Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Radical Welcome for Lefties

I've done something with worship for Epiphany that I have never done before. For five weeks, we are using the sermon time to discuss a book that we are all reading. I am doing this at our morning service and also in the evening with the students.

Okay, I know what you are thinking; he's discovered a way to get out of preaching for five weeks. Actually, it was a sacrifice, especially the first week, where the gospel lesson was the wedding in Cana. The NRSV has a particularly blunt translation of the passage that refers to the guests getting drunk on the wine, and it would have been interesting to see what I would do with that with my students.

So what book inspired me to do this? The title is Radical Welcome, and it is written by Stephanie Spellers, an Episcopal priest who studied 8 congregations that were reaching out beyond their traditional constituencies to welcome the Other in their midst. Sometime back, my bishop sent a copy to each of his clergy and asked us to read it. Like many things, it sat on my desk, but it never left it and eventually I picked the book up and realized it had something to say to us.

Now, my small congregation is largely made up of people who do not feel particularly welcome at other churches for various reasons, mostly because they are too left thinking, too gay, too young, too--well, you get the idea. They would certainly like to see other congregations read this book too because they all know what it is like not to feel welcome. They may get their wish; the bishop is holding workshops on the book, has invited the author to come this year, and is urging every parish to read it. He did this at the recent diocesan convention in his address, so he is serious about it. We just happened to jump the gun on him by a week without knowing it.

What have we learned so far? First of all, that churches that are radically welcoming have to make themselves vulnerable because welcoming on this scale is not assimilation. We are not trying to grow the church by bringing in a bunch of people who look like us or who we reprogram to make them act like us. Radical welcoming means opening ourselves up to the possibility that it is we who will be changed, not the newcomer.

And guess what. That means our folks got a little nervous about this idea. What happens if someone joins who wants to put an American flag on the altar or sing Onward Christian Soldiers? Is there really space for the Christian Right here? When does openness become losing identity?

In other words, we are, in very many ways, just like every other congregation out there--ackk, it pains me to admit that. Change does not come easy for us, and we are pretty convinced of the basic rightness of what we are doing.

That admission of course does not mean we are wrong, only that we think in the manner of most groups. In a community that values uniqueness and a willingness to go against the crowds, that may be the most fearful learning so far.

Truthfully, there is a level of discerning one's identity that must be maintained in a congregation in order to keep some coherence; a mission statement is not a bad thing to have. But most congregations probably go way beyond that, mostly unofficially, in their expectations of how people who join are supposed to look, act, and think. And maybe, just maybe, we are one with them. We prefer to look at who has felt welcome in our community and marvel at the diversity, not at who hasn't felt welcome.

We got snowed out last Sunday, so this is going to spill over into Lent by a week, when we will be talking about the practical nature of how this applies to our congregation/campus ministry. That may just work because repentance could be a theme we need to face. I have some ideas of what we will need to look at along, but I don't want to pollute the process by printing those ideas here (a member might actually be reading my blog!). So stay tuned; I will publish some thoughts on what comes from this process. In the meantime, get a copy of the book. The ideas are accessible by lay folk without dumbing down the presentation like so many books do.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

A Pact with the Devil

So let's see. We have a disaster of near biblical proportions. So what do we do in the Church? Should we pray for the victims? Should we ask God to comfort those who mourn? Nahhhh, let's blame the victims instead! This week, Pat Robertson claimed that Haiti was cursed because the people made a pact with the devil in order to get freed from slavery.

Apparently Pat Robertson is the Deuteronomic writer of the Old Testament. For those of you who skipped seminary, Old Testament Scholars divide up the major sources in the Torah and the histories into four major groups generally identified by the letters J, E, P, and D. They even tend to talk about them as if they were single writers, though no one actually believes that. I'll spare you the boring details (Actually, it's kind of interesting, but if you get an O.T. scholar talking, they'll never shut up, so let's just skip it shall we?).

The important part here is that the D or Deuteronomic writer is the major source in the Old Testament of the notion that people who are faithful prosper and people who are not find their lives falling apart. And yes, a major place to find this kind of thinking is in the book of Deuteronomy--and, by the way, yes, I am suggesting that Moses did not actually write that book.

The D writer's thinking also permeates the histories. Just look at those kings: 'Then Schlmiel came to the throne. And because he did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord, his rule ended after 78 years.' No, you won't find this line anywhere; it's an example. Notice how Schlmiel does not die of old age after ruling for 78 years but because of his unfaithfulness. That's the kind of writing D does.

But wait, you say. You have actually read past this part of the Bible. Someone forced you to look at the story of Job at some point. And doesn't that story tell us about a man who did absolutely nothing wrong in God's eyes but still suffered? You bet it does. It is said to be a part of the Wisdom literature (no, there is no W writer), and it comes later. In part it is a direct refutation of the ideas of the D writer. Believe it or not, there is more than one theological view in the Bible. Now you know why you've been so confused all this time!

The book of Job's climactic scene has Job demanding of God a reason for his suffering. God's response? I can do what I want because I am God (and you're not!). It is a little more complicated than that, but God does have to remind Job who is who here. "Where were you when I created, oh, EVERYTHING, bucko? So knock it off!"

To be fair God does then reward Job with twice what he has lost, so things do work out in the end. Hollywood should get a hold of this one; it even has the happy ending they so love.

But I digress. Job apparently is not in Pat Robertson's Bible. So, in order for him to feel satisfied, he has to come up with a plausible explanation for why things are to horrible in Haiti, time after time. Of course, that means a pact with the devil, apparently taken 200 years ago is the logical reason, not sitting in the middle of hurricane alley on top of a fault line.

There are so many problems with Robertson's argument that it is hard to keep on top of them. But let me try, just in case you were not quite prepared to do the research on all of it.

First of all, one should read the statement on his web page. There is a press release that attempts to explain what Robertson meant. Mind you, I thought he was pretty clear. Insane, but clear. Here's a quote from the press release; "His comments were based on the widely-discussed 1791 slave rebellion led by Boukman Dutty at Bois Caiman, where the slaves allegedly made a famous pact with the devil in exchange for victory over the French. This history, combined with the horrible state of the country, has led countless scholars and religious figures over the centuries to believe the country is cursed." (

I particularly love the way the statement makes clear that Robertson never says the earthquake is due to the curse. But wait a minute. Wasn't Robertson talking about Haiti in light of the newest disaster when he decided to go on this diatribe? Yes, he was. But we were not supposed to get the implication that the earthquake was a result? Come on!

So here's the problem. Dutty Boukman, so called in French because his nickname was "Book Man" was more likely a Muslim (The people of the Book, i.e., the Koran). In 1791, he did lead a service involving the sacrifice of a pig, considered an untamable spirit of the forest. And he did lead people in a prayer. Here it is:

"The god who created the earth; who created the sun that gives us light.The god who holds up the ocean; who makes the thunder roar. Our God who has ears to hear. You who are hidden in the clouds; who watch us from where you are. You see all that the white has made us suffer. The white man's god asks him to commit crimes. But the god within us wants to do good. Our god, who is so good, so just, He orders us to revenge our wrongs. It's He who will direct our arms and bring us the victory. It's He who will assist us. We all should throw away the image of the white men's god who is so pitiless. Listen to the voice for liberty that sings in all our hearts."

Notice, there is no pact with the devil. Significantly, in exhorting the people to cast aside the image of God of the White people who held them in slavery, he became an early liberation theologian.

The ceremony is largely considered to be the spark of the Haitian rebellion, and Boukman is revered in Haiti. Angry White Christians turned this story into a pact with the devil. Real Haitian scholars disagree, but they are not attempting to explain away why thousands of angry Haitians were able to win despite inferior weapons and they also are not trying to suggest the revolution was a bad idea (evil) like those so-called Christian scholars were.

And that, finally, is what makes Robertson's comments so evil. By claiming a pact with the devil, he ties himself to the rest of the history. He suggests the Haitians would not have been capable of winning their freedom. Worse than that, he accepts the notion that they should have accepted being slaves and that the Whites had a right to continue the oppression.

But you know, if you look at the video of Robertson speaking, what you really get a picture of is a man who is standing with one foot in the grave. The young woman beside him practically has to hold him up. Increasingly, the statements that come from him are becoming more and more bizarre. It's time to call it quits, Pat, before you actually start drooling on the stage.

Which is why I ultimately think what Rush Limbaugh had to say was far more evil. Robertson is a doddering old fool. Limbaugh is not (unless, of course, he's back on the pills. We never did hear how he manages his pain these days, did we?). Limbaugh suggesting that he was not giving money for Haitian relief because he pays taxes was just straight out crude, racist, and evil. He is ultimately without compassion for the poorest among us.

Yes, some of your taxes are going to Haiti. Clearly not enough to solve the problems, as it is still the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. And yes, the president has promised aid to the country after the earthquake; can you imagine what Limbaugh would have said it Obama had not done so? But every creature with half a brain knows this will not be enough money, and those with the slightest empathy wants to reach out. That statement apparently leaves Rush out.

So I'll go out on my own limb: Neither of these men has the slightest idea what Christianity is really about. Robertson is fighting a war against demons instead of embracing the New Jerusalem as an event that we are called to bring into being here on earth, while Limbaugh is holding on to American capitalism (i.e., Greed) as his religion. So yes, we have twin evils here; resist them, firm in your faith.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Because We All Should Listen to Rock Musicians when They Stop Singing

Okay. Bono apparently got himself in trouble again. Actually, it took one of my students to tell me about this one; I wasn't reading the right stuff.

In this case, the right stuff is Bono's editorial column in the New York Times. If you have missed it, he has one. He writes regularly, and they print it. That says about as much as anything, doesn't it?

Now, I am not a Bono basher (see earlier U2 blogs). I have heard all the stuff about how they use tax shelters and encourage people to buy overpriced Red items rather than just giving the money to charities. So what? Bono knows his audience and what works with them. More power to him. And he never claims to be anything more than he is. And, anyway, he does his homework a lot better than some members of Congress. But, no, he is not my source of knowledge on global warming or poverty. On the other hand, his information is usually correct according to the places I do follow.

So why is he in trouble now? Because he defended artists against illegal downloading and suggested using the same techniques that China does to block information. It's that last part that got him so much grief, although some people seem to think they can justify illegal downloading despite knowing that the artist loses money on it, whether you are talking about U2 or your local starving folk artist who self published a CD.

So let's set a little context here. First of all, Bono wrote his editorial as a top ten list of things he hoped to see in 2010. The first item was something about American cars getting back to being sexy again. For most people, that should have been a signal that this was not the deadly earnest Bono preaching about unrest in southeast nations. He was having a bit of fun, at least for part of the column. Some peoplemissed that.

Second, he was talking largely about the film industry and said that he hoped they took steps to stop illegal downloading before downloading movies became as fast as music. He pointed out that the download services are getting very rich from this activity while the musicians are the primary ones being hurt. And then he added this self aware line: "Note to self: Don’t get over-rewarded rock stars on this bully pulpit, or famous actors; find the next Cole Porter, if he/she hasn’t already left to write jingles."

In other words, he knows he is not the person to sell this issue. Is it just possible that he might not be as self serving as the naysayers want to make him out to be? At least give him credit for the self awareness. Besides, the sad reality is that he is the one who does have the NY Times column. Joe folk guitarist does not; he can scream until he's blue and not be heard.

As for the China business, what Bono really said is that the way China censors information simply proves that the technology to stop illegal downloads already exists. he did not suggest that the U.S. start censoring information, only that we use our ability to stop illegal activity. Notice how many times I have used the word illegal so far.

The justifications people use for stealing intellectual property boggle my mind. Just buy the damn music people. We got along for generations buying it, and the cost of music, despite all the bitching out there, has gone up far less than inflation. If you don't want to deal with all that ITunes authorization stuff (they got rid of it recently anyway) do something novel like buy a CD. Then you never have to worry about which machines you authorized to play it.

Now, I am not going to pretend to hold the high road here. I used Napster a lot when it first came out. Mostly I was downloading copies of music I have in vinyl for because that was cleaner than copying to records to my computer and took a lot less time. But I did see things out there that I did not have and downloaded them as well.

But that was the past, and anyway, I have since either deleted that stuff or bought a licensed copy. My conscience got to me. And so did the ten commandments. The only things left are those things I cannot find a way to buy.

Stealing is stealing, and doubly so when it is for something that would not even slightly count as a necessity. We're not talking food for starving orphans folks. We're talking about music and movies.

Even if the artists are stinking rich, that does not give me the right to steal from them. Try using that argument to steal a painting from one of the Wyeths. "They're rich, so I'll just take this landscape." Sounds stupid doesn't it.

The argument that most of the money goes to the downloading service (see solution above) or the record company doesn't wash either. It's still stealing. But, I suppose, when students can buy papers on line from established companies and don't know how to avoid plagiarism because they apparently don't understand the concept, the idea of intellectual ownership simply sounds archaic. Just wait until someone takes credit for their work and see how they react. Until the, I'm with Bono on this one.