Thursday, January 29, 2015

Faith and Brokenness

Twice in the last week, it's surfaced in conversations or readings or multimedia, this peculiar relationship we Jesus people have with human brokenness.  That we're kind of a little messed up as a species is one of the roots-rock assumptions of Christian faith, and one that I honestly resonate with.   We mess things up constantly, as our hungers and angers and anxieties and desire for control lead us to inflict all manner of harm to one another.  We're capable of compassion, but we also live behind existential walls, and become so folded into our own subjectivity that we fail to see others as they actually are.  Ours is a world of shadows and projections, which become the ground for both our own self-wounding and the injustice we inflict on one another.

The heart of who Jesus was...his work in the God's restorative and redemptive intent for all of us.  Christianity operates under the assumption that there's something not quite right, something in need of transformation and growth and healing.

Which is why I struggled mightily with two different perspectives offered up this week, from two progressive folks I generally appreciate.

The first, from my good-hearted progressive friend Mark, who wrote an earnest little piece on his Patheos blog that defied the idea that we are broken at all.  It was bright and cheerful and affirming. "Christianity has it wrong," it boldly announced. There's nothing wrong with you just as you are, he asserted, channeling our dear departed Mr. Rogers more than just a little bit.  You are just fragile and distractable.    It was intended to be provocative, to be challenging, and it was.

On the one hand, I see the point in not beating people down with endless talk of their sinny sinfulness. That's too often a tool for controlling others, for shutting them up and cowing them into submission.  There must be hope and grace and promise in the Gospel, or it is not the Gospel.

On the other, well, it's just not real.  "There's nothing wrong with any of us" doesn't resonate with anyone who's ever struggled with addiction in themselves or loved ones, or with anyone recovering from abuse.  "We're all just fragile and distractable" doesn't get at the deep injustices we inflict on one another.  And if there's nothing broken in us, why would we need to change anything, either personally or socially?  The concept feels...well...not very progressive.

Then there was the second, from emergenty-prog-faither Peter Rollins.  I've never read or listened to his stuff, but having encountered an absolutely lovely Jack Chick satire-tract he produced, I immersed myself in his thoughts for a while.

Here, I was again torn.  I like Rollins aesthetics, and his Oirish accent stirs my ancestral heart.  His is a deeply enjoyable mind.  Sure, much of what he has to say feels intentionally paradoxical, the kind of Zen koan teachings that create within themselves irreconcilable tensions.  To be orthodox, be a heretic.  To know something, don't know what you know.  To be centered, destroy your center.  To lead, refuse to lead.  That kind of thing seems to be his schtick, and it's a great way to stir thought, even if it does remind me a wee bit of the Sphinx from Mystery Men.  More than a wee bit, actually.

But when he says, "embrace your brokenness," I honestly can't get there.  Because brokenness sucks.  It hurts.  It wounds, and passes on wounds.  It is not an abstraction, or a theological construct.  It's human souls in pain.

Sure, we can take up our crosses, and simple pain-avoidance can't be the Christian path.  Suffering often comes, socially and spiritually, when we challenge that which must be challenged.  But just as I don't think we should tolerate social injustice, I also don't believe that a disintegrated, shattered existence is something we should just shrug and accept.  It is what it is?  That's not an organic path to healing and deeper, more gracious living.

Which, I am convinced, is kind of the point of both faith and Jesus.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Counting the Beans

It was time for forms again, as my little congregation cranked through our required annual statistical reportage to the denomination.  My clerk of session and I went back and forth with emails, checking numbers.

One of the questions, though, was a bit fuddly.  Had we used the services of a racial/ethnic pastor in the previous year?   Well, no, I suppose not, given what that peculiar term means within my oldline denomination.  It's a code word for "not white," because as we know, there are "whites" and there are "racial/ethnics."  Here is a categorical system that assumes that Slavs are the same as Scots are the same as the French are the same as Norwegians, but that draws no distinction between a Korean and a Kikuyu.  

"White" is the norm.  Everyone else is "other."  It's a peculiar thing.  Well meaning, yes.  But also more than a little awkward to the ear.  

I personally know African American pastors and Asian American pastors and Latino pastors, sure.  They'd be great.  But they've got gigs on Sunday, responsibilities to their congregations that would make it a challenge to get out to a small quasi-rural community.  Or they're friends now far away, and my wee kirk can't afford to fly people out for a Sunday.

But undoubtedly, hearing preaching from different cultural traditions can be both important and awesome.  

We wrestled with this on Session, as we tried to figure out a way we could do this without being embarrassingly obvious about bean-counting.  There's a list of pastors who engage in supply preaching, but it doesn't make a point of categorizing them by racial/ethnicness.  

Not that I am suggesting this.  Lord help me, I'm not suggesting this.  

"We'd love to have you preach," we'd say, "but we're looking for a racial/ethnic," we'd say.   "Are you a racial/ethnic?"  That feels faintly insulting.  Well, more than faintly.  

What human being wants to be a slot-filler, just a particular kind of bean to be counted?   

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Charlie Hebdo Baptist Church

As it drifts out of our low-attention-span popular consciousness, I can finally say: I had a heck of a time processing the Charlie Hebdo massacre.  I really did.  It was monstrous, horrific, and an absolutely unjustifiable act.  Violence cannot be allowed to silence speech, the protection of which is a vital part of both individual and religious liberty.

But having seen the cartoons, and read some of the translated pieces of that magazine, I can honestly say that I didn't find them funny or insightful.  Just sort of crude, by every definition of that word.  It didn't have the bite or elegance of, say, The Onion, which is so often cultural satire at its very best.   Or the Daily Show.  Or Colbert's recently lamented report.  Most of the time, Charlie Hebdo seems to lack...subtlety.

Americans? More subtle than the French?  Quoi?!  C'est absurde!  Mais...c'est vrai.

That, and something else, something harder.  Charlie Hebdo is often more than a little mean, focused on attacking a struggling immigrant minority, mocking and lambasting them for their poverty and ignorance.  French Muslims have no power, and minimal representation, and control no significant part of the French economy. There's just no reason to attack those who are weaker than yourself, unless you're trying to score points by stoking popular ressentiment.

I could not say, #jesuischarlie, back when we were all supposed to be saying that, because I wasn't, any more than #jesuisanncoulter.  I just would never express myself in that way.  With the murdered being buried, that seemed awkward to bring up.

But how to come to terms with someone who uses their freedom in a way you would not?  On the one hand, you want to defend their liberty.  On the other, you cringe when they do.  How can I frame this?

Here, once again, the good folks at Westboro Baptist Church came to my rescue.  Westboro, as I have argued before, is America's most successful deep-cover troupe of Queer Christian Performance Artists.  Their deeply biting satirical portrayal of a venomous theo-cultural bias has done more to advance the cause of gays and lesbians in America than any other organization.  By holding a mirror up to what some Christians purport to believe, they show the moral untenability of that position. They have helped move America towards a more welcoming stance.

More importantly, they show the boundaries of free speech.  What Westboro is saying is utterly reprehensible, bullying towards a minority and the vulnerable, and crudely cast, and yet they absolutely have the right to say it.  It would be an unacceptable affront to human liberty if they were legally coerced into stopping their bizarre demonstrations.  It would be tragic...yes, tragic...if they were physically harmed.

And there, I was given a conceptual handle to help me come to terms with secular Charlie Hebdo, which, though often willfully offensive, comes nowhere near the wildly horrible displays of the religious Westboro troupe.

If I can defend the rights of Westboro Baptist, it is far easier to see where Charlie fits into the scheme of human discourse.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Abundance in Jamestown

It's a time of energy abundance!

So crow the pitchmen for the oil and gas industry, eager to spin the current Saudi-overproduction-driven oil glut into something wondrous.  A new age for America, part of an exciting time of expansion and growth, driven by ample new supplies of energy!  Cheap gas!  Big cars!  It's 1969 again, baby!  Abundance!

And on the one hand, taken as a snapshot of this moment in time, that is true.  But it is a strange truth, because it masks a larger reality.

That reality is that we have arrived at the shores of a new world.  It is a world soon to be devoid of fossil fuels.  Oh, we have them, now.  But within what I can reasonably expect to be my lifetime, our transportation system...and our agriculture...will have to be completely new.

This is doable.  It is, God willing.  It remains within our capacity to adapt, though every year we do not change deepens the challenge.  But the global storehouse of fossil-fuel energy is just as finite as it ever was.  The only change is that we're pumping it faster, at the same time we're flushing the last drops from the grudging rocks.  Within the next fifty years, our entire energy economy will change.  It has to, if we're to survive as a species.

Being American and all, I remember the history of our American experience, in all its mess and struggle and glory.  And that stirred in me a metaphor, as so many things do.  What this reminds me of is the experience of those first colonists.

Where we are right now as a country is Jamestown, and it's the Fall of 1609.  We are those colonists.

We can't grow any more food, because the growing season has passed.   What we have in the provisions that we've brought from England and what remains from our sparse harvest will have to get us through the long winter in a new land, until we are able to figure out a way to be self-sufficient.

What the sheiks and the pitchmen, the executives and the lobbyists want us to believe is that our finite storehouse is justification for a time of feasting.  

"Look how much we've got in the storehouse," they smile, as they cut prices and tell us all to eat our fill.  "Wow!  So much!  Time for a celebration!  Yay us!  Dig in!"

Which in Jamestown, in the Fall of 1609, would have been sort of true.  But mostly not.  That colony barely, barely survived a time of hunger and privation.  Others, like the Roanoke colony, simply vanished, dying on the hostile shores of a new world.

What we are being told now is wildly unwise, the deluded foolishness of a profit-addled quartermaster.

There is no fossil fuel resupply ship.  What we have has to last.  

It has to, for the sake of our future.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Little Boy Who Didn't Go to Heaven

I don't read contemporary books about people who claim to have gone to heaven and come back, not generally.  It's a popular genre, one filled with angels and deceased relatives and tunnels of light, and I understand the desire it fills.  There are little boys, back from heaven.  There are earnest doctors, recounting their mystic experiences.  They meet Jesus, and angels, and your grandmother Tzeitel.  These books sell very well.

Very, very well.

I don't read them.  I just prefer not to know, because I don't think we know what that will be like, not in the depth of it.  Even if we've dipped into that chasm, that vastness, I don't think we can know.  So we have this first fleeting glimpse of eternity, as our selves filter it through the lens of the tiny flicker of life we've lived.  So what? What does that mean, in terms of what is to come?  Very little.

This last week, there was a well-publicized recanting, as a young boy who'd claimed to have that experience stepped away from what he'd originally claimed.  He and his father survived a car crash, and had written a bestselling book together, entitled "The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven."  It was the story of his experiences on the other side, and honestly, I haven't read it.  This last week, the young man, who in a bit of Matrix-laziness was named "Malarkey," recanted his story in a formal statement conveyed by his mother.  

On the one hand, it's easy to shake your head upon hearing that.  It's a crass cashing in, just another person with some wildly marketable story that they pitch to a publisher, who sees the dollar signs.  "Every time a cash register rings, an angel gets his wings," or so it goes in AmeriChrist, Inc.  I'm as cynical as the next guy about such things.  More so, frankly.  Given that this was a kid, it made me sad.

But then I went past the headline, and read the statement.  The tone and language of the recanting struck me, and struck me hard.  It was not just, "I didn't have that experience, and I'm so sorry for misleading all of you."  That is all that was needed.  This was different.  It was cast in the language of a very particular way of looking at the world, not so much a recanting as an ideological challenge.  Read it for yourself:
Please forgive the brevity, but because of my limitations I have to keep this short.I did not die. I did not go to Heaven. 
I said I went to heaven because I thought it would get me attention. When I made the claims that I did, I had never read the Bible. People have profited from lies, and continue to. They should read the Bible, which is enough. The Bible is the only source of truth. Anything written by man cannot be infallible. 
It is only through repentance of your sins and a belief in Jesus as the Son of God, who died for your sins (even though he committed none of his own) so that you can be forgiven may you learn of Heaven outside of what is written in the Bible…not by reading a work of man. I want the whole world to know that the Bible is sufficient. Those who market these materials must be called to repent and hold the Bible as enough.
It sounded strange in my ear.  If this is a public apology for deceit, it's...odd.  It is the kind of apology that says, "I lied, sure.  But you were wrong for having believed me."  It is written in the in-house language of Christian fundamentalism, and takes the peculiar tack of casting an untruth not in the bright light of whether it happened or not, but through the definition of "truth" that rises from that theological construct.

"When I made those claims, I had not read the Bible."  Why is that relevant to whether a person had an experience or not?   If I say, "I met Bilbo Baggins on the street yesterday, and we shared a pipe full of Longbottom Leaf," that claim is not false because it does not appear in The Hobbit.  It is false because it did not happen, and I am making it up.

If you lie about something, the biblical apology would be, "I bore false witness."  Plus a promise to not do it again, and an "I'm sorry."  Just that.  This is not a biblical apology.  It's a fundamentalist one.  It blames the publishers for taking him at his word, the very same publishers who immediately withdrew the book when he recanted.

His mother, herself a biblical literalist, fought the book from day one.  The idea that her son could have had that experience in any form was anathema to her beliefs.  Her son's recanting is in words and terms that are part of the litany of her tradition. separated from her the primary caregiver for her son, a desperately difficult and challenging task for any mother.  I read through her blog, through her deeply human struggles to raise her boy mingled with the kinds of stark, comfortingly binary ideological affirmations you get on fundamentalist blogs.  It was heart-wrenching.

The whole thing just feels so...sad.  And certainly, certainly, a reminder of how far we are from Heaven.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Range Anxiety

A thought drifted through my head, as I walked the dog yesterday afternoon.

My little suburban neighborhood was, as it always is, full of cars.  Cars parked in driveways.  Cars on the streets.  Cars are the lifeblood of our culture, rather literally, if you view our culture as one vast fungus-like organism.  They are the red blood cells that carry the energy (that's us) to and from the different parts of the culture.

And I love cars, in the way that I did as a boy.  Though my own four-wheeled vehicles are chosen for function, I enjoy them.  I like feeling connected to a machine, feeling it as an extension of myself.  It's fundamentally pleasurable.

But as I looked out at the cars yesterday, I could not escape the thought that every one of them will be functionally obsolete in 20 years.  Here, the vast output of an industry, and all doomed to uselessness.

Why?  Despite the absurd glut of cheap that is now pouring into our vehicles, the era of fossil fuels is finite.  The end is visible.  And yet as a society, we are not acting now, not in any meaningful way, to prepare for that reality.  There's still profit to be made, and so we continue acting as if it doesn't matter.

There's not a single household in my neighborhood, for example, that has an electric car.  Not one.  Why?  Well, because for now they're still very expensive.  And two, well, we're convinced they're less practical.  What if you run out of charge?  What if you get stranded?

"Range anxiety," they call it.

What struck me, as I walked and observed, was how ironic this fear is in the broader context.  Here we have a transportation infrastructure entirely reliant on a single source of energy.  That source is finite.  It will, in the lifetime of our children, be depleted to the point it becomes prohibitively expensive.

Writ large, we are radically reliant on a source of energy that is going to fail us, more completely than a Nissan Leaf crossing North Dakota in the dead of winter.  It's that same Nissan Leaf, only with a single-use battery pack.  We're going to be completely dead in the water.  No gas in 10 miles?  Heh.  That's no gas for another million years, buddy.  Recharging fossil fuels takes a while.

And yet if you look around our culture, we don't seem to feel that.

Not yet, at least.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Giving Offense

I am free, should I so choose, to offend you.

That freedom is an absolute, a fundamental part of our created nature.  That you may hold a particular perspective or a particular viewpoint does not in any way impinge on that freedom.

Neither do my sensibilities define what you may or may not say.  And you can say a great deal.

I believe in God.  You can say that "god" is a projection, a stunted and archaic fantasy created by childish minds, no more real than the Easter Bunny, Elf on the Shelf, or Krampus.  I am a person of faith.  You may say that faith itself is monstrous and hateful and delusional, the source of everything wrong with humankind.  I am a Christian.  You may say that Jesus was a madman, a delusional, the hateful faux-avatar of a fevered desert "god."  You may say that Jesus never existed at all.  You may say that Christianity is a cruel blood cult, or a repugnant tool of the Man, a proxy for teaching weakness and submission to the oppressor class.  I believe that God loves and welcomes all those who are governed by love, including gays and lesbians and the whole rest of the alphabet soup of contemporary academic genderbabble.  You can call me an apostate and a heretic and hellbound.

You can say all of these things.  You can write songs, and post videos, and draw cartoons.  You can make polemic movies.  They can be genuinely insulting and offensive.

You are free to articulate them, however and whenever you wish.

Because I am also free to ignore you.  I can shake my head, or roll my eyes at an old familiar canard.  But I do not have to receive your words and be stirred to anger.  Neither do I need to react whenever I am attacked verbally.  Your approbation means nothing, other than that you are expressing yourself.  Which is your right.

I am, more significantly, also free to attempt not to give unnecessary offense when faced with opposition.  That's a challenge, particularly when facing someone seeking an excuse to be offended.  There are ways of thinking that take offense at the liberty of others, that deny others the very rights that are assumed for those in power.

If there is an injustice being done, or harm being inflicted, I can name it and resist it.  But the ethos of my Teacher demands compassion, even for the uncompassionate, and justice, even for the unjust.  Seek grace in all things, particularly in the defiance of brokenness.

If I feel you are erring, I may say so.  But I will not actively try to weave dehumanizing mockery into those words, or to use them to inflict harm.  Not that I'm perfect at it, but it's my goal.  When I find myself messing up, I will self edit and self correct.

Should I be more offensive?  Some suggest that's the way to get things done.  But offense...if no connection is made to those who you are in tension with...does nothing to plant the seeds of transformation in them.

In my experience, it hardens, and radicalizes, and deepens the conflict, in a way that does not build towards growth and constructive resolution.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Christian Multiversalism

Elsewhere on this blog, I found myself recently in entertaining and stimulating conversation about Christianity and universalism.

I've posted on the interplay between those two concepts on a variety of occasions.  Universalism is a well-meaning, good-hearted theological yearning.  It rises from the faith of those who know that God is love, and from that love the idea that any might be eternally damnificated seems anathema.

The conceptual problem with hell, particularly coupled with divine omniscience and omnipotence, is clear.  It seems to infer a God who's a monster, who fashions creatures for the sole purpose of adding crispy-bits to some giant cosmic deep fat fryer.

Christians who are attempting to be orthodox and universalist, though, have the immense struggle before them of 1) asserting that God loves all beings and 2) asserting that God is neither zealous or just.

Universalism, in its simplest form, seems to imply that there's no variance in the character of the divine relationship with us no matter what we do.  God is Love, whether we are Pope Francis or Pol Pot, whether we love and cherish others or we beat and humiliate and torture them.

On the one hand, that's true.  On the other, it doesn't adequately grasp the terrible justice of God's Love.  Fully knowing and participating in the other, sharing in the truth of their lives completely?  No hellfire could burn the unjust and the cruel as painfully.

And there's always the whole "salvation through Jesus Christ" thing, which for Christians is a nontrivial thing.  Did Jesus matter?  Why?  And if Jesus does not matter, what is the impetus for following him, particularly if it changes nothing at all?  I can be a saint or a selfish, smug, libertine bastard.  The God of universalism does not care.  There is only love, and it's all the same in the end.

This seems problematic, and not just from the perspective of those who hold Jesus to be a magical talisman, a sacrifice whose mere existence absolves us of both sin and responsibility.  It's also a problem if you care about justice, and about living out a life conformed to the radical compassion Jesus taught.

Most significantly, for those of us in my denomination, there was traditionally the challenge that came when the right-wing noticed you'd gone all mushy and UU-ish in your faith.  Charges of apostasy and heresy can fly, and have flown, as fulminating folks fret ferociously about the decline of the faith.  That happens less so now, as there's been a right-wing exodus, but it's still there.

So straight up statements of universalism are...difficult.

This whole thing strikes me as funny, because...well...what I believe is so much more heretical than mere universalism.

One advantage of being a functional nobody, I suppose.  I pastor a sweet, gracious, small church.  I go to few meetings and have no public face other than this wee blog and my sparsely-selling books.  Ah well.  It keeps me from being yet another thing for John Piper to anguish about, I suppose.

That heresy...and it is heresy, in the truest sense of the world...revolves around my understanding of creation.  Along with a growing number of scientists, I hold that creation is not one linear time and space, but an infinite multiverse.

In our multiversal creation, I believe that God not only can save anyone, God does, actually and materially.

Does the Creator of All Things know what it would be like if every being lived fully in accordance with the Divine Intent?  Absolutely.  To say God does not...that God an offense to both Divine Sovereignty and God's imagination.  God both knows that, and makes it real.  Is there any meaningful difference between the knowledge of God and existence itself?  No, or God's knowledge of the true good would be no more real than our human dreamings.

On the other hand, I know that this creation is not that perfect realm.  I know it because I, myself, am not that good.  I am not, in my full self, conformed to the best possible self I could be.  Here, I'm not talking "best self" in the sense of the health and wealth hucksters, the Osteens and the Copelands and the Dollars.

I'm talking about being the self that lives fully governed by the grace and compassion of Jesus of Nazareth.

Though that is my metric, my goal, and my purpose, I am not that person.  I do not serve Jesus as I could.  I make choices, struggle though I might, that take me away from being that person.  I know, just as surely, that the church is not perfect.  It is a corpus mixtum, threads of gold woven amongst the mess of human community.  And God help us, one look at our mess of a world lets us know that it is far, far from the best possible reality.

At every moment, the possibility of being that person...or of being a redeemed people...exists.  It is fully known, fully in God's presence, as real as I am as I write this.  As, at the same time, is every possible way we might fall.

We are both saved and damned, with uncountable gradations and in a fractal infinity of iterations.

Universalism seems, well, too small.  A quaint echo of the modern era, with its linear thinking and pre-established narrative.

The divine work is so much more than that.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Raif Badawi, Faith, and Liberal Thought

After writing yesterday's post reflecting on violence and faith after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, I was painfully reminded of how very real the dark confluence of political power and faith remains.  Yesterday, I glimpsed a tiny blurb in the paper, less than a paragraph.  It was the story of a Saudi man by the name of Raif Badawi who was to be publicly flogged.  Fifty lashes, in front of a crowd, for the crime of "violating Islamic values and propagating liberal thought."

More specifically, Badawi created a blog called "Free Saudi Liberals," where he--as a liberal Muslim--engaged in free, peaceful, and open discussion about society and faith.

As rough as that might seem, it's just a drop in the bucket.  These are the first fifty lashes of a thousand-lash sentence, to be carried out over the course of a ten year prison sentence.  The quarter-million dollar fine, the Saudi state's forcibly divorcing him from his wife, and it's imprisonment of Badawi's lawyer for the crime of representing Badawi?  Horrid, but almost an aside given the brutality of the rest of the sentence.

Here, a man who did nothing more than I am doing right here.  He wrote about what he believed, about tolerance and a liberal approach to the integrity of other human beings.  For that crime, he will be beaten bloody in public, given one week to recover, then beaten again, twenty times.

It reminded me of the above scene, only repeated, once a week for twenty weeks.  Or twenty five weeks, as Jesus only gets forty lashes before the crucifixion.

What's remarkable, at least in my eyes, is how little play this is getting in the American media.  In Europe, it's everywhere.  In the Guardian.  In the Telegraph.  Our Canadian neighbors have noticed, and noticed the connection between Charlie Hebdo and Badawi.  

But on the front page of American CNN?  Nothing.  Nothing on FoxNews, either.

Wouldn't want to offend our dear Saudi friends and business partners, I suppose.  Especially after they've so nicely boosted our economy and punished Russia with all that cheap gas they're pumping.

Violence to silence speech is violence to silence speech, whether inflicted by terrorists or by a government.  And whenever it is used to enforce a belief, that belief is inherently illegitimate.

If a way of life cannot stand on its own integrity, without the gun or the whip to coerce it, then it is a false thing.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Religion and Violence

The followers of the Prophet Mohammed, peace be unto him, have a problem.

It's a problem that surfaces again and again, headline after headline, as those who interpret Islam as requiring violence act out their interpretation.  Villagers are butchered in West Africa.  Bombs explode in crowded markets.  Authors and cartoonists and filmmakers are murdered.  It's ugly, and it's horrific.

Having read the entirety of the Quran, and read the Hadiths, and familiarized myself with the core of Muslim faith in my own secular study of religion, I see no reason Islam must be violent.  It is not, as its most radicalized opponents assert, an inherently violent religion.  That does not mean that I believe Mohammed, peace be unto him, was a pacifist.  He was perfectly willing to pick up the sword, and did on a variety of occasions.  In that, he was less like Jesus or the Buddha, and more like, well, the dude whose picture graces this blog.  If the Quran is to be taken seriously as an authentic exposition of his life and teachings, he was a warrior prophet.  Arguing otherwise is absurd.

But though he was a warrior, the faith that rests on his prophetic critique does not require war.  The framework of the Muslim life is the practice of the five pillars.  Faith in God, regular prayer, pilgrimage, charity, and the discipline of fasting?  Do those things, and you're a Muslim.

Those are gracious, good, positive things.  It's why so many millions of Muslims have no difficulty coexisting with their neighbors.  There's nothing, nothing at all, in the deep and authentic practice of their faith that stirs them to violence.

So why this seemingly relentless drumroll of horror, which is exponentially more horrible to those whose practice of Islam leads them to live charitable, gracious lives?

The reasons are many.  It's...complicated.  Islam exists in a region of the world that is economically troubled, and that in the next century will become even more troubled.  When the oil dries up, developed economies will transition to other sources of energy, ending the temporary growth that has made prosperity possible in that region.  That, coupled with political oppression, the dark residue of colonialism, endemic unemployment, and climatic resource depletion?  Things are going to be...messy. 

But perhaps the greatest challenge Islam faces is a challenge that badly burned my own faith: the fusion of religion and the power of the state.   For a millennia and a half, Christendom--the dominion of Christianity--was enforced at the edge of the sword.  Faith and the state were one.  The demands of faith are enmeshed with the laws of the state.

Whenever this is the case, religion becomes inherently violent, because the power of the state ultimately rests on the power to coerce compliance with a set of laws or social norms.  It is why so many were butchered in the name of Jesus, to "protect the faith" from impurity.  It was a horror, and one that Christianity must never forget.

If an individual can be imprisoned or physically punished for blasphemy or hewing to another faith, then they are living in a violent faith system.   I think folks like Bill Maher or Richard Dawkins are fools, and radically misrepresent faith.  But if a "Christian" government threatened them with imprisonment or sanction to protect my sensibilities, then my faith would be violent.

Therein lies the challenge for a faith tradition that exists in an area of the world where religion and the state remain dangerously entangled.  

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Ethical Breeches

What are ethics?  What is an "ethos?"

Ethos has to do with our purpose, the great story that defines us.  It's our worldview, that broad set of assumptions and expectations that we use to ground us and direct us as we try to make sense of existence.

"Being ethical," then, can be defined in many ways.  Following the law is ethical...but what if that law stands in conflict with another, more radically defining purpose?  Then, what is "ethical" becomes what is evil, as Huck Finn so pointedly wrestled with as he went down that river with Jim.

Huck looked at his own behavior...treating Jim like a human being...and realized that this made him, in the eyes of his culture, an unethical person.  He was cool with that, mischief-maker that he was.  To be "good," he had to violate cultural norms, and suffer cultural approbation.

In the little echo chamber of my dwindling, greying denomination, there's been an ethical scandal of sorts thrumming about.  An initiative charged with the immense task of building up one thousand and one new worshiping communities had been achieving some measure of success, with hundreds of new gatherings created, gatherings which the Gospel is proclaimed and Kingdom communities have been created.  I've worked with them, and they knew what they were doing.  It's been a bright spot, in the often grim and sclerotic drabness of our denominational decline.

But now, we hear even that bright spot is tarnished.  Significant actors in that movement have been found to have committed ethical violations, or so we're hearing.  There have been articles, highlighting this violation.  More accurately, there are the minutes of the meeting of an auditing group, in which those violations are detailed.  There was outrage, and calls for heads to roll.  "Oh, crap," I thought, when I first saw the headline.  There's been stealing, or canoodling, or some significant misrepresentation.  It was disheartening.  So I went, and read it.  Things seemed, well, murky.  But there was a link to more detailed stuff, so there I went, to pore through those minutes.  You need to read them, too.  All the way through, drab as they may be.

There were violations of ethics, absolutely.

That is not at question.  The issue: what ethics were violated?  What is the ethos or worldview whose boundaries have been crossed through "...breeches of internal control," as the minutes so entertainingly mis-spoke?

Those are outlined by the minutes, and they are as follows:  The violators created a nonprofit corporation in the state of California, whose sole purpose was to support the growth and development of new churches.  The stated purpose for such a corporation: to protect the initiative from the very real vagaries of PCUSA budget shortfalls.

I read through the minutes, looking for something more.  Where are the "new churches" formed for an evening in Vegas, ones that involved high-priced escorts and copious anointing with oil?  "Worshipping communities" that were a euphemism for "me and my bros worshipping my schweet schwaggy new Lexus?"   Nope.  Nada.

There wasn't a thing.  Man.  Can't we Presbyterians even manage to create interesting scandals?  Jeez.

The violators created a nonprofit organization to help establish and teach gatherings of human beings following Jesus Christ.  Period.  Maybe there was more.  Maybe there are things left unsaid.  Perhaps there was malfeasance, or self-dealing.

But I cannot speculate on that, nor would such whispering gossip be reasonable or Christian.

What, then, is the nature of the primary ethic that has been violated here?  It is the ethic of organizational command and control, a purpose formed around the structures of accountability and oversight that came to define twentieth century Presbyterian life.  Carefully considered church policies, procedures, and protocols were ignored.  The agency responsible no longer had controls in place, or ways to oversee the new organization.   Shortcuts were taken.  There were liability concerns.  There was inordinate risk exposure, which was inappropriately managed.  There was the potential for confusion, the misuse of logos and the potential besmirching of corporate reputation.

From the ethos that views church organizationally, where the values that are primary are systems of accountability and adherence to established procedural protocols, then, this was a significant failure.

What ethics were not violated, not by any observable measure or by any report?

The Great Commandment and Great Commission, that ethic of creating more followers of Jesus of Nazareth, and doing so expeditiously and with good intent.  There's nothing, not a whit of a hint of a trace of anything in the minutes describing this report that would suggest otherwise.  A short cut was taken, and conversations not had, in a system not exactly known "reputationally" for its agility.  People saw a way to make a needed thing happen, and did it.  That's it.

Outside of the PC(USA), in the world of evangelical Christianity, such an action might not even draw a blink.  Create a bona-fide not for profit corporation, to operate in partnership with a church to further a particular end that transcends the church itself?  Heavens forfend.

Again, I will accept that perhaps that may change.  Further investigations may prove that there was malfeasance, or the intent thereof.

But given what is known, the disjuncture between those two ethics hit me, hard.

They can sometimes play well together, as accountability can be a powerful servant the integrity of the Gospel.   Bad things can happen if we are not wise and prudent.

But having been a Presbyterian my whole life, I know all too well that is not always the case.  Bad things can also happen when we are graceless and unwilling to trust one another.  Structures of distrust can become the point and purpose of our lives together.

Has that happened here?  I struggled with it, for a while.

Two scriptures rose up, as I thought on this.  First, that time the disciples came charging up to Jesus, incensed that someone who was not part of their circle was out there preaching and spreading the word.  Who the hell is this guy?  What right does he have!  Stop him!

Jesus, as I recall, did not seem too concerned with misuse of logos or "reputational risk."  He asks: Is that man doing the work of the Gospel, in a way that would be self-evident to any disinterested observer?  If so, fine.  Go team go.

The second scripture had to do with risk.  Right there in the lectionary the week the scandal hit, there it was.  The master, and his talents, and the three servants.  The first two servants go big, and take risks, and bring a return.

Then there's the Presbyterian.

The Presbyterian presents his master with a ten year plan, a risk assessment review cross referenced to the Book of Order, a seventy four page draft investment management protocol, and the minutes for the five committee meetings to develop the aforementioned protocol before the second reading, which has been postponed to the January meeting pending signoff from legal counsel.

And buried under that great orderly stack of paper and procedure, the single talent, unused, ungrown.