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Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Purpose of Prisons

Recently, the state legislature in Indiana cut funding for a program paying for prisoners to receive a college education while incarcerated. On the surface it might seem that purpose of this decision was to save money in the state budget. It looked bad politically to give something to prisoners when so many others were suffering from other program cuts. From a political standpoint this decision must have seemed like a no-brainer.

Yet, however politically savvy this decision might prove to be, it will likely prove to be fiscally irresponsible. Incarceration is terribly expensive to taxpayers, and any program that reduces repeat offenses is both a social and economic good (in that our society gets a productive member), and cost effective from a state budget perspective in that taxpayers will not have to pay to incarcerate the prisoner again. Everybody wins!

But as a society, we have decided that the purpose of prisons is not to make our society better. The purpose is not security, not restitution, not rehabilitation, not restoration, not helping prisoners become and asset to our collective social well being. The purpose is punishment. And in a society that believes, first and foremost, in the punishment of prisoners, paying for their education is a bad idea.

Such a punishment system is irrational, of course. It serves no socially productive purpose. When a prisoner "does time" to pay her or his debt to society, it does me no good at all. Someone simply languishing in prison doesn't pay anything to me. In fact, as a taxpayer I have to pay. It's a lose-lose proposition.

To be sure, some people may not live safely in society, and need to be incarcerated for the good of all. But this is different than punishment. Some have argued that punishment acts as a deterrent. This may be, but the language we use suggests otherwise. Our language suggests that punishment is an end in and of itself, not a means to a greater good. The purpose of prisons is punishment for the sake of punishment.

My best guess is that the punishment theme in our society is a vestige of the Roman penal system. If we read the scriptures with care, we see instances of punishment, but the overall thrust of biblical justice is otherwise. Unfortunately we project Roman understandings back on the scriptures and see punishment when none is there.
Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Simple Living is not so simple

Simple Living

When Beth and I were first married we, like many couples, brought different lifestyle understandings to our relationship. Both of us believed we practiced simple living, but we had different values when it came to spending money. Beth believed in spending money on long distance phone calls (which were expensive back in those days), but I thought it was an extravagance. On the other hand, I would more readily spend money on eating out, when Beth thought it unnecessary. We both thought it was okay to spend money on travel, which by some standards is luxury.

My experience of Mennonites is that we love to use the term simple living to describe our distinctives, as in, "we believe in peace, community and we practice simple living." I have found that these are abstractions, and that we generally do a poor job of explaining what these three characteristics mean. And particularly elusive is this concept of simple living. In addition to being elusive (one person's simple living is another's unnecessary luxury), I find our concepts of simple living are rooted in cultural and contemporary economic models rather than biblical understandings. We use the abstract idea of simple living to support values we have adopted from society around us. Here are a few.

Since the 1960s or 70s a prominent simple living model has been the Bohemian lifestyle, or variations on it. The artist colony, sophisticated but anti-establishment sensibilities, valuing artistic integrity over commercial success, independence, free thinking, anti authoritarian, unconventional, and the like are characteristics of Bohemian simple living. Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar reflect the development of a Bohemian spirituality within Christianity. The social rebel, vagabond Jesus, traveling around with his community, helps shape this way of thinking about Christian faith.

Another simple living model is the rural lifestyle, which gets a nostalgia boost in an era of urbanization. These values are marked by tie to the land, a slower pace, rejection on urban ways as overly sophisticated, and cultural practices that kept rural communities together.

Another model is the frugal lifestyle. This is an American middle class staple that one should not live extravagantly. A person should not drive a car that is too expensive or live in a house that is too big, and should avoid sticking out at all costs.

Another model, dealt with in a prior post is the anti-tech model. Technology is an alienating force making our lives more complex, and separating us from other people and from creation.

In some sense, the embrace of simple living grows out of the fear that all of these lifestyles are dying. Bohemian culture has been co-opted by the establishment as cool goes mainstream. Rural culture is in decline as the world becomes an increasingly urban place. Frugality may make a comeback, but people under 67 (boomers and younger) still seem to have different ways of valuing money the those older. And new technologies will continue to shape our lives.

The reality is our lives are complex, perhaps increasingly so, and not simple. It is also the case, I think, that the Christian life is not necessarily simple. I am wondering if it is time to jettison a term like simple living and use something else altogether, a term with a stronger biblical pedigree, less elusive, and more helpful to us as we try to be faithful Christians. The term I propose is just living.

Just Living

Some recent reading, as well as some recent events, got me thinking about the difference of what we call simple living as opposed to what we call just living. Since "simple living," as elusive as it is, still seems to focus on personal economics, I will keep the focus on the same.

I read an observation recently that ought to be obvious, but it had not quite occurred to me before. The cost of a $100 t-shirt is the same as that of a $2 t-shirt. That is the toll that each takes on the earth is the same. The same amount of water, nutrients in the soil, fuel needed for transport, electricity for manufacturing is the same in each case. In fact, one could argue that socially and environmentally, the $2 t-shirt is more expensive than the $100 t-shirt. The $2 t-shirt is more likely to be made cheaply, which means it is likely to break down faster. It is also more likely to have been made by workers not receiving a just wage, or laboring in an unsafe factory (see Bangladesh fire). Now few of us would be inclined to call buying a $100 designer t-shirt simple living. But if you can afford it, do you not have some obligation to spend your money on the more just product? You are providing a just wage to workers, and helping an honest business person make a living.

The counter arguments here might be to buy your t-shirt at a thrift store, or buy the cheaper shirt and give the money to charity, or don't buy a t-shirt at all. Regarding the former, if you can afford to buy a new, justly made t-shirt, is it right to take a t-shirt of the shelves of a thrift store that a less affluent person might need? Are you driving up the price of thrift store t-shirts by increasing demand, therefore creating an undue burden on the poor? Is it better to give money to charity than to spend it on a $100 t-shirt? Maybe. But maybe not. If the t-shirt is made justly, its purchase may lead to a greater social good than a gift to the charity (unless the charity is College Mennonite Church, of course). And the choice to not spend at all maybe a choice to hoard. What's the difference between frugality and stinginess?

We could apply similar kinds of thinking to cars. I drive a Honda Civic Hybrid. Is it more just than $100,000 Italian sports car? A Cadillac Escalade? The cost of these three will depend on a variety of things, but the value added by well paid labor in the Italian sports car suggest it could be as just a purchase as the Civic. Or the Escalade? What if I drive my Civic 20,000 miles a year, but you drive your Escalade 2,000 miles a year and take public transportation the rest of the time. We would be loathe to call a Ferrari or an Escalade simple living purchases, but we can make a case that they are as just as a Civic.

This points to some of my concerns about "simple living." Often I think simple living is a meme we use to buttress our own sense of superiority rather than use in an effort to be more faithful Christians.

After reading The Big Short, I was struck by something Warren Buffet said about Wall Street culture. We have become a trading culture, he said, instead of an investing culture. Investing cultures can reflect on just ways to use wealth, trading cultures are focused on what brings the most short term gain.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Faith and Technology

I am thinking these days about faith and technology. Each day seems to bring a magical new development. This month I read an article in the newspaper about authorities concerned with people being able to print out guns from their computer using three dimensional printers. No, I am not making this up. But more than concerns about security, what about manufacturing as an industry? 3D printers are rapidly becoming more sophisticated and less expensive.

Or how about increasingly sophisticated robots taking over tasks normally done by human beings? Are we on the verge of work being obsolete? Imagine a robotic pastor taking over my job. I am enjoying Siri (Apple's voice recognition software voice) on my new iPhone. When I asked her what she wanted for Christmas, she said in her slightly electronic voice, "I already have everything I need." Why hire a human being to do a job when a robot can do it and needs nothing, save a charge battery (that is something Siri will need from time to time). Another article, more far fetched, reported on the prospect of people downloading the data in their brains onto a computer and achieving electronic immortality.

More to the present, consider the fast paced change that has already taken place in technology, as smart phones and tablets replace desktops and laptops (and televisions) as the primary screen interface, businesses that were thriving a few years ago now face the prospect of an uncertain future. Technological innovation can turn culture and economy on a dime.

Which brings us to the church. I have not researched this, but my own feeling is that Mennonites have a history of being techno skeptics, or at least feeling like we have to play techno skepticism lip service. The irony in this skepticism is how essential disruptive technology was to the Anabaptist movement. Developments in printing technology transformed Europe in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, making printed material widely available in ways it never had been before. Publishing ideas became easy, and people learned to read and write in their own languages, to enjoy the new opportunities. Central to the reformation was the notion that ordinary people should read the Bible, a highly controversial proposition. The counter argument is that only those trained and learned in the proper disciplines could correctly interpret for the masses. Without technological innovation Mennonites would not be here.

Another major technological innovation has transformed Mennonite life, only in the most recent century. Perry Bush posited in his book, Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties, that the Civilian Public Service experience during World War II was a catalyst in getting Mennonites out of local rural communities, and into a wider, and urban, world. But I wonder about the role of technological revolution in agriculture. In 1950, and Kansas family could live on 200 acres. Today yields have gone up, but prices have collapsed by historic standards, and that same family needs perhaps thousands of acres for a comparable life today. Mennonite youth either found work in nearby factories, or pursued opportunities elsewhere, most likely cities.

The latest technological innovations are changing the ways and frequencies with which people communicate with each other. Like the advent of the printing press, it is likely these new technologies will profoundly shape how we think ourselves, and what we think it means to be a Christian, although I'm not sure how. We can resist, or we can adapt with a critical and thoughtful mind. I think I am in the latter camp, but some days I'm not sure.

Well, I have to go pick up my son from his robotics club.
Tuesday, September 11, 2012


I will delve briefly into the realm of electoral politics to set up this topic. This is not an endorsement of any party or candidate, merely an observation that I think is relevant to the topic. Neither am I opining on abortion as an issue for Christians, only making some observations.

In 2004, Republicans made an impressive, and perhaps successful attempt to use social issues like abortion and what they called gay marriage, as wedges to help them win elections. This year, Republicans seem to be running away from these issues like the plague, and Democrats can't wait to talk about what they call "women's health choices," and "marriage equality."

What this suggests is that we have reached a tipping point in electoral politics on these issues, which now work to the Democrats favor. This is a stunning change in our national life and, no matter what our opinion on these issues, those of us in the church should take notice.

The dramatic shift in opinion on marriage equality over the last decade has gotten quite a bit of attention in the media, but not so much abortion, which may be the more interesting of the two from the standpoint of Christian ethics. Polls indicate that the public has gotten more conservative on the abortion issue, in that more people indicate a belief that abortion is wrong, and are willing to accept more restrictions on the practice. So, if the electorate has become more conservative on the issue, why is it playing into the hands of the Democrats? Here is where it gets interesting in terms of Christian ethical thought.

While the public has by and large moved to a more restrictive view on abortion, it does not accept that abortion is equivalent to murder, that is that human life at conception is equivalent to human life at birth. One example of this is the failure of the "personhood amendment" in Mississippi last fall, which tried to make it part of the state constitution that human life begins at conception.

Christians have always found abortion wrong. In the early centuries of the church, Christians rejected abortion, even as it was practiced by non-Christians around them. It became a distinguishing mark of the church, along with a repudiation of infanticide. But is abortion equivalent to murder?

This is the case that some Christians, and some Christian groups make. Human life begins at conception, therefore abortion is murder. If one believes abortion is murder, then certainly it should be outlawed with no exceptions. But what if abortion is a sin, but not equivalent to murder? I believe adultery is sin, but I do not believe our society should imprison adulterers. How are we to think about abortion as Christians?

The current Mennonite Ministers Manual describes historic Christian funeral (or lack thereof) practice around miscarriages. "It has been longstanding tradition for the whole Christian church to hold that miscarriages and still births are not deaths because the person has not lived outside the womb." In other words, from a practice standpoint, if not a doctrinal standpoint, Christians have distinguished between life inside the womb and life outside it.

The pro-life and pro-choice labels are easy handles with which to understand positions, and perhaps some of us find these labels fit. My guess is, if we are like our fellow citizens, more of us are in the gray area. And that is some space for some interesting and fruitful conversation.
Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Mennonites, Marcionism and Pelagianism

I am far from an expert on the various ancient heresies in church history, but I find familiarity with the major ones to be helpful. I find that by reflecting on them I can bring understanding to my own relationship with God, and clarity to what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

Two of these heresies are particular temptations for Mennonites, and show how a spiritual strength can become a weakness if we are not attentive. Marcionism, briefly, is a second century way of thinking developed by a man named Marcion who believed that the God of the Old Testament was different from the God of the New Testament, the former being a God of law and justice, the latter being a God of love and grace. Jesus reveals to us the New Testament God, thereby overthrowing the Old Testament.

Historically, the church, including Mennonites, has made the claim that we cannot fully understand Jesus unless we understand the tradition out of which he came, and which shaped him and his worldview, namely, the world of the Hebrew Bible. We have no understanding of Jesus, the church has taught, without understanding, studying and valuing the we have come to call the Old Testament.

Another heresy of which Mennonites have been accused is Pelagianism, a later heresy than Marcionism, developed by a man named Pelagius. Pelagianism teaches that Christians are able to choose God, and follow Jesus, independent of God's enabling grace. In short, a perfect church is possible.

The church has taught that humans are unable to choose God and follow the way of Christ without divine assistance. We do not do anything good in and of ourselves, but if we do good things it is Christ through us. The danger for us as Mennonites when we lean too far in a Pelagian direction is that we expect too much of the church and ourselves. We expect perfection, which is unreasonable for us as human beings.

I find these to be helpful starting points for conversations as we reflect on our spiritual journeys and the life of the congregation.

The importance of congregational discernment

Over my years in ministry I have come to appreciate the distinction between decision making and discernment. Decision making in an organization is heavily focused on pragmatic and technical responses to issues that come up, and is usually a political process of some kind. We see this at work in an election year, when our nation and state are in the process of choosing, in an election, which candidates offer the best solutions to our problems, and provide the most capable leadership to address them. Discernment is not primarily a political process but a spiritual one, in which members of a body, an organization, try together to understand God's movement and call. I find this article from the Alban Institute helpful in understanding discernment.

Spending time together in discernment is a critical and essential congregational task. Because discernment is an abstraction, it can be one of those things, like the weather, that people like to talk about, but where no one ever does anything. Here are some elements I think are important parts of discernment in congregational meetings, which hopefully helps us understand what discernment looks like.

Prayer. Prayer is essential to congregational discernment. Indeed, discernment is a prayerful act. We are not working at discerning our own will, but God's.

Bible Study. When we read the Bible together, we identify how God has been at work and called God's people at other times and places.

Testimony. Part of discernment involves listening to each other's testimonies of how God is at work in our own lives and in the life of our congregation.

Listening is shared. Congregational meetings must be structured in such a way that the talking and listening is shared, and that two or three people, and their particular concerns, do not dominate the meeting.

Leadership is respected. Churches have lay and pastoral leaders which they have already called through a process of discernment. Congregations empower themselves and honor their own processes when they support their leaders, and let them set the agenda for discernment.

Agenda is focused and clear. Congregational meetings only have time to discern certain things. Sociological studies have shown that the largest congregational meetings will ever consistently be is 150 or so, no matter how large the congregation. Still, there are limits to what a large group can do. It is harder and more cumbersome to discern in a group of 100 than a group of five. Because of this, the congregation is empowered when its agenda is of significance to the vision, goals, mission, and overall direction of the congregation, and it is disempowered when precious time is taken up with congregational minutiae. It is the job of leaders to focus meetings so that the essential congregational work is not derailed by the thousands of concerns each of us bring to congregational life.

There may be some other things worth adding to this list, but a congregation that does these things as part of a discernment process will be healthy and well.
Friday, August 24, 2012

Labor Day

Recently I saw a bumper sticker that said, “Americans don’t redistribute wealth, they earn it.” I find this sentiment intriguing for several reasons. One is that distributing wealth is what governments do in complex societies, and what they have done since humans began making the transition from hunting and gathering, when wealth was tied up in the earth, there was no surplus, and resources were taken from the earth on an as needed basis.

            As people became sedentary and began farming, societies began to have a surplus, and rules needed to be established for how that surplus would be distributed. As societies became increasingly complex, new classes of people developed who contributed to society in ways other than growing food. These included warriors, priests, artisans and politicians (royalty), the latter deciding who got what share of the surplus. Since that time, societies have rarely distributed wealth to those who have worked the hardest (those who have earned it), but have used complex social, economic and political criteria to determine who should get what share.

            So it is in our society. One way of looking at our history is through the lens of distribution, and the ebb and flow of biases in how the economic rules are created that determine who gets what share of national resources. For example, movements like organized labor and progressive era trust busting, sought to change the rules to prevent the redistribution of wealth from labor to capital. And over the last several decades the supply side movement (remember when George H.W. Bush criticized Reagan’s “voodoo” economics?) has pressured government to prioritize capital over labor. Over the last thirty years, those who have their wealth wrapped up in labor, in the potential for earning wages and salaries, have seen their share of the surplus dwindle compared to those whose wealth is tied up in capital.

            Growing up as a pastor’s kid in the 1970s, I remember being struck that working class members of our congregations had a higher income than my Dad. Hourly laborers were noticeably and consistently better off than my father who had a master’s degree (granted he was a pastor, not exactly a high wage profession). Those were relatively good days to have wealth wrapped up in one’s labor. And the populism of those days looked down at the lazy rich who didn’t earn their wealth, but got it from someone else’s labor. Today’s populism celebrates the rich as job creators, and looks down at those who rely on food stamps (freeloading on government assistance) because their minimum wage job at Wall Street isn’t enough to make ends meet.

            To be sure, forces like globalization and automation of production are factors in this shift. But suppression of low level wages has been a matter of government policy. I remember being shocked in the 1970s when the business pages of the mainstream media expressed anxiety at the prospect of rising wages. Oh no! Workers might make more money! What surprised me most was that this was just taken as an economic fact. Increased wages are bad for the economy.

            Labor Day is an occasion to remember those in the Labor movement who have paved the way for the masses (us) to have a decent life, to not have to work 12 hours a day 7 days a week for a pittance, to receive a just wage, and to lead a reasonable comfortable life. These are good things, just things, reflecting biblical values, shalom values. Labor Day is more than just summer’s last hoorah, but an occasion to remember our date, celebrate what we have, and commit ourselves to a just sharing of what God created for all of us.
Tuesday, August 21, 2012

J. Lawrence Burkholder and John Howard Yoder

In all almost all ways I have found the move to College Mennonite Church well-timed, with one exception. I grieve that I did not come to CMC before former Goshen College president, J. Lawrence Burkholder died in June of 2010. I did have the privilege of hearing Burkholder when I as a student at the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (back in the old days it was "Associated" not Anabaptist), and as a new Mennonite I found in him a refreshing voice as he told stories of the messiness of his service in China after World War II. Life is messy, leadership is messy, and the choice before us as Christians isn't always black and white, or perhaps it is fair to say it rarely is.

CMCer John Hershberger recalled Burkholder this week in an excellent adult Sunday School presentation in the Seekers class (if you ask nicely, John might be willing to do this in other classes), in which he contrasted Burkholder's thought on social engagement and the church with that of John Howard Yoder. John's presentation sent my mind on a long journey that included time in the Philippines, Washington, D.C., as well as my childhood and youth growing up as a pastor's kid. It is the latter that interests me most here.

As a pastor's kid I had a front row seat on the inner workings of the church, and it wasn't pretty. I learned that the church was full of sinners and hypocrites, treating each other and leaders badly, dripping with self righteousness. But yet I also learned that the church was made up of saints, who often turned out to be the same people as sinners. And at some point I came to love the church for all its messiness, as God's church, and imperfect vessel through which the gospel might be proclaimed.

Burkholder's vision of life made room for the church as it is and will be, rather than just for the church as it ought to be. Church life is messy, and we do the best we can with what we have.

Because this blog seems to be all about links to books, here are a couple, one for Burkholder and one for Yoder.
Friday, August 17, 2012

A Surprising Apologist

I have long had an interest in apologetics, that pursuit in Christian life that seeks to explain and defend the intellectual and moral integrity of Christian faith in a time of increasing non-participation and perceived irrelevance.

C.S. Lewis is perhaps the best known Christian of the 20th century, but we are in a new day, and Christian apologetics faces some new challenges. Epistemological individualism, the political ascendancy of fundamentalism, intolerance of ambiguity and mystery, accompanied by widescale disenchantment, secularism, and various kinds of utilitarianism (such as, whatever leads to economic growth must be right), all call for new voices in apologetics. Many voices have risen to the challenge, but for me, one stands out above the others, and that is Marilynne Robinson.

Robinson's is somewhat of an unlikely voice in public apologetics. She is not a professional theologian or clergyperson. She is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist. She is a congregationalist, a lay member of a United Church of Christ congregation, the most liberal of mainline Christian denominations, and she is affiliated with the University of Iowa Writers Workshop, and not a seminary or prominent church institution.

Her voice is strong. She does not suffer fools lightly. She refuses to use the term Christian right, preferring instead Manichean right, believing and living as they do, as if an evil demigod created the heavens and the earth, but Jesus' mission is to save us and take us away from this evil world, vanquishing the evil demigod so we might live free of our bodies in ethereal wonder. In other words, for Robinson, the so-called Christian right needs to be held to account, not because they are forcing some kind of Christian tyranny on everybody else, but because they are apostate.

On the other hand, Robinson has little patience for the historical ignorance and ersatz relativism of the postmodern left, nor the literalism and woodenness of what she calls scientism. She celebrates mystery, ambiguity and grace. She has the audacity to publicly defend both Calvin and Puritans. Most of all she loves a God of both justice and grace deeply. What is most winsome about Robinson is that her's is a mature faith.

If you are interested in reading her writing in an apologetic vein, these books contain essays that might be of interest: The Death of Adam, and When I was a child I read books. A much more difficult read is Absence  of Mind, her Terry Lectures at Yale.
Thursday, June 21, 2012

Making Justice with Business

As a Christian interested in biblical justice there have been times in my life when I have looked askance at my Christian brothers and sisters involved in business and finance. But as a pastor (one who believes justice is part of any Christian vocation) I have been privileged to walk with people who are pursuing a Christian vocation in the world of business and finance. I have been humbled and chastened by the experience, as I have come to realize how self serving my own narrative of vocation can be. As a congregation with a high percentage of professionals and former professionals, those involved in education, healthcare, church service, or other professions, we can be quick to recognize how these can be Christian vocations, and slower to recognize the ways of making a living more foreign to us can be. As we proclaim God's mighty acts as justice maker, let us recognize that all of us are participants in injustice, and all of us can be instruments of God's justice, even as the pitfalls are many.
Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Defining Success

I am spending time these days watching little league baseball at an instructional level. The idea is to instruct the players, helping them to develop as players and grow in their understanding of the game. In this league, success is not measured by how good the players are,or by wins and losses, but by how much growth the children experience as players. Coaches do not field a team designed to win as much as they seek to give players opportunities to play in a variety of places and roles, teaching along the way.

At the major league level, an environment where some teams have vastly more resources than others, success should be defined by how well teams do with the resources they have. By this measure, the Tampa Bays Rays are highly more successful than the New York Yankees because they win with 15 percent of the resources. Now that is an achievement. That is success.

Is the billionaire who has inherited wealth more successful than the person born in poverty who achieves modest success as a professional? Should teachers be measured by how smart their students are or how much they learn?

People tend to define success in terms of wins and losses, but the biblical mind takes a different view. In the Bible the widow's pittance is a greater gift than the bags of gold of the rich which are but a small portion of their wealth. The most successful nation has no standing army and lives in the shadow of the great empires of the day, but finds its security in God. The seeds of greatness are a people enslaved. The greatest king is a young shepherd boy. The word of God is not found in palaces but on the margins of society. The Lord of all is born low in a manger.

This brings me to my question of interest. How should we define success in the church?  Should it be size? Spectacular facilities? Dazzling programs? Fine preaching? Quality of music? These things are valid measures of success, and it is fine to use such standards to evaluate ourselves. But if we ask ourselves how successful we have been, the more important questions are, have we loved God? Have we practiced mercy? Have done we justice? Have we walked humbly with God?

We are well to remember that Christians have rather unconventional measures of success. We have many markers that identify us as a congregation at CMC, such as church documents and statements, architecture, art or the lack thereof. But my favorite is the signage over the doors entering the sanctuary. Take a look next time you are here.

More on Justice

My former New Testament professor, Willard Swartley, wrote a letter to the Elkhart Truth giving a brief survey of biblical thought on social justice. He was responding to an earlier letter in the Truth arguing that government is stealing from the rich when it institutes a system of progressive taxation.

If the Bible is to believed governments do have a strong redistributionist tendency (my favorite biblical polemic on this is 1 Samuel 8, but scripture is filled with them), but since governments are almost always controlled by the wealthy (there's a big surprise), wealth is redistributed to those who are already wealthy (cf. the description of Jared Diamond's look at the economic development of civilizations as they emerge from hunter-gatherer societies). As Swartley notes, scripture is filled with obstacles to the redistribution of wealth (Chrysostom's rich stealing from the poor), introducing us to a God who, rather than justify the theft by rich from poor as with the pagan gods of ancient times, makes claims on the rich to share, and to remember that their property is not their own, but belongs to God. For the biblical mind, creation is meant to sustain and give joy to all God's creatures, not just a privileged few.

Not surprisingly, again if the Bible is to be believed, we ourselves live in redistributionist times. Democracy only goes so far in restraining this impulse in civilization. It should come as no surprise to us, again, especially those of us who read the Bible, that the increasing influence on money in politics has coincided with an increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of the few. A hard working so-called unskilled (I say so-called unskilled because I think God finds the notion rather offensive--God does not create unskilled labor) laborer cannot earn a living wage as wealth has been redistributed from labor to capital. Those who make money from money have fared far better over the last 40 years than those who make money from work of hands and mind. The biblically trained mind is very suspicious of this turn of events. The old canard that the poor are lazy is one of many convenient tropes the Bible exposes by which the wealthy justify themselves. Are there lazy poor people? Sure. But I am guessing no more than any other group. The notion that hard work automatically leads to wealth is absurd. The most hard working people I have ever known are among the poorest. I wonder why that is. The Bible has some ideas.

How did we get here? I mean how did we end up with "conservative Bible believing Christians" demonizing the poor, and venerating the wealthy? During the first gilded age, the iconic fundamentalist Christian politician was William Jennings Bryan, railing against the exploitation of the have nots by the haves of industry and Wall Street. During our most recent gilded age, which is still hanging on, the cry of Bryan's constituency is against the injustices inflicted upon the wealthy. How is it that a biblically shaped society can not only ignore the relentless biblical injunctions to care for, and see the image of God in, the poor, the sick, the imprisoned and the alien, but turn it around and turn these into objects of scorn?

The pagan vital virtues which Nietzsche celebrated, honor, strength, power, pride, ruthlessness, winner-take -all competition, and the like are compelling to human beings. It is no surprise they die hard in the face of the biblical onslaught of mercy, forgiveness, honoring the weak, humility, and sacrificial love. Perhaps it is a resurgence of these values which brings us to this place. I should say that both political parties have led us on the redistributionist path, marching to the drum beat of those paying the hefty bills of politics, and controlling the airwaves.

Capitalism, feudalism, mercantilism, socialism, communism, colonialism, and any other human economic ideology, like all of human culture, is under God's judgment. It is easy to single it out because it is our system. But it has the capacity to enable humans to express goodness and evil. We are wrong either to demonize it or venerate it in black and white fashion, and are wise to address it through the biblical lens with all the subtlety of thought we can muster. The biblical economic models, such as the jubilee system, are impossible to impose on a modern economy. We must work with what we have. But as biblical people, work we must for the just ends which God intends for creation.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Getting into Harvard

It's an election year, and the polls suggest it will be a tossup as to who will be president come next January. But we already know one thing. Barring an untimely death, or a stunning third party surge, we will have a Harvard graduate as president for the next  four years. In fact, President Obama and Governor Romney have three Harvard degrees between them, Romney with two (law and business) and Obama with one (law). This is not news really. Harvard and Yale graduates have monopolized the presidency since 1988. If you are 24, you have yet to see a non Harvard or Yale grad as a president, and we look to take that to 28. By comparison in the 43 years between Roosevelt and George H.W. Bush, only John F. Kennedy had an Ivy League degree, also from Harvard. Harry Truman did not even have a college degree.

Considering the tiny percentage of our population with degrees from one of these two institutions, who can blame parents and students for concluding that the single most statistically significant step you can take on the road to power is an Ivy League education. In a competitive society like ours, the importance of a high class education has not been lost on parents who want their children to succeed, and on children who want to succeed. No one wants to be left out, and no one wants their children to be left out.

Academic success starts young, and getting children into first rate childcare, pre-Kindergarten, and elementary schools has become a contact sport. Entrance into top notch prep schools or magnet high schools is equally competitive. Whole industries have developed around getting kids into the best colleges. Three articles I came across recently have heightened by awareness of this concern.

This article appeared on the front page of the New York Times a week ago Sunday, about students taking prescription drugs to improve school performance as well as test scores. Taking these drugs for purposes not intended is illegal, and also comes with health risks. Stimulants taken by students include Aderall, Ritalin, and Vyvanse. A New York psychologist who treats adolescents says of private schools in the area, "It's not as if there is one school where this is the culture. This is the culture." According to a Drug Enforcement Agency agent, "We're seeing it all across the United States."

And why not? The pay off is high. Not getting into a top school leads to a less than satisfying life with potential unfilled. Getting into a top school is the path to a rich, fulfilling and satisfying life. For the same reason incentive is high for a AAA baseball player to take something to push him into a major league caliber player, so it is for children looking to get into top schools.

I read a review of this book on the purpose of a college education. The author is troubled that a college education has become utilitarian, another consumer product which will help the student achieve economic success, getting a good job, making good money. The author makes the point that college used to be about making citizens who contribute to society. The children taking Aderall and their parents seem to be more concerned about preparing students for personal achievement rather than contributing to society.

Finally, this book seems to me to be a variation on the theme. Although the topic of this book is not higher education, it fits the theme of parents spending family resources of time and money to enhance the likelihood of their children's individual achievements.

These things have me in a reflective mood. Why do I want my children to do well in school? Why do I want them to be in challenging classes? Why do I want them to go to a good college? Do well on ISTEPs? SATs? Why is it so important that they learn how to pitch a baseball, how to act, play the piano well? Is it for me? For them? For society? What is the point of a college education? What is the point of raising children at all? What does it mean that some children have access to a good education and some do not? Should I be answering these questions differently as a Christian?

These questions don't have simple answers, but they are important question with which we should be wrestling. How do some of you answer them?
Friday, June 8, 2012
Don Miller just brought me an op-ed piece on preaching from last Friday's Wall Street Journal, which is a nice follow up to my thoughts on relevant preaching. "The hunt for a good sermon" is a quick read, with some great quotes from Eugene Peterson's recent memoir, The Pastor.
Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Human Rights and Justice Part 2

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights..."

I left out the part about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the meaning and legitimacy of which, as rights, I might want to debate. But that is not the point of this blog post. The point that interests me here is the the phrase "self-evident." These truths might have been self-evident to Thomas Jefferson and the signers of the Declaration of Independence, but they were not and are not self-evident to everyone.

(First a couple of asides. The founders of this nation were not necessarily Christian, and Thomas Jefferson, if he was a Christian, was on the edge of Christian faith. Were he with us today, I suspect he, and many of the founders, would be most at home in a Unitarian Universalist congregation, and hence would find it virtually impossible to be elected to national office. That said, if Wolterstorff is correct (see part 1), the biblical witness had a profound impact on Jefferson's views. Second, Marilynne Robinson writes in the introduction to her collection of essays, The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought, that Jefferson's understanding of "all men" is broader than thought, and that an earlier draft of the Declaration contained a polemic against slavery.)

Equality is an elusive word, which is highlighted in Orwell's description of the dystopia Manor Farm, all animals are created equal, but some are more equal than others. When does equal mean equal and when does it not? Obviously, we are all different, equal must not mean identical. The Apostle Paul celebrates different but equal gifts, coming from the same source. We all have different needs, although some needs we all have in common. We all need water, but we don't all need combs, for example.

I'm not sure about the Declaration of Independence. It is a political document and it's use of the word equality might be purely political, but in the biblical tradition equality has a moral flavor, not just a political or economic meaning. In biblical thought, people are valued for their status as God's creatures, and, as such all have value. And no one has value greater than can be conferred by the Creator. For most of us this idea is de rigueur. But we are wise to remember that this idea, this biblical notion of equality, has enemies.

I remember doing a social icebreaker once where we were to pretend we were on a life boat on the open sea, and did not have enough provisions for everyone. We were to choose, based on the occupation and skills of each member, who could stay on the boat and who would have to be tossed overboard. The idea is that you keep the skills most useful for survival and get rid of those who contribute less. At a micro level this is what social groupings tend to do. Some are worth more because what they can contribute to the well being and prosperity of society is greater. Human societies choose individuals who contribute to the advancement of the whole over against those who, for whatever reason, are a drag on society, even if through no fault of their own. One could argue that this is only natural, even moral. What right does someone who contributes little or nothing to the prosperity and well being of a society have to make claims on that society for sustenance? If all that matters is the material well being, prosperity or survival of the society as a whole, I would have to say no right at all.

But the Bible confronts the view that human beings are disposable head on. The biblical community, Israel, is to care for those on the margins of society, widows, orphans, strangers, aliens, and the poor. Whether or not they are contributing to the well-being, prosperity, survival, is irrelevant. It is a command, because the people were slaves in the land of Egypt and the Lord brought them out with a mighty hand. It is a command because God says they are "my" poor. It is a command because the well-being of the people rests not on calculations of worth to society, but on obedience to God. In the biblical view, human worth is not decided in utilitarian terms. But this kind of utilitarianism has a relentless logic, and is a powerful adversary to the idea that each person is of equal worth.

Another enemy to the biblical concept of equality, that is to the idea that each person makes claims on society based only on the fact that each is created by God, is market absolutism. Like the utilitarian adversary, it is popular, and the two sometimes collude. The free market determines who has resources and who does not in the most ruthless of fashions. If you do not have skills the market deems worthwhile, and you find yourself destitute, then you need to get those skills. If you do not have the ability to get those skills, that's tough. When we consider disparities generated by the market that seem unfair, such as the disparity in pay between a day care teacher and a professional athlete, we shrug and say the market giveth and the market taketh away, blessed be the Market. The Market is ascribed in our society with moral authority, and in many ways it has been the source of much prosperity for many of us, certainly for our society as a whole. But inevitably, the market leaves many behind.

Jared Diamond writes in his widely read short history of the world, Guns, Germs and Steel, that agricultural development and political sophistication in societies went hand in hand. In an earlier blog I wrote about a Mamanwa community in northeastern Mindanao in the Philippines. This community was pre-agrarian, and through the efforts of my co-workers they learned to farm rice, and ended up with a bountiful harvest. Abundance was found in the natural world (before the forest had been destroyed), no one owned it. But now they had to figure out what to do with all this rice, a new kind of abundance. Their friends and family from other Mamanwa communities came to visit, and soon the rice was gone, and the people were hungry. This community simply did not have the cultural, political or economic capacity to deal with a harvest. According to Diamond, as societies made the jump from hunting and gathering to farming, they learned to defend food from enemies, develop specialized skills for growing, storing and defending, and looked to political hierarchies to distribute food and manage an increasingly complex society. Overtime, those at the top became wealthy and powerful, owning the land, while those who worked the land, remained poor, unless they had skills required by the elite. Religious systems developed to legitimize these hierarchies as the only solution to the threat of scarcity, of not having enough.

However one explains the emergence of the Hebrew people in the Levant, it is they who offer the first organized resistance to civilization as it had been known. Central to this resistance, and impossible to imagine without it, was a belief in one God who made heaven and earth, created human beings in the divine image, and who believed even the most marginalized member of society had legitimate claims for care and support. The success or failure of this new community depended on obedience to a law given by the one God. Central to this law was a system for how to handle wealth, which through most of history has been in the form of land. The Jubilee system ensured that no one would be alienated from the land in perpetuity, eventually the land would be returned to its original family. On the flip side, the Jubilee system also ensured that no single person or group of people would hold too much land. The land was God's, and was to be used to meet the needs of all the people.

The point here is that values we cherish, such as forgiveness, mercy, compassion, and justice, have enemies. These truths are not self evident. Marilynne Robinson believes these enemies are ascendant in western culture as what she calls Darwinian and Nietzschean values of competition and survival trump the biblical values, the burdens of which western society has grown weary. Robinson is wonderfully creative and thoughtful on these matters, recognizing that many Christians (what Robinson calls the Manichean Right) have absorbed the anti Christian values of competition and survival and given them Christian form. The biblical revolution which transformed western society from a setting where compassion for the marginalized was seen as moral failure to one where compassion for the marginalized was seen as a moral requirement, is coming undone.

Robinson points out that Darwin, in The Descent of Man, wrote, with Malthusian concern, that, "It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly anyone is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed." In other words, compassion for the weak and vulnerable does damage to the species as a whole. Whether this holds up scientifically and whether this fairly reflects Darwin's thought is not the point here. The point is there is a logic to this, which goes back in time long before Darwin, and which was the norm in the West before the biblical revolution, whose hold on us has perhaps always been tenuous. Robinson suggests we do not have to look hard to see this logic at work in our political and social discourse, and especially in economic doctrine. The Death of Adam was written in 1996, and mostly the trends she identifies in this line have accelerated.

Today we see the poor and marginalized demonized for dragging us down, and the rich venerated for creating jobs and making a better society. The political-economic ideas of the Nietzschean/Darwinian, Ayn Rand are wildly popular, sales of her best known book, Atlas Shrugged, are booming, more than fifty years after its original publication. The ideas represented in this line of thought are powerful and compelling. I agree with Robinson that secular thought,either in science or philosophy, has nothing with which to combat them. It is critical at this time that Christians embrace our tradition and root ourselves deeply in faith in the God of the Bible who made all of us in the divine image, and who demands that we treat each other with respect and decency, politically, economically, and socially, simply because of this one glorious fact.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Thank you Katherine Boo!

I gave up many years ago trying to describe the experience of living in the middle of grinding and profound poverty in the Philippines. An experience which continues to shape my life and worldview seems so alien in the context of privilege in which I have lived most of my life. So I am heartened by Katherine Boo's new book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Boo chronicles life in a Mumbai slum in agonizingly blunt and matter of fact language, with little or no commentary. She gives us the experience of living there, witnessing life as much of the world lives it. It's the closest thing I have experienced in the way of media which leaves me feeling like I felt after my years in the Philippines. The Goshen Public Library copy will be returned today!
Friday, May 11, 2012

Hooray for irrelevance!

I recently read in a magazine article a suggestion that an important part of preaching is making it relevant to the congregation. Such suggestions irk me, and I can't let this one pass without comment. It is not the gospel that is irrelevant and our lives that are, but the other way around. The gospel is truly relevant, and our lives are mostly irrelevant. It is the task of preaching, and of Christian proclamation in general, to make our lives relevant to the gospel. A focus on relevance reflects how easily we are seduced by the consumerism and narcissism of our culture, turning the gospel preaching into glorified advice columns. Advice is plentiful and cheap, and can be found almost anywhere, and often it is pretty good advice. The good news about Jesus on the other hand is found in few places, and is more precious than the finest jewel.Of course Christians have always sought to communicate the gospel effectively to those for whom it is strange, inviting them into the gospels relevance. But the distinction between these two is important.

The Biblical Roots of Human Rights, Part 1

It has been one month since my last post. It has been a busy month for me, but I have not forgotten Pastor's Puddle. I have been reading in preparation for this post on a topic that has long been of interest to me. The topic is the origins of the concept of human rights in the Western tradition, which I have come to believe comes into our political, cultural and social life from the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. My most recent reading in this area has been Nicholas Wolterstorff's Justice: Rights and Wrongs. Wolterstorff is a philosopher at Yale University, and writes from a Reformed perspective.

Wolterstorff includes this quote from St. John Chrysostom's preaching as an example of early (4th century) Christian understandings of human rights. It is lengthy, but worth your time.

"'...this is also theft, not to share one's possessions.' Perhaps this statement seems surprising to you, but do not be surprised. I shall bring you testimony from the divine Scriptures, saying that not only the theft of other's goods but also the failure to share one's own goods is theft and swindle and defraudation. What is this testimony? Accusing the Jews by the prophet, God says, 'The earth has brought forth her increase, and you have not brought forth your tithes; but the theft of the poor is in your houses.' Since you have not given the accustomed offerings, He says, you have stolen the goods of the poor. He says this to show the rich that they hold the goods of the poor even if they have inherited them from their fathers or no matter how they have gathered their wealth. And elsewhere the Scripture says, 'Deprive not the poor of his living.' To deprive is to take what belongs to another, for it is called deprivation when we take and keep what belongs to others... Just as an official of the imperial treasury, if he neglects to distribute where he is ordered, but spends instead for his own indolence, pays the penalty and is put to death, so also the rich man is a kind of steward of the money which is owed for distribution to the poor. He is directed to distribute it to his fellow servants who are in want. So if he spends more on himself than his need requires, he will pay the harshest penalty hereafter. For his own goods are not his own, but belong to his fellow servants. Therefore let us use our goods sparingly, as belonging to others...

The poor man has but on plea, his want and standing in need; do not require anything else from him; but if he is the most wicked of all men and is at a loss for his necessary sustenance, let us free him from hunger... The almsgiver is a harbor for those in necessity; a harbor receives all who have encountered shipwreck; and frees them from danger; whether they are bad or good or whatever they are who are in danger, it escorts them into its own shelter. So you likewise, when you see on earth them man who encountered the shipwreck of poverty, do not judge him, do not seek an account of his life, but free him from his misfortune...

Need alone is this poor man's worthiness; if anyone at all ever comes to us with this recommendation, let us not meddle any further. We do not provide for the manners but for the man. We show mercy on him not because of his misfortune... I beg you remember this without fail, that not to share our own wealth with the poor is theft from the poor and deprivation of their means of life; we do not possess our own wealth but theirs.

Wolterstorff sees in Chrysostom a biblical argument for the inherent rights of all human beings. According to this sermon, anyone, simply by virtue of being human is entitled to the things that make for life, and to have the means to offer these to someone and withhold them is a form of theft.

Wolterstorff's writing is dense, lucid at times, and quite technical at others. I am able to follow theological and biblical arguments without too much trouble, but when he gets into dense specialized philosophical writing, reading becomes a slog for me. I have no hope of giving a summary of Wolterstorff, but I can share some highlights.

Wolterstorff believes that rights language, thinking, and practice, come into Western culture through the Jewish and Christian scriptures. Regarding non-Christian cultures he is an agnostic, claiming no expertise to judge whether rights ways of thinking about justice are present. He goes to great lengths to define legitimate rights. His most compelling writing for me is the biblical case for rights thinking. He also spends significant time with Augustine, in particular looking at the movement in his thought from neo-Platonism in the early years after his conversion, to a more embodied understanding of Christian faith. He argues that it is the biblical study that moves Augustine to embrace the worth of embodied human beings, and because of inherent worth, humans have rights to certain goods.

Wolterstorff's case is that it is God who gives human beings worth, by virtue of creating them in the image of God, and by loving them, by having affection for them, confers a status in which they are entitled to certain goods (as in good things), such as the right to fair treatment, the things required to sustain life (food, water, shelter, health care), and the right to be treated with dignity. It is Wolterstorff's contention that human rights language, values and practice can only be sustained through theistic faith, going in depth to look at non-theistic arguments for human rights, and finding them unsustainable. Will the values we cherish have a future without faith in God? Wolterstorff thinks probably not.

It seems to me that Wolterstorff writes for two audiences. One is for those who, from a philosophical or theological standpoint, are disturbed by rights language, seeing it as a product of hyper individualism, and antithetical to Christian thought. Wolterstorff seems most concerned by this group as he makes the case that, not only are human rights biblical, but the biblical witness is their source in our culture. Wolterstorff's other audience is secularists who do not recognize in scripture the extraordinary new understanding of the worth of each human being which he sees. Like the first audience, for the secularists, the narrative of the growing emphasis on human rights in Western thought, is animated by enlightenment philosophy rather than the Jewish and Christian scriptures.

Even though Wolterstorff writes from a Reformed theological perspective, I find his work invaluable for Mennonites, who have long recognized the status of all human beings as having worth and dignity in God's eyes, and there fore our own eyes. We can take heart that the values we cherish have deep roots in Christian tradition, and we are sustained, not by our own peculiar goodness, but by God's love for us, and for all people.

This book is not light bedtime reading. But if you want to love God with your mind in this way, you can find the book at the Goshen College library. Summer is coming and the check out time is longer which is good. If you are like me, you will need it. And overdue fines go toward a good cause.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Ethics and Ethnic

This is a brief follow up on my sermon of March 25.  I want to summarize.  The life of Christian faith is not about faithful people, but a faithful God.  Do we as Mennonites have something to say about God?  About who God is?  About what God does?  Or do we only offer word and deed that point to us?

In a tradition known for rigorous ethical practices, the temptation to idolatry is great.  It is possible for us to imagine a Christian walk that leaves God out altogether.  This is especially true for a tradition with a discreet ethnic identity or identities.

The Harrowing of Hell

I write on Holy Saturday.  This is the day Christians remember, according to the Apostle's Creed, that Jesus descended to hell, defeating the powers of evil.  The meaning of this day varies, depending on who is defining it.  But defeating the powers of evil seems like a pretty good thing to celebrate.

Resurrection of the Dead

This time of year, my mind turns to the ongoing theological debate within the church about the language Christians ought to use when speaking about death, resurrection, and life beyond the grave.  The debate arises out of concerns that many Christians, at a popular level, hold beliefs about these matters that deviate profoundly from biblical understandings, and traditional Christian teaching.  Some Christians who think of themselves as conservative and traditional hold views on this subject that at the very least border on heresy, if not embrace it wholesale.

Statements like, "this world is not my home, I'm just passing through"; "this body is not really me, the real me will go to be with Jesus in heaven when I die"; and "the soul is immortal, it will not die like the body, but is eternal, and when the body dies, the soul will be free, and go to heaven."

Many of us have heard such things said in our churches, and so have come to take them as traditional Christian teaching.  They are not, and in fact represent ideas that early Christians worked hard to discredit.  The idea of the immortality of the soul comes from Platonic philosophy.  The distaste for the body is also found in forms of the ancient gnostic heresy.  Christian faith strongly affirms the goodness of the body, and the resurrection of the body (as in "I believe in the resurrection of the dead" from the creeds).  Central to this belief is Easter faith.  We believe in the resurrection of the body, in part, because we believe a body has already been raised from the dead.

Pastorally, this has lead to the question of what happens to Christians between death and the resurrection of the dead on the last day (John 6).  Christian faith has not been particularly clear about this, and opens the door to confusion.  Three authors have been helpful to me in working through these pastoral questions, remaining faithful to Christian teaching on the matter, but responding honestly and compassionately to pastoral concerns.

Carol Zaleski is a Catholic theologian teaching at Smith College, and a columnist for the mainline Protestant periodical the Christian Century.  Zaleski has done extensive study with what are called near death experiences from a theological, rather than medical, perspective.  She affirms traditional Christian teaching regarding the resurrection of the dead, but recognizes the need for language that is open to the ambiguity of Christian understanding.  She is critical of those who she believes overstate the problem of "go to heaven when I die language."

N.T. Wright is an Anglican New Testament scholar and priest, who has made restoring belief in the resurrection of the dead among Christians as something of a life mission.  His most concise and helpful work on this subject is Surprised by Hope.  Wright is the most polemical of these three, arguing passionately that Christians have strayed dangerously from the gospel, and that this matters, because if our bodies and this earth are simply passing, then work for peace and justice, environmental concerns, care for the sick, and other essential Christian ethical practices, are irrelevant.  If our bodies are just shells, and the world is doomed for destruction, what's the point.  At stake for Wright is reclaiming a traditional Christian understanding salvation.

Thomas G. Long is an ordained Presbyterian (PCUSA) minister who teaches preaching at Candler School of Theology, a United Methodist seminary in Atlanta.  Long's book Accompanying them with singing, is addressed not just to preachers, but to all involved in planning and speaking at funerals.  This book is between Zaleski and Wright on the polemical scale, in that, like Zaleski, it attempts to be more pastoral than Wright, but Long also has strong opinions and he does not shy from sharing them.  He addresses the shape of Christians funerals, and the language used in them with as much passion as Wright, but suggests that the convergence of traditional Christian language of the timelessness of God, and recent thought in the field of quantum mechanics, might offer ways for Christians to be both traditional and fresh.

That gives us plenty to ponder!
Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Thoughts on Worship

The year I began my Doctor of Ministry studies in Preaching, I took time to visit three sister Mennonite churches in hopes of hearing some preaching.  Instead of preaching, I got in on service project reporting Sunday, where all three churches were reporting on service trips done by youth and others.  I was devastated.  If an exit interviewer had asked me, "What is the gospel proclaimed by this church, what is the good news?" I think I would have said, the gospel is that Mennonites are nice people, in each case.  Little in these services was said about God, to God, from God.  But there was plenty of self congratulatory drivel.

Had I been looking for a church (or looking for God, or a word from or about God), I would not have been back, and likely would not have given another Mennonite church a try.  My response to these services was not smugness, but confession.  Any of these three churches could have been my church, planning such a service with my full approval.

But something happened in one of these services that changed me, and became the impetus for my D.Min. thesis.  During an open sharing time, a man rose to speak apologetically, because, he said, many people pray and do not experience healing.  He had been going blind, had surgery would some risk, and regained his sight.  Choking back tears he testified that God had given him his sight back, "I don't understand it, but I know that I was blind and now I can see."  I get choked up as I reflect on that moment.  And it changed my understanding of worship forever.

Worship is about God.  It is telling of God's might acts (Deuteronomy 6 and 1 Peter 2); it is bringing the concerns of our hearts to God as a community; and it is listening to God's voice.

The Worship Commission at College Mennonite did some serious work thinking about the purpose of worship before I moved to Goshen, and came to similar conclusions.  Sermons are not about the Bible, they are about God.  We preach from the Bible because we believe the Bible points to God.  Sermons are not a "how to" lecture to help us be better Christians, but an occasion for us to meet God, to know God better, and to proclaim who God is and what God is (God gives recovery of sight to the blind, for example).  We do not have a bulletin anymore, we have a worship folder.  Worship is not for sharing or receiving information, we have other places in the life of our congregation for that.  We do not share announcements.  In other words, we do our best not to talk to ourselves about each other, but to testify to each other about God, to bring our concerns to God, and listen for God's voice in our lives.

The greatest commandment is to love God with heart, soul, strength and mind.  Worship is where this love is expressed fully, together with other believers in a community of faith.

Everence Statement on Birth Control

The Everence statement on birth control that says “Mennonites and related Anabaptists have not held values that prohibited them from using contraceptives," is technically accurate, but not fully honest.  Readers of this blog will know that Mennonites and related Anabaptists have held values that prohibited them from using contraceptives.  But they don't anymore.  In our conversations regarding sexual ethics, we are wise to recognize how dramatically thought and practice around this issue has changed over the last century.

The Bible as Authority

I have found myself in several conversations lately about the authority of scripture.  Usually these discussions involve bemoaning or celebrating the decline in authority ascribed to the Bible within the church.  The bemoaners are saddened to see the loss of an important touchstone in the life of faith, the celebrators are happy to see that people are no longer relying on such superstitious and unscientific collection of writing.  Not surprisingly, I am among the bemoaners, and for several reasons, one of which I share here.

The odd thing about many people who explicitly reject the authority of scripture, is that they implicitly embrace it.  They embrace uniquely biblical values such as love, forgiveness, compassion, mercy, and a peculiar kind of justice that respects the voiceless and disenfranchised.  These values are central to the biblical story and its witness, they also mark an astonishing departure from the imperial values dominant in the world in which the Bible emerged.  If these values entered our lives from sources other than the Bible and those giving testimony to its moral worldview, what was that source?  Ancient imperial powers?  Rome?  Greece? Pre-Christian European paganism?  Western philosophy?  This is not to say the Bible is the only source for such values in the world, but for us as Christians it certainly is the primary one.

In the individualism of the age, we are reluctant to acknowledge our indebtedness to traditions for shaping who we are and how we think.  We somehow believe that we can create our own tradition of moral thought and practice ex nihilo (out of nothing).  To be authentic, we must reject external authority and forge our own way.  Yet the notion that we can forge our own way is an illusion.  Most of us are indebted to the Bible and those who witness to its world view for the values we hold dear.

Norman K. Gottwald, a scholar of the Hebrew Bible, takes a historical critical approach to the emergence of Israel among the city states of Canaan, and identifies a revolutionary movement valuing justice for the poor, forgiveness of debts, and a radical new way of thinking of the divine.  The values of this movement, Gottwald argues, come from the circumstances of their emergence, as they defy the oppression of Caananite urban dominance of the surrounding countryside.  The remarkable and new values of this movement survive because of a vital religious practice, the unique prophetic vocation, and unique circumstances of regional politics and geography.  One could be an atheist and embrace Gottwald's analysis of the biblical values which have shaped us.  In other words, an honest atheist could have some respect for biblical authority.

In the church, we do not take such a secular approach to the Bible, but see the movement of God in the emergence of these values in Israel, and later as they are embodied in Jesus and the church.  Walter Wink sees God at work in the reversal of the "domination system" as the biblical community emerges in the ancient near east.  Daniel Erlanger has written a playful comic book called Manna and Mercy, which develops the same theme.  This is just a tiny taste of those who have considered the emergence of the biblical values of love, forgiveness, compassion, mercy, and a peculiar kind of justice that respects the voiceless and disenfranchised, in a context where they were foreign.

The failure of biblical communities to fully live out these values is lamentable.  It is also not surprising.  The values of the "domination system" are compelling and powerful.  Counter revolutionary forces are always at work in human cultures.  For me this is what is at stake in conversations regarding biblical authority.  The biblical values I named above have always been threatened.  Unless we recognize God's role in giving them to us, I am concerned they will become an endangered species.
Thursday, March 8, 2012

A critique of heroism

My boys constantly remind me of the power of heroes to capture young imaginations, and to inspire heroic fantasies in their young minds.  One of my childhood fantasies was standing calmly at the free throw line in a championship game, no seconds on the clock, with my team down by one.  I hit two free throws, we win.  And of course we always do so to great applause and accolades.  From Gilgamesh to Harry Potter, literature ancient and modern is filled with heroes, people who overcome, conquer, achieve, build, and avenge, by their own strength and intelligence, and always against great odds.  And we humans are always looking for heroes who emulate greatness, give us something to which we can aspire, and save us from the various kinds of monsters we fear.

Christian thought in general, and the Bible in particular, take a contrary view, countering the tendency of human cultures to venerate heroes with exhortations like Paul's "power is made perfect in weakness."  In the world of heroes and hero worshipers, which is to say the world in which we all live, this is utter nonsense.  In this world, power and strength are made perfect in power and strength (cf. Nietzsche).

The Bible's only real candidate for hero in this classical sense is David.  Yet upon closer look, David's claim to fame, according to the Bible, is that he is a man after God's own heart.  Time and time again, the figures that stand out in scripture do so because of faith that allows God to be at work in them.  Those who try to be the hero end up falling flat on their faces.  Moses is not permitted to enter the promised land because he was trying to play the hero.  The Bible can never let the story be about Moses, but God.  Naaman grouses about submersing himself in the Jordan seven times, rather than being asked to perform some heroic deed.  Even Jesus proves to be unheroic, only faithful.  Faithfulness is all that is asked of us.  Saints and martyrs are remembered for faithfulness, not heroism.  It is also worth noting that some of the Bible's prominent figures are  not only weak, but scoundrels, such as Jacob, yet God is at work in them.

Tripp York has written a haunting little book called The Purple Crown:  The Politics of Martyrdom.  York describes the Christian culture of martyrdom in the early church.  Christians saw martyrdom as a privilege, and gloried in it, almost morbidly so.  Yet even as Christians desired martyrdom, seeking martyrdom was prohibited, as was behaving in a deliberately careless way so as to ensure torture and death at the hands of Roman justice.  No heroes welcome!

In a hero worshiping world, how do we create an environment where faithfulness is celebrated rather than heroism?  Any ideas?  I offer this for our Lenten reflection.
Friday, February 17, 2012

Link on Sports and Faith

David Brooks reflects some of my own thought on the ethos of sports and faith.
Thursday, February 16, 2012

Thought Provoking Article

Gary Gutting, our neighbor over in South Bend, had this in today's times, which is giving me something to think about.
Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Biblical Trajectory

I have finished one book recently, and am working on another, each dealing with some facet of intellectual history.  This one makes the case that violence has decreased dramatically through human history, especially in the last several hundred years.  The author, Steven Pinker, assumes that the critical recent development in this process was the intellectual revival experienced in western Europe during late modernity and the enlightenment.  The other book is an intellectual history of conservative political philosophy beginning with Edmund Burke.  The author, Corey Robin, looks for the essence of conservative thought animating conservative politics.  Both books are secular, written for a secular audience.  One of these books assumes that the biblical tradition functions largely to legitimate violence of the powerful against the powerless (which, thank God, the enlightenment came to save us from), the other book assumes that the biblical tradition has been a powerful force undermining the violence of the powerful against the powerless, and has given the powerless a voice by which they might call the powerful to a transcendent moral standard.

I bring this up to highlight the fact that the Bible has been used by the powerful to justify violence AND it has been used by the powerless to protest the injustice and violence perpetrated against them by the powerful.  So what is the Bible?  Is it whatever we need it to be?  Is it a tool for the powerful?  The powerless?  If we can make of the Bible whatever we want, the what's the point?  How can the Bible legitimately be any kind of authority for us?  This is especially so given the genocidal God portrayed in its pages.  What can such a book possibly offer us enlightened moderns?  We come to the Bible with good intent, and with a belief in a loving God, the Golden Rule, and in peace, service and justice, and what do we find?

"Okay, nobody move, put your Bibles down and walk away slowly" has become, for many of us, a way of coping with this strange and frightening and dangerous book.

In the book by Corey Robin is a chapter on Supreme Court Justice Anonin Scalia, a constitutional scholar who leads the originalist camp of constitutional legal theory.  Constitutional originalism believes that the constitution must be followed according to its original intent.  For example, if the public in the 1790s understood flogging to be outside the category of cruel and unusual punishment, then the cruel and unusual punishment clause of the constitution does not prohibit flogging today.

Legal scholars who are not originalist also hold the constitution in high esteem, and have no interest in throwing it out, even though its meaning  was understood differently when it was written than we might understand it now.  The constitution functions as a high authority, but how can we possibly apply this old document of floggers and slaveholders to our times today?

One of the ways to think of this legal challenge is to look at principles and extrapolate trajectories.  What is the principle involved, for example in the cruel and unusual punishment clause, and what kind of trajectory emerges from the late nineteenth century?  If we fully extrapolate this principle from the late nineteenth century to our own times, we can and do say (at least those who are not originalists) that flogging is a form of punishment that violates the constitution.  The founders were on the right road, in other words, they just needed to go further along.  Somebody reading the constitution, then, in 1800, comes to precisely the opposite conclusion some of us might today, each holding the document to be a normative legal authority.  This hermeneutical (interpretive) task of extrapolation is complicated and difficult work, but is necessary if the constitution is to remain a living legal document.

The task of interpreting the constitution is not so different from the task of interpreting the Bible, although the latter is more complicated in that is a jumble of authors and genres, written over hundreds of years, thousands of years ago among cultures long gone.  But, for these reasons, the Bible is also way more fun and exciting than the constitution.

The other challenge in biblical hermeneutics relative to constitutional scholarship is epistemology.  The source of constitutional authority is clear, and on what basis we define it as truth.  But how do we experience the Bible as an authoritative document in our lives?  On what basis do we say it is true?  These are questions of epistemology.  How do we know something is true?  In particular, how do we know what the Bible says is true?

Let's take a look at one of the most difficult sets of passages in all of scripture, the practice of the ban during the Israelite conquest Canaan.  The ban refers to God's specific instructions to kill every man, woman or child, in the Canaanite city-states being conquered.  We are rightly horrified by this, and my natural impulse is to forswear anything to do with God, or this book as an authoritative document.  But people looking on in the biblical times would not have been horrified by this, in the same way that the founders could not conceive of flogging as cruel and unusual punishment.  The sort of behavior in which the Israelites engaged was normal for their time.  The violence in these texts is quite unremarkable for literature of the time; indeed, its depiction is rather tame.  Genocidal violence forms a kind of literary baseline out of which we can identify what is remarkable in these passages, and begin to identify a trajectory which moves into and speaks to our own times.

One remarkable aspect of these stories is the severe prohibition against plunder.  This ought to catch our attention.  Why was it so necessary to burn the possessions of the victims of these massacres?  The Israelites had spent forty years wandering the wilderness dependent on God's abundance for provision.  The impulse to plunder was an impulse to self reliance rather than God reliance.  The Israelites had left bondage in a society dedicated to acquisition, acquiring, reaping, gathering, storing in barns (Matthew 6 in case you aren't getting the reference), where some had over abundance and others not enough.  The prohibition against plunder was a reminder of the kind of people the Israelites were to be as God's people.

Another remarkable aspect of these passages, of course, is the minor role the Israelites themselves play in the conquest stories.  They do not conquer because of superior technology, larger armies, or mighty royal leadership, but through the power of God.  Again, a reminder that they are led directly by God, with no human regent, and leadership functioning with little human institutional authority.

Another remarkable aspect of these passages is that the Israelites are not to occupy these cities.  This is interesting for several reasons.  One is the innate biblical antipathy toward civilization, and the human hierarchies that inevitably arise and circumvent God's purpose for creations, namely that God's gifts be used to sustain all life in abundance, not just a privileged few.  Another interesting aspect of this is that the Israelites were being given freedom by God to be God's people, not authority to dominate a conquered people.

Remember by remarkable we mean unique relative to the literature contemporary to this period in Israelite history.  We begin to grasp how God might be at work among these people and through this book (epistemology), and are now prepared to do the work of hermeneutics.  How does the trajectory emerging from this baseline move into our own times.

So begins the biblical trajectory.  I am grateful to Mary Shertz and Perry Yoder, my professors at AMBS who introduced me to the concept of the biblical trajectory, which sustains me in my relationship with the mysterious book we call the Bible.
Thursday, January 26, 2012

Thoughts on the Constantinian Shift

The uninitiated might think this blog is now venturing into the world of seismic geology based on this title, but alas I will be sticking with more familiar themes.  The Constantinian in the title refers to the Roman Emperor Constantine under whose rule the Roman Empire shifted to favoring, and ultimately making official, Christian faith, after three hundred years of disfavor and sometimes persecution.

Common Mennonite historiography holds that in Constantine, the church made a Faustian bargain (a deal with the devil) with the state, gaining the benefits that come with state favor, at the expense of being co-opted by the state as a tool for its competing agenda.  This view accurately reflects broad strokes of history, and is helpful in shaping our identity as Mennonites, but it also has some severe shortcomings that can impoverish our faith if we are not cautious in our embrace of it.

Some ten years or so ago, Notre Dame hosted a major academic conference on the work of John Howard Yoder.  After one of the sessions I came across Walter Sawatsky, history professor at the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary (of which I am a proud--in a Mennonite way--alum), who was beside himself at the tone of the discussion regarding this issue.  I remember him saying, "but we all come through Rome."  I have remembered that phrase.  We all come through Rome, meaning Roman Catholicism.

What Sawatsky critiques is the Mennonite tendency to think like the true and authentic church ended in the early fourth century with Constantine, then picked up again in January of 1525 when Conrad Grebel baptized George Blaurock in Zurich, as if the intervening 1200 years took place in an ecclesiastical black hole.  Peter Ochs argues in this recent book that for Yoder, the Golden Era of the church was limited to the primitive church of the first 125 years or so after Christ.  It is as if the 16th century Anabaptists, through sincerity, biblicism, and the power of the Holy Spirit, managed to pick up the lost thread of the Golden Era of the church, and revive its true narrative.  I suspect Sawatsky would call this nonsense or at least reductionistic.

The truth is far more nuanced.  Like it or not, the 16th century Anabaptists, and by extention 21st century Mennonites, were profoundly shaped by the 1200 intervening years which did not exist in a black hole.  The thread of church history linking the early church to the 16th century Anabaptists went through Hippo and Milan, Chalcedon and Nicea, Rome and Constantinople, Assisi and Aquino, Cappadocia and Canterbury. Even as the Anabaptists broke with Rome, they took most of their theological world view from the thought and practice of Christians who had gone before them.

What does this mean for us?  It means those 1200 years, for good and for ill, are our history.  It is disingenuous for us to dismiss the violent and unChristlike episodes of those years as somebody else's failure, but likewise we are able to claim the truly saintly figures of those years.  The rich history of music and worship is ours as well, as are the great thinkers and spiritual savants of those centuries.

To be sure, we look on the 1200 years through a unique Anabaptist prism, but we deceive ourselves if we pretend they are not relevant and distance ourselves from them.
Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Wealth Redistribution

The scriptures have much to say about redistribution of wealth.  Indeed, at times, it seems the scriptures have little to say on anything else.  Passages like Leviticus 25 and 1 Samuel 8 take this issue head on from a systemic standpoint, and of course the prophets rail like madmen against the abuse of the poor by the richest members of society.

The biblical mind is highly aware of the natural tendency for wealth to accrue into the hands of a few, who then develop structures that reinforce their wealth at the expense of others.  The Bible makes clear that the gifts of creation are intended for all people to live in health and prosperity.  The Torah, God's law in the Bible attempts to codified this theological understanding by regulating a society where wealth is managed in a way that all people live good lives, rather than a few living life in extravagance and luxury while the many struggle to survive.  One of the oddities of the Hebrew scriptures is that other voices besides the wealthy few emerge with vibrancy and strength.  Usually it is the wealthy few who get to write history.  Thanks be to God the Holy Scriptures have passed to us so that we have the language to name what is unjust both in history and our world today.

It would be nice to think that upward wealth redistribution does not happen in our own nation, but we would be deceiving ourselves.  Mitt Romney reminded us this week that unearned income is taxed at a much lower level than earned income, as he explained how it is that his effective tax rate is so low compared to a typical middle class person whose primary income derives from the productivity of mind and body rather than the productivity of money.  Mitt Romney did not bring this situation about, at least not single handedly.  It took decades of bipartisan political efforts to reduce the capital gains tax to the 15 percent it is today, while taxes on the typical worker stood relatively firm.

We could debate the merits of such a tax policy on the whole of the economy, and it might prove to be a good thing.  Many of us, myself included, have benefited mightily, in a variety of ways, from low capital gains taxes.  But the situation smells a lot like the kind of circumstance that enrages the biblical mind.  Wealthy people controlling a political culture to ensure that their acquisitive aspirations bear fruit, while the access of others to the God given resources of creation decreases.

Those whose wealth is wrapped up in what they can do with their minds and hands, earning them wages or salaries, see that wealth either decline or get siphoned off to others.  The reasons for this are complex, of course.  But the reality of it is immoral.
Thursday, January 12, 2012

Does Preaching Matter?

This also appears in the CMC Newsletter this week, but this is longer with more reflection.

Preaching for Social Transformation was a required course in my Doctor of Ministry program.  The title of this course is audacious in that it assumes preaching can make a difference in society.  As Mennonites, we sometimes say that actions matter, words don’t.  But words have a profound impact on actions.  What we say and hear in the public arena matters.  As a reminder of this fact I look for inspiration to a speech given by Martin Luther King, Jr., at the Riverside Church, New York City, on April 4, 1967, one year before he was assassinated.  The speech, Beyond Vietnam—A time to break silence, weaves together concerns about civil rights, social inequality, and militarism, in a way that was new to many people.  King’s rhetoric is not particularly soaring in this speech, but its content is profound and its impact lasting.  King asked his friend, Dr. Vincent Harding, to draft the speech for him, which Harding did, and King gave the speech with few changes.  Harding, a former Mennonite pastor and service worker, with his wife Rosemarie, will be our preacher on Sunday.  Certainly this is a special occasion for its historical significance, and one not to be missed.  But I also look forward to a word that will change us, that will make us different on Sunday afternoon than we are today, that will further awaken us to God’s reality.

"Beyond Vietnam" is called the Riverside Speech rather than the Riverside Sermon, in that it did not take place as part of a worship service, and was not drawn from a particular biblical text.  In this regard it is accurate to call it a speech and not a sermon.  But it is a sermon in the sense that its task is to awaken us to God's reality.  (The primary task of a sermon in my mind is not to explain the meaning of a text, but to point to the reality of God.  The biblical text is not an end in itself, but a witness to God's reality.)

The Riverside Speech confronted head on the violence of American society, and the links among different kinds of violence, and the ways they feed on each other.  It also looked forward to different vision, God's vision, firmly rooted, for King in the Christian revolution.  "...I cannot forget that the Nobel Peace Prize was also a commission, a commission to work harder than I had ever worked before for the 'brotherhood of man.'  This is a calling that takes me beyond national allegiances, but even if it were not present I would yet have to live with the meaning of my commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ.  To me the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I'm speaking against the war.  Could it be that they do not know that the good news was meant for all men--for Communist and capitalist, for their children and ours, for black and for white, for revolutionary and conservative?  Have they forgotten that my ministry is  in obedience to the One who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them?  What can I say to the Vietcong or to Castro or to Mao as a faithful minister of this One?  Can I threaten them with death or must I not share with them my life?"

For me, the high point in the speech is this riff near the end, where King articulates the revolutionary vision of the gospel, using the imagery of the the Parable of the Good Samaritan as a starting point.  The rhetoric here suggests that the gospel is a revolution under pressure from counterrevolutionary pressures, but sees the gospel through those pressures, "beyond Vietnam" to the reality of God.

"A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life's roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

"A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, "This is not just." It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say, "This is not just." The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.

"A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, "This way of settling differences is not just." This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

"America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.

"This kind of positive revolution of values is our best defense against communism. War is not the answer. Communism will never be defeated by the use of atomic bombs or nuclear weapons. Let us not join those who shout war and, through their misguided passions, urge the United States to relinquish its participation in the United Nations. These are days which demand wise restraint and calm reasonableness. We must not engage in a negative anticommunism, but rather in a positive thrust for democracy, realizing that our greatest defense against communism is to take offensive action in behalf of justice. We must with positive action seek to remove those conditions of poverty, insecurity, and injustice, which are the fertile soil in which the seed of communism grows and develops."

To be sure, some of this language is dated.  But by and large this speech is standing up well in the face of time, and remains relevant to us today.  For a figure as public as King to name the realities of violence so forcefully, yet insist on a nonviolent Christian response, introduced the gospel into American society in new ways which could not be ignored.  This is my reason for calling it the most influential sermon of the 20th century in the United States.

You can find the text of the speech here.