12.27.2013

A Bedside Confessional [Excerpt]


Richard J. Foster’s book Celebration of Discipline has a chapter on confession. He writes,
Confession is a difficult discipline for us because we all too often view the believing community as a fellowship of saints before we see it as a fellowship of sinners. We feel that everyone has advanced so far into holiness that we are isolated and alone in our sin. We cannot bear to reveal our failings and shortcomings to others…Therefore we hide ourselves from one another and live in veiled lies and hypocrisy.
As I thought this, it dawned on me that I’ve almost never practiced confession with the two people in my life for whom it is perhaps the most important: my children.

[Read the full article at Practicing Families]


12.19.2013

Phil Robertson didn't say what you heard he said...

I've started to wonder if I'm reading the same interview that everyone else is reading.

Duck Dynasty from Flickr via Wylio
© 2014 Mike Mozart, Flickr | CC-BY
In case you missed it, 'Duck Dynasty' star Phil Robertson has been suspended from his "reality show" (whatever that term even means) after the magazine GQ published an interview with him which has made the news because of some controversial comments about homosexuality and the pre-civil rights era.

You can tell that people haven't read the whole article. Some of Robertson's Christian fans would probably have a conniption over the profanity contained therein. Robertson doesn't cuss anymore. God rescued him from that. But sexually graphic language? That he does.

I'm confused by the responses to this situation. 

First of all, some are apparently saying that the network's suspension of Robertson is somehow a violation of his free speech. This confirms some of my own disturbing suspicions about how spoiled we are. The way some talk, you would think Robertson has been arrested, jailed and tortured. None of that happened. Why? Because he DOES have a right to say what he said, and he is still a free man who can work, vote, and drive to the store. This is actually a beautiful, perfect example of what free speech looks like. He is free to say what he wants, and A&E is free to stop paying him.

It's not a religious discrimination issue either, and one blogger aptly explained why: "Phil Robertson’s views are not necessarily what got him in trouble. It is how he said it that got him in trouble. If he would have just said that he felt homosexuality was incompatible with his beliefs, we would have all said, 'Well, duh!' and moved on..."

But I'm even more confused by those who have defended Robertson by saying that he was merely stating a simple, biblical, Christian principle on the issue of human relationships.

I don't want to repost the quote, but I guess should for the sake of clarity about what I'm addressing:

"It seems like, to me, a vagina—as a man—would be more desirable than a man's anus. That's just me."

I'm having trouble finding the part about human relationships. Where in the quote does he address that subject? What Bible verse does he cite? He didn't address relationships, he addressed copulation. All he did was somewhat graphically describe a sexual act with his only source material being his own subjective aversion to the idea.

Come to think of it, I'm kind of turned off by the idea too. That's what makes me a heterosexual. It's not for Phil, and it's not for me either. Pastors and political figures alike have made news this past year by asking their largely Christian, heterosexual audiences to vividly imagine gay sex and thus spur their revulsion. They successfully reminded heterosexuals that we are heterosexuals.

Robertson didn't say anything about a Christian view of human relationships. At least, not in what the GQ writer chose to quote. He really didn't say anything about same-sex relationships either. He did what too many Christians do: he focused on the bedroom aspect. It's nothing new. He joined many others who seem unable to think of relationships outside the realm of sex. That's kind of revealing, if you ask me. Worse yet, he apparently sees some human relationships as morally comparable to bestiality.

broken dreams, broken heart, broken relationship, broken key from Flickr via Wylio
© 2010 Andreas Wieser, Flickr | CC-BY
I'm married. Am I physically attracted to my wife? Yes. Is that the only reason I married her and the thing that's keeping us together? Obviously not. From the day we met, she has made me a better person. We enjoy each other's company. We pick on each other. We struggle through life and raise our kids together. We worship together. We have memories, family pictures, and a network of family and friends that we share and love together.

That's what a relationship is. That's what a relationship is regardless of your sexual orientation. But Phil Robertson compared some of those relationships to bestiality and reduced them to the tiny box of his own sexual imagination. And for doing so, he is being heralded as a champion of Christian values.

All this in the same interview in which he told the reporter to "put in your article that the Robertson family really believes strongly that if the human race loved each other and they loved God, we would just be better off." Indeed. Which is what led blogger Jerod Clark to observe that Robertson missed a great opportunity.

In the meantime, if you can overlook foul language, you should read the whole GQ article. There are some other fascinating parts in it that I don't address here, such as Robertson implying that African-Americans were in fact not dissatisfied with their circumstances before the civil rights movement, or the reporter challenging him on why his own repentance and conversion did not include apologizing to people he had hurt.

I'm not out to get Robertson and his family. I've heard them say some funny things, and I've heard them say some admirable things. I'd be willing to bet Robertson is good to his family and is an honest businessman. I defend his right to speak, but he doesn't speak for me.

I'd prefer that we have robust, honest conversations about Christian relationships and what keeps them together. Robertson, despite what you've heard, did not address that topic. In the time it took him to do the interview for GQ, dozens of heterosexual marriages ended...and it's not because of what's going on the privacy of your gay neighbor's bedroom.

12.17.2013

Could We Talk About Nelson Mandela? [Excerpt]

In the wake of Nelson Mandela’s memorial service at the FNB Stadium in Johannesburg, South Africa, the hyper-partisan, culturally isolated American public has again managed to miss the point of a major figure and event. Instead of having lively, relevant discussions about Mandela and his legacy, we are drooling over the juicy news tidbits of an Obama “selfie,” a handshake, and an allegedly schizophrenic sign language interpreter, to name a few...

Let’s talk about Nelson Mandela, and let’s talk about him in a way that honors the complexity of this man without painting him with a singular brush.

[Read the full article on Baptist News Global]

12.16.2013

Guest Post: The Imperfect Woman of Strength

This guest post comes from none other than my wife Dayna, and I'm excited to share it with you. The following reflection is an edited version of a devotion she shared at a women's Christmas party. When I read it, I really liked it and asked for her permission to post it here.

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I am married to a pastor and a mother to two busy kids. I have a 3 ½ year old girl and a 6 year old boy who started kindergarten this year. I work as a speech/language pathologist and am privileged enough to get the chance to work part time. For our family, this has meant some sacrifices but I have always felt it is what is best for me, my children, and my marriage.

As a Christian and married to a pastor I have heard a variety of comments about my working outside the home. Some are in support. Some are against, but are "relieved" to hear that I am part time.

Automotive Social Media Marketing from Flickr via Wylio
© 2014 Automotive Social, Flickr | CC-BY
On social media, such as Facebook, there are so many things posted about women--working moms, stay at home moms, etc.--on how to be the perfect this or the best that. There is Pinterest, a place where anyone can post these “wonderful” ideas for all aspects of your life. There are activities for your family, ways to decorate, games to play, even speech pathology based activities to use in therapy.

It is often the common person who posts these things, but it makes me think of Martha Stewart on steroids. It's not just some famous person you don’t feel you have to live up to. It is a mom of 6 kids who is working and still manages to make specialized, themed snacks for a party for all 6 while having a perfectly decorated Christmas tree and house.

How soon do we start comparing and feeling like we don’t measure up?  When I choose to buy ready-made birthday cupcakes or fail to decorate the string cheese like reindeer, I start to judge myself as not good enough.

As a Christian woman, when I hear things about the wonderful Proverbs 31 woman (Prov 31:10-31), it makes me think of the ideal Pinterest woman. We hear how perfect, meek, mild mannered, and godly she is. It appears she does everything right, and again, we feel as if we are not measuring up.

But a couple weeks ago a friend of mine shared an article called Misconceptions of a Godly Woman by blogger Krista Ortiz. She wrote that she recently noticed something about the Proverbs 31 passages she hadn't seen before:

"She is energetic and STRONG…"
"She has NO FEAR of winter…"
"She is clothed with STRENGTH…"

Krista emphasizes that the Proverbs 31 woman is all those things we typically attribute to her but that she is also strong. "Not anything like the passive and weak woman we are so often encouraged to be. She has no fear of winter – the difficult times to come – and is most definitely not limited to planning weddings and using crockpots!"

...or, as I would add, having the best school treats or the perfectly ordered house. The woman we should talk about is the woman who God has made strong and capable and able to handle what comes her way. She is not perfect and will have trials just like others. Are we focusing on the wrong things?

It makes me think also about what is important in this Christmas season. What would Jesus want us to focus on? Would he care if we have the cutest stockings, the best gift bags, the tallest tree? Would he want us to spend our time worrying that we are wearing the right outfit or using the perfect dish to go to another Christmas party?  Or would he want us to be thinking about how to make a difference in others' lives?

Are we helping a family make better choices for their children and families? Are we too busy to show love and compassion to a stranger, or even a loved one?  Whether a working mom, far away mom, or stay at home mom, are we demonstrating love and strength to our families? Did we spend time with our children making a Chirstmas card or cookies, letting them frost them any way they want, even if they will go to friends and family without that perfect Pinterest design? Are we teaching others that they are important and loved just the way they are; that God loves us no matter what and that is why he gave us his Son?  Are we focusing on the right things this Christmas season?

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I'm proud to say that I consider Dayna to be one of the most dedicated, hard-working, and strong women I know. She is an inspiration to me and has made me a better person.

Visit the guest posts page of my blog to read others or learn more.

12.01.2013

Hobby Lobby and the Anti-Contraception Jesus

The owners of Hobby Lobby say they are passionate about bringing people to Christ and demonstrating Christian values. It's a good thing we have them around. Their employees, customers, and the the world now know what Jesus was all about. They've been saving up their time and profits for this battle, and now we've arrived at the precipice. Under requirements of the Affordable Care Act, their female employees are getting new health benefits, and it turns out that they might use them for some evil pills.

In Hobby Lobby, we have reached the pinnacle of Christian leadership and witness in the fight for religious freedom. Never mind that people were once arrested, banished, and killed for their religious beliefs. Pity the fool who thinks that our ancestors not being able to worship in the way they chose even holds a candle to the tremendous burden placed on Hobby Lobby's religious freedom.

The Green family has worked hard to earn a profit off of beads, fake flowers and glue. What an assault it is to them that their female employees might use those profits to get a pill that doesn't work in the way the Christian faith requires. I was previously unaware of this requirement, but thanks to all the expert theologians around the Hobby Lobby's executive table, I now know that it's crucial to following Jesus that sperm and eggs never slow dance or kiss unless it's time to have children. They even have some medical experts too, and they're way ahead of the times. Even though the rest of the medical community debates exactly how pills like Plan B work, Hobby Lobby has the answer. The moment you have a zygote, you've passed the point of no return. They are showing they care by being there for their female employees where they need them most...in their bedrooms and during family planning conversations. Even if those naughty women insist on doing the nasty without the intention of having children, Hobby Lobby is there to make sure it goes the right away.

In fact, thanks to Hobby Lobby, many conservative evangelicals finally found their true selves and have realized that, all along, they've been Catholic cardinals at heart. That's right, friends, even though neither case the Supreme Court will be hearing was brought by a Catholic, we've realized they were right. Contraception is bad. In fact, Monty Python was right: every sperm is sacred. Some forms of contraception are an offense to religious sensibilities, and evangelical Protestants are now on board. We've all been awoken to the fact that it's not enough to stop abortion. We must make sure every zygote gets implanted. After all, we prefer to live in denial about the 50-60% of fertilized eggs that never implant. That's a lot of souls that end up in someone's toilet or underwear! Mother nature doesn't need our help disposing of any more! We need to hold out hope that we may yet reach that perfect, moral world where the law recognizes every zygote as a person and women who use IUDs or other effective forms of birth control are put where they belong: behind bars for first degree murder.

Of course, those of us on the inside know what this is really about. The deeper problem is that birth control is all about sexual promiscuity, a thing used only by "sexual libertines." Rick Santorum made this clear in a video interview once, saying, "[Contraception is] not OK, because it's a license to do things in the sexual realm that are counter to how things are supposed to be." The problem is that women have the audacity to have sex without the consent of morally upright Christians. Rush Limbaugh was right when he said that contraception access is for those who want to be promiscuous. Obstetricians and gynecologists make all these claims about other functions outside birth control, but come on, who believes them? Forget that research has shown that contraceptive use dramatically decreases abortion rates. Who believes that?! And as previous Pope Benedict XVI made clear several times, we can't get caught up in things like effective prevention and stopping the spread of disease if it makes us give up on our ideological purity. We must continue to teach only abstinence, that crucial and highly effective part of a teen's education in which we tell them, "Don't have sex. Because we said so."

How dare the Obama administration think that it's enough to give exemptions to churches and religious schools. The owners of for-profit businesses, who otherwise have to comply with all federal laws, want their exemption too! And in all honesty, it's helping some faith-based organizations find their souls. Wheaton College, a Christian school in Illinois, had previously covered contraception in their health plans, but when the mandate came out under Obama's healthcare law, it thankfully made them realize that contraception coverage is just unacceptable!

But here's the really exciting part for Hobby Lobby and their fans. If they win their legal battle in the Supreme Court next year, it will open the door for us to be able to stop many other shameful things in this country to which people have religious objections. If a for-profit business can disobey a law on religious grounds, there's no stopping the parties of God! 

You see, the Green family of Hobby Lobby have the message of Jesus figured out. The rest of us reading the Gospels have somehow gotten the idea that Jesus prioritized things like the Kingdom of God, sacrificial service, etc. We always thought that Jesus criticized the Pharisees for emphasizing doctrinal purity and religious rules, but thanks to Hobby Lobby, we've found the true Jesus. This Jesus is not a radical, despised by the religious establishment, but is among the powerful religious elite who invest their life's work in making the rest of society conform more closely to their religious rules. This Jesus is so angry about pills that he will proudly march right up to the highest court in the land, using his political clout and large wallet to fight this worthwhile battle. Thank goodness we've found this Jesus. The other one was too dissimilar from modern day Christians, and we were starting to get uncomfortable.

Oh, one more thing. I've got the inside scoop from the Hobby Lobby executives. This isn't the end; they're planning ahead. They've just been finishing up a Bible study on Judah and Tamar, and have been inspired and convicted by the way God put Onan to death for pulling out during sex and "spilling his semen." So men, get ready: you're next!

*****

Please don't quote me out of context. This is satire.

11.07.2013

“Stories from the Ground”: My upcoming sabbatical study exploring how churches are engaging in community development

I was recently blessed and humbled to learn that my Pastoral Study Project proposal submitted to The Louisville Institute has been approved for grant funding. This study project will be carried out as one part of a 3-month sabbatical. What follows is an edited excerpt of my proposal that explains what I plan to do and why.
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In recent years, the concept of Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) has received more attention among Christians in traditional church settings. It is a long-term, intentional process that identifies and empowers leaders in impoverished communities to work for their own transformation, and seeks to start with what's good in a community--its assets--rather than its problems. The ABCD Institute of Northwestern University describes it this way:
Building on the skills of local residents, the power of local associations, and the supportive functions of local institutions, asset-based community development draws upon existing community strengths to build stronger, more sustainable communities for the future.
This type of approach is not brand new by any means, but it recently gained a lot more attention in Christian circles through Robert Lupton’s 2011 book Toxic Charity. It is appearing in many reading lists and small group book studies. In this brutally honest, hard-hitting book, Lupton argues that much of the charitable work that churches do can actually be harmful or make systemic problems worse. He writes, "Doing for rather than doing with those in need is the norm. Add to it the combination of patronizing pity and unintended superiority, and charity becomes toxic." When asked why we are seeing a growth of interest in this, Christian community developer Wendy McCaig said in an interview, “I think what Lupton did is not only say, ‘There’s an alternative,’ but he named that we’re creating systems that are actually hurting…ABCD and CCDA [Christian Community Development Association] are starting to give examples of how to live it out on the ground.”

One can sense that a movement has slowly started in churches that want to get away from providing handouts or doing “drive-by ministry.” McCaig and others have said that churches are starting to experiment, but the majority of the Christian groups that are engaged in long-term, focused community development are faith-based nonprofits with that explicit purpose, not worshiping communities or churches. Some churches who claim to be doing community development are actually engaged in the usual one-way service ministries that do for others without any local empowerment or ownership. Given that Christian community development is a long-term, intensive process that cannot be done “half way,” how are churches finding successful and meaningful ways of engaging in it?

In every church and community, there are people who want to make a real difference, but don’t know how. Or maybe they do know how but don't have the time (no, this is not always a cop out). Community development, though it’s a slow and imperfect process, holds more promise than most initiatives for affecting that real change. Because it involves long term relationships, often with people we would not otherwise seek out, the process is transformative for all involved, and it breaks down the subject/object or giver/recipient distinction.

But parishioners who are introduced to this often have the same questions I have. “Do we have the time and ability to do this?” It is essential, however, that churches wanting to thrive in the 21st century look into this kind of work. Specifically, it is essential that the church learn to make and grow disciples who can influence their own communities.

One of the trends we see in 21st century America is localization and a move toward smaller, tightly-knit groups within larger communities. One output of this trend is more numerous and diverse subcultures. Coupled with the “rise of the ‘nones’” and the growing number of “unchurched” people, this means that the subculture of church is becoming less prominent and relevant alongside a culture that is less willing to assimilate into church.  In his book, The Forgotten Ways, Alan Hirsch writes, “Alpha (evangelistic groups), evangelistic services, and friendship evangelism will reach within our own cultural framework, but are seldom, if ever, effective beyond it.”  This means that disciple-making must happen “in the neighborhood,” where people already are, by way of the people already there, within their own subculture. “If God's central way of reaching his world was to incarnate himself in Jesus, then our way of reaching the world should likewise be incarnational,” Hirsch writes.  Activating and empowering leaders in their local communities, the kind of work that ABCD does, seems to be one of the best methods for doing this incarnational ministry.

For several years now, I have been preaching, teaching and studying the concept of “missional church.” I serve a congregation that shows a great willingness to serve its community and try new things. As a young minister in this kind of setting, it is important for me to see community development in action and meet people from diverse places who are engaged in it.

Currently, concerted community development efforts are largely taking place in sprawling metropolises and large urban centers. However, smaller cities like my own or even small towns have their own share of poverty, and of course, the need for transformative discipleship. I hope to identify common threads and best practices that cross geographical boundaries and may go beyond the concepts found in the literature. This project will not only seek to offer such insights from the stories of others but could hopefully be a catalyst for increased interest and engagement with a type of ministry that boasts stories of transformation and healing that go beyond the individual. I look forward to the way it will enhance my own knowledge and skill as a minister through exposure to diverse Christian leaders and ministries doing ground-breaking work in their communities.

The Plan

I will visit churches in different areas of the country, and the community development organizations they work with (where applicable), to directly observe their ministries and to meet and interview the people who are engaged. This will include church and organizational leaders, laity, and identified community practitioners. I've identified several prospective churches and communities through personal connections, web research, and communication with the Christian Community Development Association. I plan to visit a total of four.

This is not intended to be a large, comprehensive investigation of community development in the U.S., but rather is focused more specifically on how worshiping communities (of any type), who fulfill other roles besides community development, are engaging. Knowing that every community is different, these observations and interviews will not produce universal statistical data on Christian community development, but rather exemplary narratives that help other Christian leaders imagine what is possible in their communities. The research method will be qualitative and consist of field observation and personal interview techniques. With appropriate written permission, I plan to gather video footage, audio recordings, and photographs while observing the communities and doing personal interviews. Because we live in a highly visual and digital world, I plan to disseminate my findings primarily via a polished and edited video presentation, made available online as well as DVD.
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A huge "thank you" to The Louisville Institute for accepting my grant proposal!

This post is an entry in the "Missional Church" section of this blog.

10.07.2013

The Best of "30 Days of Real"

When I was growing up, it was popular to tell someone to "be yourself."

Unfortunately, the manifestation of this advice was often not an increase in authenticity but an increase in obnoxiousness. "Be yourself" ended up meaning, "Use the version of your public facade that pretends not to care what others think."

Despite all this, we all still walked around subject to the same subconscious social norms and pretending that there were not horrible truths about ourselves and our past. Our social rules that we follow every day are full of pretense and games. The adolescent problem of being scared to death of someone finding the real you does not go away as we get older, we just get better at the game. When we don't go along with the pretense and games, we often pay a social penalty. Unless it's in a movie, of course, like the scene from Office Space where Peter is talking to "the Bobs" about how much he hates his job and is promoted for his honesty.

Blogger Tricia Lovejoy wrote, "Authenticity says to others that you are genuine and real without pretending to be someone who you are not. So when I am authentic, the 'me' that people see at church is the same 'me' that people will see at Wal-Mart, a restaurant, or my child’s ballgame."

The world lacks this authenticity. It's for this reason that I deeply appreciated a recent social network phenomenon that I think many others found silly. It was called 30 Days of Real. It was described as being "one month of sharing our realness, messiness, quirks and funny flaws to become more authentic, vulnerable and beautifully imperfect." People were challenged to post something about themselves, once a day for 30 days, that gets closer to "the real them" and wouldn't necessarily pass muster for civilized conversation without making people uncomfortable.

A surprising number of people missed the point. Some were just keeping a daily diary. Some posted about others instead of themselves. But here are some of the real, hard-hitting ones that particularly struck me.

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"I still throw adult-version tantrums when things don't go my way. I slam doors, scream and yell, and often take it out on everyone... yet I'm still able to mask it in public."

"The reason why I can't take a joke is because of all the teasing I endured as a child."

"Looking back I see times my daughter needed me and I failed her. I won't miss those opportunities again."

"Everybody always tells me to enjoy my kids because they grow up so fast. I try. I really do. But I just don't enjoy being around them half the time."

"I smile a lot in public to mask my depression."

"My own personality is my greatest insecurity. I feel boring and uninteresting."

"Sometimes I wish I could just build a wall around my heart and myself."

"My first few relationships were bad, and it was my fault. I treated my girlfriends like crap."

"I often hold others to an unfair higher standard. Then I criticize when they don't meet my expectations."

"I say that I don't care what people think because that's something a strong person says. It's a lie. I do care what people think, so much so that it can consume my thoughts."

"One of my biggest fears is not knowing an answer to a question. I have a troubling need to look smart and knowledgeable."

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The Bible contains more of this human vulnerability than we may realize. One of my personal favorites is Paul's lament in Romans 7 of his own hypocrisy and inconsistency: "For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing." (Romans 7:18b-19). Jesus, on multiple occasions, praised vulnerability and honest confession over a good public show (Matthew 6:5-6; Luke 15:21, 18:10-14). Part of what makes the Bible uncomfortable for some is that it can be so raw and real. From Noah getting drunk and naked right off the ark (Gen 9:20-21) to David's sins and confessions (2 Sam 11; 2 Chr 21; Psalm 51) to the sensual desires described in the Song of Songs, the Bible is full of real life as we know it but may be too pious to admit.

So perhaps I should end with my own vulnerable, authentic statement. So here it is:

The reason that all the above quotes particularly struck me is because they are at least partially true of me as well. #30daysofreal.

9.18.2013

"Unaffiliated"

In the last few years, I've made a conscious and active attempt to stop using ideological labels (conservative, liberal, etc.), especially for myself. You can probably find them in my earlier writing, and you may have heard me do it. I confess my past guilt on this front. But today, I avoid assigning an ideological label to any person, organization, or resource, including myself. Or, even if I do assign a label, I try to engage their content instead of using an ad hominem attack. And today I take much pride in a word that appears on my voter registration card: "unaffiliated."1

Others can put me where they want me, and I can't control that. But for me, being "unaffiliated" and label-less has become a vital aspect of my writing as well as my pastoral ministry, for three main reasons.

1) Labeling myself invites you to ignore what I say. If I start writing or get up to speak and begin by telling you that I'm about to give you the conservative/moderate/liberal viewpoint on something, I have just told you to ignore me. If you share my label, you'll be happy and satisfied before you even hear what I say, and you'll only pay attention to stuff that supports your view. If you don't share my label, the hair on the back of your neck will stand up and you'll be suspicious of me before hearing me, and you'll only pay attention to the stuff you disagree with. But if I don't use a label, you might have to listen to what I say, consider my supporting evidence, and make a merit-based judgment. And I as the speaker/writer have to make sure I've done my homework. On occasion, I've been called out because I did not examine all the relevant facts, and I appreciate that, but it makes me a better researcher. This is harder than just rallying your base. It is easier and safer to play to one's "itching ears" (2 Timothy 4:3), something corporate media and politicians are very good at.

Of course, the not listening stuff happens anyway, whether I like it or not. Recently, when a gentleman in my congregation came up to me to express disagreement with a sermon, he prefaced his remarks by saying, "Clearly, you're a _______" (insert supposed political party affiliation). After informing him that I have no political party affiliation, I listened respectfully to his critique. What he revealed is all too common and something I've gotten used to: he had heard me say a bunch of things I didn't say. I used a word or phrase that apparently tipped him off to which camp I belonged to and he didn't really listen to anything I said after that. This is where labels have gotten us. So though I can't control others' thought processes, I'm not going to contribute to the problem by using labels for myself.

2) Refusing loyalty to a group or ideology encourages critical thinking. Outside familial relationships or close friendships, the value of unconditional loyalty is questionable. Tying ourselves to a particular ideological brand or political party is like getting a tattoo of a love interest. What if the relationship goes sour? Anyone who knows something about political or religious history can attest to how drastically things can change...and have changed. It seems more prudent to weigh facts and circumstances in each situation...and each election. Comedian Chris Rock once made it clear what he thinks of ideological loyalty: "Anyone who makes up they [sic] mind before they hear the issue is a damn fool." I'm particularly puzzled by the ways in which I've seen loyalty make people forego ethical distinctions that they would make in any other area of life. For example, take the United States' uncritical support of and loyalty to Israel. I watched in May of 2011 as members of Congress on both sides of the aisle stood and applauded Israeli president Benjamin Netanyahu as he made statements that directly contradicted previous statements and broke previously made promises...which Congress had also applauded at the time. Hello?! I've got a better idea. Let's try to get a little closer to what God did in the Old Testament: support Israel when they behave well, and oppose them when they behave badly. That's how fair minded people operate. Even if Israel is a "friend" of the U.S., every solid friendship involves accountability, not just "multiplying kisses" (Proverbs 27:6). Our society is so polarized into camps based on loyalty that people who see nuance and try to look at all the issues are often ideological misfits. One of the best examples for me is the abortion debate. I see many problems with both of the major "camps" and once wrote an "open letter" to them.

3) Refusing other labels leaves room for the only one that truly matters. I am a follower of Jesus Christ and a citizen of the Kingdom of God. All other labels fall subordinate to that identity. "But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well" (Matt 6:33). I am shocked by how often we Christians go along with the policies and positions of a political party while giving scant consideration to what our faith speaks to the issue. Do we have different interpretations of scripture and things we choose to emphasize over others? Of course. There is no such thing as an objective view. But people of faith must at least start the conversation there. When a political issue or policy decision has no clear right and wrong (which is often), we at least need to be mindful that we are choosing between the lesser of evils out of necessity, and that what is "American" is not necessarily "Christian."
  • "It costs too much money," while potentially true, is not a biblical2 reason for opposing something (Matt 6:24).
  • "This person is not here legally," while potentially true, is not a biblical reason to treat someone as if they don't matter (Ex 22:21; 23:9).
  • "This person is poor and needs help," while potentially true, falls short of the biblical distinction between the poor who are oppressed and the poor who have "idle hands" (Proverbs 6:6-11; Ecclesiastes 10:18).
As I carefully analyze the facts and circumstances of each situation, being aware of my own interpretive lenses, my stance may very well fall in line with or come out opposed to that of a particular leader or party. But the important part is that I start with the question, "What action is more faithful to the Kingdom of God?" Or, if you like, we can use the very important and poignant question that was unfortunately made into a fad: "What would Jesus do?"

That is the platform from which I speak. From there, if you need your labels, put me where you want me.


1 Not to be confused with the recently formed organization called Unaffiliated Party. 
2 For insight into what I mean when I say "biblical," see my previous post: Being Biblical: Principle or Precedent?

9.11.2013

What Is It We're "Never Forgetting"?

"Never forget," we say on this day.

Sometimes it includes the words "never forgive." I've never understood how a Christian can say "never forgive" with a clear conscience. Perhaps we misunderstand what forgiveness is. Forgiveness is not saying, "What you did is OK." Forgiveness means refusing to let the actions of another rule your life and your decision-making (and it seems to me that terrorists have ruled our national life and decision-making ever since that day).

Jesus said, "For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins." (Matt 6:14-15). I guess we thought this teaching only applies when someone cuts you off in traffic or steals your lunch from the break room fridge.

But let's get back to the "never forget" part. What is it we're not supposed to forget? It can't be that people are afraid we're going to forget it ever happened, because we are reminded of it every time our politicians use it as a reason to restrict liberty in the name of security or go do something in a Middle Eastern country. It seems to me that the terrorists have occupied quite a bit of rent-free head space in the American psyche.

So what's the meaning behind "never forget"?

If "never forget" means that we should remember and repeat the bravery, comradery, and service to our neighbor that the tragedy spawned, and honor the self-sacrifice of emergency responders, then I'm on board. If "never forget" means that we should reverently remember those who lost their lives and the pain and grief felt by the family members, then I'm on board. That day represented a horrifying loss of life that shook our nation to its core. There should be no dismissal of the raw emotional pain we suffered. If "never forget" means that we should remember how that day reminded us of life's brevity and the way in which it brought us to our knees in prayer, then I'm on board.

But if "never forget" means that we should annually rekindle our anger and thirst for revenge, I'm not on board. If "never forget" is some sort of veiled threat that we can be counted on to meet violence with violence, I'm not on board (Rom 12:17; 1 Peter 3:9). I don't see how any of that distinguishes us from others we condemn.

We say we "never forget," but there's actually quite a bit we've forgotten about 9/11 and the circumstances surrounding it.
  • Most have forgotten that then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld announced on September 10--the day before--that the Pentagon could not account for $2.3 trillion in transactions. That's a lot of money. Like, 12% of the national debt. Where is the outrage from the penny-pinchers on this one?
  • Most have forgotten that 15 of the 19 identified hijackers were from Saudi Arabia. None were from Iraq or Afghanistan. 
  • Many have forgotten, judging by the ongoing hatred and suspicion of Muslims, that all prominent Muslim groups in the U.S. condemned the 9/11 attacks as well as other terrorist acts. One website documents when and how the groups announced their condemnation, and it uses the same "never forget" graphic near the top of the page. Close to 3 million Muslims call America home and love it as much as all its other citizens.
I have a feeling we wouldn't take too kindly if we were on the other side of the "never forget" rhetoric. Something tells me we wouldn't be as understanding if we heard "never forget" from an innocent Yemenese family who lost loved ones in one of our drone strikes. Something tells me we wouldn't want to hear it from Iraqi victims of U.S. chemical weapons. Something tells me we wouldn't want to hear it from the people of Chile after we backed a coup there that brought to power a military government that killed 3,000 people and imprisoned 27,000. Oh, how we have turned a blind eye to our own sins.

Here's what I hope we don't forget. I hope we don't forget that there is more to being on the side of truth and right than striking back harder. I hope we don't forget the words from Proverbs: "Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice, or the Lord will see and disapprove and turn his wrath away from them." (Prov 24:17-18).

Let us not say "blessed are the peacemakers" (Matt 5:9) while using rhetoric that divides and angers. Let us not say "overcome evil with good" (Romans 12:21) and continue to repay evil with evil.  Let us not say that God loves the world (John 3:16) and wants all to be saved (Ezek 18:23) while wishing for and taking pleasure in the destruction of our enemies.

Some hear such words as weak, mushy nonsense that is a call for us to sit back and take a beating. Not at all. It would be irresponsible not to defend ourselves. But if you think the best way to defeat evil is to strike back harder and faster, you have not understood the gospel.

9.04.2013

Guest Post: The "You" in Prayer

This guest post comes from Rev. Dr. Joe Kutter, a retired American Baptist pastor who served 5 congregations over the course of 39 years. He's the author of Praying for Ministers, a collection of prayers he wrote and sent to colleagues in ministry during his time as Executive Director of the American Baptist Ministers Council. The following was originally written as part of a sermon series called "Pronouns of Prayer."

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I was in the hospital following surgery on my neck. Effective pain killers meant that I was feeling no pain nor was I feeling much of anything else. I was not eager for visitors. Floyd walked through the door and up to my bed looking like the retired Army Colonel that he was. We exchanged greetings and then he announced, “Pastor, you prayed for me and I am here to pray for you.” He studied me for a brief moment and then put his hand on my arm and he prayed. And then he left. The entire encounter took less than five minutes. Brevity at that time in my hospital stay was a very good thing and he was brief.

So what happened in those brief hospital moments? He demonstrated his care. He showed his sensitivity and good sense about the realities of being a hospital patient. He prayed for me.

And what happened in that prayer? Allow me to confess that there are lots things about prayer that I do not understand, so this represents my best reflection on an experience that is really too big and complex and mysterious for me to understand.

What I do know is this. In that moment, Floyd became a present reminder of the love and grace of God. To be honest, I hadn’t thought much about God during that stay. I was too drugged up and too uncomfortable to think about much of anything. Well, I did spend a fair amount of time wondering if they would ever take the tubes out of my body or just how open my robe was when the nurses or visitors walked in. Hospital thoughts tend to be very very basic.

But Floyd reminded me of the larger context. Floyd’s presence reminded me that God had promised to be with me and that God’s promises are good. If you like sacramental language, Floyd became a means of grace. He asked God to make me well. I would love to report that I pulled out the tubes and jumped out of bed and immediately returned to work full of energy and enthusiasm. But the truth is that I went back to sleep and getting well took weeks if not months. 

Now, here is the part that I do not understand. I do not know what went on in God’s mind as God listened to Floyd’s prayer. Did God need to be reminded that I was a patient in the hospital and in need of some help? That doesn’t seem right to me. Or did God hold back on the healing until somebody like Floyd prayed and asked for my healing? That doesn’t sound like the God who was represented in Jesus to me.

Here is my confession. I do not understand or pretend to understand the physics or metaphysics of prayer. I cannot explain the dynamics of what happens in God’s mind when we pray. So I am left with these observations.

The scriptures are full of prayers in which people ask for help for themselves and others. Jesus prayed. The church has two thousand years of experience with prayer. Praying is an integral part of our relationship with God and one another. It was William Temple, the Arch-Bishop of Canterbury , who wrestled with the mysteries of prayer and finally offered this simple observation. “When I pray, coincidences happen.” When we pray, things happen and those happenings are rooted in our relationships with one another and God.

The writer of the little New Testament book of James has some powerful words to say to this. "Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord and the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven." (James 5:14-15). James is clear. He believes that when the seasoned saints of the church pray together, things happen. Healing happens. Sins are forgiven.

Now these words from 1 Peter 2:5:  "You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God though Jesus Christ." This is not quite 21st century language! What does it mean?

Let’s break it down. "You." Who is the "you” to whom he is writing? It is the church, the “body of baptized believers.” The "you” is the group of people who have accepted Jesus’ invitation to follow him in the life and way of God. 'Like living stones, you are being built into a spiritual house.' It’s a metaphor, a picture. We are being led by God into a relationship with God and with one another that is of such a quality that God lives within the midst of our fellowship with one another.

Do you remember the old hand game about the church? “Here is the church and here is the steeple. Open the doors and here are the people!” Peter might have put it differently. “Here is the church and made up of the people. Open the doors, and here is God!"

Let me say it again. If we relate to one another as disciples of Jesus, if we love one another and together we love God, then like stones being brought together to build a building, we will form the place where God lives. We will be a spiritual house. We will be a house of the Spirit. We will be a temple. The temple is where God lives.

Now Peter changes the metaphor. Now he refers, to the disciples, to the church, and to us as a royal priesthood that offers spiritual sacrifice. Each of us is a priest and together we form a royal priesthood. You are a priest and I am a priest and together we are a priesthood. So what does a priest do? In the ancient temple, the priest was the one who made the sacrifice to God. For animal lovers among us, this may be a bit tough to take, but this is how it worked. If John wanted to be forgiven of his sins then he would buy an animal and take it to the priest and then the priest would kill the animal and sacrifice it as a gift to God. In effect, the priest said to God, “Here is John. He is a sinner. He has brought you a gift and he asks for forgiveness. And in response to the gift, the sacrifice, the priest would say, “John, God forgives you." The priest is the one who has the privilege and responsibility of approaching God. The priest is the one who bridges the gap between God and God’s people.

We Baptists have joined with most Protestants in affirming a phrase derived from Martin Luther's theology: “The Priesthood of Believers.” We believe that every disciple of Jesus is one who is invited by God to bridge the gap between God and God’s people. For a lot of people, the phrase "priesthood of believers” meant, "I don’t need any priest or pastor to pray for me. I can pray for myself and I don’t need anybody else.” This is only partially true. Each of us has been invited to go to God individually and personally and while we are intentionally standing in God’s presence, we can indeed ask God for forgiveness or ask God for wisdom or even ask God for a parking place in a busy mall. As for the part about not needing anybody else, that's a load of narcissistic and self-centered nonsense (but other than that, it's fine)! This line of thought is found nowhere in the Bible. Never has the priesthood been about “You and me, Jesus, just you and me." The primary role of the priest is always to pray in behalf of somebody else.

Let me refer you to something that you see every Sunday. At some point in the Sunday morning service, your pastor will offer a prayer. It may be called the Morning Prayer or the Pastoral Prayer or the Prayers of the Pastor and People. Whatever it is called, your pastor is praying for you. In that moment of corporate worship, your pastor is the voice of this church as together you speak to God. It is as if your pastor is standing in your midst and saying, “God, here we are." But, your pastor is not finished when the prayer is offered. In another part of the service, your pastor will read scripture to you. And then, with that holy reading firmly in mind, the pastor will preach. Your pastor is saying to you, “As you hear me, listen for the truth and wisdom and love of God for you." In so doing, he or she is being the priest.

Do you see how it works? The priest is the one who represents the neighbor to God and God to the neighbor. I am not saying that the pastor is the priest and you are not. I am saying that in this process, the pastor is illustrating what it means for all of us to be priests.

When Floyd visited me in that hospital room, he became a priest to me. He spoke my need to God and he was God’s reminder of grace to me. For a moment, he stood in the gap between God and me.

Now, I can sense it, somebody is nervous. “I’m not about to preach any sermons to my neighbors.” If that's what you're thinking, my response would be, “Good. You would probably alienate your neighbor rather than helping him or her to find the presence of God.” Most of the time, we represent God by doing as Jesus instructed; by deeds of compassion and kindness that the neighbor is most likely to experience as the presence of God.

But remember, to pray for your neighbor, you must pay attention to your neighbor. You cannot love your neighbor while ignoring your neighbor or without knowing your neighbor. Prayer for the neighbor always involves listening, as best one can, to the neighbor. The priest not only speaks for God, the priest is the one who stands in for God and listens as God would listen. And, if it is within your capacity, you represent God in responding as God would respond, with love and forgiveness.

Do you remember Michelangelo’s image of God and Adam in the Sistine Chapel? God is in heaven reaching down towards Adam and Adam is reaching up towards God but their fingers never quite connect. There’s a gap, a separation that will never be quite overcome. The priest is the one who lives in the gap! Jesus is there, our high priest, bridging the gap between God and us (Hebrews 4:14). And, from time to time, as followers of Jesus, we venture into that space ourselves and offer to connect our neighbors to God. We do the kind deed or we say the word or we offer the prayer that may remind them of the grace and goodness of God. And we say to God, though God already knows, "Please take care of my neighbor. . . and help me to do my part."


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Guest posts are for the purpose of sparking discussion and hearing from diverse viewpoints on topics that interest me, and do not necessarily reflect my own views.

8.29.2013

Paying Attention: Principle Comes Before Loyalty

Do you remember the lame elementary school prank where someone would deceitfully get you to look in another direction while they take something, hit you, or just laugh at your gullibility?

Our susceptibility to this prank apparently never goes away, it's just that the game gets more complicated, and more high stakes.

Exhibit A: the Bradley Manning case.

Bradley Edward Manning, now also known as Chelsea Elizabeth Manning, was a U.S. Army intelligence specialist who was convicted in July 2013 of violations of the Espionage Act and other offenses after releasing the largest set of restricted documents ever leaked to the public. He was slapped with a dishonorable discharge and a 35-year prison sentence (with good possibilities for parole after 10).

The United States government, standing to lose a lot of credibility at home and abroad, has successfully used the media to get the public talking mostly about Bradley Manning himself (including his mental stability) and the abstract debate of whether he's a hero or traitor. As if the public wasn't distracted enough, he decided after his conviction to announce his desire to live as transgendered woman Chelsea Manning. Once again, we saw shock and confusion about something quite trivial in comparison to the horrors Manning revealed, which continue to go unread, undiscussed, and get a shoulder shrug at best. Yes, a lot of people have seen the video of an airstrike against innocent civilians and journalists. But for most, that's the extent of it, and the fact that the video is all we've seen is an indictment of our entertainment-induced poor attention span and our unwillingness to read.

Haven't we fallen for the "hey look" trick one too many times? Of course Manning's actions were illegal. That was never a question. But Manning released these secret documents with a willingness to suffer the consequences (a key criteria for civil disobedience) and did so believing that the justice that could be brought about outweighs any potential negative consequences (another criteria for civil disobedience). Yes, I understand the complexities, and no, I wouldn't want every person with government security clearance out there revealing stuff (e.g., I'd like them to keep my SSN private). But when viewing this particular case from an ethical point of view, it becomes clearer for me. Indeed, some U.S. officials have been forced to admit that they have no evidence that Manning's illegal leak has caused a single personal injury or fatality. The policies and practices of the U.S., however, have killed unspeakable numbers and have wreaked havoc in already volatile places.

The documents leaked by Manning reveal indiscretion, immoral policies, and illegal practices on the part of the U.S. government and military.
  • The "Guantanamo Files" show the trivial and shaky grounds upon which the U.S. has
    arrested and detained "suspected terrorists." For example, some Middle Eastern farmers remain at Guantanamo to this day having been originally arrested for wearing clothing or accessories that are popular among al Qaida operatives. They also reveal that a primary criteria for releasing prisoners is their country of origin, not objective evidence. Such nonsense would never see the light of day in an American court of law, which is why the U.S. State Department has offered millions of dollars to other countries to take and try our prisoners.
  • The "Iraq War Logs" reveal official death tolls, despite the insistence by the White House that there is no official count. Between 2004 and 2009, in Iraq alone, there were 109,000 deaths, and nearly two-thirds (66,081) were non-combatants.
  • The war logs also revealed gruesome reports of prisoner abuse and torture by Iraqi Security Forces, and under an order called “Frago 242” implemented in 2004, U.S. personnel were ordered not to investigate the allegations of abuse, a direct violation of the UN Convention Against Torture, ratified by the U.S. in 1994.
  • Leaked diplomatic cables show that the U.S. Embassy in Haiti was involved in an effort to block a bill that would have raised the minimum wage there. The increase was backed by an overwhelming majority of Haitian lawmakers and citizens, and was initially supported by then-President Rene Preval. But Preval ultimately caved to U.S. pressure and kept the bill from passing.
  • Leaked cables that have become known as the "Amn Dawla Leaks" show the head of Egypt’s State Security Investigative Service (SSIS) had received training from the FBI in Quantico. Human Rights Watch has reported that this same man and his agency "have a longstanding and well-documented record of engaging in arbitrary arrests, incommunicado detention, and torture and other ill-treatment of detainees."
There is more, but you get the idea.

A disturbing number of Americans seem to not even want to know what Manning's leaks revealed because "he's a traitor," they say, apparently putting loyalty above anything else. How about we put principle above anything else? This appeal to loyalty always reminds me of the die-hard fans of sports teams. Every time there's a game, they are there to cheer the troops on in a defeat of the opponent. When a call is made against their team, they boo, hiss and lash out, regardless of whether the call was correct. When their team makes a mistake or breaks the rules, they either say nothing or blame it on the opponent. Martin Luther King, Jr., in a sermon opposing the Vietnam war, said, "Rationalizations and the incessant search for scapegoats are the psychological cataracts that blind us to our sins. But the day has passed for superficial patriotism." When we're dealing with stuff that affects real people with real families and real lives, we cannot afford to mindlessly cheer for our team, not caring what happens to anyone else.

What a great myth it is that those who criticize their country must hate it. Quite to the contrary, I criticize my country when it is wrong precisely because I love it, and because I want it to be the world's shining beacon of freedom and democracy. Unquestioning loyalty is not only the bane of society but the complicit pathway to power by which some of the world's most brutal leaders have come. Yes, loyalty has a place, and had Manning's actions caused significant harm and loss of life, I wouldn't be writing this. But as it stands, the only significant loss to the United States is its credibility, something that cannot be regained by imprisoning Manning. Credibility should be earned by virtuosity, not maintained by deceit. The best way to know whether you believe in your own principles is whether you live by them.

8.22.2013

Wichita School's "5 Pillars" Incident Shows Confusion and Prejudice

Minneha Core Knowledge Magnet Elementary School in Wichita, KS was the center of an uproar earlier this week after a photo taken on the first day of school showing a large "5 Pillars of Islam" display was shared online. The Wichita Eagle reports that the display, which was part of a larger school curriculum, has since been taken down. State Rep. Dennis Hedke, R-Wichita, said he was “appalled” when he first heard of the display. The original person posting the photo reportedly said, "This cannot stand." It's been the subject of many social media posts suggesting that there is something egregiously unAmerican about it.

Several important facts have been largely absent from the public discussion. No one apparently captured photos from other parts of the school that include displays from other religious traditions, including Christianity (there was a painting of the Last Supper elsewhere in the hallways). A spokeswoman said that the unit of study, which is part of a core knowledge curriculum in place at the school for years, has students "study Islam, as well as Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism in the historical and geographical context of understanding the development of civilizations."

Rep. Hedke and other parents who are in opposition to the display have accused the school of "glossing over some of the more unsavory aspects of the religion, such as Jihad and the annihilation of Israel." They joined the loud chorus of many who go around talking about how Islam is a "violent religion," apparently not aware of the fact that the Bible contains more numerous and more graphic stories of divinely-commanded violence than the Qur'an does.

Incidents like these, which are not uncommon in this country, always disturb me for two major reasons.

First, there is a clear lack of understanding about the role of religion in public schools. In 2007, The First Amendment Center published a handbook called Finding Common Ground: A First Amendment Guide to Religion and Public Schools. It was compiled by two experts, one a scholar and one a Constitutional lawyer, and was sponsored/endorsed by more than two dozen organizations as diverse as the National Association of Elementary School Principals and the National Association of Evangelicals. It should be required reading for all school administrators, teachers, and concerned parents. Chapter 9 explains, in essence, that a public school can teach about religion, but cannot tell students what to believe and cannot favor one religion over another. In Abington School District v. Schempp, the 1963 case that struck down teacher-led, devotional Bible reading in public schools, Justice Tom Clark wrote:
It might well be said that one's education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization...Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.
Other commenters on this Wichita story have cried, "There should be no religion in school!" That is a very careless statement that begs to be fleshed out. Religion as an informational subject should be no more absent from public schools than it has been in the history of civilization. The Finding Common Ground resource offers several well-articulated distinctions:
  • The school's approach to religion is academic, not devotional.
  • The school may sponsor study about religion, but may not sponsor the practice of religion.
  • The school may expose students to a diversity of religious views, but may not impose any particular view.
  • The school may educate about all religions, but may not promote or denigrate any religion.
This display was part of the school's larger effort to do this. To be fair, I can actually sympathize with a certain level of surprise at the sight of this large bulletin board on the first day of school. One may have a case in claiming that the nature, timing, and prominence of this bulletin board--irrespective of the religion being highlighted--may give the impression that a religion is being promoted. But even if the method was ill-advised, the intention was not unconstitutional. That's the legal perspective. Beyond this, Christians need to understand that such careful separation actually helps, not harms, religious belief and honors the idea of a God who does not coerce us into believing in or loving Him.


The second disturbing factor for me in all of this is the hatred or distrust toward the Muslim faith that is almost always accompanied by a lack of knowledge about it (the definition of prejudice). This has been a troubling, well-documented problem in the United States ever since September 11. You may notice one important thing about the bulletin board in question: it was blank. The bulletin board was not even finished. Other than the heading about the 5 pillars, there was no content on the board yet and they had not written up what the 5 pillars are.

I would have absolutely no problem with my children learning the 5 pillars of Islam. If they became friends with a child from a Muslim family, I would be on the front lines of encouraging them to understand their friend's beliefs. I know what the 5 pillars are and find nothing objectionable or harmful about them. Based on experience, I would venture a guess that neither the congressman nor most of the opposing parents would be able to cite a tenet of Islam. Have your opinion, but if your opinion is formed without any knowledge of the subject, that is irresponsible and one of the true banes of society. In a climate where people hold signs in public saying, "All I need to know about Islam I learned on 9/11," we need informed and responsible people to speak up. The 9/11 terrorists no more represent Islam than Westboro Baptist Church represents Christianity. The Qur'an, the Muslim holy book, venerates and respects Jesus, sees Jews and Christians as fellow "people of the book" and not the enemy, and contains some laudable teachings that Christians would find familiar ("Treat kindly your parents, relatives, the orphans and those who have been left alone in the society," Surah 4:36). There are, of course, many points of departure as well. The Qur'an teaches that Jesus was never crucified, for example, and does indeed contain some calls to violence (though many scholars of Islam say that they are usually in the context of self-defense). But just as with Christians, the vast majority of Muslims look at the greater picture and see the ultimate goal as one of right relationship with God and people ("[God has] divided you into peoples and tribes that you might have knowledge of one another," Surah 49:13).

Although such outcries as in Wichita no longer surprise me, I still deeply grieve the vitriol that comes from the mouths of alleged followers of Jesus. Some of the rhetoric is indistinguishable from the exclusivity and nationalism we abhor in others but on which we give ourselves a free pass. This Lord and Savior we claim to follow said, "Love your neighbor as yourself." We cannot love those whom we do not even know. Think of the message this must have sent to any students from Muslim families. "You are not welcome here." Some of my own denominational leaders and theological educators are engaging in dialogue with Muslims, and I hope to see such things more widely embraced.

May we first seek to understand. In coming to understand our neighbor, the Spirit may just move us toward compassion for that neighbor. And then maybe reason and understanding will drown out fear and suspicion. That is my prayer.

This post was originally written for the Associated Baptist Press Blog and was published there on 8/27/13..

8.07.2013

Profit, Values, and the Glorification of Walmart

You may have seen the viral post floating around social media sites that glorifies Walmart, praising its business success. In part, the post points out:
Americans spend $36,000,000 at Wal-Mart every hour of every day. This works out to $20,928 profit every minute!...Wal-Mart now sells more food than any other store in the world, has approx 3,900 stores in the USA, of which 1,906 are Super Centers...90% of all Americans live within fifteen miles of a Wal-Mart.
The post contrasts Walmart with other "broke" government-run agencies and programs, and says that if Walmart executives were running the country, we'd be much better off.

The first thing I'm curious about is how these folks imagine a Walmart-like government would achieve the massive increase in revenue that would be necessary. But here's the thing: Walmart-type people ARE running the country. They're called corporate lobbyists. Profit is their only motive and their only value, and they put gobs of cash in your representatives pockets every year so that they will vote for their interests. Campaign contributions hang in the balance for any politician who would dare not give them what they want (it's essentially a system of bribery). And here we sit in America with one of the largest income disparities in modern times. Yes, Walmart is one of the largest and fastest growing companies in the world, employing more Americans than any other corporation. But missing from this post and many others like it are the Ethics 101 questions concerning the human cost of these ends.

Here are some other Walmart stats for you:
  • A majority of Walmart's employees live below the federal poverty line--including the full-time employees--while having one of the largest CEO to store employee pay disparities in the country. 
  • The employee turnover rate is 70%, and a UC Berkley study found that employees who have been there 2 years or more make up to 32% less than their counterparts in other retail jobs.
  • Despite a campaign back in the 80s to encourage American manufacturing and purchasing, Walmart now obtains more than 60% of its goods from overseas.
  • According to a study by economist Emek Basker, when a Walmart opens in a typical United States county, three other retailers close within two years and four close within five years. Another study at Penn State found that communities with a Walmart have a higher poverty rate, all other factors being equal.
  • Duke professor Gary Gereffi found that Walmart puts constant pressure on its suppliers to lower cost however possible, leading many to turn to international sweatshops where there are little or no employee protections, and wages are as low as $0.20/hour.
  • Walmart offers some of the poorest healthcare benefits in the industry (to the 48% of its workforce that receives healthcare at all), and recently instituted a program that forces employees needing certain types of surgery to choose between one of six hospitals in the entire country.
  • Claims of withheld overtime pay are rampant with some becoming lawsuits (that Walmart employees don't have the money to fight in court).
Walmart's great for America? I think it's fair to say that such a claim is on shaky ground when scholarly studies published in peer reviewed journals have proven the opposite. 

Let me play along for a second and assume that the American government should adopt the practices of a successful for profit business (which it shouldn't). If we're going to emulate a business, let's emulate Costco (a direct competitor to Walmart's "Sam's Club"). Adding together base pay, bonuses, and stock options, Costco CEO Craig Jelinek took home 77% less than Walmart CEO Mike Duke, and yet he paid his employees approximately twice as much (looking at the average pay for corresponding positions). Only 4% of Costco's workforce is part-time, compared to 25% at Walmart. During the recession of 2008-2009, then CEO Jim Sinegal increased the pay of his hourly workers. He is quoted as saying, "This economy is bad. We should be figuring out how to give them more, not less." Since going public in 1985, Costco has endured relentless pressure from Wall Street to cut pay and benefits, but has never done so. Costco employees' self-reported job satisfaction is one of the highest in the industry, and 88% of them have company sponsored health insurance (in contrast to Walmart's 48%). The company is known for treating it's employees well, and CEO Jelinek says this is intentional: "We know it’s a lot more profitable in the long term to minimize employee turnover and maximize employee productivity, commitment and loyalty." Retail industry expert Doug Stephens makes an observation that rings true: "A lot of people working at Walmart go home and live below the poverty line. You expect that person to come in and develop a rapport with customers who may be spending more than that person is making in a week? You expect them to be civil and happy about that?”

Both Walmart and Costco make their business philosophies clear, and they have both been effective at achieving their stated goal. However, Walmart's priority is on the ends, and Costco's on the means. From its beginning, Walmart set out to make products available at the cheapest price possible. It has done that. In contrast, Costco has focused on investing in its "human capital." It's a strategy that business gurus have written about for a long time, but the ravenous profit hounds don't have the time for it. In his best-seller 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey likens the need to invest in people to the lesson of Aesop's fable, "The Goose That Laid the Golden Egg," in which a farmer, in greedy haste, kills the goose to get to his eggs faster, only to realize that he destroyed the one thing that could produce the eggs. Covey refers to it as the P/PC balance; balancing production with production capability, a balance that is particularly crucial with your human assets. Covey writes, "There are organizations that talk a lot about the customer and then completely neglect the people that deal with the customer: the employees...Always treat your employees exactly as you want them to treat your best customers."

All of this must be especially critiqued by Christians, those who claim to follow Christ and believe in the God who cannot be served alongside money (Matt 6:24). There's something amiss when Costco and Stephen Covey have more to say about the value of people over profits than Christians do. In the past few years, there has been a troubling wave of elected officials who successfully got people railing against "government spending" with no discussion of what the spending is for. We were pulled into an abstract debate about budgets and deficits that was morally void and paid no attention to the needs of citizens and what constitutes a good investment in the common good (which the Constitution explicitly identifies as one of the purposes of government). The result has been a government that crunches numbers while crushing people, adopting the business model of Walmart. In the midst of jumping on the bandwagon, many Christians have neglected the Bible's high value on economic justice and its concern for how the powerful treat the vulnerable. Proverbs 31:8-9 is one of the most clear and powerful: "Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy." Jeremiah 22:13-14 carries a harsh warning to those who build their wealth on the backs of the poor, as Walmart does worse than anyone: "Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness, his upper rooms by injustice, making his own people work for nothing, not paying them for their labor. He says, 'I will build myself a great palace with spacious upper rooms.'" In fact, you would be hard pressed to find a verse the Bible that talks about the wealthy or the powerful without an accompanying warning concerning how that wealth and power is used.

In a strictly for-profit mindset, employees are annoying hindrances on the way to a fat earnings sheet. Hiring employees, especially full-time ones, is a course of last resort for businesses and is done only when consumer demand requires it. This exposes the inimical effect of giving tax breaks to "job creators" who hire part-time and low paying whenever they can. This is the pervasive reality of the business world, but Christians are called to live out and support a totally different ethic. You cannot be a Christian and value profit above the well-being of people. It's that simple. Even Costco, who treats its employees like gold compared to other retail stores, does it because it's "more profitable in the long term." As Christians, we begin with the belief that every person is created in the image of God (Gen 1:27), deserving of equal worth, and the command to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matt 22:39). I have not figured out a way to have genuine care and concern for others while complacently watching them live in poverty despite having a full-time job.

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