A Prayer for Our Republic

American democracy is an idea.

It is not established by immutable law. It is not a guaranteed by the relentless forces of nature. Should we fail at our democratic enterprise, there is no outside force that will compel us back on the road to a just and free society. There will be no humanitarian intervention from the U.N., no NATO armies attempting regime change here. If our democratic republic fails, it will be because we will have allowed it to, and we will have no recourse thereafter.  No, our democracy is not guaranteed, it is sustained only by our common commitment to that democratic idea.

The shooting of Rep. Steve Scalise, a congressional staffer, a lobbyist, and two Capitol police officers is a symptom of a deep problem in our political life, that goes right to the heart of whether our democracy can be sustained. For while it is not the first act of political violence that we have seen in our 241 years as a nation, it takes place against a broader backdrop of incivility, hyper-partisanship, and divisive political discourse that makes me wonder wither this is a harbinger of things to come.

If it is not to be a portent of the complete breakdown of our democracy, then that will only be because we will have recommitted ourselves to the fundamental values and virtues of our republic. The first and foremost among those values is that we are one people—all of us.

Our first national motto is e pluribus unum: out of many, one. It serves as an all too important reminder that we have a common destiny, a common life together. It is a motto we need to reclaim. Continue reading

A Christian Country or a Country of Christians?

I teach a course in which the central thesis is that but for the Western religious traditions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, etc.), the Western world would not look the way that it does today. There is much in our culture—fundamental respect for human rights, affirmation of the dignity of human life, an emphasis on common humanity and equality before God and the law—that would not necessarily have existed had the dominant religious influences been Norse or Greek paganism. And so, there is some truth to the claim that our nation was founded based on religious principles, even if those principles were of the more implicit kind noted above than explicit ones.

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The U.S. and Christian flags fly not quite side-by-side.

But there is an oft-repeated refrain that America was founded as a “Christian country” and there is happiness in some quarters over the belief that it is “returning” to that intended state. Let’s leave aside for the moment the question of whether the Founders intended to erect a Christian state (they didn’t) or whether a state that privileged one religion over another would violate our fundamental democratic precepts (it would). Let’s look simply at the question of what do we mean when we say “a Christian country” and whether such a thing is even possible. Continue reading

The War on Christmas (2015 Starbucks Edition)

So. Apparently, we’re still at war. Not the war in Iraq, or Afghanistan, or against ISIL. We’re still at war over Christmas. Some of my Christian brothers and sisters are reprising their now decade-long campaign, protesting what they suspect are signs of a great liberal plot to eradicate Christmas—and then Christianity—from the public square. They point to the fact that a number of major retailers continue to greet patrons with the words “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings” instead of “Merry Christmas.” This year, the great enemy is Starbucks, who for reasons that can only be considered anti-Christian, apparently, have neglected to include any iconography on their holiday coffee cup.

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Let us leave aside for the moment the fact that red is a Christmas color. Let us leave aside the fact that “Happy Holidays” is a greeting that has been around for decades, and is usually assumed to be shorthand for “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.” Let us also leave aside for the time being the fact that prior to December 25th, no one should be wishing anyone a “Merry Christmas”—(it’s still Advent before that). Let us skip for now the fact that in the last decade some of the largest mega-churches did not have services on Christmas Day, even when Christmas day fell on a Sunday (Sunday happens to be the most important day of the Christian calendar) to little or no criticism from the loudest voices objecting to the “War.”

The greater issue is that if there is actually a War on Christmas, it was lost decades ago. Continue reading

The Children of God

“Are you not like the Children of Cush to me, Children of Israel?—an oracle of Yhwh—Didn’t I bring Israel up from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir?” — Amos 9:7

I can remember when I first broke down on September 11, 2001.  I had been, as many of us had been, shocked and dumbfounded by the unfolding events and the horrific images on my television screen. Too shocked to weep, too stunned to do anything.  But then I heard it reported that on Flight 77, which had crashed into the Pentagon, there had been five children: two children accompanying their parents to Australia, and three sixth-graders traveling to a National Geographic Society field trip in Santa Barbara, California.  That was it; I broke down and began to weep.

We adults can seemingly justify all kinds of tragedies that befall each other.  We always look for reasons why someone might have had it coming.  But not so with children; children are innocent. And more to the point, they represent promise and potential and hope. When a child dies, it hits us in a way that other deaths do not.

The thought of those five children, full of anticipation—for a new country, for an adventure with the National Geographic Society—suddenly and tragically murdered in an act of violence was the devastating element of a day that has been shrouded in pain and tragedy ever since. We hear of the suffering of the innocent and we weep.

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Photo credit: Ugur Demir

How can we not have the same reaction when we hear of Palestinian children killed while playing soccer on a beach? Or when we hear about the psychological trauma endured by children—Israeli and Palestinian alike—under the threat of imminent attack? Or lament the senseless abduction and murder of three Israeli settler teenagers? Or the equally senseless revenge killing of a Palestinian teen and the beating his Palestinian-American cousin?

At times like this—and these times are all-too frequent—there is always a tendency to find someone to blame: It’s Hamas placing arms in civilian areas, it’s the Occupation, it’s radical Islamic incitement, it’s rabid Jewish nationalism, it’s colonialism, it’s Iranian meddling, it’s American Imperialism, and the list goes on. Further, the attempt to place a “starting point” to the current conflict is always one-upped by the identification of a still-earlier wrong perpetrated by the other side.

But if you really want to know who’s to blame, I’ll tell you: I am. You are. We all are.

We are all complicit in systems of violence and power that grind up the innocent on a daily basis.  The conflict in Palestine and Israel gets the most media attention, but throughout the world there are millions of innocents who are suffering at this very moment. And we are complicit in all of it.

We give legitimacy to the notion that conflicts between competing claims of right can be resolved through force.  We have taken the noble self-sacrifice of soldiers who defend our shores and turned it into a near fetish, celebrating militarism and power, while simultaneously ignoring the very real needs of those same veterans who had put themselves in harm’s way.  Much has been made in the media (who are also part of the problem) about the way that Palestinian youth might be radicalized against Israel or the increasing militarization of Israeli society, but we can look around and see increasingly militarized police forces throughout our country.  We live in a culture that refers to hard-working professional athletes as “warriors” and the grassy lawns on which they play as “battlefields.” We talk about exercising obscure and arcane parliamentary tricks as the “nuclear option.”

And lest you think the Christians are off the hook, think again. Our churches are replete with militaristic imagery: from hymns like Onward Christian Soldiers, to our frequent appeals to warfare imagery in fundraising “campaigns” or our talk of spiritual “warfare.”  We Christians like to think that we stand outside the cycles of violence and suffering, but we don’t: we are complicit in them.

Of the many beautiful truths found in the Hebrew Bible, one of the most profound is the sentiment expressed at the top of this post by the Israelite prophet Amos. The prophet speaks to the people to remind them that God is a God of all peoples.  This universalist idea is echoed in the later prophets, especially in Isaiah, and is a fundamental tenet of the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic faiths.  It is instructive to note that the prophet begins by referring to the “Children of Cush” (Ethiopians) and the “Children of Israel” when he might have used the terms “Cush” and “Israel” the way he does later. Perhaps it’s merely another instance of parallelism in Hebrew poetry and is meant for a little variety. But perhaps it speaks to another truth: we are all Children. Children of Israel. Children of Ishmael. Children of Abraham. Children of Noah.

What would the world be like if we were to weep over every death the way we do over the deaths of children? What if we thought of our domestic policy, our foreign policy, our economic policy, our church practices, our social lives, as part of a grand “child safety program” only instead of encouraging kneepads and bike helmets, we’d be encouraging something more radical: caring for each other as fellow children?

What if we were to examine–really examine–the ways that we are not the helpless bystanders in the world’s violent conflicts but are complicit in the very systems that bring about violence in the first place?   What if we stopped pointing fingers and started looking in the mirror?

Well, we might not find that we like what we see. That’s okay. As Peter Rollins points out, “confronting our own monstrosity” is not easy, but it is necessary to real human interaction and compassion. It’s how we move away from a paradigm defined by who’s right and move to one of building relationships. And might be the first step in making real, substantive, structural changes to a world overrun by violence.

And in so doing, we might find renewed meaning in the teaching of Jesus: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the Children of God.”

A Light in the Darkness

 

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“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” —John 1:5

There are some Christmas traditions that are old and some that are new.  Of the newer ones, the tradition of pointing out that Jesus was not likely born in December is one that is heard more and more frequently. It will often be noted that Christians just stole the Roman holiday of Saturnalia and Christianized it for their own evangelistic purposes.  Critics of Christianity will often use this fact to suggest that the faith as a whole is a fabrication, a deliberation creation for some nefarious purpose.

There is a fair amount of scholarship to suggest that the Church did not simply steal the Saturnalia, but figured the date of Jesus’ birth built on the assumption that the date of Jesus’ conception was the same as the date of his crucifixion: March 25 (nine months before December 25).  In spite of that, it is a fair comment to note that we have no real way of knowing the actual date of Jesus’ birth.  But that doesn’t mean that the December 25 date is not true, even if it didn’t actually happen that way.

The Truth Behind December 25th

In the northern hemisphere, where the ancient church found itself, the third week in December also coincided with the winter solstice, and the accompanying Saturnalia celebration of the Romans and the Yule celebration of the Germanic and Scandinavian peoples. It is the time of the year when the days are shortest, the night is longest, and the darkness dominates.  In the midst of this time comes the Light of the World.  There is no nativity story in John’s gospel, but he starts off his gospel with a reflection entirely appropriate to Christmas: “…through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.” (John 1:4-5 CEB).

We know that Christmas is not about the buying of things or the giving and receiving of presents, but neither is it simply about the birth of a child.  Christmas is about the Incarnation of the Word in the flesh.  It is about the very self-communication of God taking on our life, our joys and our sorrows, our triumphs and our sufferings,  even our death.  It is about the radical declaration of God’s solidarity with us and with the creation. A declaration of solidarity so powerful that it is a light shining in the darkness.

For what the solidarity of God means is that there is no darkness into which we can go that God’s light does not come with us.  There is no sorrow, no suffering, no injustice, no pain in which we are alone, in which we are removed from God. It is a light that shines in the darkness.

dsc_0487-199x300And lights shining in the darkness are powerful signs of hope.  I once had a conversation with a rabbi who told me that he loved Christmas.  He grew up in New Haven, Connecticut where the winters can be long and dreary.  But at Christmastime, the city came alive with lights: colorful, festive, lights illumining the dark days and long nights of winter. Bringing hope and joy into a dreary season. The Christmas festival itself, then, becomes a metaphor for Christ himself: the light shining in the darkness that brings hope.

And so, whatever might have been Jesus’ actual date of birth, whatever the associations might have been with early Christian theological calculations or with pagan celebrations, there is a truth to December 25th as the date we celebrate Christ’s coming into the world: that even in the darkest days, when the nights are longest and the sun’s light seems fleeting, we are not without the light.  That here in the darkest time of the year, the coming of Christ lets us proclaim with the prophet Isaiah: “Arise! Shine! For your light has come.”

Merry Christmas.

Solidarity and Healing

From noon until three in the afternoon the whole earth was dark. At three, Jesus cried out with a loud shout, “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani,” which means, “My God, my God, why have you left me?” —Mark 15:33–34 CEB

Of all the images that were broadcast during the coverage immediately after the bombing in Boston, there was one that immediately became seared into my consciousness.  It was not the bright flash of the bomb going off, or the crowds running in panic, or even the shouts of the runners and bystanders as they ran away from—or the first responders as they ran toward—the site of the explosions.  No, it was an image of a woman kneeling on the ground, hands pointed upward and pressed together in prayer, eyes wide open, praying—no, pleading—to God for relief.  The image lasted only a couple of seconds but you could see the anguish on her face.  And without being able to hear her, the plain meaning of her prayer was evident: Do something, O God.  Please, O God, help us!

I know that gesture.  I have made that gesture.  I have prayed that prayer.  And I have heard the same terrible silence in reply.  The anguish of a pleading prayer in the midst of pain and heartbreak.  Willing God to respond with every last fiber of one’s being.  A day that is dedicated to celebrating freedom and an indomitable New England spirit, a day on which the nations gather to celebrate human accomplishment and the spirit of athletics through a world-famous marathon, a day known for a festival atmosphere—that such a day should be marred by a senseless act of violence sends us reeling.  That at that same marathon were runners running in the memory of those young innocents gunned down a few months earlier in another senseless tragedy.

In my line of work, whenever I am confronted by a tragedy of this order, I sometimes feel like a PR representative for a disreputable company.  Like I’m supposed to stand up here and tell you that in spite of what you may have heard or seen, everything is really just fine.  That I am supposed to say words that will make this all better.

But I’m not going to do that.  Everything is not fine. And I have no magic words that make this all better. The world is a very broken place, beset by violence and hatred, ignorance and fear.  Where innocent people suffer at the hands of senseless brutality and mindless hate.

In the verses from Mark’s gospel that begin this post, we hear Jesus’ last words on the cross crying out in anguish: “My God, my God, why have you left me?”  Why have you abandoned me? Forsaken me? From a Christian perspective, understanding these words of Jesus helps us to remember that when we are feeling forsaken, when we feel as if the world is crushing us and God is very far away, we are are sharing in the experience of Christ.  And there are profound implications for that.  For what that means is that God’s own son should know the alienation and forsakenness that we feel, and in that knowing, in that experiencing there is a powerful declaration of solidarity with us. Paradoxically, we come to understand that in that alienation we experience God’s presence in a powerful way.  God is not removed from the suffering.  God is in the suffering.  God declares solidarity with us through the cross in all the ways we experience brokenness.

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The ‘B’ on the cap of the Red Sox, a symbol that has come to represent the whole city.

On Tuesday afternoon, I heard a remarkable thing: during their evening game in the Bronx, the New York Yankees were going to play Sweet Caroline between innings.  For the past decade that song had become a staple during the middle of the eighth inning at Fenway Park in Boston, becoming a ritual that had all the appearance of an ancient tradition.  That the New York Yankees, the Boston Red Sox’ most bitter rivals, should choose to sing this song so emblematic of Red Sox baseball and Red Sox fans, is a stunning declaration of solidarity.  I am a life-long Red Sox fan and hating the Yankees comes with the territory.  But hearing this news brought tears to my eyes.  Seeing pictures appearing around New York (and even in Yankee stadium) of slogans like “NY ♥ B” where the ‘B’ is the ‘B’ of the Red Sox’ caps (see image at right) is likewise heartwarming.  I was reminded of my own softening of heart for the Yankees in the weeks following September 11th, when I as a Sox fan, actually felt my self rooting for the Yankees to do well, to bring some joy to the hearts of a grieving New York.  And now New York has returned the favor.  And it is a sign of the Kingdom of God.

For in solidarity is our salvation.  Just as God, through Christ, stands with us even in the deepest pits of despair and even unto death, so too are we called to stand with one another in our times not only of celebration but in times of despair and anguish.  We need not pretend that everything is all right.  We need not come up with any magic words.  But when we stand with one another, when we make that declaration of solidarity with one another, we get a glimpse of the Kingdom of God, and we draw very near to the heart of God.

The Souls of Animals

Q: Do animals have souls and do they make it to the afterlife? Will I ever see my childhood cat again?

There has long been a tradition in Christianity that there is a fundamental difference between human beings and the other animals.  But I don’t believe this is the Biblical view.  In the Book of Genesis, in the second creation story found in chapter 2, we read: “the LORD God formed the human from the topsoil of the fertile land and blew life’s breath into his nostrils. The human came to life.” (Genesis 2:7 CEB)  In the Hebrew text, God breaths a neshomah (נשמה) into the human being and the human becomes a living being (a nephesh hahah – נפשׁ חיה). Later in the same chapter we read that God forms the animals from the dust of the earth (in the same fashion as the human) and the text refers to them as “living beings” (nephesh hayah).

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Illustration by Kathleen Kimball

The Bible, then does not seem to treat the animals as anything other than living creatures in whom is the breath of life.  In fact, repeatedly throughout the scriptures are we told of God’s care for animals.  In the Book of Jonah, God tells Jonah that he cares for the many animals of Nineveh; Jesus tells his disciples that not a sparrow falls that God does not take note of. St. Francis would often preach to the birds of the forest.  When asked why he would respond, “The Gospel is for them, too.”

But for me, there are two passages that really speak to this question.  In the fortieth chapter of the book of Isaiah, the prophet writes that “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.” “All flesh” is used elsewhere to refer to all living things not just human beings.  And in the book of Revelation, at the end of all things, when the Kingdom of God is brought to earth and the dead are resurrected to new and everlasting life, God declares, “behold I make all things new.” All things.

That means that salvation is not for us human beings alone, it is for the entirety of the creation, and that includes the animals. I believe all living things are part of God’s plan for salvation. And that includes your childhood cat.