Monday, January 21, 2013

Remembering the Real Dr. King on MLK Day

On this Martin Luther King, Jr. day, which also sees the second inauguration of our first African-American President with his hand on Dr. King's Bible, there are a number of interesting discussions on what his real legacy is.

Is the dream fully realized? Is racism over? Some actually say "yes", un-ironically (Stephen Colbert doesn't see race, after all). CNN is featuring an interesting piece on conservatives who look to Dr. King for inspiration. Those in the liberal/progressive camp have long quoted him supporting their policies.

The truth about Martin Luther King is, of course, a lot more complicated than most of us want to admit. He may have said a lot of things that are convenient to use as proof-texts, but also said many things that challenge people all over the spectrum.

Perhaps no word sum it up as well as this picture of Dr. King talking with President Johnson, a man for whom he actively campaigned, but is clearly agitating with his words challenging the President to seek peace and justice.

But words do matter, especially since we spend this day honoring a man who used language so skillfully and powerfully.

Here is a list of King quotes we don't often hear because they make us too uncomfortable.

Here is Dr. King's 1967 speech publicly opposing the Vietnam War- a speech that lost him quite a few friends:

Finally, here is Cornel West with an interesting take on why he didn't like President Obama using Dr. King's Bible to take the oath today.

May we all be appropriately discomforted by Martin Luther King's prophetic speech and do something with that discomfort. Then we really will be honoring his memory.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

A Biblical and Theological Case for Gun Control

The issue of gun control in the United States is once again at the forefront of our national conversation due to the most recent school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, being one of many similar incidents whose frequency is on the rise.

A lot of people are giving passionate and articulate cases for their particular position, and as I am neither a constitutional scholar nor an expert on firearms or public safety, I will leave those arguments to those that speak on them with authority.

I do, however, believe that the church has a significant role to play in this conversation. I believe that the biblical witness and our theological heritage gives us reason to support restrictions on firearms such as those currently being debated by the President and Congress.

I cite these things not as “proof-texts”, nor do I claim that this is the only understanding one has to arrive at to be a true follower of Jesus. I also want to state at the beginning that while I am not a gun owner, I support the rights of people to posses firearms in their home for protection and for use in hunting or other recreation.

With those disclaimers out of the way, here is what I believe to be a biblical and theological case for gun control. I have the freedom to do anything, but not everything is helpful.

I have the freedom to do anything, but I won’t be controlled by anything. 1 Corinthians 6:12

Everything is permitted, but everything isn’t beneficial. Everything is permitted, but everything doesn’t build others up. 1 Corinthians 10:23

Twice in his first letter to the church at Corinth, Paul talks about the intersection of freedom and responsibility. Long before Enlightenment philosophers spoke about the autonomy of the individual, St. Paul recognized that while a person has the freedom to do whatever they want, not everything is necessarily a good idea. This is particularly true if one is in a covenant relationship with others.

Paul’s immediate context in making these statements is sexual behavior and eating meat sacrificed to idols, respectively, but he is also talking about a broad approach to one’s life.

I can go where I want, when I want, spend every cent in my bank account and pick up a lady for a one night stand. But if I want to stay married to my wife and be a part of my children’s lives, I’m going to choose not to do those things. They trust that I’m going to be responsible with our shared resources. They trust that I’m going to live by the values that we as a family have agreed on and that we’re going to raise our daughters with. I choose to be faithful to this covenant because that web of relationships is more important to me than acting on every impulse I might have.

I have the freedom to do anything, but not everything is helpful.

What is true of a family unit is also true of the church. We covenant together to live in a certain way that glorifies God and is beneficial to one another. We sometimes choose to defer to others if they have a particular need or if exercise of our freedoms becomes an obstacle to them walking their own path of discipleship. We restrain certain individual liberties for the common good because we value those relationships more than we do our right to do whatever we want, whenever we want.

I have the freedom to do anything, but not everything is helpful.

An example of this outside of the church is going to the airport. I have the right to buy a plane ticket and fly wherever I want without anyone asking why or wanting to see what’s in my luggage. I’ve never done anything that would make anyone suspect I had intentions to harm my fellow passengers or anyone else. But I take off my shoes and put my laptop in a separate bin in the security line, go through a metal detector or fully-body scanner, and accept that someone from the TSA might mess up my nice, neat stack of undershirts. I gladly accept this because I value the safety of the general public more than I dislike the few minutes of inconvenience this causes me, even though I have done nothing to warrant such screenings.

I have the freedom to do anything, but not everything is helpful.

I have the right to buy a gun, and I have done nothing to suggest any ill intentions. But I consent to a background check because I value keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous people more than I dislike having to wait a few days to complete my purchase. I have the right to buy an AR-15 assault rifle and hunt deer with it, but I choose to use a lower powered rifle with a smaller clip of ammunition because I value lowering the chance of someone walking into my children’s school and killing several dozen kids in a matter of seconds more than I value my right to squeeze off a hundred rounds a minute and feel cool like Rambo.

I have the freedom to do anything, but not everything is helpful.

At the core of many of the arguments opposing any gun control measures is the concept of “freedom”. I put that in quotes because it’s a word that means different things to different people. Some define freedom as “doing whatever I want whenever I want”, which I have just argued is not helpful for those who wish to be in covenant relationships with others.

Freedom is a recurring theme in the biblical narrative. The Hebrews in Egypt got their freedom when God plagued Egypt into letting them go, and that freedom took the form of a covenant relationship with God and with one another. They had the right to choose whether or not to be faithful to that covenant. And a big chunk of Hebrew scripture attests to how that relationship did not exactly go well, due in no small part to Israel’s leaders, and the society at large, choosing not to be faithful to that covenant. They did “what they wanted when they wanted to” and it wasn’t pretty.

The question becomes, is there a better definition of freedom? Christian theological tradition would say and emphatic “yes”.

(Quick aside- one can’t really claim one single strand of thought as “THE Christian tradition” to the exclusion of all others, as there always have been and always will be a plurality of understandings of what Christianity truly is)

Jurgen Moltmann sees the true definition of freedom in the relationship of God to God’s self in the Holy Trinity. This relationship is summed up in the term perichoresis, which means mutual interdependence and indwelling.

The persons of the Trinity: the Father (who is not exclusively male), Son (Jesus was a human male), and Holy Spirit (which often takes the feminine nominative case), are truly free in their perichoretic relationship with one another because of a mutual trust that because the others are focused on their good, they can focus solely on the good of the other.

What is “good” for one but not for the others is intentionally laid aside, because it is not truly good. Each member is able to feel truly free because they know that they don’t have to worry about their own well being and understand their responsibility to look out for the well being of the others.

Moltmann sees this as not only a description of God’s Trinitarian life, but also as a model for human relationships of loving community: true freedom.

 I am free and feel myself to be truly free when I am respected and recognized by others and when I for my part respect and recognize them. I become truly free when I open my life for other people and share with them, and when other people open their lives for me and share them with me. Then the other person is no longer the limitation of my freedom; he is the expansion of it. In mutual participation in life, individual people become free beyond the limits of their individuality, and discover the common room for living which their freedom offers. That is the social side of freedom. (The Trinity and the Kingdom, p. 216)

I willingly give others the space to feel free by agreeing to place a formal societal limitation on my “right” to own any gun because, though I will not walk into a school and start shooting, other mentally disturbed people might. So for the good of the whole, I agree to a legal prohibition of certain guns and ammunition clips. This is the same reason I agree to speed limits, seat belt laws, and blood alcohol limits in the use of my car. This is the same reason I agree to only being able to purchase small amounts of certain cold medicines, so as to help stop the spread of meth.

We are not so naive as to believe that all of our fellow citizens will go along with these societal agreements. That is why we elect representatives who will pass laws to enforce these agreements for the good of the whole.

We do not naively assume such laws will guarantee there will never be another school shooting, any more than we assume there will never be another drunk driver or that meth labs will suddenly disappear. We do believe that such actions will reduce such incidences enough to help us be safer and closer to that true freedom whose full realization is yet to come.

I believe that this is a solid biblical and theological case for gun control laws. May we all open ourselves to the possibility of limiting certain individual liberties for the greater good and progress towards our true, God-given freedom.