The Death, and Birth, of God (or, Religion in a Post-Truth World)

Second Sunday of Advent*
Isaiah 11:1-10
Matthew 3:1-12

 

I don’t know about you, but no matter how hard I try — and believe me, I have tried — I still cannot not think about the contours of the world — and the country — in which we now live. Last week I tried to give a sermon in which I didn’t explicitly “go there,” so to speak, as a kind of reprieve for so many of us drowning in the post-election malaise, as we find ourselves inhabitants of what is now described as – according to the Oxford Dictionary’s 2016 word of the year – a “post-truth” kind of world, a kind of world in which just a few days ago a CNN commentator acknowledged that, unfortunately, there’s no longer any “such thing…as facts,” and in turn we see that whatever is politically expedient gives way not to the higher virtues of collective human rights, responsibility, decency and dignity, but rather to our lowest base instincts of fear, manipulation, deceit and duplicity.

We once lived in a world in which people would say that you’re entitled to your own opinions, just not to your own facts. But now we seem to live in a world where one’s opinions constitute one’s facts, with no tolerance for age-old methods of rational inquiry or judicious discernment, particularly if it flies in the face of one’s pre-conceived ideologies (this is what led the comedian Stephen Colbert to coin his own word of the year several years ago: truthiness, meaning something is true because it feels like it should be true).

To be sure, we all have ways of viewing the world and developing our respective ideologies and perspectives, but nowadays it seems that any time a person encounters information that runs counter to what one already thinks, it is quickly denounced as untrustworthy or intentionally biased, and is then dismissed with a celebratory flair, often with a dose of hubris that would make even the devil blush. While a good bit of epistemological humility is always good thing, there’s a real difference between honest interpretive differences and sheer B.S. (science, for instance, isn’t just subject to the whims of whatever some dude on Facebook happens to think that day).

We now live in a country (maybe we always have) in which political opportunism (in contrast to political virtue) has led the most dominant group of Christians (not necessarily the majority of Christians but the most dominant group of Christians, a lot of times white Christians) to abandon virtues consistent with the Bible’s fruits of the spirit (described in Galatians as love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, gentleness, and self-control), in favor of virtues that are really not all that virtuous, unless you consider the love of power, money, and sex virtuous — going so far as to turn a blind eye to actions and statements that would’ve gotten any teacher, principal or pastor fired, so long as they weren’t seeking the highest office in the land.

Perhaps the greatest irony of ironies in the post-election fallout is that it is now the far right, which includes the Religious Right — the self-pronounced bona fide, born again believers — who for years and years railed against the cultural “relativism” of the so-called left, with its supposed moral depravity and its apparent lack of belief in all truth, objectivity and absolutes — indeed, its lack of belief in God — it is now many of these very same figures from the far right who are telling us there are no longer such things as objectivity and facts and absolutes.

 
Here you might want to stop me and ask how we could do away with such things? I mean, who are we to just casually do away with truth, objectivity and absolutes? Who are we to establish a post-truth world? In the words of the poet, “How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun?” And how would this affect us? “[Doesn’t this make us feel like we are plunging], continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? . . . Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition?”

These lines, of course, come from the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s parable about the Madman who announced the death of God – which in turn made Nietzsche both infamous and ubiquitous, for generations to come. After he acknowledged the death of objectivity and facts and absolutes in his own nineteenth-century “post-truth” context – which sounds an awful lot like ours — he goes on to ask, in poetic fashion, “How [do] we comfort ourselves, [if we’re] the murderers of all murderers? . . . [W]ho will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us?”

People assume Nietzsche was simply announcing his atheism in a provocative and attention-seeking way (it’s where his famous “God is dead” line comes from). But scholars tell us he was up to much more. Contrary to a lot of conventional assumptions, Nietzsche wasn’t just making some sort of argument for atheism. Instead, he was providing a warning of the risks involved when all claims to truth, to absolutes, to God, go by the wayside, in the post-truth kind of world he inhabited. For Nietzsche, this is nothing less than a traumatic experience. It’s like he’s asking, “You want society to be structured without truth? Without facts? Without absolutes? Without moral and ethical imperatives? This is what you want? Just know that I’m a seer here, and trust me, it’s not for the faint of heart — one doesn’t dance on the grave of God without acknowledging the dire consequences involved.”

Along the same lines, around the same time, the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevksky was credited with the paraphrase, “If God is dead, then everything is permissible.” Which you can just as well translate as saying, “If there are no truths, no facts, no absolutes, then everything is permissible.” This is why, for both Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, a “post-truth” kind of world is a traumatic reality, not a soothing one; it’s full of more death than life.**


And that is why I’m glad that Christmas is about the birth, and not the death, of God.

To be clear, I don’t mean that in the “gotcha” sense of “atheism = bad/belief = good” – not in the least! (those of you who’ve heard me preach over the years or have read my books know that’s not how I understand things) – but what I mean to say is that in the figure of Christ – “a vulnerable baby born to a poor teenage mother in a dirty animal stall,” as one pastor describes – in the figure of the Christ we find both an unconditional accountability and an infinite responsibility to the other – with the “other” being understood as other human beings as well as to the world itself. In the figure of the Christ, there is a very clear reference to what virtue looks like; what decency looks like; what ethics look like, and even in a post-truth kind of world what Christians would say truth looks like. 

For in the figure of the Christ, it’s precisely this unconditional accountability and infinite responsibility to the other that constitutes truth as truth. Here we see that truth is not some abstract idea “out there” to wrap our minds around but rather truth is found in the humanity of the other “right here,” which is inextricably wedded to our response to the other — to other human beings and to the world itself.

So in many ways it becomes a question of where one places one’s faith, one’s trust: In the figure of all that is harbored in the life of Christ (which I might add includes an inclusive kind of love that can still be very much alive even if one has never heard of Christ, or even believes in Christ), or does one place faith, place trust, in the vapid and vacuous yet all too influential truthiness that threatens the very fabric of our society, not to mention common human decency?

And regardless of what right-wing Christians may or may not say, or what any Christians may or may not say, when our gaze turns only to ourselves, when there is no accountability or responsibility to the other, when truth becomes an idea “out there” we can never agree on as opposed to a person “right here” that should be the first of all of our concerns, we live as if God is, for all intents and purposes, dead.

After all, Christmas tells us one simple truth: If God is born into the world in Jesus, then God is born into the world in love. And love demands unconditional accountability and infinite responsibility to the other.
Which means that anytime society tries to normalize or justify rhetoric and actions that incite hate toward the other, whether in a so-called pre- or post-truth kind of world, the birth of the Christ child offers a resounding, “No!” Not in the name of love. Not in the name of accountability. Not in the name of responsibility. 

Anytime society tries to normalize or justify rhetoric and actions of greed that exploit the other, the birth of the Christ child offers a resounding, “No!” Not in the name of love. Not in the name of accountability. Not in the name of responsibility. 

Anytime society tries to normalize or justify rhetoric and actions of racism toward the other, the birth of the Christ child offers a resounding, “No!” Not in the name of love. Not in the name of accountability. Not in the name of responsibility. 

Anytime society tries to normalize or justify rhetoric and actions of sexism toward the other, the birth of the Christ child offers a resounding, “No!” Not in the name of love. Not in the name of accountability. Not in the name of responsibility. 

Anytime society tries to normalize or justify rhetoric and actions that dehumanize the other – whether women, immigrants, Muslims, the poor, the disabled, or the LGBTQ — the birth of the Christ child offers a resounding, “No!” Not in the name of love. Not in the name of accountability. Not in the name of responsibility. 

If God is born into the world in Jesus, then God is born in love. And love comes with an unconditional accountability and an infinite responsibility to the other, otherwise it is not love.
This is at the heart of John the Baptist’s message, and it remains at the heart of the Christmas message today. If God is born into the world, God is born in love.

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer — the heroic German theologian imprisoned and subsequently martyred by the Third Reich – once wrote:

“Who will celebrate Christmas correctly? Whoever finally lays down all power, all honor, all reputation, all vanity, all arrogance, and all individualism beside the manger.”

Let us journey, together, to the manger.

To the glory of God, and for the sake of the other — other human beings, and the world itself. 

——–
*This is like the “B” side of my sermon from Sunday morning, in which I include a few more things that I didn’t have a chance to mention or get into given the allotted time and context.

 
**It’s not lost on me that postmodernism (for lack of a better term) resists absolute truth claims and practices a rigorous hermeneutic of suspicion precisely in order to reject oppressive metanarratives — and all the while Trump’s surrogates are rejecting absolute truth claims in order to maintain hegemonic white cis heterosexist conventions at work in Trump’s very own absolute truth claims, which runs counter to so much of the good that’s been harbored in the name of postmodernism. This is just another way I can’t get my mind around the Trump phenomenon, and why it’s giving me no rest.

 

 

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It doesn’t matter who you voted for; God’s call for justice remains the same

christ-the-king

Image source: exploringchurchministry.blogspot.com

Reign of Christ Sunday
November 20, 2016

“Of Gods and Men”
Luke 23:33-43

One of the more obvious questions for us to ask on Reign of Christ Sunday, traditionally referred to as Christ the King Sunday (the last Sunday of the church year before Advent begins) is simply this: Why in the world did the church choose to pair a reading about Christ’s crucifixion with an understanding of Christ as King? I mean, wouldn’t it make more sense to assign a biblical passage that has to do with the triumphant Christ, riding in on a white horse, all-powerful and almighty? Why a passage that focuses on Jesus’ vulnerability and humiliation? What is kingly about that? It flies in the face of what we are conditioned to believe true kingship, or leadership, is all about.

Of course, that is the point: the way we understand leadership is often times a far cry from the way that Jesus understood leadership. One biblical scholar says that in this passage, Jesus asks the people,

“What kind of king do you want?” And the people reply that they want a different kind of king, one who is powerful, one who can save himself and others, one who can take vengeance on his and their enemies.

He goes on to wonder if Jesus’ question to us today is different? If not, “What kind of king?” at least, “What kind of leader?” And he wonders if in the last two weeks we – at least we who live in the United States – offered an answer quite similar to the one given in Jesus’ day.

After all, Jesus refuses to come in power and dominance but instead appears in abject vulnerability. He does not vow retribution on even those who crucify him but instead offers forgiveness. He does not come down off his cross to prove his kingly status but instead remains on that instrument of torture and humiliation, as the representative of all who suffer unjustly.

Jesus challenges all of our assumptions about what true kingship, what true leadership, looks like.

I’m reminded of the kind of leadership that we venerate today –> not the kind of leadership that we vote for, but that we venerate. We venerate the leadership of people like Martin Luther King Jr., Desmond Tutu, Malala Yousafzai and the Dalai Lama precisely because they model a more beautiful way of leading – they refuse to lead by dominance and coercion, but by love and vulnerability. And there’s a big difference between voting for a certain kind of leadership, and venerating a certain kind of leadership.

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve gone back to some of the writings that most influenced my faith; trying to make sense of where our world is, and how we can meaningfully act in it. I’ve also thought a lot about the Thanksgiving Day tables we’ll encounter this week, and how there will be many different perspectives shared by people gathered around the same table, and in the midst of all of this I wonder how we can meaningfully work toward reconciliation and unity in our relationships without losing sight of justice, for justice should never be sacrificed on the altar of unity (after all, if the world is not fair or just, then unity is impossible –> unity and reconciliation are possible because of justice, not the other way around).

And I’ve also felt very privileged thinking about all of this. I mean, as a straight cis white guy I may be wondering how we can face our families at the Thanksgiving Day table; yet all the while minorities, as well as many women, are wondering how they can exist in this nation. It’s one thing to be worried about your place around the table; it’s an entirely different thing to wonder about your place in the nation. To wonder if you have a place.

In 1967, following several major victories for the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, Martin Luther King acknowledged that we were still far from the promised land:

“I must confess, my friends, that the road ahead will not always be smooth. There will still be rocky places of frustration and meandering points of bewilderment. There will be inevitable setbacks here and there. And there will be those moments when the buoyancy of hope will be transformed into the fatigue of despair. Our dreams will sometimes be shattered and our ethereal hopes blasted.

We may again, with tear-drenched eyes, have to stand before the bier of some courageous civil rights worker whose life will be snuffed out by the dastardly acts of bloodthirsty mobs. But difficult and painful as it is, we must walk on in the days ahead with an audacious faith in the future. …Let us realize that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

When talking about the way that the world turns toward justice, Dr. King wasn’t naïve or sentimental. He said that naïve and sentimental attitudes about the course of history stem:

“from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.”

Now is the time.

Let me be abundantly clear. This sermon is not about a particular political candidate or a particular political win. This sermon is not about party loyalty. This sermon, this call for justice if you will, is about our responsibility to have our compass pointed true north, regardless of what country we live in or what political party or candidate we may or may not have supported. As Christians following the way of Jesus, a king who showed that true leadership has much more to do with love and vulnerability than dominance and coercion, we have the responsibility to point our compass true north, to the moral law, to God’s law, which is rooted in love and justice and transcends every political party and candidate and nation.

All of us as Americans have a shared responsibility, no matter who we voted for. I know a lot of people who voted for Trump, but it wasn’t because they supported oppression or discrimination. Yet regardless of any of our intentions, it’s all about outcome. Let’s hope the outcomes are good. But in the same way one has a Christian duty to criticize Obama for his drone policies, and his continued use of torture in Guantanamo Bay, so too do we have the responsibility to resist injustice anywhere we see it. Regardless of who you voted for, and regardless of your intentions when voting, if the outcome is oppression then you have a Christian duty to resist it. Time is not neutral; You have a responsibility to shape the moral arc of the universe.

In a letter to Christians who voted for Donald Trump, Geoff Holsclaw writes the following:

I believe you are doing your best. I believe you want good for America.

As a fellow evangelical, a local church pastor, and a seminary professor, I believe you want to be true to the gospel — to the “good news.”

In supporting Trump, I believe you did what you thought to be right by trying to vote for the lesser evil.

I believe you are not a racist, a misogynist, or a white nationalist because you voted for him. I believe you try to love your non-white neighbors, your Muslim coworkers, and your gay family members. I know you feel marginalized and shamed for your values.

As Christians, we seek to follow Jesus, who was a blue-collar worker living far from a corrupt cultural center, and he was pushed aside by those in power. I believe you see your vote for Trump as a call for another way, even if it was a vote for the lesser evil.

I believe you.

But a spike in hate crimes and harassment since the election reveals the consequences of voting for the lesser evil.

The empowerment of hatred because of Trump is now being felt across America: A woman was groped in the aisle of a grocery store in Grand Rapids, Mich., Swastikas and Trump’s name were spray-painted on windows in Philadelphia; a Chinese American woman said she was harassed by a white man in Minneapolis and told to “Go Back to Asia.”

Trump was elected with the support of four out of five evangelicals — people of the “good news.” But countless stories since his election show that, for people of color, women, and Muslims, his election has been very bad news.
I believe enabling this hatred was not your desire. You were just voting for the lesser evil.

But if you do not confront racism, misogyny, and Islamophobia wherever you see it, then your vote for the lesser evil will become a vote for hate.
If you do not press for justice against hate crimes in your neighborhoods, then your vote for the lesser evil will become a vote for the oppression of people of color.

If you do not make your churches a place of respect for women, then your vote for the lesser evil will become a vote for sexism.

If you do not live in a way that proclaims the dignity of all people made in the image of God, then your vote for the lesser evil will become a vote for bigotry and xenophobia.

You voted for Trump on Nov. 8. How will you vote today and every day moving forward?

Will you vote daily against racism at work through your hiring practices and your conversations over coffee?

Will you vote daily against sexism in the respect you show to women and the messages you send your children?

Will you vote daily against bullying by calling attention to cruelty when you see it and by overcoming your discomfort in the presence of a gay person?

These votes are being tallied every day. What will they reveal?

Time is not neutral; The moral arc of the universe, the moral law, God’s law, still calls. And we must respond.

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In surprising announcement, Paul of Tarsus throws support behind Nero for emperor

CORINTH—In a stunning press conference that sent shock waves throughout the Roman imperial kingdom, Paul of Tarsus (formerly known as Saul) announced that “after much prayer and discernment” he will support Nero’s bid to replace emperor Claudius, “despite serious misgivings about the candidate’s character and unpredictability.” Paul made the statement on Wednesday while staying with friends in Greece’s southern city of Corinth.

“To state the obvious, Nero is far from being an ideal candidate,” Paul declared. “Yet even if he doesn’t provide a perfect path forward, he is at least the lesser of all other evils.”

Friends were quick to express their confusion with Paul’s statement. Not only has the controversial Nero earned a reputation of being cold, callous, and divisive, but several of his policies are in marked contrast to the ethical teachings prized by Paul himself. Paul’s friends said it wasn’t immediately clear why Nero’s policies were viewed as the lesser of all evils, if based on the criteria established in Paul’s own writings. 

“This endorsement is far from consistent with the person I know and love,” said Timothy, who served as Paul’s protégé for many years. “While I recognize that people are feeling a lot of anxiety regarding the state of affairs in our world today, it was Paul himself who once wrote a letter to me saying that ‘in the midst of distressing times, I should avoid people who are lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, arrogant, abusive, unholy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers, brutes, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God.’ . . . Yet now it appears that my dear mentor is casting his lot with them.”

Peter “The Rock” Johnson has shared a long and at times contentious relationship with Paul that dates back to their mutual admiration for Jesus of Nazareth, a failed if not beloved Jewish leader executed for insurrection against Rome nearly a generation ago. The Rock expressed his bewilderment at Paul’s endorsement, saying, “Our Lord was the victim of state-sponsored torture, yet Paul is now okay endorsing a leader who not only lauds torture but wishes to expand it?” 

While the counter-culture movement widely associated with Peter and Paul has frequently been criticized for being far too idealistic in its valorization of non-violence, Peter—who tells us he hasn’t picked up a sword since his Lord told him to put it away many years ago after a brief but heated altercation with a high-ranking official—still doesn’t understand why Paul is willing to reject the movement by supporting a candidate who casually speaks of violence and retribution as if they are virtues to be cultivated instead of vices to be condemned. “It just goes against everything we’ve valued for so long,” he said. “I mean, whatever happened to loving your enemy? To not returning evil with evil, or insult with insult, but returning evil with good? To caring for the least of these, including the hungry and the homeless? If our Lord knew of Paul’s support for the vindictive policies championed by Nero—a man who has a heart trained in greed—he would be turning over in his grave.” After a momentary pause, The Rock quickly added, “If he was still in there, that is.”

According to anonymous sources within Paul’s network of trusted colleagues and friends, this is a decision that even Paul himself acknowledged he may live to regret. One contemporary scribe speculates that Paul has lost his faith, no longer believing that peace will come through justice, as his early writings suggest, but rather through violent victory — the way of Caesar and not of Christ.

“He isn’t proud of what he’s doing,” a source close to Paul disclosed on condition of anonymity. “Frankly speaking, like many others these days, he appears to have succumbed to the kind of fear and existential despair that leads one to abandon key principles that were once cherished.”

When pressed on whether or not his refusal to support Nero’s chief rival had anything to do with her gender, Paul abruptly ended the press conference. As he stormed out of the room, his spokesperson simply said, “No comment.”

This has led some observers to wonder if Paul—who was once a strong supporter of the leadership of women within the communities he founded—might revise his views related to gender and hierarchy in subsequent writings.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

###

Darryl Schafer contributed to this story from his office in downtown Springfield.

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“Get even with people. If they screw you, screw them back 10 times as hard. I really believe that.” – Not Romans 12:17-20 or 1 Peter 3:9 or Matthew 18:21-22 but Donald Trump

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10 Reasons You Might Be More Pro-Life than You Think

Being a pro-life Christian may mean a lot of things, but if at the very minimum it means affirming that all life is sacred – as it should – then truly being pro-life means affirming in no uncertain terms that:

1) The humanity of a woman is as valuable as that of a man;

2) The humanity of an immigrant is as valuable as that of a citizen;

3) The humanity of a Muslim is as valuable as that of a Christian;

4) The humanity of a Mexican is as valuable as that of an American;

5) The humanity of a poor person is as valuable as that of a rich person;

6) The humanity of a gay person is as valuable as that of a straight person;

7) The humanity of a transgender person is as valuable as that of a cisgender person;

8) The humanity of a black person is as valuable as that of a white person;

9) The humanity of a differently abled person is as valuable as that of a conventionally abled person;

10) The humanity of a baby that has already been born is as valuable as that of a baby that is yet to be born.

As such, being pro-life means that if we live in a culture where it’s okay to demean and objectify women — whether in a locker room or any other room — then we live in a culture that needs to change. Pro-life Christians should speak out against all forms of misogyny.

Being pro-life means that anytime LGBT people are dehumanized or demonized, there is a responsibility to instead show dignity and respect. Pro-life Christians should speak out against all forms of discrimination.

Being pro-life means that all lives matter; therefore, if a disproportionate number of people of color are unjustly killed or imprisoned in this country, then pro-life Christians have a responsibility to remind people that you can’t say all lives matter until you also affirm that black lives matter. Being a pro-life Christian means you notice the places and ways that life is diminished and destroyed, and you work to change it, even when uncomfortable protests that point to uncomfortable truths are necessary in order for this to happen. Unless you prefer supporting a culture of death, being pro-life means that Tamir Rice’s life matters. Eric Garner’s life matters. Philando Castile’s life matters. Terence Crutcher’s life matters . . . Pro-life Christians affirm that Black Lives Matter.

And lest one be confused, being pro-life also means affirming that the lives of police officers matter. As the official Black Lives Matter Facebook account posted just after the tragic shootings that took the lives of five Dallas police officers: “Black activists have raised the call for an end to violence, not an escalation of it.” Likewise, pro-life Christians speak out against all forms of violence.

Being pro-life also means there is a responsibility to care for refugees fleeing violence. Pro-life Christians would do well to remember that Jesus himself was once a Middle Eastern refugee fleeing violence, and we should care for refugees fleeing violence as if we were caring for Jesus himself.

Being pro-life means there is a responsibility to sustain life. Pro-life Christians should work to curb climate change so that life on this planet will be possible for future generations. Denying scientific insights about the peril of our species is not pro-life, it’s pro-death.

Being pro-life means you should care for life from womb to tomb. Instead of working for policies that threaten life and health, pro-life Christians should understand that the most effective way to care for unborn babies is by providing resources to mothers in need. Every major study shows that reducing poverty and providing access to quality education are the most effective ways of reducing abortion. From a pro-life perspective, it’s absolutely hypocritical to say you care about unborn babies if at the very same time you aren’t working to change economic injustices and policies that exacerbate poverty.

Being pro-life means that all workers should be paid a living wage, because it’s not very pro-life for someone to get rich if it means taking advantage of another human being. Pro-life Christians should care about the poor not simply by giving to charity but by transforming the very systems and structures that keep people poor in the first place. Pro-life Christians know it’s hypocritical for business leaders or corporations to give to charities if at the very same time they refuse to pay their workers a living wage.

The list goes on, but suffice it to say that being a pro-life Christian is not about being a single issue voter; it means you truly affirm the sanctity of all life. Otherwise it just sounds like a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal (which I suppose may get you somewhere in politics, but not very far in the way of love).

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Phillips Theological Seminary offers prayer in response to the death of Terence Crutcher

Brentwood Christian Church

pts-logoPhillips Theological Seminary, a Disciples of Christ graduate school in Tulsa that trains ministers and leaders of the church, including Phil (’02) and Emily (’07), offers the following prayer in response to the death of Terence Crutcher, the son of one of its graduates. You can read the full post from the seminary here.

Prayer of Longing

In a time when some are left to wonder whether black lives matter,

In a time when children are killed and left in streets and on sidewalks

      well after their premature last breath,

You are present, O Spirit of God,

Groaning and sighing when words offer no solace.

God, you are present with everyone

Who hungers and thirsts for justice,

Who lives in fear,

Who grieves,

Who buries loved ones,

Who cannot breathe.

So too, God, are you present

With everyone whose hunger is satiated, and thirst quenched,

Who prioritizes comfort over…

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The Gospel According to Colin Kaepernick

It is bad enough to be reminded that we sing allegiance to a nation built on the death of indigenous peoples, the slavery of black and brown bodies. It is far worse to be reminded of this by a black man. Given the vicious response to his actions, it seems that no form of protest by blacks is welcome, even a peaceful and articulate protest. How dare a man whose job is to entertain us make us uncomfortable? We don’t like to be uncomfortable, and when someone makes us uncomfortable, we tend to get mean, nasty, and violent.

via The Gospel According to Kaepernick — WIT

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Is Hope Possible in the Wake of Baton Rouge, St. Paul and Dallas?

“Is Hope Possible in the Wake of Baton Rouge, St. Paul and Dallas?”
By Rev. Dr. Phil Snider
July 10, 2016
Brentwood Christian Church

We ended last week’s sermon by reflecting on how part of the way that good religion keeps an open mind is by believing that change, that hope, for ourselves and our world, is possible.

And then we had a week like we just had, which makes us wonder all the more if change is possible.

Today’s follow up sermon is on finding hope — it’s about how good religion is supposed to be hope-filled. It’s part of our summer sermon series; the themes for which have been planned for over three months. But who would’ve thought it would be so difficult to speak a word of hope on this day? Who would’ve guessed? Sometimes hope seems so hard to come by. As Langston Hughes wrote, “I am so tired of waiting, aren’t you, for the world to become good and beautiful and kind?”

Many of us have felt more despair than hope these last few days, these last few weeks. From the shootings in Orlando, to last week’s extra judicial killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, to the killing of officers serving in the line of duty, Lorne Ahrens, Michael Smith, Michael Krol, Patrick Zamarripa and Brent Thompson, killed by sniper fire.

“I am so tired of waiting, aren’t you, for the world to become good and beautiful and kind?”

The kind of headlines we’ve been reading are the kind we expect to come out of Baghdad or Lebanon, maybe Jerusalem. But they are coming out of Orlando, Baton Rouge, St. Paul and Dallas, and not long before that, headlines out of Stanford University. Sometimes it feels like more than we can bear.

The writer of Lamentations echoed the poetry of Hughes:

“My eyes fail from weeping, I am in torment within; my heart is poured out on the ground, because my people are destroyed.”

In many ways this state of affairs in America seems so “new” to me — but this newness simply reflects my naïveté and my privilege. My naïveté from the perspective of history [when in America have there not been struggles related to power, racism, violence, sexism, heteronormativity? — how many struggles have there been throughout American history that maybe weren’t captured and shared on social media but are just as real, from the violence of public lynchings to the behind the scenes violence of domestic abuse to the violence of perpetual warfare to the violence associated with the valorization of and obsession with military grade weaponry — from a historical perspective I have been naive].

But I’ve also been privileged, especially from the perspective of race and gender. Several years ago, when I was doing my doctoral work, I took a class on how ministers and churches can meaningfully respond to the racism that remains far too prevalent in our world. One of my colleagues in the class — an African-American minister — talked about how he stopped wearing football jerseys when driving to school, and switched to wearing ties, because it keeps him from getting pulled over as often. I had no idea. It was the first time I became aware of being pulled over for a DWB (Driving while black). Just a couple of years ago, Wes Pratt, who is also African American (many of you know him from his work at MSU), stood in our sanctuary during a panel discussion reflecting on the tragic death of Michael Brown, and he talked about how he had been in the car with a friend (another African American man) just a couple of weeks before, and they had been pulled over for a minor traffic infraction. Both officers had their guns out of their holsters, pointed at Wes and his friend.

I’ve got to tell you, I’ve been pulled over several times for minor traffic infractions, but never once has an officer even begun to draw his weapon. And while I may have been naive for most of my life, examples like these abound. These stories are just as much a part of the American experience as my own, but they are experiences that I don’t like to acknowledge because they make me feel uncomfortable, but they must be acknowledged. To hide from the kind of truths that one doesn’t personally experience doesn’t make the experiences of others any less real, just because they are not your own, and silence in the face of such experiences equates to complicity in, or at least the sanctioning of, the system that perpetuates them.

In many ways we are living under the conditions that make for a perfect storm. A history of racism — centuries and centuries of unfair treatment of brown and black bodies, coupled with a culture that has sold its soul to the myth of redemptive violence; with the near valorization of explicitly racist vernacular in recent public rhetoric; to the mistrust and lack of respect of people different than ourselves, “the others we don’t know”; to the rampant availability of military grade weapons that can lead to massive death tolls in a matter of minutes, which in turn leads people to be all the more defensive and on edge at all times, to fire first and ask questions later… It’s not all necessarily a history of our making but it is a history we’ve inherited, in which we live and move and have our being. And because we’ve inherited it, we are stewards of it. And history is still in the making (history is not what happened it is what we make happen) and we are left with the questions of what kind of history future generations will inherit, and what our responsibility is to them. This morning, the great great great great nephew of Robert E. Lee, the Rev. Rob Lee, will stand in his pulpit and say the names Alton Sterling and Philando Castile because he knows American history needs to change.

This morning, let’s be clear: Jesus was another brown body executed by the powers of the state, that is true; but it’s also true that when Jesus’ disciple Peter drew his sword against the powers of the state, Jesus told him to put it away, saying that “those who live by the sword will die by the sword” — for returning violence with violence, from Jesus’ perspective, was unequivocally and categorically wrong. That’s why so many protests against inequities and injustices draw on the ethics of the non-violent resistance which was described, demanded and enacted by Jesus. As Gandhi is credited as saying, “An eye for an eye would make the whole world blind.” Last night at the Black Lives Matter rally on the Springfield square, one person who showed up had a sign that approved of the Dallas shootings, but the organizers quickly went to the press in order to say that does not represent the views of the BLM movement. As the official BLM Facebook account posted on Friday, the shootings in Dallas were unequivocally condemned, “Black activists have raised the call for an end to violence, not an escalation of it.”

So where is God in the midst of all of this?

The Christian tradition symbolically juxtaposes two things that don’t seem to go together — the cross, which is a site of death, and hope — or as St. Paul calls it, hope against hope.

The symbol of the cross stands for all places and all times in which life is unjustly taken, where all hope is lost, where the darkness is all we know.

Hope, as St. Paul describes, is hope against hope. In other words, it’s not hope when things look bright, when our chances look good, when we have good reason to be optimistic about the future. No, hope is only hope when we’ve been pushed to the brink, up against the wall, and all hope seems lost.

That’s why the cross is the central symbol of Christianity. The cross is a symbol of the place of hopelessness, yet, paradoxically, precisely the place in which we find God at work. While a lot of popular theologies these days like to talk about the cross only in terms of it representing the place where God forgives our sins by killing his son, we must understand that such an interpretation was largely shaped within the context of privileged classes and is primarily used to establish and reinforce privileged norms. It’s not the only theology of the cross.

An even older interpretation of the cross, and one that still finds a great deal of resonance today, especially in African American churches, is the cross as a sign of Gods identification with those who unjustly lose their lives, who are victimized and exploited and derided, often by the powers that be, and it’s a symbol that God unequivocally and categorically condemns unjust suffering and unjust blood being taken as a sacrifice that appeases the cultural norms of our day.

And, ultimately, this is the symbol St. Paul refers to when he says that nothing, not even death on the cross, can thwart the abiding and transforming love of God that is stronger than even the most unjust deaths in our world, a transforming love that will not rest until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream. The cross provides hope because in the Christian gospel hope comes alive precisely when we expect it the least, God brings forth resurrection, when we thought all hope was lost.

This is not a cheap hope, or a shallow optimism. And it’s not just a sentimentalism (I love the hugs between police officers and BLM protestors, but interpersonal exchanges are not enough — for true hope to emerge in our future, systems and structures must change also). Hope is not the same as sentimentalism or optimism. As Cornel West describes, “optimism adopts the role of the spectator who surveys the evidence in order to infer that things are going to get better. Yet we know that the evidence does not look good. By contrast, hope enacts the stance of the participant who actively struggles against the evidence in order to change the deadly tides of inequality, xenophobia, and despair. Only a new wave of vision, courage and hope can keep us sane — and preserve the decency and dignity requisite to revitalize our organizational energy for the work to be done. To live is to wrestle with despair, yet never allow despair to have the last word.” It’s been said that as human beings, we can light candles, or curse the darkness. As Christians, we light candles.

Because of the gravity of the last week, indeed, of the last few weeks, I often feel as if I don’t have words. So I’m drawn to prayer — not as a passive way of doing nothing about the violence and injustice — but out of the recognition that all of our best efforts often are not enough, and that we need help that comes from beyond ourselves. Prayer, at its most basic level, draws us out of ourselves toward the needs of the other. It’s not some sort of magical formula in which we ask God to grant our wishes, but it’s an act that centers us, that grounds us, so that we might focus on what matters most.

In prayer, we cry out to God with hopes and sighs and tears too deep for words…

– O God, in a world torn by violence — around the world and here in the U.S., we cry out for your help

– For the blood on the streets of Baton Rouge, we cry out

– For the blood on the streets of St. Paul, we cry out

– For the blood on the streets of Dallas, we cry out

– For the centuries of racism that threaten the very fabric of our being, for the stranglehold of fear and prejudice that too frequently lurks within, we cry out

– Deliver us, O God — from silence in the face of oppression, from the failure to treat black and brown bodies with the dignity they deserve, from actions that return violence with violence, that tear apart and destroy your beloved people

– O God, may your redemptive and liberating power move among us, as we long for your justice to flow down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream

 


After preaching this sermon, a friend sent me the following quote, which I think is apropos for Christianity as well:

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