Monday, January 21, 2008

Obama in King's Pulpit

While I share Michael Westmoreland-White's reservations about politicians in pulpits, I also share his desire to share this sermon, delivered by Barack Obama yesterday to the congregation at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta:

For more, click here.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Obama's Translation of Black Liberation Theology

Amy just sent me a link to this, from The Stranger, exploring how Barack Obama translates Black Liberation theology.

A must read. Thanks, Amy.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Don't Hate the Playa', Hate the Game

Today, after I picked Adam up from preschool, he told me he wanted me to call his Mama, because he had a message for her. His message, anticipating his third birthday:

Mama, you're my buddy, and you're very pretty, and I want "Meet the Robinsons" for my birthday!


[Added at 8:20pm]

As we were putting him to bed, Adam reminded his Mama that he wanted the movie "Meet the Robinsons" for his birthday. Sami then said, "We'll see if we can find it."

Adam coolly replied, "Maybe its at Target, Mama."

Democrats for Mitt Romney

From Daily Kos.

I don't endorse screwing around with elections, even if the Republicans did it first. But this sure is funny:

Monday, January 07, 2008

Is "Pro-Choice" the Same as "Pro-Abortion"?

I've written on abortion here a few times, most notably here (an ethical analysis of the phrase "abortion is murder") and here (an exegesis of Jeremiah 1:4-5, a verse often used as a proof-text to show that God is opposed to abortion). But I haven't written much on the subject lately, because I've found that while such posts tend to spike participation in the comments section, they don't actually generate good conversation. In fact, I all but vowed never to blog on abortion again. Arguments concerning abortion generate so much more heat than light.


Today I stumbled on this post by Frank Lockwood, the Bible Belt Blogger, and Religion editor at the Arkansas Democrat Gazette. In it Mr. Lockwood, formerly of the Lexington Herald Leader, while discussing whether or not "Mike Huckabee is destroying the old Reagan coalition," mentions "pro-abortion-on-demand party bigwigs" of the old GOP.

I shuddered. And not just at the notion that the Republican party could once have been said to be run by those who do not favor the criminalizing of abortion, though that would indeed be jarring news to a neophyte like me if I didn't have at least some grasp of recent political history. Mostly I shuddered because the descriptor "pro-abortion-on-demand" is, with the possible exception of "baby-killer," the least charitable (and in most cases, least honest) way to describe those of us who believe that abortion should be in at least some cases a legal option.

One commenter on the post, going by the handle UKLutheran, put it nicely:

It actually comes across as quite biased when you say "pro-abortion," suggesting that supporters of reproductive rights are members of the "voluntary human extinction movement" and favor abortion over childbirth.

In contrast, the term pro-choice suggests that one supports the constitutional right for a woman to choose: completely independent of whatever decision she makes. Even "pro-elective abortion" is misleading- not a few of the pro-lifers want criminalize even non-elective abortions (ie. abortions to save the life of the mother). Pro-choice implies support of freedom and rights, not a preference for any outcome.

On the other hand, many pro-choice people see abortion as an absolute moral wrong, but cannot see how government intervention, the abolishment of a right to privacy, and murder charges for desperate women (and doctors) will help matters.

To describe such people as "pro-abortion" is an absolute smear!

You need not be in favor of something (and can indeed be strongly opposed to it) without believing it should be a criminal matter or something the government should address (a sad fact that often gets overlooked in light of our increasingly large and meddlesome government).

That, as UKLutheran argues, many people who believe that abortion is in all or most cases morally wrong still oppose criminalizing it, shows one major problem with conflating "pro-choice" and "pro-abortion." That is, however, by no means the only problem.

Even those who believe that abortion is in many cases a morally permissible act are by no means best described as being in favor of it, as though they would jump up and shout "You go, girl!" whenever a woman makes the difficult and painful decision to terminate a pregnancy. It is quite possible to hold that a behavior is a viable moral option without being rightly labeled "pro" that behavior. Just War theorists, for instance, may hold that in certain circumstances military violence is a viable moral option. That would not necessarily make them "pro-war."

Beyond that, Mr. Lockwood did not describe the (mostly late, at this point) pro-choice wing of the Republican party as merely "pro-abortion"; no, they were "pro-abortion-on-demand." This communicates at best a certain casualness, as though they believed that obtaining an abortion was and should be a matter as simple as ordering a cheeseburger (not a morally or psychologically simple matter for me, a vegetarian, but I digress...) or a pay-per-view movie. Yet, pro-choicer that I am, I know of no one, regardless of their views on the ethics or legality of abortion, who treats actual instances of abortions casually. Yes, some people I know may be casual with their arguments (darn near careless, even). But I know of no one who thinks that an actual instance of voluntarily terminating a pregnancy is or should be casual.

Yes, I know people who think that it should be easier for a woman who has made the difficult decision to terminate her pregnancy to have access to a safe, legal abortion. I am such a person. The pro-life (perhaps a similarly misleading label, as many who advocate for criminalizing abortion are in favor of capital punishment and at least some wars, while also supporting economic and ecological policies that deal death daily) movement has succeeded in placing tremendous obstacles between many women and safe, legal abortions. I and others favor removing many of those obstacles. That hardly makes us "pro-abortion-on-demand."

I read Frank Lockwood's Bible Belt Blogger almost every day. Generally he is, so unlike the Faux News (aka Fox Noise) Network that placed this phrase in our collective consciousness, "fair and balanced." In this case, however - unless Mr. Lockwood has in mind particular GOP leaders who really believed that getting an abortion should be as easy as getting a Big Mac - I think he's guilty of a smear.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Are Theists Callous?

In a discussion at Debunking Christianity, a commenter wrote, of "theists" (exactly what was meant by the term was left unclear, so I'll assume it simply meant here those who intellectually believe the proposition that there is a God, and that God is omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent):

They are as heartless as their alleged god, and the deaths of children being burned alive, don't trouble their beliefs in the slightest.

As someone who has been very critical of the project of theodicy, I am not entirely unsympathetic to the commenter's position. Theodicies themselves are very poor responses to actual instances of suffering. Those who are suffering are not likely to be comforted by a vigorous philosophical defense of a particular description of God. It is simply not helpful.

But, are theodicies intended to be responses to particular instances of suffering? Are they offered as the best response to this or that tragedy, in the moment of suffering? Despite my past wholesale attack on the ethics of theodicy, I don't think that they are. While - as someone who, though religious, does not believe in the traditional theistic description of God - I don't think theodicies work, in that they fail to reconcile that description of God with the existence of suffering; I also don't think that they are intended as pastoral responses to specific instances of suffering.

It would truly be callous, or, as the commenter put it, "heartless," for a theist to in fact be truly untroubled by "the deaths of children being burned alive." But, though theists maintain their belief in an omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent God, I don't think for a moment that they are, in fact, untroubled by specific instances of suffering. They may be quite troubled by children being burned alive in a church in Kenya, but that incident - tragic as it is - does not actually provide us with new information about the universe.

Any theist is already aware that we live in a universe in which it is possible that children could be burned alive in a church in Kenya. Any theist is already aware that such things in fact happen; they have happened, and will presumably continue to happen. This is not new information. As such, their beliefs must already account for the existence of such instances of extreme suffering. That their beliefs do not change after they become aware of yet another instance of acute suffering does not mean that they are not troubled by such instances of suffering. It simply means that such instances have already, presumably, been accounted for in their belief system. While I do not find their accounts for such instances persuasive, neither do I think that they should jettison their beliefs every time tragedy strikes, if in fact they find that their theodicies have sufficiently accounted for suffering in the world, reconciling it to a particular description of God.

At this point I think it would be instructive to note that there are in fact two very different problems of evil (or suffering, as some theodicies deny that suddering is, in fact, evil, or evidence of evil), though we often conflate them, as I think the commenter at Debunking Christianity may have done:

1. The philosophic problem of evil (or suffering), and

2. The existential problem of evil (or, again, suffering).

The philosophic (or, perhaps, logical) problem of evil is just what you might guess from its title, a philosophic/logical problem. It is to this problem that theodicies respond. This problem may be roughly rendered thusly:

The following propositions are logically inconsistent:

i. There is a God
ii. God is omnipotent
iii. God is omniscient
iv. God is benevolent
v. There is suffering/evil in the world.

That is, suffering is logically incompatible with the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, perfectly good and loving God.

The existential problem of evil is a very different problem. It is a personal one, and may be rendered thusly:

The actual experience of suffering and evil creates conditions in which a person is less likely to believe in God.

New instances of suffering in the world participate in the existential problem of evil, in that they create conditions within which one's faith is challenged. But they are not necessarily relevant for the philosophic problem of evil, because they are simply not needed for it. Any suffering of any kind, at any point in history, already challenges the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving God. If someone has then responded philosophically to past instances of suffering, or even to the abstract possibility of suffering, and reconciled it sufficiently for themselves to the existence of the traditional theistic description of God, new instances of suffering do not pose an additional philosophic problem. But they may create an existential one.

This distinction is instructive because it acknowledges that we are not purely rational beings. Our logical/philosophical responses to suffering are not our only responses. And, even those whose theistic beliefs are philosophically untroubled by particular instances of suffering (such as the church fire in Kenya) are not necessarily either heartless or callous. They may have a profound emotional response to such suffering. Their faith may even strengthen that emotional response, and help them shape a powerful practical response. But that doesn't mean that this new concrete instance of suffering provides them with new information that should make them jettison their previous beliefs on the spot.

Friday, January 04, 2008

"Father God and the Angel of Death"

This is a Haitian folk story, ever so slightly edited, taken from Edwidge Danticat's magnificent memoir, Brother, I'm Dying:

Father God and the Angel of Death were strolling together in a neighborhood in a crowded city. During their walk, the Angel of Death would stop in front of many houses and say, "A man died here last month. I took him." Then as they continued down the street, the Angel of Death added, "I removed a grandmother from this house yesterday."

"I make people and you take them," said Father God. That's why they like me more than they like you."

"You think so?" asked the Angel of Death.

"I certainly do," said Father God.

"If you're so sure," said the Angel of Death, "why don't we both stop here on this street and each ask the same woman for a drink of water and see what happens?"

So Father God rapped on the nearest door and when the lady of the house opened it said, "Madame, can I trouble you for some water?"

"Non," the woman answered, irate. "I don't have any water to spare."

"Please," said Father God. "I'm parched."

"Sorry," said the woman, "but I can't spare any water. The public tap has been dry for days and I have to buy water by the bucket from the water woman, who's doubled the price. So I only have enough water for myself and my family."

"I'm sure you'd give me some water if you knew who I was," said Father God.

"I don't care who you are," said the woman. "The only one I'd give water to right now is the Angel of Death."

"But I'm God," insisted Father God. "Why would you give water to the Angel of Death and not to me?"

"Because," the woman said, "the Angel of Death doesn't play favorites. He takes us all, lame and stout, young and old, rich and poor, ugly and beautiful. You, however, give some people peace and put some in war zones. You give some enough food to stuff themselves, while others starve. You make some powerful and others defenseless. You make some healthy and let some get sick. You give some all the water they need while some of us have very little."

Bowing his head in shame, Father God walked away from the woman, who, when the Angel of Death came to her door, gave him all the water she had in the house. Because of this, the Angel of Death did not visit this particular woman again for a very long time.

While many of us in and around the academy get our theology through the relatively abstract reasoning of dry texts, much of the world wrestles with the nature of God and relationship between the human and the divine through songs and stories. This is true, of course, in the Global South and the Two-Thirds world, but it is also true even in most religious communities in the United States and elsewhere in the so-called "developed world." Our stories communicate our understanding of the fundamental truths of the universe. They help us share our values, our highest ideals. And they help us wrestle with deep mysteries, even and especially the mysteries of evil, suffering, and death.

This folk story is as powerful a way to wrestle with the problem of evil as any philosophical treatise, any theodicy or any rational attack on an understanding of God, as I've encountered.

What do you make of it?

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Got Jesus? Good for you... now will you please stop trying to sell him?

Let me preface this by saying that I have no problem with evangelism. In fact, while I have little either politically or theological with the vast sea of humanity carelessly labeled "Evangelicals," I still identify myself as an evangelical Christian. I am someone who has had an experience of God as revealed through the person of Jesus, and seek to share that experience with others. That's the most basic description of an evangelical Christian I can think of. I don't go around trying to convert people to my religion, but neither am I afraid or ashamed to share my faith with anyone who is interested.

But... If I see one more attempt to pass my savior off as some capitalistic commodity, I just might start burning things.

On the way home from running errands this afternoon, I passed a church with a simple message on its sign for the new year:

Try Jesus This Year

It reminded me far too much of other such careless attempts at anonymous evangelism. Everywhere I turn I see bumper stickers like:

Got Jesus? or

Jesus is the Answer.

Amateur evangelists have sales pitches as polished as the most professional of telemarketers, with a one-size fits all message aimed at placing their product in as many homes as possible. The way such slick campaigns are commoditize religion, I wouldn't be surprised to see a sign or sticker beckoning me to

Test Drive Jesus Today,

or offering me

Salvation: Satisfaction Guaranteed, or Your Money Back.

The problem with modeling evangelism on the highly effective slick advertising campaigns of our culture - aside from the fact that such campaigns are by nature manipulative and misleading, if not outright dishonest - is that it offers what Bonhoeffer called cheap grace, packaging Jesus as some product to be tried, with minimal investment on your part.

The same Jesus who the Gospel of Mark records as saying

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.

is now being offered in a convenient free trial (or trial-free?) form.

The same Jesus who Dietrich Bonhoeffer described as bidding us come and die is now a non-threatening, non-challenging, commodity. Some possession or potential possession, cheap and easy to acquire.

G.K. Chesterton said that Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried. I'm not sure I entirely agree with him, as I know a few atheists who would honestly beg to differ, having devoted themselves to the discipline of the Christian faith, only to be left cold and lonely. But his words should be kept in mind by those who sell Christ and Christianity as a product. The Christian faith - like any religion - is not a commodity. Jesus Christ can be neither bought nor possessed. And salvation - whatever one believes about grace - isn't just given away without any investment on the part of the one to be saved.

The Christian like involves discipline, devotion. It involves faith - by which I mean a great deal more than just believing and being able to articulate a few propositions concerning God. It involves one's entire being taking God as reveal through Jesus as what Paul Tillich called one's "ultimate concern." It means relinquishing all concerns with one's immediate self-interest, subordinating one's will to an experience, a revelation, of God.

This is probably not news to most of the readers of this blog. But it must be news to the masses here in the Bible who peddle Jesus like a product, advertising from the lawns of their church or the bumpers of their cars. And so to those masses, who no doubt stopped listening to me long ago, I beg you (this time literally) in the name of all that is holy:

Please stop trying to sell me Jesus!

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

My Problem With Suburban White Jesus

Before I took my first ministry job Sami and I briefly attended a large, wealthy, "status" church in the suburbs of Louisville. We honestly loved it there. They had programs for just about every group imaginable, while avoiding the almost frighteningly impersonal size of a mega-church. With not-too-tightly polished rock and roll "contemporary" worship, a wide variety of small groups and other ministry opportunities, and an open and welcoming warmth, this church was the opposite of the small country church we had been married in. And, after the disappointing end to our time there, it seemed just about perfect for us.

We even started going through the process of transferring our membership there, meeting with the pastor and attending new member classes. Then I saw an ad in the paper. A local church - where a friend of mine served as pastor - was looking for a new youth minister. And I was looking for a new career. It was a perfect fit. So we left our suburban paradise, after worshipping there for only a couple of months.

I hadn't thought much about that church, or the distance between my understanding of a good and healthy church then and my understanding now, until the other day when I was flipping through the channels on my TV, lying on the couch, sick and bored. To my surprise and delight, one of the local access channels was showing their weekly worship service.

While much of the staff had changed over the last seven years, the service was just as I'd remembered it. Clean, neat, and polished. But not too polished. A technical masterpiece, but not so precise that it felt stale or stiff. The pastor was clearly well educated, as evidenced by the many subtle literary and theological references in his sermon. But he was also at least as charismatic, with a passionate yet eloquent delivery.

The message itself would have been at least mildly challenging to the congregation. A meditation on the incarnation, it focused on Jesus' standing on the margins of his society. In noting that Jesus was a poor Jewish peasant, probably not formally educated, neither politically, economically, nor religiously powerful. He used this to argue for God's concern for those on the margins. And I was totally with him.

But then I started paying attention to the specific phrases he was using. He alluded to ideas from liberation theologies, but his specific language was considerably less radical, less challenging. Then, as he was summing up, he said this, in the context of the incarnation as evidence of God's concern for all persons, especially those on the margins:

Jesus came for the rich, and for those who will never become rich.

Of course, this statement (assuming that one can say that Jesus "came," which rests on a particular understanding of Jesus and the incarnation) is true. It speaks both to God's concern for all persons without regard to their economic status, and to the fact that some (MOST) of us will never become rich. But said as it was to a wealthy suburban church, I had a real problem with it.

First, it didn't name the poor as poor. There were only two kinds of people: the rich, and everyone else. This, to me, defeated the intended focus of the message. While the pastor was imploring his congregation to be aware of a whole host of humanity that usually escapes their attention, he could not bring himself to use a designator for them. Of course, he could argue that he avoided dehumanizing the poor by labeling them purely by their economic status. He could even have said that by labeling them as poor he would be affixing to them a negative term. But in the context it reminded me too much of a story a friend of mine tells of preaching to a congregation about the needs of a particularly impoverished community, only to have members from that congregation say to him, "The people you're talking about don't really exist."

Beyond that concern, however, is a much deeper concern: In stressing Jesus' concern for the rich (presented here first) and "those who will never become rich," the pastor is attempting to speak to God's concern for those on the margins without ever addressing their material needs, the unjust economic system that has placed them on the margins, or the fact that many, many members of his congregation have benefited greatly from that unjust economic system.

Thus God's concern - and, in turn, the proper concern of the congregation - is spiritualized. God cares about those who will never become rich, so he sent them Jesus. The congregation should care about those who will never become rich, and thus they should share Jesus with them. But this neuters the Gospel, offering neither a challenge to the wealthy nor comfort to the impoverished. Everything remains as it has always been and shall always be. There are some who are rich, others who are not. God cares about them both, and wants them all to be saved and go to heaven.

But honestly, I'm afraid that the pastor went just as far as he could go in that congregation. To say more, to say what I would have wanted him to say, to offer a prophetic critique of economic injustice, to offer a no doubt highly political articulation of the Gospel, would have threatened his job. Possibly even his career. And that's my problem with the suburban white Jesus I grew up worshipping. Held captive to the upper-middle class American values of the dominant culture, he looks so little like the Jesus I read about in the Gospels.