I lead a little weekly Bible Study on Zoom and yesterday we had the story of the birth of Jesus from Luke Chapter 2. The Christmas story is a good one in which to ponder how we read Scripture since it is so familiar to us. After nearly a half century of studying Scripture for preaching I am still finding discoveries in texts that I thought were “settled.” The Christmas story is one such text.
(Don McGillis was the former Editor of the Berkshire Eagle and a long-time reporter for the Boston Globe. He was also my friend. He died last week after spending the night stranded on Mount Katahdin in Maine and suffering a 50-foot fall. His family invited me to share some words at his memorial service yesterday)
We will come to the bridge in my title in due time, but it is a later piece of the story I want to tell tonight, so I will begin with an important book I read last summer while I was filling in as a guest preacher for my daughter during her maternity leave. Continue reading
Jesus was often in trouble with the authorities because he regularly, and quite intentionally, broke the religious rules of the day. Continue reading
My mother-in-law is 86. Every day she engages in some form of political protest, such as contacting her representatives by phone or writing them a letter. This is part of her personal faith discipline. Continue reading
Rubem Alves, the Brazilian writer and theologian, died last week at the age of 80. I had the privilege to get to know him during one of his visits to the United States in the early 1980’s. He came to Bangor Theological Seminary in Bangor, Maine, where I was the chaplain at the time. One of my unofficial duties was showing hospitality to visiting scholars, and so over the course of a week or so, I shared several meals with him and drove him around town to see the sights. I remember I took him shopping for his family at T. J. Maxx. He had a shopping list from his wife, and was very methodical about what to bring home to Brazil.
He was one of the most intellectually curious people I have ever met. A professor of philosophy, he was interested in literature, music (he wrote eloquently about Vivaldi), education and psychoanalysis (in which he was trained.) He was such great company, full of ideas and ready to discuss a world of topics. He had a wonderful sense of humor and a great laugh
He loved poetry and his 2002 book, The Poet, the Warrior, the Prophet (SCM Classics) is an important work in the field of theopoetics. He went on to publish over 40 books on a wide variety of subjects. A popular lecturer and speaker he was also a columnist for his local newspaper.
He is often credited as one of the founders of liberation theology and his dissertation at Princeton Theological Seminary was later published under the title A Theology of Human Hope (Corpus Books, 1969) with a foreword by Harvey Cox. It was an important early work in English on the subject.
I just learned of his death from a tweet from the World Council of Churches, memorializing his many contributions to the ecumenical movement. The remembrance of him from the WCC can be found here.
I recall him with great affection and give thanks to God for him.
Here is a quote of his:
“Let us plant dates even though those who plant them will never eat them. We must live by the love of what we will never see. . . . Such disciplined love is what has given prophets, revolutionaries, and saints the courage to die for the future they envisaged. They make their own bodies the seed of their highest hope.” (From There is A Season by Joan Chittister)
My Senator, Elizabeth Warren, wants to protect you and me from fraudulent and criminal practices that hurt consumers. She fought to create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an agency she should have been asked to lead. If she had she wouldn’t have been free to run and win a seat in the Senate, and some of those who feared her might be wishing now that they had let her run the agency, which Congress is trying to cripple into impotence anyway.
Today we can see why Wall Street and the banking industry poured a record number of dollars into Scott Brown’s campaign to try to defeat her. They fear her honesty and tenacity, and that was on display in her questioning of top regulators.
Many have wondered why nobody went to jail for the criminal banking practices that led to the international financial crisis. Now, because of Warren, we know the answer. Because no governemental regulatory agency brought any one to trial.
That was the ‘take away” from Warren’s first hearing of the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee.
According to Ryan Grim of the Huffington Post:
Warren questioned top regulators from the alphabet soup that is the nation’s financial regulatory structure: the FDIC, SEC, OCC, CFPB, CFTC, Fed and Treasury.
The Democratic senator from Massachusetts had a straightforward question for them: When was the last time you took a Wall Street bank to trial? It was a harder question than it seemed.
One after another regulators obfuscated until Warren finally got them all to admit that they had never brought anybody to trial. She responded by saying,
There are district attorneys and United States attorneys out there every day squeezing ordinary citizens on sometimes very thin grounds and taking them to trial in order to make an example, as they put it. I’m really concerned that ‘too big to fail’ has become ‘too big for trial.’
I applaud Senator Warren for speaking truth to power and getting at the essential unfairness and inequality of our legal system, and for exposing the federal regulators who are supposed to be protecting us. If banks are too big for trial it means they are above the law.
Warren herself summed it up pretty well when she concluded:
If they can break the law and drag in billions in profits, and then turn around and settle, paying out of those profits, they don’t have much incentive to follow the law.
Or no incentive at all. Because several days of a trial would bring out to the public their fraudulent and criminal practices and embarrass them.
So what can any of us do about it? Well, for one thing we can vote and support courageous candidates like Warren. And we can put pressure on our representatives for more transparency and action around these issues. We can pressure Congress to strengthen the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and confirm director Richard Cordray. And we can use social media to embarrass the banks and the regulators. Because they should be embarrassed. They should be embarrassed that they made huge sums of money at the public’s expense, and got away with it.
Marilynne Robinson writing about the limits of science criticizes our current culture’s lack of ethics or morality, which she sees as part of the loss of religion (and the religious imagination.) She writes: “Science cannot serve in the place of religion because it cannot generate an ethics or a morality. It can give us no reason to prefer a child to a dog, or to choose honorable poverty over fraudulent wealth.” Religious people may want to speculate on how it is that the disparity between rich and poor in our country grew at the very same time that the world financial system came apart? And why nobody faced any consequences. Was it that nobody was at fault? Seems unlikely.
So those who were at fault should be embarrassed. More correctly they should be ashamed. And some of them should go to trial.
Mitt Romney is a Mormon and Paul Ryan is a Roman Catholic so they will differ on how to number the Ten Commandments, but they both violated the one that says, “Thou shall not bear false witness against thy neighbor.”
Ryan went first with these obvious lies:
1. He claimed the President had “More debt than any other president before him, and more than all the troubled governments of Europe combined.” It just isn’t true. When he took office the national debt was 10.6 trillion dollars, and is now about 15 trillion. How much of that is his? President Bush increased the debt by more than 5 trillion dollars during his two terms. President Obama has increased the debt by less than 1 trillion. The two Republican wars have been expensive, but the Bush tax cuts have been more so.
2. Ryan blamed the president for the credit downgrade last August, even though the ratings agency that made the downgrade blamed Republicans for refusing to accept any tax increases as part of a deal.
3. Ryan blamed the president for the failure of the Bowles-Simpson compromise plan, when in fact it was Ryan who persuaded other House Republicans to scuttle the plan.
4. Ryan blamed the president for the closing of a General Motors plant in his hometown of Janesville, Wisconsin, but the plant shut down in December 2008, before Obama even took office.
5. Ryan claims that “$716 billion, (was) funneled out of Medicare by President Obama,” a deliberate distortion of the Affordable Health Care Act savings by eliminating inefficiencies, when Ryan’s own plan for Medicare includes these same savings.
6. Ryan, an admirer of Ayn Rand, the high priestess of self-reliance and contempt for the poor and weak, said in his speech: “The greatest of all responsibilities is that of the strong to protect the weak,” and “The truest measure of any society is how it treats those who cannot defend or care for themselves.” Yet his budget has Draconian cuts in social programs for the poor and unwell. At the same time Ryan would give richest citizens and corporations $3 trillion in tax breaks.
Governor Romney is not as big a liar as Congressman Ryan, but that is damning with faint praise. He started his speech with one of the biggest whoppers in political history (what Andrew Sullivan called the big lie):
Four years ago, I know that many Americans felt a fresh excitement about the possibilities of a new president. That president was not the choice of our party but Americans always come together after elections. We are a good and generous people who are united by so much more than divides us.
Now anybody who has picked up a newspaper or watched a legitimate TV news source (which eliminates Fox) knows that the President was met by a partisan wall of Republican non-cooperation from his first week in office. The GOP decided that they would put making the President look bad above the good of the country. And they didn’t even bother to hide their contempt for him, as when Mitch McConnell pronounced that his party’s primary goal was the President’s defeat: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”
I don’t ever remember such open contempt for a sitting President, which I ascribe (at least partly) to racism, I am sad to say.
So Governor Romney’s rewritten narrative that “Americans always come together after elections” is an egregious lie.
But there were other lies in his speech, including these
- “Unlike President Obama, I will not raise taxes on the middle class.” This isn’t true, but according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, Romney’s own tax plan would increase the tax burden on middle- and low-income Americans if it is to be revenue neutral, as Romney promises.
- “His trillion-dollar cuts to our military will eliminate hundreds of thousands of jobs, and also put our security at greater risk.” These cuts are hardly “his” (President Obama’s) as they result from an agreement between House Democrats and Republicans unless they can agree on other ways to cut spending.
- “His $716 billion cut to Medicare to finance Obamacare will both hurt today’s seniors, and depress innovation – and jobs – in medicine.” These “cuts” are actually reductions in future Medicare spending, and they are to providers, not Medicare recipients. They also extend the life of the Medicare program, which is perhaps why Paul Ryan has included them in his own budget plan.
- “Today more Americans wake up in poverty than ever before.” This one is factually true, but misleading. The poverty rate, a far fairer gauge of poverty under the president, was 15.1 percent in 2010. That’s the highest since 1993, and it’s nothing to be proud of. But it’s 7.3 percentage points lower than the 1959 poverty rate.
- “The centerpiece of the President’s entire re-election campaign is attacking success.” This is a reference to the President’s now famous “You didn’t build that” speech, which was taken out of context, his point being that you need help to be successful. (Source: CBS News fact check)
Both Ryan and Romney know they are not telling the truth about the president. Where there are political differences let there be vigorous debate, but let the lying stop. Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” And God said, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against your neighbor.”
On Tuesday I wrote this on my Facebook wall: “I want all my Facebook friends to know that as a committed Christian I deplore the political hijacking of my faith by ignorant, intolerant, racist and misogynistic extremists.”
As of this morning I have received 34 “likes” and about a dozen approving comments. But I was uneasy about it. Those of you who know me know that though I rant pretty easily about this and that I do my best to avoid self-righteousness. And part of what I deplore these days is the tone of political discourse, and I worried that my frank cry of the heart was yet another ideology-driven screed.
I am no happier when liberal Christians become “the left wing of the Democratic party at prayer” than I do when evangelicals become “the right wing of the Republican Party at prayer.”
I was also pleased to see that some of my “likes” came from conservative evangelical friends. And many of them came from young adults in my children’s generation. That is heartening.
My sister-in-law Annette, a faithful Roman Catholic, wrote this comment:
I gather that you love the sinners but hate the sins of willful ignorance, intolerance, racism and misogyny. But do we really love these sinners? And what do we do, as faithful, for or with these sins? We are sinners, too, by other measures. I’m feeling confused. It’s Lent and I’m breaking this down for my daughter with an intellectual disability and some things don’t add up when I look at the fundamentals.
She got right to my uneasiness, because I know myself to be a sinner as well, and not only by other measures, but even by the very sins I deplore in “the extremists.”
“Love the sinner, but hate the sin” is the proper Christian admonition, but here Annette is savvy, too, as she knows how hard this is to do with any consistency.
To keep such self-awareness from becoming a counsel of despair I find comfort in the Reformation insight simul justus et peccator, that we are at the same time sinners and justified by God. “Redeemed sinners” is the way I like to think of it.
And something I had to learn in three decades of pastoral ministry is that there are some people who are just plain unlovable, so you have to turn them over to God who does love them.
But where I come down in the end is that just because we know we are sinners too, and perhaps share in some of the same sins, we are not exempt from speaking out about the things we deplore.
And I would assert that intolerence, racism and misogyny should be deplored by all people of good will, religious or otherwise, liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat. And the use of these sins to raise fears for political gain is a double sin.
The other night I watched the Republican Primary debate from Arizona and was struck by the incongruity of two Roman Catholics and a Mormon fighting to be the standard bearer for what has become the party of American conservative evangelicalism. Even a cursory knowledge of American history will remind you that one of the (nasty) features of American Protestantism right up to the late 20th century was a virulent anti-Catholocism. And in the 19th century Mormons were run and burned out of town in Illinois (and elsewhere) by Protestant mobs. Well, if that particular form of bigotry has changed all for the good.
But the more I listen to Rick Santorum, the more Protestant he sounds, and perhaps this is his appeal to conservative Protestants. So I was pleased to find in today’s on-line New Yorker a knowledgeable exegesis of Rick Santorum’s remarks the other day about President Obama’s “theology.”
The article, called “Senator Santorum’s Planet,” is by James Wood. He writes, “If Rick Santorum is so staunch a Catholic, why does he often sound such a Protestant, not to say puritanical, note?” You can tell Wood has some pew-sitting in his past (he admits as much), and he clearly understands the subtle nuances of biblical and theological talk. He says,
“I know the theological weight of that word, “steward.” When I was a boy, my mother, in the grip of her Scottish evangelical Protestantism, used to chide me for my untidy bedroom, adding that, as a Christian, it was an example of “poor stewardship.” Everything is the Lord’s, and our brief role on earth is merely to husband it in a right way, a way that gives the Lord His due.”
Wood sees in Santorum an apocalyptical ascetism more obviously associated with Protestantism than Roman Catholicism and I think that is just right. Santorum may be a conservative Catholic, but his theology has heavy overtones that come not out othe native soil of his own faith, but from a particular brand of American evangelicalism. This is at the heart of his objection to the President’s “theology,” which he identifies with an extreme form of environmentalism that the President’s critics on the left must find confounding.
When Santorum says that we must be good stewards of the earth, there is religious zealotry behind the sweet words. He is proposing, in effect, that the earth is dispensable but that our souls are not; that we will all outlive the earth, whether in heaven or hell. The point is not that he is elevating man above the earth; it is that he is separating man and earth. If President Obama really does elevate earth over man (accepting Santorum’s absurd premise for a moment), then at least he believes in keeping man and earth together. Santorum’s brand of elevation involves severing man from man’s earthly existence, which is why it is coherent only within a theological eschatology (a theology of the last days). And he may well believe that man cannot actually destroy the earth through such violence as global warming, for the perfectly orthodox theological reason that the earth will come to an end (or be renewed) only when Christ comes again to judge the living and the dead. In other words, global warming can’t exist because it is not in God’s providential plan: the Lord will decide when the earth expires. This is Santorum’s “theology,” phony or otherwise.
The great irony in all this is that among the viable contenders in the coming election the only actual Protestant in the race is President Obama.