive Christians Need To Do To Take Back Their Faith, Pastor Jacqueline Lewis of Middle Collegiate Church in Manhattan declares, “Maybe what’s happening is progressive people of faith are finding ways to connect around our shared beliefs that all people are children of God. All of those people are joining together right now, we’re crying together, plotting and planning how to resist together. That to me is the new religion, the new Christianity.”

Emerging Church leader Benjamin Corey suggests that progressive Christians should start evangelizing  among other Christians: “We need to continue converting Christians to following Jesus. We need to create disciples, and reach evangelical Christian Americans with the gospel of Jesus.”

piocs_-00_without-background_christian-cross-special-design-pin-with-usa-flagSome are even calling for a new “confessing church” like that in Germany, when pastors and churches banded together to resist the Nazi regime. For example, Jo Anne Lyon, General Superintendent in the Wesleyan Church, said “I wonder if we may be heading toward a confessing church as opposed to a nationalistic church.”

The question is: will Christians of differing stripes be able to engage in meaningful dialogue with one another?

sg_dividedMany are advising that we must reach out across the boundaries and listen to those with whom we disagree. I can’t argue with this; it’s what I advocate in my book, The INTRAfaith Conversation. But most of what I’ve been hearing is “not yet.” The shock and anger are too raw.

What shape will Christianity take in this new era? Will we be able to cross our intrafaith boundaries? It was difficult before the election; it’s even more so now.

Time will tell.

Not That Kind of Christian!

backto3It’s a tough time to be a Christian. More and more, we’re being forced to choose what kind of Christianity we shall be identified with. Evangelical, fundamentalist, progressive, traditional, conservative, liberal: the labels aren’t that simple.

In this presidential election campaign, a rift has split evangelical Christians. The candidacy of Donald Trump has required many evangelicals to do theological gymnastics to defend their candidate. Even after the release of the video which graphically revealed Trump’s ugly, misogynistic character, his defenders stood fast. Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas and a member of Trump’s Faith Advisory Council, said Trump is “still the best candidate to reverse the downward spiral this nation is irotaten.”

But other evangelicals disagree. In a letter published on September 28 (so even before the video was made public), about 100 evangelical Christian leaders, including Rachel Held Evans and Jim Wallis, condemned Trump’s candidacy. Some snippets from “A Declaration by American Evangelicals Concerning Donald Trump:
Wallis and AOS book, 2.jpgWe believe that racism strikes at the heart of the gospel; we believe that racial justice and reconciliation is at the core of the message of Jesus.
We believe the candidacy of Donald J. Trump has given voice to a movement that affirms racist elements in white culture – both explicit and implicit.
We . . . simply will not tolerate the racial, religious, and gender bigotry that Donald Trump has consistently and deliberately fueled.

Although I don’t agree with all of the theology expressed in the letter, what I like about it (besides its condemnation of Trump) is its unapologetic Christian witness. They clearly do make the disclaimer of “not that kind of Christian”:
A significant mistake in American politics is the media’s continued identification of “evangelical” with mostly white, politically conservative, older men. We are not those evangelicals. The media’s narrow labels of our community perpetuate stereotypes, ignore our diversity, and fail to accurately represent views expressed by the full body of evangelical Christians.

But they also clearly say what kind of Christians they are. We progressives often fail to do that. We’re very good at saying “not that kind of Christian!” but not always so good about putting our beliefs out there. So in the interest of putting my money where my mouth is, here’s my declaration:

As a progressive Christian, I am a follower of Rabbi Jesus, who consistently taught that the realm of God is near, within us and around us. My role as a citizen of my community, country, and world is defined by the example of Jesus, which includes boundary-crossing, inclusivity, and prophetic witness in the face of oppression. It is also defined by the teachings of Jesus, which include compassion, forgiveness, and concern for the “least of these.”

I also believe in the mystical body of Christ, which I do not see as limited to Christianity. One might call this the Cosmic Christ, the Tao, the Universe, or Buddha Nature. In this body, in which all things are interconnected, there is no separation between divinity and humanity, humanity and the rest of creation, male and female, body and spirit, etc., etc. My connection to this great web of life is what gives me the inspiration and ability to follow the teachings of Jesus.

Therefore, as a progressive Christian, I cannot condone the misogynistic behaviors, the racist rhetoric, or unethical business practices of Donald Trump. I just can’t imagine what Jesus those evangelicals who continue to make excuses for him follow.

I am unapologetically (not arrogantly, exclusivistically, or obnoxiously) Christian – just  not that kind. 13722038_975213099262133_1521863844_n

 

 

 

 

Should the Atheist Pastor Be Defrocked?

 

2393916804_765925fe9d_bWhen I told the people of Northern Ireland that I was an atheist, a woman in the audience stood up and said, ‘Yes, but is it the God of the Catholics or the God of the Protestants in whom you don’t believe?’ – Quentin Crisp
Tell me about the God you don’t believe in – Marcus Borg

 

Atheism is a tricky business – especially these days. It used to be simple: an atheist was someone who didn’t believe in God. Then many of us read or heard Marcus Borg describe his many conversations with university students. He recounts, “Every term, one or more of them says to me after class,‘This is all very interesting, but I have a problem every time you use the word ‘God’ because, you see’ – here there’s usually a pause and a deep breath – ‘I really don’t believe in God.’ I always respond the same way: ‘Tell me about the God you don’t believe in.’”*

As Borg tells it, the student then describes a version of God that he or she perhaps learned in Sunday school, from his or her parents or simply from popular culture. When Borg says, “ Well, I don’t believe in that God either,” a space opens up for conversation about other possible ways of understanding the Divine.
The United Church of Canada had an opportunity to enter such a space for conversation. WKxYuGGyLast week a review committee that found Gretta Vosper, pastor of West Hill United Church in Toronto “not suitable” to continue in her pastoral role because she doesn’t believe in God. Now she faces a formal hearing to determine whether or not she should be defrocked.
A petition circulating in support of Rev. Vosper concludes:
“Persuaded that the theological conversation Gretta Vosper has provoked is a matter for dialogue and not a matter for discipline; we, the undersigned, urge the sub-Executive of Toronto Conference to reject the recommendations of the report of the Conference Interview Committee.”But what does Gretta Vosper believe? It might be easier to begin with what she does not believe: “I do not believe in a theistic, supernatural being called God.”
At her ordination in 1993, when asked if she believed in God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. She said yes, speaking metaphorically. Eight years later, she began to deconstruct the idea of God. She said, “Our hymns and our prayers and the way that we did things, they all reinforced this idea of a supernatural divine being who intervened in human affairs. I just took it apart – I was not willing to continue to let (my congregation) think that I believed in that kind of God.” The worship service now uses more metaphorical interpretation of religious symbols and places emphasis a strong emphasis on environmental and social justice.
She’s been controversial, to be sure. The congregation has undergone a severe decline in membership. However, those who’ve stayed are steadfast. One member has said, “West Hill is the future of what religion will be like. We’re thinking and saying what the rest of the world is scared to, but moving towards.”
So is Vosper a church-wrecking heretic? Or a prophet, pushing to bring the “God” conversation into the church – a role she describes as “irritating the church into the 21st century”
 As more people discover that there are other ways of thinking about their concept of God, the old definition of “not believing” becomes more problematic. Agree with Vosper or not, she is bringing to the fore a conversation that needs to happen. Heresy trials aren’t the way to go.

 

*Borg, Marcus, The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith. New York: HarperCollins, 2003, 68-69.

9/11 and the INTRAfaith Conversation

img_1470I returned to the Jersey shore this summer. I hadn’t been there since 2001. In fact, I was in Ocean City on 9/11/2001. As I watched the towers fall on TV, I could see fighter planes and helicopters flying up the coast. It’s not something you forget. Of course, others have more horrific and tragic stories to tell. But for those of us who were old enough to be aware of what was happening at the time, we’ll always remember where we were on that day. And we should remember: those who died, their families, the first responders, the ongoing after-effects of trauma.alg-flag-jpg

But we should also remember other stories. In Ocean City – and I’m sure in many other
places as well – there was a run on American flags. A friend who was staying with me that week was determined to get a flag to hang off our balcony. I was conflicted about it. I didn’t want to hang a flag off my balcony; I’m not a big fan of flags in the first place. So I was quietly thrilled that every store was sold out.

I also remember overhearing conversations that included words like “rag-heads” and “towel-heads” and references to the Qur’an that were either completely false or taken out of context. The first hate crime reported as a result of 9/11 didn’t happen until the 15th, but the seeds were being sown.

I was due back in the pulpit on September 16. Obviously, I’d have to talk about 9/11. I decided to try to make the service a combination of remembrance, lamentation, and confession. The remembrance and lamentation parts were fairly easy to do, and there were lots of resources being sent out for use that Sunday.

But I was determined not to let us off the hook for our part in the rise of global terrorism. Simplistic answers to “Why do they hate us?” make my blood boil. “Because they hate our freedoms” isn’t an informed answer. We Americans are famous for our ignorance about history, geography, and geopolitical affairs. It takes only a scratch of the surface to find reasons for resentment of American arrogance throughout the world. Even our remembrances of 9/11 will usually neglect to mention the acts of violence and terrorism experienced by people of other countries each and every day.

Do I condone terrorism? Absolutely not. Do I understand it. Definitely yes.

So on that Sunday I tried to gently insert some reminders of our own American culpability. I don’t know how well I pulled it off. I do know that at the end of the service, one member asked if we could sing “God Bless America.” I didn’t handle it well. Following Nancy Reagan’s advice I “just said no.” Looking back, it would have been an opportunity to suggest singing “Finlandia” (“This Is My Song”). Here it is, sung by Joan Baez.

This is my song, O God of all the nations, joan_baez
A song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is,
Here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine.
But other hearts in other lands are beating,
With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
And sunlight beams on clover leaf and pine.
But other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
And skies are everywhere as blue as mine.
O hear my song, thou God of all the nations,
A song of peace for their land and for mine.

So what will we do this Sunday? Will we have only remembrances and memorials? Or will we acknowledge the ongoing interfaith and intrafaith work we still have to do in knowing and understanding ourselves and our neighbors?