Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Danger of Supporting Torture

I saw an article today that disturbed me and made me angry, and yet at the same time did not surprise me in the least.

According to a survey from the Pew Research Center, Americans are more likely to think that torture  is acceptable if they go to church than if they don't. 

(Call it "enhanced interrogation" all you want, but the US defined these techniques as torture when they were used against our soldiers in WWII.)

This is a sad commentary on how much of mainstream Christianity has sold out to the political right. Because right wing figures like George W. Bush laced their speeches with enough Christian buzzwords and signed on to the Religious Right's two-pronged political agenda (opposition to abortion and gay marriage), many Christians supported him without looking further into his positions, policies, or actions. 

Because this particular political faction has passed the litmus test, many Christians have turned a willful bind eye to the abuses of said faction, and even after they are out of office, they go on defending said abuses.

The problem, of course, is that the abuses of the Bush administration fly in the face of the commandments of Jesus Christ- the man that George W. Bush claimed was his "favorite philosopher" during his run for the presidency.

"Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Matthew 5:44) would seem to preclude using torture against anyone, even people who may have engaged in direct attacks against our country. Jesus prayed for those who murdered him, even in the moment that they were engaging in practices that would be considered torture by any modern standard.

At the risk of proof-texting, I can't help but think of Matthew 7:21, where Jesus says, "not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord' will enter the Kingdom of God, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven." 

We can give all the lip-service we want to the name of Jesus, but when we sanction the cruel treatment of God's children in the defense of the security of the nation-state, we are giving our first loyalty to something that is much less than God. The Bible has a word for that: idolatry. And the two major complaints of the Hebrew prophets were idolatry and injustice. We're clearly guilty on both counts.

My own denomination, the United Methodist Church (which is currently guilty of numerous injustices, by the way), has come out resolutely against torture. We have issued a number of emphatic statements condemning these practices.

I pray that we will, in time, repent of our idolatrous love for the nation-state and return to the kind of love for God that leads us to walk in the ways of peace, love, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Then we will truly be doing the will of God.

Hunger und Durst

I was supposed to do this yesterday, but world hunger is still a problem today, and would be so even if I had posted this when I said I would.

A few quick facts from the UN World Food Program

-25,000 people die every day from starvation, malnutrition, and hunger related issues

-Every six seconds a child dies from hunger (that means several have died while you've been reading this post)

-The countries with the most hunger related deaths are also the ones most affected by HIV/AIDS

Some folks much smarter than I have crunched the numbers and estimate that if the United States reduced its defense budget by 10%, we would have enough money to produce an adequate food supply and distribute it to the entire world.

Sadly, we know that's not going to happen, but it does show us that the problem of world hunger is one that can be solved. One organization that's doing a lot to solve the disease and not just the symptoms is Heifer International. They raise animals and give them to people in developing nations. They also teach them how to use these animals to build sustainable industries, thus empowering them to feed themselves.

The way Heifer structures charitable giving is really cool, too. You don't just give a dollar amount. You sponsor a flock of chicks, a goat, a sheep, or a cow. You can do shares of some of the higher dollar animals, since they can be pricey. Making the solutions tangible has enabled Heifer to be one of the most successful non-profits in the world today.

While I've got your attention, there's another cool way you can help solve some of these issues. The same countries that are affected by hunger issues and HIV/AIDS usually also suffer from access to clean water. Shawn Wood, one of Jessica's authors, created a campaign called 5 Days in May, where people pledge to drink nothing but water for 5 days and donate the amount they would have spent on drinks to Water Missions

Jessica and I are participating, and we haven't calculated the amount yet, but we'll probably be depressed at how much we spend on coffee alone.

If you only take one thing from this post, let it be this: the suffering caused by hunger issues and lack of access to clean water is horrible, but we have the resources to solve the problem. I'm trying very hard to be part of the solution. I hope you will, too.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Bloggers Unite!

On April 29, over 500 bloggers will be writing posts about world hunger and soliciting donations for Heifer International. If you'd like your blog to participate in this event, go to the Bloggers Unite website.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Podcast- Episode 3

A new episode of The Truth As Best I Know It Podcast is now online.

In Episode 3, Matt responds to Maxie Dunnam’s objections to proposed changes in the Constitution of the United Methodist Church dealing with issues of inclusivity.

You can also find the podcast on iTunes.


The full version of the video excerpted in the podcast

The General Conference record of the amendment legislation in question.

A list of the amendments being voted on at this year's Annual Conferences.

More info on un-Christian

Why We're Baptizing Our Infant Daughter

Kate is being baptized this coming Sunday. We're very honored to have Rev. Dr. M. Douglas Meeks, a mentor and professor of mine from my seminary days at Vanderbilt, coming to preside at the baptism.

Over the years I've heard the argument more than a few times from my Baptist friends (and from a few Methodists who think they're Baptist) that infant baptism isn't biblical, valid, or anything else remotely good. (Jessica and I did a podcast about this issue last week, and Jessica wrote a really great blog post on the subject, too)

A cursory glance at the history of the Christian faith presents a different picture, however. In the 4th century St. Augustine (in one of his only major contributions to Christian theology that didn't turn out horribly) helped answer the question of what to do with people who came back into the Orthodox fold from a schismatic group called the Donatists. Augustine determined that the efficacy of baptism lay not in the holiness of the priest performing the sacrament (ex opere operato), but in the holiness of God.

In my own tradition, we view baptism as a sign of prevenient grace (a term Mr. Wesley learned from Jacob Arminius), which is symbolic of God's claim upon us. Kate doesn't understand the concept of God at three months old, but God's love for her and God's claim upon her life are no less real. In the same way she doesn't understand the concept of family, but she's no less a part of our family. Later she will be able to understand and claim for herself what has been true about her before she was even born.

Furthermore, baptizing an infant is an act of the church in which we are making a covenant to raise the child in the faith, provide a Christian example for them to emulate, and support them as they grow in their spiritual life. We are also reaffirming our covenant with one another and dedicating ourselves to emulating the divine life of perichoresis we see in the Holy Trinity.

So come to Bethlehem UMC this Sunday at 10am and celebrate with us!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Podcast- Episode 2

The Truth As Best I Know It Podcast Episode 2: Baptism is live online now. Thanks to the folks at Podbean for hosting the podcast.

You can also find us on iTunes.

Enjoy the episode and feel free to post comments on this blog.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Constitutional Changes

At the 2008 General Conference, about which I blogged quite a bit (hit the archives from April 2008 for my commentary), there were a number of changes to the Constitution of the UMC (found in our Book of Discipline) debated and adopted. Just like changing the Constitution of the United States, one entity can't make the changes on its own. The changes must be ratified by a majority (I can't remember if it's a simple majority or two-thirds) of Annual Conferences and the Council of Bishops.

Most of these changes have to do with altering terminology to put the Conferences outside of the US on par with the US Conferences, eliminating "jurisdictional" and "central" conferences, and making them all into "regional conferences". These are basically clusters of Annual Conferences in a given region, in which bishops are elected and itinerate. These seem to be a good idea because it gets rid of the notion that the conferences outside the US are somehow of lesser importance. We are a global church and this seems like the right move.

The Constitutional change I'm not so sure about, however, is the first one listed in the PDF linked above. The amendment would alter the language in paragraph 4, which concerns the inclusiveness in the church. The language of "without regard to race, color, national origin, status, or economic condition" has been removed and replaced with simply "all persons".

I am of two minds on this one. On the one hand this could be a good thing, since a number of rather intolerant individuals have used the aforementioned paragraph's lack of the phrase "sexual orientation" as an excuse to deny membership to persons of differing sexual orientation. I believe sexual orientation to be covered by "status", but that has never been tested in a case before the Judicial Council, to my knowledge. So the new phrase, "all persons", could make it harder for those who want to pick and choose who they want to let in to do so.

However, some other language in the new paragraph could possibly be used to exclude people based on a pastor or a congregation's particular beliefs. The sentence in question is "all persons, upon taking vows declaring the Christian faith and relationship in Jesus Christ, shall be eligible to become professing members in any local church in the connection."

What does it mean for a person to "take vows declaring the Christian faith and relationship in Jesus Christ"? For me it would be sufficient for a person to answer "yes" to the questions put forth in the liturgy of welcoming in our Book of Worship. But other pastors might say that if one does not repent of certain sins (as defined by the pastor, of course), that they are not truly able to "take vows declaring the Christian faith", and thus exclude them from membership in the church. This is exactly what happened in the case in Virginia where the pastor wouldn't admit a person because they were gay, because the pastor claimed they hadn't repented of their sin.

Hence my confusion. What should we make of this proposed change to our Constitution? Will greater inclusiveness be achieved, or will this new language end up being another weapon in the hands of those who do not want our church to be inclusive?


Monday, April 13, 2009

Podcast Update

The Truth As Best I Know It Podcast is now available on iTunes.

A new episode will be up in the next couple days.

The "Post-Christian" America

Last week,  Newsweek had a really interesting feature on "The End of Christian America".

The author of the article was not the one contending that such a thing was ending (or that it ever existed, which is debatable). The person making the claims was none other than Al Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. (Side note: every person I've ever met who went to Southern makes sure to say whether they were there before or after Mohler and the fundamentalist takeover of Southern and the SBC)

There were lots of interesting issues raised in the article, but one quote from Mohler near the beginning really stood out to me. "A remarkable culture-shift has taken place around us. The most basic contours of American culture have been radically altered. The so-called Judeo-Christian consensus of the last millennium has given way to a post-modern, post-Christian, post-Western cultural crisis which threatens the very heart of our culture."

Post-modern. Post-Christian. Post-Western. These are three distinct terms that are each in their own way problematically loaded, needing to be examined (perhaps I'll take a stab at doing just that in a future post). And while they are three distinct things, I can't help but wondering if Al Mohler is simply using them to say the same thing three times.

Al Mohler was one of the major forces in the rise of the Religious Right. Along with figures like James Dobson and Jerry Falwell, Mohler was incredibly successful at perpetuating a metanarrative to explain the problems of the late twentieth century. The metanarrative went like this: there was a time when things were good, when people believed and practiced what the Bible taught, resulting in an idyllic, "Ozzie and Harriet"-esque picture of the 1950s (which, of course, never really existed). But then along came the 60s, with its sex, drugs, and rock and roll, and the world went to hell in a hand-basket. The solution? Return to this earlier time and its values, and everything will go back to "normal" (whatever that is).

There are a million different versions of this metanarrative, of course, but it's a pretty consistent message that animates this particular brand of evangelicalism. So I can't help but wonder if Mohler's above quote is another variation on this particular metanarrative?

It's especially puzzling when one considers how Mohler is using the terms in contrast to the "Judeo-Christian consensus of the last millennium". Exactly what was this consensus?

Christianity isn't going away. We may be witnessing the beginning of the end of certain forms of Christianity, which is probably what scares Mohler and his constituency to death. But the birth of new forms of faith and practice is nothing new. A person from the eleventh century (the time in which this alleged Judeo-Christian consensus was formed) wouldn't recognize Christianity as it exists today, and a first century Christian wouldn't have recognized eleventh century Christianity. It's safe to assume that if we got into a time machine and went forward a thousand years we wouldn't recognize the way they practice Christianity.

The good news that Al Mohler and his cohort seem to forget is that God is not dependent on any particular cultural forms. God has spoken to people in every time and every place, and people have found ways to worship God and try to follow God's will for their lives in every society that has ever existed. Perhaps it's time we quit worshipping the idol we've made out of a society that never even existed and started looking for how God is speaking to the world we actually live in.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

We're Podcasting!

Introducing the brand new The Truth As Best I Know It Podcast.

Just like the blog, the podcast explores how the Christian faith works in the lives of twenty first century people.

In the first episode, "Words, Words, Words", Matt and Jessica discuss the role of language, particularly certain religious buzzwords, in people's faith today. Have certain words and phrases outlived their usefulness or is there room to reclaim them into new contexts?

In this episode we reference a book by Susan Isaacs, Angry Conversations With God: A Snarky but Authentic Spiritual Memoir. You can find more information about the book and purchase it here.

Enjoy the podcast and leave any comments, questions, or suggestions for future episodes here on the blog.

(PS- we're working on getting the podcast on iTunes. If you're a tech savvy person and have any suggestions as to how to make the recording better, please share them.)

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Same Sex Marriage, Democracy, and a flashback to High School Civics

There have been a couple of big news items lately on the same-sex marriage front. The Vermont state legislature overrode the governor's veto of a bill allowing same sex couples to enjoy the same rights and legal protections that heterosexual couples get. This comes only weeks after Iowa's state Supreme Court overturned a ban on same sex marriage on constitutional grounds. This has given hope to those of us who support equal rights; hope that was sorely needed after California voters passes Proposition 8 with the help of lots of outside money. (California's state Supreme Court may yet overturn the ban.)

Those who oppose equality for same-sex couples normally find their rationale in a particular reading of the Bible that assumes parts of the Levitical purity codes are authoritative, even as they enjoy pulled pork barbecue, shrimp cocktails, and polyester fabrics. But in their attempt to hold together the Reagan-era alliance with economic conservatives, they often couch their objections in "principles of democracy". They argue that the people have the right to decide what should and should not be allowed in society, and that it violates the Constitution when courts overrule the will of the majority. (No such luck in Vermont, though.)

(Quick disclaimer: yes, I'm a preacher and some folks get very nervous when preachers get political. But I also hold a Bachelor's Degree in Political Science. Take that for what it's worth.)

To that objection, allow me to take us on a trip back in time to High School Civics/Government class. One of the first things we learned in said class was a concept called "Checks and Balances", where each branch of government is able to keep the others from going too crazy. The President is the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, but Congress has to declare war (at least, until the War Powers Act was passed). Congress makes laws but the President has to sign them. Most folks understand and appreciate that, but we tend to forget about the Judiciary Branch of government. It is this branch of government's job to interpret the Constitution, and they are empowered by said document to nullify laws and other actions of the other two branches of government if they are found to be in violation. Thus, the power of the people's elected representatives is checked and balanced.

The best example is when the Supreme Court ruled on the case of Brown vs. the Topeka Board of Education in 1954, reversing its own ruling in 1896 in the case of Plessy vs. Ferguson and declaring that racial segregation was unconstitutional. The decision in the Brown case was against the will of the majority of people in the United States at the time, but it was the right thing to do.

So before we start whining about "activist judges" and "legislating from the bench", let's take a step back and remember that it is the job of the Judicial Branch of government to check and balance the power of majority rule.

On the other hand, if you want to argue against same-sex marriage using the Bible, go ahead and do so. I would argue that there is nothing about the issue in the Bible, but that is a subject for another post. By the way, democracy is never endorsed anywhere in the Bible, and majority rule is treated with no small amount of contempt, particularly in the Old Testament.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Thoughts on Calling and Vocation

This past Wednesday I was honored to give the keynote address for the Center for Faith and Vocation's annual dinner at Butler University, my alma mater. I can't post my speech on the blog, since it included some anecdotes that are not my intellectual property, but I would like to reflect on one idea I shared there:

The folks at the Center asked me to speak on the subjects of calling and vocation. Recently I've reread Thomas Merton's Seven Storey Mountain, and while I love the thoughtfulness of his prose and the gentleness of spirit that comes with the contemplative life, I've realized how much I used to think like Father Thomas when it comes to the subject of calling, and how much good evolving away from that type of thinking has done me.

Thomas Merton reflected back on his early years through the lens of a drastic and profound conversion to Catholicism. In fact, he wrote his autobiography in his cell at the Abbey of Gethsemani. So his take on the subject of one's calling from God is completely formed by his robustly Augustinian form of Roman Catholicism. Augustine owed a great deal intellectually to the "pagan philosopher" (his term, not mine) Plato, from whom Augustine learned to be very dualistic in his view of the world.

Augustine's Platonic dualism led him to define pretty much everything in oppositional, either/or categories. Things were either good or evil. One either pursued the things of body or the things of the soul. And one either had a specific, definite calling from God to a vocation, or one did not. Thomas Merton shared this view of calling and it is evident throughout his writing.

I remember thinking for a long time that I had to figure out whether God was calling me or not. That's how I heard it talked about in the church and by most people. But in college a professor of mine introduced me to Paul Tillich by having me read Dynamics of Faith, where Tillich refutes the idea of faith being a dualistic, either/or proposition. Everyone has faith in something, according to Tillich, and the question is in what we are ultimately concerned.

So I began to think that if faith isn't an either/or proposition, maybe calling isn't either. Maybe it wasn't a question of whether God is calling me or not, but a question of what God is calling me to. Specifically, when it comes to the question of vocation, what kind of job will allow me to live with integrity to who God is calling me to be?

A colleague of mine once told me about a special service at his church when he was growing up where anybody who felt God was calling them could come up for a special blessing. Previously he had talked about his sense of calling with his pastor, telling him that he felt called to serve God, but he knew preaching wasn't for him. So when he came forward for the blessing, his pastor turned him away, saying, "God only calls people to the preaching ministry." This person later ended up getting ordained as a deacon in the United Methodist Church and served as the Director of the National Christian Educators Fellowship. So much for his pastor's dualistic, either/or view of calling.

Over the years since I've gotten a clearer sense that God is calls me to preach, teach, and write, so the job of a local church pastor is a pretty good way to live out that calling. But I know lots of people who are living out very faithful lives in all sorts of vocations, and frankly their example is probably more powerful than mine, because they serve in places people don't often expect to meet God.

I hope that people who are exploring what they want to do with their life will view the question of calling not as an either/or proposition, because doing so leads to a lot of anxiety about getting a particular question right or wrong, and the possibility that the wrong answer could have eternal consequences. If instead we believe that God calls all people to live faithfully wherever they are, then we can choose a vocation based not on whether it's right or wrong, but on how we can best live out our gifts and graces. In doing so we will find our life's calling.