On Behalf of the Poor

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.  (James 2:14-17).

I don’t envy the President and members of Congress, who face – among others – the considerable task of trying to figure out how to bring some kind of balance and sanity to our nation’s fiscal life as we continue to struggle with a difficult economy.  And, I certainly don’t claim to possess the answers or the expertise to figure out what might be the best course of action.  So much of what I hear these days, however, disturbs me.

What I hear are a lot of proposals to reduce our national spending.  And almost all of these proposals have at their core the cutting of programs that are designed to serve some of the most vulnerable among us:  the sick, the poor, the elderly.   The basic argument seems to be that we can’t afford to continue programs that are called “entitlements” without changing them drastically.  Drastic change seems to mean providing less support to those who are most in need among us.

What I never seem to hear is any suggestion that we should spend less money on weapons or security – a budget category that is astoundingly large.  United States defense spending alone is more than the value of some smaller countries’ entire economies.  And, among the so-called advanced, industrialized nations, it is the biggest of all.

Many would argue, it seems, that we can’t possibly reduce our security expenses given all of the dangers that we face from terrorism and other threats.  Yet, I wonder if anyone has thought about the security implications of allowing the growing gap between the rich and the poor in this country to get even larger?  Have we really considered what desperate people, made more desperate because of a lack of social support, might do out of their pain and anger to lash out at the larger society or to try to make their voice heard?  Is the greatness of a nation really determined by the greatness of its security apparatus?  Or is it, perhaps, determined by how it takes care of its most vulnerable citizens?

Again, I don’t claim to have all the answers, or any answer in particular.  These are big problems and big issues and if they were easily solved we wouldn’t be worrying about them.   One thing I do know, however, is that I cannot claim to follow Jesus and be unconcerned with the plight of the poor and vulnerable.   I cannot look at someone who is struggling to keep a roof over her head and food on her table or who is sick and trying to get medical treatment and say, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill.”  It is not enough for me to believe in Jesus and say kind things and do nothing.  For as the Letter of James which I quoted above says so well, “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”

We who claim Jesus, and who are claimed by Jesus, cannot allow our national budget to be balanced on the backs of the poor, the sick and the elderly.  It doesn’t matter whether we claim to be a Democrat, a  Republican or an Independent.  We simply cannot abandon those who are in need.  It is not an option for Christian people.  Ever.  Under any circumstances.

I end with an historical observation made by Diana Butler Bass in a talk I heard her give this past January:  history has shown us that when a civilization becomes preoccupied with security and diverts its resources ever more toward maintaining its security, that civilization is approaching collapse.

Apocalypse Now!

Life is strange.  This morning, I read an article about folks at Family Radio.  You know, the nice people who are sponsoring the end of the world this coming Saturday (as predicted by their founder).   The author of the article interviewed a woman named Esther, who is the receptionist at Family Radio’s office in Oakland, California.  Esther indicated that she was making appointments for most of Family Radio’s employees well beyond the May 21 end of the world date, and that she estimated about 80% of Family Radio’s employees don’t believe that Christ will return to begin the end times on Saturday.  Yet, they continue to be purveyors of this prediction.

Some have suggested that perhaps the real goal of the prediction, and its attendant publicity, is a kind of religious scam meant to increase visibility for and income to Family Radio.  That’s certainly a possibility, though it seems an odd one, to me.  After all, assuming that Mr. Camping, their leader, is wrong and the world really won’t start ending on Saturday, then presumably those who are believers will be greatly disappointed and drift away from him and Family Radio.

I tend to think that Mr. Camping does indeed believe what he says.  And he’s hardly the only one to jump on the Apocalypse band wagon.  Lots of folks these days, it seems, are fascinated by various end of the world scenarios, be they rooted in Christian apocalyptic tradition or the end of the Mayan calendar.  It is truly, I think, a sign of the times in which we live.

Let’s face it:  things are pretty stressful right now.  Climate change, floods and fires, earthquakes and nuclear meltdowns, rising gas and food prices, widespread unemployment, economic uncertainty – there’s an awful lot on the global plate these days.  It is understandable that some people, overwhelmed by so many challenges, would long for some divine intervention that would bring it all to an end and set things right for ever after.  When looked at from this perspective, all the apocalyptic talk and thinking really represents a deep human longing to be taken care of by a higher power.   It’s a recognition that things are badly messed up in lots of ways.  And, it’s a belief that things are so messed up that we can’t get a handle on them.  We need God or some divine or cosmic force to do it for us.

And that, it seems to me, is the real danger of going down the apocalyptic road:  it is, at least in part, an abdication of personal responsibility.  If God is going to come and clean things up, then all I have to do is wait and be faithful (which is usually interpreted as holding a particular belief and abiding by a particular personal moral code).  I don’t actually have to do anything to try to make things better.

And that is not what the followers of Jesus are called to do.  It is true that the Gospels show us a Jesus who did from time to time use apocalyptic imagery and speech, and books could be written (and probably have been) about how we might understand this particular aspect of Jesus.  Yet, it is also clear that Jesus’ teaching contains a call to action:  faithfulness for Jesus is a matter of doing.  Love is a verb in the New Testament, and when we are enjoined to love our neighbors, we are being asked to do something for them.

And when Jesus is shown talking about judgment, that judgment is never based on beliefs or personal moral purity.  It is based on the idea of “What have you done for my beloved human family lately?”  Lack of compassionate action is what constitutes a negative judgment in the teaching of Jesus.

One wonders what might happen if the energy that people like the Family Radio folks have poured into their apocalyptic hopes (which, apparently, many of them don’t really believe!) had instead been poured into tackling some of the world’s challenges.  We wouldn’t suddenly have solved them all, certainly, but we might have made some steps forward.  And, instead of waiting for Christ to appear in the sky, they might have found that Christ was already here, waiting for them all along to be his hands and heart in the world.

Overcoming Literalism

The recent celebration of Easter included, in many churches, a service known as the Great Vigil of Easter.  Traditionally celebrated after sundown on Easter Eve (and often very early Easter morning), the Vigil includes near its beginning a series of readings from the Bible that are meant to present “the record of God’s saving deeds in history, how he saved his people in ages past”   (Book of Common Prayer).  The number of readings can be as few as two or as many as eight, and they hit the “high points” in terms of following the theme of God’s desire to bring humanity into being as people who are free to be in relationship with God and to be fully and authentically themselves.

At many Easter Vigils, the first reading to be heard is one of the creation stories from Genesis.  And I was surprised recently to hear the inclusion of that particular reading criticized rather strongly by a scientist who is not at all hostile to Christianity (indeed, the scientist in question participates in Christian worship).  The criticism was that the Genesis story seeks to describe creation in a mythic way, that does not accord with modern scientific understandings of how the universe and our world came into being.  It seems that this particular scientist felt that by reading the Genesis story, the church was reinforcing a fanciful view of creation –or promoting the idea of biblical creationism.

Hearing this criticism made me a bit sad, I have to say, because it is yet another example of the way in which even very educated people can misunderstand the meaning and purpose of the Bible.  And nowhere is this misunderstanding more evident than when we speak of the biblical creation stories.  Far too many people continue to approach Genesis as if it were meant to be a scientific text, accurately describing the facts of creation.  This was never, however, the intention of those people who are responsible for the stories of Genesis as we now have them.  The authors who contributed the biblical creation stories knew very well that they were not describing how creation actually happened – because they were well aware that they didn’t know!

The creation stories of Genesis are influenced by the creation myths of other religious traditions Israel encountered and, in fact, occupy a much less central role in the Hebrew tradition than they did in other ancient religious traditions.  For the people of Israel, the central narrative was not the creation of the world but rather the creation of a people with a unique identity: and thus, it is the Exodus story that occupies a much more important place in the Hebrew tradition than the creation stories.

Nevertheless, Israel did develop the creation stories of Genesis, but they did not do so in order to provide an accurate account of how the world was made.  Rather, the purpose of these stories is to insist on one simple truth:  that creation is a divine activity and depends, therefore, upon God.  And the creation stories of Genesis are meant to put forward this simple truth in a poetic way.

In fact, the Bible as a whole is much closer to poetry than it is to anything else, and poetry always uses image and metaphor to try to communicate a deeper truth.  We dishonor the Bible when we try to take its stories literally and to insist that there is no difference between Genesis, for example, and a biology textbook.  The result of dishonoring the Bible in this way is to continue to drive a wedge between science and religion.  There need not be any such wedge.  Religion speaks to truth that is deeper than science can grasp or describe, while science speaks to truth that is not the province of religion.

Thus, when it comes to the Genesis creation stories, the Bible – religion – simply insists that creation is a divine activity and depends on God for its existence.  Science shows us the details of that divine activity.  The Bible’s language is poetry, and the scientist’s language is theory, observation and facts.  These are not competing truths, but complementary.  If we allow each to speak to the other properly, we are led to a far more beautiful and meaningful understanding than either can bring to us on its own.

Bin Laden, Jesus and Me

‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also….

‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.”  ‘But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.’

— Matthew 5:38-39, 44-45

As I watched the news last night following President Obama’s announcement of the death of Osama bin Laden, and saw people gathering outside the White House and in other places to celebrate the news, I must admit that I did not feel joy.  Nor did I feel sadness.  The truth is, I wasn’t sure what to feel.

Certainly, I am not sorry that Osama bin Laden is no longer in the world.  I remember 9/11 very well, sitting in the office of the church I was serving at the time and watching the horror of that day unfold, seeing the many people who came to the church that day to pray, and gathering for a special service that evening.  He was someone whose twisted mind, and twisting of Islam, gave birth to incredible violence and death that destroyed thousands of lives, and who got others to carry out his plans for him.  He was unquestionably a man who did evil.

However, I also don’t think it’s appropriate for Christian people to rejoice in and celebrate the death of any human being, no matter how many terrible things that person did.  As I write these words, I realize that such a position is not likely to be a popular one.  And it would be easier just to give in to feelings of nationalism and the feeling of satisfaction that comes when we feel we have avenged ourselves and join the crowds around the country who have welcomed bin Laden’s demise with such joy.  Yet, as a follower of Jesus, I am always having to contend with his teaching, and that includes the teaching quoted above from Matthew’s Gospel.

Jesus viewed the idea of an “enemy” very differently than most people of his time or, indeed, of our time.  To Jesus, to define another as one’s enemy created a spiritual problem for the one who created the definition.  In the particular passage from Matthew with which I began, Jesus is seeking to subvert the traditional tribal code, so much a part of his world, that mandated that if someone did something to you then you should respond in kind:  “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”  That tribal mentality was responsible for a great deal of violence in the ancient world, and Jesus teaches that this is not the way things are to be among his followers.  He proposes the revolutionary idea that we end the cycle of violence by refusing to follow the tribal code and, instead, greet our enemies and their actions with love and compassion.  The reality is that by doing so, the enemy will eventually cease to be the enemy and become the neighbor, and then the possibility of transformation presents itself.

Some people have suggested that Jesus’ teaching is really about interpersonal relationships, and shouldn’t be applied to the kinds of extreme violence committed by the particularly ruthless.  What would have happened, for example, if we had applied Jesus’ teaching rigorously during World War II?  Should we really have responded to Hitler in love?  It may well be that Jesus meant this teaching to be about the day to day challenges of our personal lives.  Yet, Jesus was acquainted with state-sponsored violence, a common feature of life in the Roman Empire.  He knew what it was to come face to face with powerful forces.

And Jesus was doing more than teaching a theory.  He lived what he taught, all the way to the cross.

So, where does all of this leave me?  It leaves me unsettled and uncomfortable – Jesus is good at unsettling and discomfiting.   As imperfect as I am in my efforts to follow Jesus, I cannot simply cast aside his commitment in word and action to non-violence.  Nor can I cast aside the suffering and death which Osama bin Laden inflicted on so many.  As these two realities live side by side in my mind and my heart, I guess I am struck by the brokenness of our world:  the brokenness which led bin Laden  and his followers down his terrible path and, in turn, leads our nation down a path of counter-violence.  All of it must surely break the heart of God.

In the end, I am left with more questions than answers.  The one thing I am sure of is that the demise of bin Laden is not a cause of joy or celebration.  It is a moment to remember the suffering and death of which he was the agent, to pray for those who have suffered and died on his account, and to work toward a world that is less broken.  It is a moment for rededicating ourselves to the cause of peace and to the courageous hope of a world that is free of the hatred that so infected bin Laden and, as a result, has infected the hearts of so many others.

When Jesus reminds us that the sun and rain enable the lives of both the righteous and the unrighteous, he is reminding us that God’s community is not a particular people or nation.  Rather, God’s community is the entire human family.  And to realize this deeply is to realize that we are called to something higher than tribal or national sentiment.  We are called to realize that whatever our nation, we are all a part of God’s human family, and that in the end our highest, noblest calling is to serve all of humanity.

Has bin Laden’s death served the human family?  I don’t know.  But I think no act of violence, however rooted in justice it may be, brings joy to the heart of God.  I think God dreams for us to find a better way.  That’s a tremendous challenge sometimes.  But it’s a dream that I don’t think we who seek to be faithful can dare to surrender.