Sunday, September 27, 2015

Binary Thinking, Prophetic Challenge

Creative Commons, David Shankbone
Are you a capitalist or socialist?

Democrat or Republican?

Are you for individual freedom or the common good?

Guns: unregulated anywhere you want, or take them away forever?

Pro-life or Pro-choice?

Bad questions? Sure.

Bad thinking?

We live in a culture trapped in binary structures: if you’re not one thing, you’re automatically the other.

Not too interested in the opposite sex? Then clearly, you must be gay.

Troubled by the death of unborn babies? Then you don’t support the rights of women.

Alarmed at the reach of global corporations? Maybe you’re anti-American.

Concerned that women, still, make 79 cents to the male dollar, and are underrepresented in positions of leadership? You must be a male-bashing feminist.

Ignore, for a moment, the sloppy way we assign value to loosely-defined terms (socialist, capitalist, feminist, Christian, American, illegal).

Think instead of our insistence on good/bad, right/wrong, this/that as a primary form of discourse.  Are  you with me or against me? My side, or the other? Let’s get that settled fast, so I can know it’s okay to hate you or defend you.

I do believe some things are good, some bad, some right, some wrong.

Yet I also believe much our current thought and discourse is misguided, simplistic, divisive, and just plain dumb: locked in an either/or perspective when wisdom would say the truth is a careful balance or blend of two values held in tension.

I was impressed last week that presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders would choose to speak at Liberty University, birthplace of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. Even more impressed that he chose to acknowledge, up front, the areas where he and conservative Christians may never find agreement, while calling for conversation on the many other areas that have so sadly been divided up between opposing political poles: 
Let me be frank.... I understand that the issues of abortion and gay marriage are issues that you feel very strongly about. We disagree on those issues. I get that, but let me respectfully suggest that there are other issues out there that are of enormous consequence to our country and in fact to the entire world, that maybe, just maybe, we do not disagree on and maybe, just maybe, we can try to work together to resolve them.
 Amos 5:24, "But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream." Justice treating others the way we want to be treated, treating all people, no matter their race, their color, their stature in life, with respect and with dignity. . .
 In the United States of America today, there is massive injustice in terms of income and wealth inequality. Injustice is rampant. We live, and I hope all of you know this, in the wealthiest country in the history of the world.
 But most Americans don't know that. Because almost all of that wealth and income is going to the top 1 percent.
You know, that is the truth. We are living in a time -- and I warn all of you if you would, put this in the context of the Bible, not me, in the context of the Bible -- we are living in a time where a handful of people have wealth beyond comprehension. And I'm talking about tens of billions of dollars, enough to support their families for thousands of years. With huge yachts, and jet planes and tens of billions. More money than they would ever know what to do with.
 But at that very same moment, there are millions of people in our country, let alone the rest of the world, who are struggling to feed their families. They are struggling to put a roof over their heads, and some of them are sleeping out on the streets. They are struggling to find money in order to go to a doctor when they are sick. . .  
 In my view, there is no justice when, in recent years, we have seen a proliferation of millionaires and billionaires, while at the same time the United States of America has the highest rate of childhood poverty of any major country on Earth. How can we? I want you to go into your hearts, how can we talk about morality, about justice, when we turn our backs on the children of our country? 
I was very tempted to quote the entire speech. To me, Sander’s words are prophetic, in ways that  
echo and draw strength from the words of the Old Testament prophets.

So much so that at least some who heard him were deeply convicted. A Liberty alumni who heard the speech posted afterward:
When I heard Bernie speaking in that way, when I saw that guy on stage at Liberty University, I saw John the Baptist. I saw the wild-haired, roughly-clothed John the Baptist, eating honey and wearing camel’s hair, and crying out to the religious leaders, the Pharisees of his day, calling them corrupt and complicit with those who have all the power and all the money and all the wealth, and for abandoning the people that God loves, that God cares about. For the Pharisees, who were siding with those who already have power and wealth and saying that they will be the last in the Kingdom of God, and that the weak, and the meek, and the simple, and those who need help—they are first in the Kingdom of God. . .  
 Gospel—is that word we Evangelical Christians have based everything on. Gospel means ‘good news.’ And Jesus said “I have come to bring good news to the poor.” To restore sight to the blind, to stand with the suffering, to set the captives free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. 
 As I heard Bernie Sanders crying out to the religious leaders at Liberty University, in his hoarse voice, with his wild hair, this Jew, and he proclaimed justice over us. He called us to account for being complicit with those who are wealthy and those who are powerful and for abandoning the poor, ‘the least of these’ who Jesus said he had come to bring good news to. And in that moment, something occurred to me, as I saw Bernie Sanders up there, as I watched him I realized: Bernie Sanders, for President, is good news for the poor. Bernie Sanders for President is good news for the poor. Bernie Sanders is Gospel for the poor. And Jesus said, “I have come to bring Gospel—good news—to the poor.”  
 And lightning hit my heart in that moment. And I realized that we are Evangelical Christians, that we believe the Bible. We believe in Jesus. We absolutely shun those who attempt to find nuance and twisted and tortured interpretation of scripture that they would use to master all other broader interpretations, to find some kind of big message that they want to flout. We absolutely scorn such things. And yet somehow, we commit to the mental gymnastics necessary that allows us to abandon ‘the least of these,’ to abandon the poor, to abandon the immigrants, to abandon those who are in prison. I listened to Bernie Sanders, as he said he wanted to welcome the immigrants and give them dignity. As he said he wanted to care for the sick children, and mothers, and fathers, who do not have health care. As he said he wanted to decrease the amount of human beings who are corralled like cattle in the prisons. As he said he wanted to do justice for those who have nothing and live homeless. And I remembered the words of Jesus, who warned his disciples that there will be judgment, and on that day he will look to his friends, and he will say ‘Blessed are you, for you cared for me, for I was naked and you clothed me; I was sick, and you cared for me; I was hungry, and you fed me; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was in prison, and you came to visit me; I was homeless, and you gave me shelter.” And the disciples said, “Jesus, when did we do any of those things for you?” And he said, “If you have done it for ‘the least of these,’ you have done it for me.” 
 And those words echoed in my heart. As I listened to that crazy, hoarse-voiced, wild-haired Jew, standing in front of the religious leaders of the Evangelical movement, calling us to account, as a Jew once did before. Telling us that he intends to care for ‘the least of these.’ To clothe the naked, to shelter the homeless, to care for the sick, to set the prisoners free. 
 Yes. I am an Evangelical Christian. I believe in the Bible. I follow Jesus. When I look at Bernie Sanders, and I hear the things that he’s saying, it’s like he’s ripping them out of the pages of scripture. 
That post, by an Evanglical pastor who gave his name as “Jim,” has stirred some good discussion, but also, sadly, the same kind of binary thinking that meets Sanders most places he goes. From one side: there’s no way “Jim” could be a Christian and support someone like Sanders; from the other, Christians are, by definition, racist “corporatists”, incapable of independent thought. And yes, that label to end all labels: Sanders is “the anti-Christ.”

In his speech, Sanders called attention to Pope Francis, here in Philadelphia this weekend after daring to ask the US Congress to address directly the binary thinking that fuels partisan politics and puts the platforms of parties above the needs of people.  
Our world is increasingly a place of violent conflict, hatred and brutal atrocities, committed even in the name of God and of religion. We know that no religion is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism. This means that we must be especially attentive to every type of fundamentalism, whether religious or of any other kind. 
 A delicate balance is required to combat violence perpetrated in the name of a religion, an ideology or an economic system, while also safeguarding religious freedom, intellectual freedom and individual freedoms. 
 But there is another temptation which we must especially guard against: the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners. The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps. 
 We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within. To imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place. That is something which you, as a people, reject. 
 Our response must instead be one of hope and healing, of peace and justice. We are asked to summon the courage and the intelligence to resolve today’s many geopolitical and economic crises. Even in the developed world, the effects of unjust structures and actions are all too apparent. 
Our efforts must aim at restoring hope, righting wrongs, maintaining commitments, and thus promoting the well-being of individuals and of peoples. We must move forward together, as one, in a renewed spirit of fraternity and solidarity, cooperating generously for the common good. 
Pope Francis, lauded by many, has also been called a socialist. Accused of being reactionary in his approach to women and gay marriage. Praised and criticized for his pro-life views on an end to capital punishment, criticized and praised for his pro-life views on abortion. He is revered by millions; accused by others of being yet another anti-Christ.

Are we, the American people, capable of hope and healing, of peace and justice? Do we have the courage and intelligence to address even our own deep national injustice with generosity and good will?

We can pray it will be so, and pray for the wisdom to set aside our simplistic binary thinking. 
But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness. (James 3)