Our Human Problem

In Spielberg’s monumental film, Schindler’s List, there is a scene where Amon Goeth, the brutal Nazi commander of Krakow, is having a one-sided conversation with Helen, his Jewish housekeeper. Goeth comments on the way Helen’s eyes make her appear “almost human”, and then—clearly disgusted by his obvious desire for her—Goeth violently lashes out at her.

That scene has become all too familiar down through the ages, as oppressors have momentarily disregarded their indoctrination, and like Goeth, they have been repulsed by it. I suggest that the inability to see the existential “other” as authentically human is at the heart of our post-post-modern angst. It is a spiritual problem, and it is as old as human history.

Dr. Bruce Rigdon was my church history mentor in seminary. In his lecture on the theology of Anselm of Canterbury, Rigdon would remind students that Anslem regarded the disobedience in the Garden of Eden, as the moment when the luminosity of Creation was rendered opaque by the hubris of Adam and Eve. I have always liked that imagery because it suggests the human capacity to blur the innate image of God that dwells in all creatures, and perhaps even the tendency to darken it.

And so, it seems to me that the killing of Trayvon Martin, the violence of UC-Santa Barbara shooter, Elliot Rodger, and the rants of Donald Sterling, all fall into the same spiritual category: when the other is less than human, it’s acceptable to mistreat—or destroy them. That was the mentality of America’s slave past, which operated on its own twisted morality based on race. One could also cite the misogyny that gave rise to witch hunts in Europe as being cut from the same cloth. And in our present day, the socially accepted objectification of women is no less reprehensible.

God forgive us when we so easily regard another human being as an avatar for own amusement or the object of our abuse. For every human—male or female, black or white—bears the image of God within them.Image


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The Grandest of Delusions

  As much as we hate to admit it, the specter of racism yet hangs over America, and the verdict in the George Zimmerman case is evidence of that ugly reality. The fact that many of the same white Americans who were offended at the casual ease with which Paula Deen used the n-word are now applauding the exoneration of a white man who shot a 17-year-old black kid suggests a presumption that black life is less valuable than white.

To be fair, we ought to proceed with caution when criticizing a jury verdict, especially when we did not hear the evidence. But some of what is now being brought to light about Zimmerman’s behavior on that fateful night should concern all of us. One wonders why the prosecutors did not raise the issue of Zimmerman’s reference to Trayvon Martin as “a f—ing coon” in his 9-11 call, while his defense attorneys insisted that Zimmerman had no racial insensitivity. Seriously?

We have known for years that sentences of black defendants are routinely harsher than for whites accused of the same offense. The media loves to jump on stories of missing white kids (blonde girls especially), while virtually ignoring the dozens of black children who go missing each year.

If Trayvon Martin had shot George Zimmerman and the same defense had been put forth, the outcome would have been altogether different.

And we still believe there is no more racism in America?Image

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If Life Imitated Art

How marvelous it would be if life were to more closely imitate art. How blissfully sweet our existence if love were to live up its reputation in song and cinema! But most of us have learned that the blessed intersection of eros and agape involves a maturation process none of us could have imagined in our star struck years.

Time and experience are our mentors, to be sure. Having been married now forty years, my dear wife and I have settled into a comfortable relationship, the essence of which we could not have fathomed in our twenties. We have endured much together, and quite naturally, we have come to rely on one another. The depth of our mutual devotion is rooted in the confidence of our love for each other, giving rise to a quiet and reassuring predictability of our life together. Not at all a bad thing, I submit.

Perhaps to her credit, my companion of four decades has consented to indulge me in my sometimes quixotic notions more times than I can count, and I am grateful for it. Clearly, her devotion has not been without peril to herself. If I am honest, I have to confess that I still display a kind of naiveté when it comes to accurately assessing the likely pitfalls of certain enterprises, not the least of which has been my career path: I am a second-career clergyperson.  

As a child, I remember my grandmother softly singing as she stood at the kitchen sink:

Oh, come to the church in the wildwood
Come to the church in the dale
No place is so dear to my childhood
As the little brown church in the vale.

I never knew such a church, except for my grandmother’s singing. Certainly, I have never served such a congregation. But I daresay I have longed for that idyllic vision on some level, a sacred place where the grace of God shines through and is abundantly evident in the affirming personal relationships I can only imagine. Remember what I said about my naiveté!  

The present moment is very challenging for me, taking its toll on both soul and psyche. My wife, who has had monumental challenges of her own of late, is hugely affected. She weathers the storm better than I do sometimes, but I regret having exposed her to the trauma.

Life is messy, to be sure, and faithfully following one’s vocation is not without discomfort. But I know that nothing stays the same and that God will act, as God always does. It’s just a matter of when. If only life were a bit more like art.  Image

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There is something reassuring about the passage of time. Perhaps the operation of the cycle is the one constant we can count on in a changing universe. Humans have been marking time for millennia, giving names to periods of time (days and months) as a way of organizing human activity, synchronizing it with the movements of either the moon or the sun.

Christmas demonstrably marks the passage of time for many of us. It comes again and again for Christian adherents and for those who are indifferent to its religious significance. The nativity story in Luke’s Gospel chronicles an event more likely to have occurred in the spring time. However, the designation of December 25 as the date of Jesus’ birth was a matter of ecclesiastical expedience. The date was fixed, probably some time in the fourth century of the Common Era in order to correspond with the winter solstice, and perhaps to co-opt some of the revelry attached to the Roman feast of Saturnalia.

Even now, the certainty of the arrival of Christmas each December 25 creates a recognizable benchmark for all sorts of phenomena in individual lives as well as in world events. One confidently declares that “the troops will be home by Christmas,” or “I’ll get that promotion by Christmas.” Campaigning for Barry Goldwater in 1964, Ronald Reagan advocated declaring war on North Vietnam, asserting that “we could pave the whole country and put parking stripes on it, and still be home by Christmas.”

Time marches on, and the arrival of Christmas is a universally recognized square on the calendar. Perhaps, though, it is something more than that.

Over the years, the American observance of Christmas has taken on a number of attributes—much of it revolving around Santa Claus and gift-giving. But despite its commercialization, the very notion of Christmas retains a certain genuineness of spirit and an implicit belief in the human family that actually transcends religion and culture.

The skeptic may well regard the historical development of Christmas in its religious context as evidence of a self-serving church hierarchy intent on replacing the older mythologies with the newer Christianity, and that would be accurate in some ways. However, the gradual assimilation of ancient Celtic Yuletide practices into Christian rituals, for example, may well have been less intentional than some would assert. The interplay of cultures always involves some synchronicity, and ancient wisdom has a way of resisting its own annihilation.

For at least a third of the world’s population, Christmas is more than just a date on the calendar. Christian adherents now live in diverse regions of the planet, such that there is no longer one identifiable center of global Christianity. Collectively, there are many more Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, Bahá’ís, and Sikhs living on the earth, a reality that seems to elude many westerners, religious or not. To the extent that all religions embody wisdom and truth, the Christian experience stands as one among many, but it is an authentic experience nonetheless.

While many Old Testament scholars doubt the existence of certain “historical” figures, like Abraham, Moses, or Jacob, the essential “truth” of the on-going saga of God’s people cannot be denied. Similarly, while Christmas ostensibly commemorates the nativity of Jesus, the ontological truth it conveys surprisingly is not limited to the Christian tradition. Although it does not a represent a genuinely historical event, it teaches all of us something about the goodness of God and God’s “peace toward those whom he favors” (NRSV).

The celebration of Christmas in America—and I suspect in most other contexts—is as much about cultural traditions as it is about religious customs. To the extent that neither wisdom nor enduring truth are limited by religion or culture—and recognizing that the theological message of Christmas is one of Immanuel (“God with us”), we would be hard-pressed to deny the presence of the transcendent God in any facet of human existence—even in those which are not expressly Christian!

The Judeo-Christian tradition has long held onto the notion of God’s active and intimate involvement in human history. In classical Christian thought, Christmas recalls the moment of divine Incarnation—not as a one-dimensional historical event, but as something that cannot be contained in time or space—nor constrained by religious dogma or cultural considerations. Some of us think that’s worth waiting for and celebrating—year after year after year.




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For the record…

The presidential election campaign that has just come to a close was the most emotionally and spiritually painful to me ever, such that I strongly suspect some of my friends and family relationships will bear the scars for many years. The level of rancor in the give-and-take between those closest to me—and often their reactions to me—roughly equaled the harsh public rhetoric that seems to have wounded the very heart of the American democratic process. I tend to dislike wounds to my psyche, so I will have to think long and hard about how or when I will ever again make political pronouncements in any sort of public forum.

But, just for the record, I want to make it clear that I approach civic life from a considered Christian perspective, and my politics reflect my faith in a Judeo-Christian ethic which presumes God’s preferential option for the poor. That is the core message of my preaching, and I am disappointed in those who would cast my convictions as some sort of affirmation of a massive welfare state that seeks only to give to those who do not deserve and only works to enlarge itself in the process.

It seems only fair that I be given the benefit of the doubt—as I have given that benefit to others—and I am genuinely nonplussed by the frequent suggestion that I am ignorant or uninformed. I am a lot of things, but ignorant is not one of them. Those on the right of the political spectrum are often mean-spirited, or so it seems in my experience. Perhaps I should refrain from offering my opinion if I expect any sort of respect for my opinions.

The discourse in this recent campaign has been anything but civil, and I must say that I continue to be alarmed by the visceral reaction to President Obama and his supporters. And while we are on the record, I note that there has been very little gloating from the victorious political left, but a great deal of outrage from the right. The suggestions that states should secede from the Union is preposterous on its face.

So, I will probably limit what I say and how I say it in order to protect my delicate ego. I am one of those starry-eyed Jesus freaks who just isn’t sophisticated enough to hold his own against the emphatic declarations of Fox News, and God knows I don’t shout loudly enough to be heard above the din.

To my friends and family, let me say that I regret having tried to engage you in a fruitful political discussion. You already know that we lefties just “want stuff.” I’ll just go back to sitting at the feet of Jesus and trying hard to understand what he is saying.


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Seeking the Welfare of the City

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 80.7 percent of Americans lived in urban areas as of the 2010 census. That’s actually up from 79 percent in 2000. A relevant question might be just what constitutes “urban.” For example. I serve a congregation that is technically suburban by virtue of its geographic location, but its two-mile distance from Detroit (making it an inner ring suburb) causes us to experience many of the same issues as the central city. Any way you cut it, our community is very much a part of the urban reality; we are, for all intents and purposes, an urban congregation that happens to be located in the suburbs.

Early in his term, President Obama established the Office of Urban Affairs, expanding upon an articulated urban policy in the Clinton years. Anybody over 50 remembers the committed urban agenda as part of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society initiative. Republicans have never said much about urban policy, which makes me wonder how this current presidential campaign could possibly be as close as some say it is. That’s another story, however.

When it comes to support for public education, neither President Obama nor Gov. Romney are on the right path in my humble opinion. Obama seems to back public charter schools while Romney is in favor of subsidies for parents to send their kids to privately operated schools. Both approaches ignore the root of the urban plight: concentrated poverty. Moving poor kids from their indigenous inner city neighborhoods does nothing to address that issue.

The prophet Jeremiah had some things to say about prospering where God has put God’s people. In the aftermath of the Babylonian siege, Yahweh speaks through the prophet and declares: “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you [into exile], and pray to the LORD on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare” (Jeremiah 29:7, NASB).

I do not mean to suggest that we should view our cities as places of exile, but I do know something of the concentration of poverty (leading to concentrated crime) in such places. And unless we begin to embrace the entirety of our urban communities–city and suburb–entire states,and indeed our whole nation, suffers. A real commitment to the health of public schools and good public transit goes a long way toward encouraging the sort of community consciousnesses that is so lacing in America today.

Fact is that neither party is talking about poverty in this campaign. It seems to me that is where we need to begin a serious discussion.

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What Kind of Country Do We Want?

Anybody who cares to observe the current presidential election campaign will tell you that we seem more divided as a country than ever before. The rhetoric across the spectrum, form left to right, is decidedly polarized. I never thought I’d see the day when casual friends and associates would excoriate me for my admittedly liberal perspective, even extending to invitations for me to leave the country if I do not agree with them. I have recently taken to being more circumspect before I post anything of a political nature to social media.

Much has been written about the demise of civility in political discourse, so I will not comment further other than to pose the question as to what kind of country do we want. Regardless of whether President Obama is re-elected or Mitt Romney takes the White House, how then shall we live as a people?

To those who wave their arms in alarm and who decry the end of the American experiment if their candidate loses, I submit that the United States will survive. Personally, I want to live in a country where the opinions of all are respected without resorting to exaggerated criticism or hyperbole. I want an America where either a dark-skinned president or a Mormon chief executive is given the deference his office deserves.

I want to live in a country where education and intellect are appreciated and encouraged, where truth-telling is practiced in the public square, and where full enfranchisement is the goal. I want us to be honest with one another in admitting that America was once the greatest nation on earth, but that we have slipped from that perch by almost any standard by which to judge such things. Having thus admitted that painful truth, I want us to unite in reaching that lofty place once more, with full access to health care, a good public education, and the encouragement of good, well-paying jobs.

Lastly, I want us to revisit the myth of America and harness the power it holds for all of us by not refusing to exegete the myth or revising it to fit our prejudices, but by embracing it for the truth it can be for all of us.I want us to recognize the limitations of our “Christian heritage” and work to build a more pluralistic society.

We can never hope to build a Utopia, but we can come closer to living in something that resembles community.

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