Sunday, July 29, 2012

Which "Way" Am I Called to Follow?

In this hot political season, with voices raised about guns, jobs, freedom, the American Way, I find myself pausing to ask: which Way am I called to follow? Whose priorities should I pursue?

Christ Takes up His Cross,
Anna Kocher, 2006
Before Christians were called Christians, they were called Followers of the Way. The Way was Jesus: simultaneously the path itself, guide and example, companion on the journey. Jesus said “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me.”

But he also said “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). The way to relationship with God, to the full life Jesus promised, is through Jesus himself, but also through following the path he shows us, walking with him the road of sacrifice and self-denial.

Following the Way of Christ starts with a willingness to set our native loyalties aside. Jesus said again and again: leave your nets, your fields, your money, your life, and come, follow me. The early believers understood that the first step of the Christian journey was a step away from all prior allegiance, including allegiance to self, to comfort, safety, the right to be right, the mistaken idea that somehow we, on our own, are good people, better than those others.

The Apostle Paul understood this completely:
If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more:  circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless. But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. Philippians 3
Too many contemporary Christians assume that today the first step is somehow different, somehow less demanding, that we can keep our old loyalties and still fit Christ in. But to follow Jesus, even now, requires a willingness to step away from tradition, denominational assumptions, national pride, comfort, safety, confidence in our own intellect or education, the mistaken idea that somehow we, on our own, are good people, better than those others.

I start here: I am a fallen, broken person, jealously loyal to my own ideas, selfishly committed to my own ways of seeing, in need of a hand of grace to help me stand free of the misguided assumptions that hold me hostage, that whisper I’m somehow of more value than those others not like me.

I need help to start on the Way, and I need help to continue. If Jesus is the Way, then we’re called to live like him, visible agents of healing, compassion, reconciliation, forgiveness. Before creeds, before denominations, before tee-shirt slogans or bumper stickers, the early Christians were known by the visible difference in their daily lives. They embraced lepers, prostitutes, Roman soldiers. They fed widows and orphans. They refused to retaliate when faced with persecution. They offered healing to enemies, welcome to wanderers unlike themselves.

Those early Christians were so convinced of the lasting love of Christ they turned and offered that love to those who maligned them, scorned them, punished them. Unevenly, imperfectly, they walked day by day in the Way they had been shown.

Jesus Calling Disciples, John Mosiman, USA, ca. 1970
Athanasius of Alexandria  (ca. 296-298 – 373) described the visible influence of the Way of Christ  on the surrounding culture:
Christ is not only preached through His own disciples, but also wrought so persuasively on men’s understanding that, laying aside their savage habits and forsaking the worship of their ancestral gods, they learnt to know Him and through Him to worship the Father. While they were yet idolaters, the Greeks and Barbarians were always at war with each other, and were even cruel to their own kith and kin. Nobody could travel by land or sea at all unless he was armed with swords, because of their irreconcilable quarrels with each other. Indeed, the whole course of their life was carried on with weapons. But since they came over to the school of Christ, as men moved with real compunction they have laid aside their murderous cruelty and are war-minded no more. On the contrary, all is peace among them and nothing remains save desire for friendship.  (On the Incarnation)
I admit, as followers of the Way in the 21st century, we face a challenge not known to those new Christians of an earlier world. We carry the heritage not only of those whose lives mirrored the example of Christ, but also of those who in the name of Christ went on with their war-minded ways, killing and conquering, justifying slavery and sexism, suppressing scientific study, shouting down opponents, carrying signs saying “God hates.”

No one said the Way of Christ would be easy. The call of love is always costly.

So we start with that other first step of the Way: confession. Not only confession of our own sin, failure, falling short, but confession of the falling short of those who have gone before, those who even now misrepresent God’s goodness and make the word “Christian” a sign of judgment rather than of hope.

Vinoth Ramachandra, Sri Lankan theologian who has surely seen more than his share of colonial misconduct in the name of Christ, notes “it is with a flawed and faithless people that the Christ has stooped to pitch his tent and link his name. Any sharing of the gospel within a pluralistic world, after two millennia of ‘Christianity,’ has to begin with humble acknowledgement of betrayals of the gospel by the church itself.” (Faiths in Conflict? 1999 p. 168)

Turning from our tribal loyalties, confessing our misrepresentation of the gospel and complicity in a culture skewed to its own good rather than the good of all, we start on a Way that leads us ever deeper into humility, deeper into the longing for wisdom, the repentant awareness of our own lack of love, our own inadequacy in the face of complex, overwhelming need.

From the Gospel of Matthew
Otto Dix, 1960, Berlin
And along that Way, as we read the words of Jesus, as we pray to hear and know his voice, as we ask to see with his eyes, to love what he loves, we find our hearts changing, and find ourselves claiming, with Jesus, a purpose and passion like his own, priority enough in this conflicted season:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom
    for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight
    for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
    to proclaim the year
    of the Lord’s favor.”  (Luke 4)

This is part of the August synchroblog, "Follow." Links to other posts will appear soon.

This is also part of an continuing series about faith and politics: What's Your Platform?

More than ever, I welcome your thoughts about which issues to consider, as well as your insight, comments, and questions.  Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Blessed Are the Peacemakers?

Jesus said “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.”
Tee shirt ad: "These dual pistols matched
up with an inspirational bible quote makes
a great nod to the 2nd amendment, the right
to bear arms! And it looks pretty cool too :)"

Do we believe him?

When we worry that our city streets feel hot and desperate, one solution is to buy a handgun and keep it close.

When we fear for the future of democracy, one solution is to stockpile guns.

When we learn there are nations that hate us, one solution is to vote to build more bombs.

If our goal is increased violence, those solutions just might work.

But if our goal is peace, we might need to rethink.

In the garden of Gethsemane, confronted by palace guards, Jesus calmly waited for arrest. When Peter grabbed a sword and swiped off a guard’s ear, Jesus picked it up and put it back. Luke, the doctor, the meticulous researcher, is the only gospel writer to record the replaced ear. Did it happen? I believe it did, a small, sweet miracle to remind everyone present, and all who would hear the story: God’s power has nothing to do with swords, with guns, with bombs.

For the first three centuries of the Christian church, a hallmark of the Christ-follower was a willingness to face persecution, punishment, even death, rather than pick up sword or stone in self defense.

A quick survey of early church writers reveals a wealth of wisdom regarding the call to peace:  “Christ, in disarming Peter, unbelted every soldier,” wrote Tertullian.  Clement of Alexandria agreed: “If you enroll as one of God’s people, heaven is your country and God your lawgiver. And what are His laws? You shall not kill, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. To him that strikes you on the one cheek, turn to him the other also.” According to St Basil the Great, “Nothing is so characteristically Christian as being a peacemaker.”

The early and unanimous witness to peace began to shift during the period following the dramatic conversion of Roman Emperor Constantine. Faith became allied to political power in a way that has plagued the church ever since. Over the years, theology has too often been twisted to fit the needs of the ruling regime, and compliant Christians have found it easiest to go along. We can trace the sad history of unthinking acquiescence through the crusades, Papal persecutions, Inquisition, colonial conquests, witch hunts, the alignment of the German establishment church with the agenda and actions of the Nazis. When church leaders confuse obedience to God with the quest for political power, when everyday Christians follow along rather than face group-think disapproval, disaster is never far away.

And so we find ourselves confronted with groups claiming “Biblical values” and “Christian convictions,” yet wholeheartedly endorsing ever-higher expenditures on weapons of every kind, despite the fact that our current defense spending outranks, by five to one, the next country in line.

Spend a minute contemplating the current global distribution of military expenditure. Then consider: does the US dominance of the military scene make us safer? Or does it make us a more compelling target for those who oppose us?

As I puzzle over this issue, I see two questions worth pursuing. The first is spiritual: As a Christian, should I be supporting guns and war?

The second is pragmatic: If the US is already spending more on defense than the next fourteen countries combined, double the investment of the remainer of the world, surely some of those resources could be spent in other ways?

I’m tackling the first question this week; I’ll pick up the second in a future post.

Blessed are the peacemakers?

For centuries, theologians have argued the idea of a just war, and some faith traditions have outlined clear teaching about proper reasons and limits for war. The Catholic Catechism of 1992 offers an apologetic for just war:
"All citizens and all governments are obliged to work for the avoidance of war. Despite this admonition of the Church, it sometimes becomes necessary to use force to obtain the end of justice. This is the right, and the duty, of those who have responsibilities for others, such as civil leaders and police forces. While individuals may renounce all violence those who must preserve justice may not do so, though it should be the last resort, 'once all peace efforts have failed.'"
Some church traditions have nothing at all to say about war, violence, peace, as if somehow those topics are extraneous to the Christian faith. Some prayerfully, or less prayerfully, issue statements dependent on current situations or the prevailing political climate.

Some church and parachurch groups seem consistently hawkish in a way I find  disconcerting. The home page of the Biblical Patriot network offers a sad example, somehow equating guns, violent self-defense and angry rhetoric against national leaders with “Biblical foundations” and “conservative values.”

Sadly, that loud voice has captured the spotlight, to the extent that many people I know, Christians and those alarmed by what they know of Christians, believe that somehow Biblical values endorse and affirm violence and guns.

From what I know of the witness of Jesus, nothing could be further from the truth.

from A Journey for Nonviolent Change
Faith traditions that are strongly for peace are much less likely to attract attention, but their witness has been strong around the globe as they combine quiet, faithful service with an unswerving opposition to war.

The Mennonite Church, through the work of the Mennonite Central Committee, supports a global network of sacrificial peacebuilders providing help in farming, water supply, schools, medical aid:
"As followers of Christ the Prince of Peace, we believe His Gospel to be a Gospel of Peace, requiring us as His disciples to be at peace with all men, to live a life of love and good will, even toward our enemies, and to renounce the use of force and violence in all forms as contrary to the Spirit of our Master." 
In their 1970 statement on war, The Brethren Church again affirmed
"We seek . . .  to lead individuals into such intimate contact with Jesus Christ, our Lord, that they will commit themselves to Him and to the manner of life which He taught and exemplified.
"We believe that such commitment leads to the way of love and of nonviolence as a central principle of Christian conduct, knowing full well that, in so doing, violence may fall upon us as it did upon Jesus." 
The Quakers, since their origins in the 1650s, have continued to speak firmly against war, insisting, as they insisted again in a joint statement in 2002:
"We know from history that acts of violence only breed further violence.
"We also know that the terrifying spiral of violence and hatred can be interrupted by acts of creative nonviolence, conflict resolution and courageous love. The real path to global security lies in a stronger global civil society based on increasing trust and respect, the rule of international law, and the removal of the roots of violence and war."
There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.
In thinking about war and peace, I came across a speech given by Father George Zabelka, chaplain for the bombing crew that dropped the bomb on Nagasaki in 1945. Zabelka spent the remainder of his life wrestling with the idea of a “just war,” repenting for his involvement in the death of so many innocent people, and seeking ways to make reparation. His speech was given on the fortieth anniversary of the bombing he condoned and is well worth reading in its entirety.  Here are a few of his conclusions: 
There is no way to conduct real war in conformity with the teachings of Jesus.
The justification of war may be compatible with some religions and philosophies, but it is not compatible with the nonviolent teaching of Jesus. 
All countries are interdependent. We all need one another. It is no longer possible for individual countries to think only of themselves. We can all live together as brothers and sisters or we are doomed to die together as fools in a world holocaust.
Each one of us becomes responsible for the crime of war by cooperating in its preparation and in its execution. This includes the military. This includes the making of weapons. And it includes paying for the weapons. . . Silence, doing nothing, can be one of the greatest sins.
Militarized Christianity is a lie. It is radically out of conformity with the teaching, life, and spirit of Jesus.  
As I listen to the quiet voices advocating for peace, I hear echoes of scripture, and of Jesus' example of peace in the face of threats and rage. His early followers sang when persecuted, prayed and offered forgiveness when faced with violent death. There was no cry among first century Christians to fight back, to defend the faith with arms, to further religious freedom through enslavement to violent means.

What do I take from this?
  • Now, more than ever, churches, denominations, and individual Christians should think carefully about a theology of peace and war, and be clear about where justification of violence will lead us.
  • Christians who promote ever-increasing investment in defense need to rethink their loyalties, the source of their safety, and their blatant misuse of the term “Biblical values.”
  • As an agent of peace, I’m called not just to advocate for peace, but to demonstrate it in my actions and interactions, even with those with whom I disagree.
Jesus said: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.”

Do we believe him?

The Road to Peace, Gilad Benari, 2006, Israel

This is part of an continuing series about faith and politics: What's Your Platform?

More than ever, I welcome your thoughts about which issues to consider, as well as your insight, comments, and questions.  Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Guns and Good News?

For over a decade, I spent a week each July in Kensington, a neighborhood in Philadelphia just five miles north of Independence Hall. A century ago Kensington was a major manufacturing hub, a prosperous blue-collar community with plenty of textile jobs, safe streets, thriving churches.

Sidewalk memorial for one of three teens shot on Jan. 12, 2012
Alejandro Alvarez, Philadelphia Inquirer
Today, Kensington has the lowest per capita income in Pennsylvania and the highest density of children. Our mission in Kensington was to bring hope to children with little hope, to proclaim the Prince of Peace and his good news to a community where every person, on every street, has a family member in prison, knows someone who died at the end of a gun.

For me, policy and politics are shaped by what I know of the families in Kensington: the children afraid to pass the drug dealers on the corner, the young adults struggling to stand firm against the implacable pressures of poverty and violence.

My political check list reflects, at least in part, the challenges shared by friends on crumbling front stoops, on pot-holed corners, on the hard wooden pews in a hot, historic sanctuary.

So guns. Let’s start with guns.

Fast and Furious continues in the news, as does the sad, unfolding case surrounding the death of Trayvon Martin and Florida’s Stand-Your-Ground law.

“Are you pro-Second Amendment?”

That’s the litmus question that gets asked of candidates. But what does it mean to be pro-Second Amendment?

Is it necessary to also be pro-concealed weapons?

On college campuses? In state parks? Places of business? Sports events?

Should there be limits on who can carry a concealed weapon?

Ex-offenders? People suffering from mental illness? Angry ex-spouses? Anyone on the terror watch list?

Are all guns equally okay?

Automatic rifles? Silencers? Sawed off shot-guns?

Is a ban on assault weapons a stand against the liberty and the Second Amendment?

Are waiting periods and background checks unconstitutional?

And do we really want to pass more laws that say we all have the right to shoot someone, unarmed, who seems to be a threat?

Does this matter?  Ten years ago a few hundred thousand Americans had permits to carry concealed weapons. This year, that number passsed 6 million. Are "left-wing liberals" the only ones who find this troubling?

Until the early 1990s, there was general agreement: regulations restricting the sale and use of weapons keep us all safer while allowing for appropriate use of certain classes of guns. The NRA was a friendly organization promoting gun safety, hunters’ groups, instruction in gun use for kids at camp.

I was an NRA member myself, the kid version. I earned an NRA Sharpshooter pin on B-B guns, and a Marksman First Class patch with twenty-twos.

I have nothing against guns. I have friends and relatives who own and sell guns, who hunt, who enjoy rifle ranges. I also have friends and relatives who want nothing to do with guns, who wouldn’t even play paintball because of the implied violence.

That was never a problem. Agree to disagree. I don’t know anyone who thinks completely unregulated firearms would be a good thing. And I don’t know anyone who wants to ban guns completely, or see all guns removed from private hands.

But as I said, somewhere along the way something changed. It became impossible to advocate for reasonable regulation without being accused of wanting to outlaw guns. Or being called an "anti-gun nut."

Since 1994, many many gun restrictions have been lifted, and any attempt to move in the other direction has been voted down. Decisively. At the cost of careers, reputations, and reasonable public discourse. More plans to weaken gun laws are in the works.

What happened?

I’m no expert, but it seems obvious: if there’s a limit on legal guns, once people who want them have them, a few, a modest collection, the gun industry’s market slows. And in an economy based on unrestricted growth, on constant demand, on greater profits this month than last, anything that slows that growth is the enemy.

Which is why the gun industry has poured millions into the NRA, into ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council), into legislation advocating more guns, and more dangerous guns, for anyone who wants them, deliberately working to destroy anyone who gets in the way.

“If guns are outlawed only outlaws will have guns.”

That’s one of the slogans introduced by the NRA.  It’s dishonest on lots of levels: to start, as I said, no one wants to outlaw guns.

“Guns don’t kill. People do.”

That’s another NRA slogan. If you’ve been in a situation with escalating violence, you know: violent people are scary. Violent people with baseball bats, kitchen knives, crowbars are very very scary. But violent people with guns? Impulsive, angry people with guns? Something else completely.

“Guns make us all safer.” Seriously? Try telling that to the family of the pregnant Kensington mom shot in a drive-by shooting. Or the kid who witnessed a murder, admitted she saw it, and was shot a month later. Or the four year old who shot himself in the eye, playing with a gun in his babysitter’s home.

“Any controls will start us on a slippery slope, leading to a ban on all weapons.”

This may be the saddest, most dangerous idea of all: that any step away from extremity can be interpreted as a mad dash toward the opposing extremity. Concern about unregulated commerce is interpreted as a move toward communism.  Suggestion that some arenas are best handled by public, rather than private, agencies is interpreted as outright socialism. Yet without incremental reform, nuanced concession, reasoned compromise, policy becomes a football tossed to and fro by angry, irrational extremists.

In Philadelphia, groups opposing unregulated guns proliferate. Mothers Against Guns, Ceasefire, Heed the Call. Every weekend, on some street corner, or church, or local park, there’s a vigil: in memory of someone killed by a gun, in protest of a notorious gun shop, in prayer for greater protection from the scourge of gun violence that shapes the daily life of those in urban neighborhoods.

Nationally, Mayors against Illegal Guns, a coalition of over 600 mayors, advocates against federal legislation that undercuts local attempts to control the sale and use of guns. Of immediate concern: legislation in both the House and Senate that would upend the rights of states and municipalities in setting eligibility requirements for carrying concealed, loaded guns in public: 
"Under current law, some states refuse to grant concealed carry permits to people convicted of violent crimes, to people younger than 21, or to applicants who haven't completed basic gun safety training.  Other states have lax requirements, or none at all. These bills would override those local decisions and force states to allow non-residents to carry concealed, loaded guns in public even if they would not qualify for a permit under local law.
"Both bills are strongly opposed by police, prosecutors, domestic violence experts and more than 625 Republican, Democratic and Independent Mayors Against Illegal Guns."
"Millions of Americans are looking for work, but some senators think catering to the Washington gun lobby is a good use of time and taxpayer money. These bills are more extreme versions of a measure the Senate had the good sense to reject in 2009. They are opposed by police, prosecutors, domestic violence opponents, faith leaders and more than 625 mayors of all political stripes.  And they are opposed by actual gun owners - 82 percent of whom believe the states, not Washington, should decide who can carry hidden guns in public places."
What do I take from this?
  • Simplistic slogans shut down honest dialogue and make real solutions impossible.
  • Industry money controls the conversation, shapes legislation, and drowns out the legitimate concerns of citizens.
  • Politicians who say “Yes, I’m for the second amendment,” without saying “but I’m also for wise gun regulation” contribute to the problem.
  • I'm deeply troubled by Christians who promote a pro-gun "faith and freedom" platform, as if somehow the Christian faith provides a basis for endorsement of unregulated firearms. From all I know of Christ, his word, and his kingdom, I'd say the opposite is true. 
The Mennonite Central Committee has launched a "Fear Not, Seek Peace" campaign, inviting congregations to examine attitudes towards guns, review relevant scripture, and reminding us to trust in God, rather than ever more deadly weapons.

 As I think of the Kensington kids I know, enthusiastically singing “Jesus, Prince of Peace” and wrestling with the call to forgive and to turn the other cheek, I pray we look past the gun lobby’s simplistic slogans and loud advocacy of unregulated gun rights, and think more carefully about what it means to seek and stand for peace.

This is part of an continuing series about faith and politics: What's Your Platform?

More than ever, I welcome your thoughts about which issues to consider, as well as your insight, comments, and questions.  Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Struggling to Proclaim Good News

We’re four months away from an important election. Pundits who have watched our election seasons for years seem alarmed at the way this particular season is playing out, and respected analysts who track the ups and downs of economies and parties worry that we are at a particularly troubling time in the progress of democracy.

We all have theories about what’s gone wrong, who’s to blame, what should be done.

How many of our theories have been carefully explored? How many of our assumptions have been handed down, gathered up, passed on with little understanding of what’s behind them, where they might be taking us?

I’ve been puzzling over a lecture by N. T. Wright, until recently Bishop of Durham in the Church of England, now Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at  St Andrews University in Scotland. The lecture, delivered at a symposium on “Men, Women and the Church” sponsored in 2004 by Christians for Biblical Equality, was about women in ministry, not American politics, but in his introductory remarks Wright called attention to a concern I find increasingly relevant, and increasingly troubling. Wright was attempting to explain that his position, and his language, might easily be misunderstood and misrepresented by American Christians:
Part of the problem, particularly in the United States, is that cultures become so polarized that it is often assumed that if you tick one box you’re going to tick a dozen other boxes down the same side of the page – without realising that the page itself is highly arbitrary and culture-bound. We have to claim the freedom, in Christ and in our various cultures, to name and call issues one by one with wisdom and clarity, without assuming that a decision on one point commits us to a decision on others. I suspect, in fact, that part of the presenting problem which has generated CBE [Christians for Biblical Equality] is precisely the assumption among many American evangelicals that you have to buy an entire package or you’re being disloyal, and that you exist [that is, CBE exists] because you want to say that on this issue, and perhaps on many others too (gun control? Iraq?), the standard hard right line has allowed itself to be conned into a sub-Christian or even unChristian stance.
Wright highlights a problem that any thoughtful Christian has surely encountered: if I say I’m a Christian, the assumption, from both left and right, is that I endorse a long list of positions that have little to do with faith in Christ or commitment to scripture. As Wright says, many American evangelicals, and many who oppose them, assume that the Christian platform is predetermined, uniform, and clear.

But if, as Wright suggests “that standard hard right line,” as he calls it, “has allowed itself to be conned into a sub-Christian or even unChristian stance,” then as followers of Christ, we not only have the freedom, but the responsibility, of naming and calling issues “one by one with wisdom and clarity.”

Wright’s concern, in the lecture in question, has to do with the role of women in ministry. He mentions gun control and Iraq as two other places where assumed agreement with “the hard right line” might be problematic for thoughtful Christians, but that list of questionable check boxes grows longer by the day:

Global warming? How did the “Christian” view become so strongly linked to the ambitions of the fossil fuel industry, and so strongly opposed to concerns about climate change, desertification, clean water and clean air?

Gun control? Since when do followers of the Prince of Peace endorse the right to own machine guns, carry concealed weapons, shoot first rather than turn the other cheek?

Immigration? Health care? Nutrition assistance? Public education? What shapes our views? How do “biblical values” play out in the political arena? What do we do when “biblical values” have no biblical basis, but instead mirror the agendas of global corporations, wealthy investors, powerful entities determined to protect their power?

As I was thinking and praying about the role of government, I received an email update from a blog I follow. Vinoth Ramachandra, a Sri Lankan leader in the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, reflects on "Compassion and Justice":
"Justice is the fundamental calling of governments. The biblical picture of the ideal king (e.g. Psalm 72) is of one who renders justice to the afflicted and downtrodden. Interestingly, even the healing ministry of Jesus is seen by Matthew as not merely expressing compassion, but as the fulfilment of the Messianic promise of justice realized (see Matt 12: 15-20). Justice restores human beings to a state of flourishing.
"All this is deeply relevant to the debates taking place today, in Asia and Africa, as much as in Europe and North America, about the responsibilities of government. Churches and NGOs are often unwitting instruments in the hands of those governments who want to abdicate their responsibility to their poor citizens (and, indeed, the poor elsewhere who are affected by their policies). Governments would rather have the churches and NGOs alleviate the social discontent arising from their misplaced priorities. Alleviation we should do, but not at the price of silent complicity in those policies.
"Whenever Christians unthinkingly join the right-wing protests against “welfare cheats” (a miniscule number in comparison with the number of rich folk and companies who steal from public funds), argue against government economic regulation (in the name of “minimal government” which, in practice, is government that gives charity in the form of tax breaks, subsidies and bail-outs to the wealthy and powerful), or speak of poverty as if it were simply a matter of individual choice, even their private charity (however sincerely motivated) may be cementing the walls of injustice in the world. Should they not be returning to their Bibles and delving more deeply into the Christian tradition that they profess?"
One of my goals for the months ahead is to do what both N. T. Wright and Vinoth Ramachandra suggest: to look at individual issues that confront us, to see them in the light of scripture, to think them through as faithfully as I can.

For those dear friends who have said “I like when you talk about prayer, but wish you’d leave politics alone,” please understand: when loud Christian voices affirm policies that oppose the good news of God’s kingdom, when groups espousing “biblical values” denounce attempts to help the poor and unprotected, my (our) silence is complicity. The message of hope we’re called to share cannot be heard when the message of “Christians” becomes a message of exclusion, self-protection, judgment. How do we join with Christ in proclaiming good news to the poor without first examining our allegiance to the rich?

More than ever, I welcome your thoughts about which issues to consider, as well as your insight, comments, and questions.  Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments.
‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
    to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
    (Isaiah 61:1-2, Luke 4:18-19) 
This is part of an continuing series about faith and politics: What's Your Platform?

More than ever, I welcome your thoughts about which issues to consider, as well as your insight, comments, and questions.  Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Silent Sentinels

If I had lived a hundred years ago, would I have been one of the silent sentinels, the women who stood outside the White House, day and night, from January 1917 to June 1919, advocating for the right to vote?

Would I have risked public humiliation to march with the suffragettes? Or would I have stayed home, even more silent, waiting for others to win the freedom I wanted?

Rotate the question just a little: if I lived in Damascus, now, would I be actively protesting Assad’s tyranny, or quietly waiting for things to blow over?

If I lived in Cairo, would I be finding my way to Tehrir Square?

We look back with rosy glasses to our own Declaration of Independence without much thought about the crisis of conscience faced by those called on to sign it. Robert Livingston, member of the five-man committee that met to craft its wording, never signed. Other delegates took their time adding their names; at least three refused to sign.

We forget that there were Loyalists, or Tories, maybe as many as one in five colonists, who sided with the status quo. And we forget that there were many who were neutral – hoping the conflict would pass them by, not sure independence was worth the cost.

I approach Independence Day with a sense of uneasiness. In part, I wonder if the holiday celebrates war, and wonder: if Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, other colonies gained independence without war, would the same have been possible if the American colonists had exercised greater restraint, greater patience, more creative means of persuasion?

But my uneasiness also stems from a sense of unearned privilege: what have I ever done to deserve the freedoms denied to so many? And what have I done to use those freedoms wisely, or to see them extended to those without?

If freedom is a gift, it’s a gift with a cost, and a weight of responsibility.

What happens when too many of us take our freedoms for granted, or exercise our rights without adequate attention?

The Supreme Court decision last week on the Affordable Care Act threw the question into high relief.

Some people I know and respect listened to the news, then turned quickly to others things. “I’m not interested.” “Politics bores me.” These are people who care deeply about the needs of the world, who give time, money, prayer for those in trouble. These friends quickly dismiss the idea that a piece of legislation could be part of caring for human need, or that concern for others should prompt attention to political process. To them, the actions of government are irrelevant.

Others I know saw the court’s decision as a victory in the war on women. I understand why they use the term, but it seems to me that once we start thinking in terms of “war,” we are all losers. War breeds violence, hatred, inevitable loss. Are there better ways to carry on the discussion?

Yet others in my circle of friends consider the Affordable Care Act a dangerous move toward socialism, think President Obama is destroying the country, and are focusing great energy on seeing him defeated in November. People who have never invested much time in the political process are energized and angry. The more I listen, the more I wonder: What’s fueling the anger?

From what I can see, the Affordable Care Act is an imperfect attempt to resolve a wide mix of troubling problems: insurance companies that pocket too much profit and drive our health expenses ever higher; individuals with no primary care who use emergency rooms as their sole source of medical attention; a growing list of “existing conditions” that make adequate coverage impossible; families bankrupted when a parent loses both job and insurance and health expenses swallow a lifetime of savings. And yes, a system that costs women more in premiums, and sometimes denies women the legitimate care they need.

M Turner Obamacare
From what I can tell, the ACA is already benefitting many young adults, caught in part-time jobs while they look for full-time work that will offer health benefits and a salary adequate to pay back college loans. It’s benefitting friends who have struggled with existing conditions, and will eventually make preventive care possible for friends who currently postpone appointments and stop taking medications because they can’t afford them.

The issue for me, though, isn’t so much this particular legislation, it’s the conversation surrounding it. Are those who disagree with me on specific points evil monsters, or well-intentioned people who see things differently? Is Barack Obama an evil man? Is he trying to destroy America?

When a leader – on any side – advocates a policy or position I disagree with, am I free to speak of him as the enemy? Am I free to respond with anger? Am I justified in listening to public diatribes that ridicule, disrespect, misrepresent?

I understand those who run from any political dialogue because they’re tired of the angry rhetoric, or bored by the unstoppable harangues.

And I understand those who grab the party platform, endorse the party favorites, and dismiss all opposition.

But as a Christian, a follower of Christ, steward of gifts I’ve been given, including the right to vote, to speak, to investigate, I find myself caught in a troubling conundrum:

I believe I’m to honor and respect those in authority, even when I disagree with them.

I’m also to look for the best in others, to want their good, to rejoice in the truth.

I’m to listen more than I speak, to seek and model wisdom. I’m to advocate for the poor, earnestly desire justice, demonstrate humility.

And I’m called, as all followers of Christ are called, to be a peacemaker. Do I interpret that globally, advocating for an end to war? Nationally, advocating for peace between parties? Personally, looking for points of agreement with individuals whose opinions challenge mine? All three? Is that possible?

Here are a few questions I take seriously, and will be puzzling and praying about as we near the next election:

What is God for? I hear, maybe too often, about what He's against. But spread our priorities out in front of His word: which ones are worth pursuing? Which aren’t?

Should government be concerned with private morality (sexual expression, family composition), or with public morality (issues of equality, just policy, equitable economy)? Both? Neither? Is it possible to separate the two?

Is the best government the smallest? What are the proper roles of government? What happens when those roles are abandoned?

What is my own responsibility? Is it enough to be a good parent, wife, neighbor, here, in my own small part of the world, or am I called to use the privileges I’ve been given to advocate for others less able to advocate for themselves?

Who stands for the common good? Is it okay to pursue policies that benefit me, my own group, my own demographic, or am I called to affirm policies that benefit all of us – not just Americans, not just Christians, but all nations, all creation?

A Chinese proverb warns: "Unless we change direction, we are likely to end up where we are headed."

Or, as a wise friend of mine recently said "Unless something changes, nothing changes."

Are we headed in the right direction? As a country? As individual followers of Christ?

And if not, what do I need to change in my own life, in my own conversations, actions, expectations?

And what will that change cost?

lines for first Tunisian democratic election, October 201

This is the first in a series about faith and politics: What's Your Platform?

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