New Year, New Hope

desmond-tutu“WHENEVER I am asked if I am optimistic . . . . , I say that I am not. Optimism requires clear signs that things are changing – meaningful words and unambiguous actions that point to real progress. I do not yet hear enough meaningful words, nor do I yet see enough unambiguous deeds to justify optimism.

However, that does not mean I am without hope. I am a Christian. I am constrained by my faith to hope against hope, placing my trust in things as yet unseen. Hope persists in the face of evidence to the contrary, undeterred by setbacks and disappointment.”

These words were written by Desmond Tutu in October, 2007, in an Op-Ed piece in The Boston Globe.  The venerable archbishop was talking about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, but his words could apply  just as easily to the much larger world outside of the Middle East.

As we begin a new year, I find myself thinking of how challenged we are to be optimistic in this particular time and place.  Our political system is broken, our economic system is broken, our judicial system is broken.  Everywhere we look, we meet warnings about impending environmental disaster, and see the impact of severe, extreme weather brought on by climate change.  As Tutu says, “optimism requires clear signs that things are changing – meaningful words and unambiguous actions that point to real progress.”   It is hard – very hard – to see any such clear sings, meaningful words, or unambiguous actions.  And so people can hardly be blamed for being pessimistic about the future.

There is a difference, however, between pessimism and despair.  If optimism requires clear signs of positive change, then pessimism is the response to a lack of those signs.  But despair goes deeper:  despair is a lack of hope.  And those of us who are followers of Jesus do not have a license to despair.  As Tutu puts it,  we are constrained by our faith to place our trust in “things as yet unseen”.   It is this trust in the unseen that is to be our basis for hope.  And when we speak of things unseen, we are not just speaking of God.  We are also speaking of all the possibilities that God inspires us to imagine and to hope for, even though we do not yet see them manifested in our lives or the life of the world.  We are constrained to hope that these possibilities can become concrete realities, despite all evidence to the contrary.  And this hope is bolstered by the stories of our faith tradition:  stories of unlikely people doing unlikely things by God’s grace, and thus making unlikely and powerful changes in the life of the world.  These same stories also tell us that these unlikely moments of transformation usually come when things seem most bleak.  It is just when the darkness seems finally to be complete and overwhelming that the light shines out most brightly.

This New Year’s Day, we may have trouble feeling optimistic.  But let us not lose our hope.  Let us  move into the new year believing in the unseen possibilities, and prepared in the midst of darkness to welcome the light.  More than that, let us believe in our own ability to be the agents and conduits of that light.  Let us make ourselves available to the Unseen One, so that God’s love, compassion, and wisdom may be seen in and through us.

Jesus Exposed

images-6Over the past few years, Christianity has increasingly become known for conservatism.  As the members of the religious right have deployed their faith in the service of their political aims, the public image of Christianity has become identified with conservative moral principles and with a particular brand of conservative political ideology.  Various mega-church pastors and evangelical leaders have become the poster boys (and, for the most part, they are boys) for what Christianity is allegedly about:  strict moral absolutism in the service of “traditional values”; the shaming and vilifying of those who are seen as moving outside this traditional moral paradigm; the insistence that God is both the author and enforcer of this paradigm; a rigid, literalistic reading of sacred texts; the idea of America as a Christian nation (to the point of rewriting American history to correspond to this view); and the baptism of capitalism as the economic system ordained by God.

Certainly, there have always been many Christians and churches who have not signed on to this way of understanding faith. However, these Christians go largely unnoticed by the public.  We get no press coverage except when we ordain or marry gay people, and even then there is no interest in exploring the larger conception of faith that makes room for such ordinations and marriages.

The Roman Catholic Church, the largest in the world, has over the years moved more and more into the camp of the religious right.  In former days, evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics had little in common, and each group was relatively sure that the other was destined for hell (not an idea I endorse, by the way).  Under the reign of Pope John Paul II, however, the Roman church made a move in a decidedly conservative direction, and that movement ultimately led to alliances with the Protestant religious right, coalescing around a substantially shared vision of personal morality and even, from time to time, shared elements of political ideology.   Both the rise of the religious right and the right-ward movement of the Roman church have contributed to the currently popular idea that Christianity is naturally conservative (in the modern sense of that word).

Upon this scene has come the highly unexpected Pope Francis.  While it is far too early to know what the long-term impact of his papacy will be on the Roman church (and, indeed, the rest of Christianity, given the sheer size of that church), he has certainly made an impression on people in these first months.  And, when it comes to the members of the religious right, the impression he has made has not been a good one.  He has been criticized as a Marxist for speaking up for the poor and pointing out the ways in which capitalism can lead to great wealth for some and great poverty for others.  While he has not changed the moral teaching of Catholicism with respect to abortion and other “hot button” moral issues, he has dared to suggest that the church has perhaps become too focused on them at the expense of other aspects of its proclamation.  He has famously suggested that it’s not his place to judge gay people who seek the Lord.

Francis himself has pointed out that he has said nothing contrary to the social teaching of the Roman church of the past several decades.  What he has been doing is reminding Catholics of that social teaching, recalling the days when Roman Catholicism stood squarely on the side of the disadvantaged and marginalized.   The public has been stunned, and the religious right is not quite sure what has happened.

A recent Facebook post perhaps says it all:  “If you like Pope Francis, you’re going to love Jesus.”  The truth of the matter is that large numbers of Christians have, over the years, developed the habit of seeing Jesus and reading the gospels through the conservative prism of the religious right.  And, in my humble opinion, that prism has robbed Jesus of much of his power.  Under the influence of the religious right, we have increasingly come to worship a nice, domesticated, American Jesus who doesn’t challenge us too much.  So successfully has Jesus been made over in our own image that a news anchor recently pronounced, in all seriousness, that Jesus was a white man.

Perhaps one of the greatest gifts that Pope Francis is giving not only to the Roman Catholic Church but to all of us is the gift of exposing Jesus for what he was:  a Middle Eastern Jew who had some pretty revolutionary things to say — things that might well make comfortable white Americans rather uncomfortable.  Jesus was a man who criticized his society not for being insufficiently prosperous but for the people it left out.  And it is this same revolutionary Jesus, who was unafraid to criticize the religious and secular power and economic structures of his time, who was proclaimed to be God incarnate.   And what Jesus said and did, and what he was proclaimed to be on that basis, has profound implications for us today, in terms of how we are called to be his hands and heart in the world.

I am unafraid to join the Pope Francis fan club, even though I am not Roman Catholic.  Because whatever he does or doesn’t ultimately do for the Roman church, I fervently hope that, at the very least, he will cause people to reassess who Jesus was and what he was about.  And, that he will cause people to see that the Christian movement does not have to be what the religious right has made it into (and that, for many of us, it never became).  In Francis, I find hope and I find courage.  In him, I perceive that God is up to something.  May we have the grace to figure out what God is up to in all of us.

Losing the Forest for the Trees

science_religion_070703_msOver the past two or three centuries, the relationship of people to the Bible has undergone a shift.   In earlier ages, people were able to engage with the biblical texts more imaginatively.  They were understood to be the Word of God in the sense that they opened and inspired a spiritual connection.  The Bible, along with other elements of the Christian tradition  — like the sacraments, the writings of the saints, and practices of prayer — were understood to work together to bring people into a relationship with the living God.   It was that relationship that was key, because it was truly in the context of that relationship that real transformation of the human person could take place.   But beginning in the 18th century, people began reading the Bible not for inspiration but for information.  The Protestant Reformation had already, in a sense, laid the groundwork for this by separating the Bible from other traditional Christian practices.  While the Bible had long held a privileged place within the Christian tradition, Protestantism tended to give the Bible a rather exclusive place in that tradition, giving the Bible a controlling interest in Christian spirituality and theology (reflected in the Anglican tradition, for example, by the assertion at ordinations that the Bible contains “all things necessary to salvation”).    When such a high view of the Bible collided with a rising scientific sensibility that valued informational texts and equated truth with verifiable facts, the result that ultimately was produced was a view of Scripture that required every word of it to be given equal weight and authority, despite the fact that the Bible is a collection of texts that often have different perspectives on the same events, and despite the fact that these texts do not always agree.

When we land in a place that wants to give equal weight and authority to every biblical verse, it becomes very easy to lose the forest for the trees.   We easily get bogged down in arguments over minute details or in passages that seem compelling but represent what really is a minority viewpoint when one looks at all the biblical texts.  For example, in the hills of Appalachia, you will find churches whose central act of worship is snake handling — a practice that is really based on one isolated passage in the Gospel of Mark (16:18), and can hardly be said to be at the heart of the message of the New Testament.

The truth is that there is no theology or spirituality that is able to give equal regard to everything that is to be found in the Bible.   A doctrinal position that insists that every part of Scripture is equally authoritative requires this truth to be covered up and outwardly denied.  But even among those who insist that every word of Scripture has equal weight, the reality is that there are parts of the Bible that they emphasize and parts that they do not.

Whether we choose to recognize and acknowledge it or not, everyone uses some kind of interpretive key or lens to make sense of biblical texts.  The theologian James Alison suggests that for the Jewish people, this key is Moses.  For the last many centuries, it is the story of the  Exodus — and of Moses’s place in that story and the stories that flow from it — that has been the central, key narrative of the Jewish people.  This was not always true, but became so during the time of the Babylonian exile among those who experienced that exile and their descendants.  The content of the Hebrew Bible is viewed and understood through the lens of the Exodus story and the interpretation of Jewish faith and life that was credited to Moses.  The Exodus story lifts up larger themes, giving them a privileged significance:  themes like liberation from oppression, freedom, the idea that God is particularly interested in the welfare of the disenfranchised, among others.

For Christians, Jesus becomes the interpretive key, meaning that we should be interpreting the Bible from the point of view of Jesus’ life:  taking into account both what he enacted in his life and what he taught.  When we focus on these, once again larger themes emerge which then take on a privileged significance:  the attention Jesus paid to people at the margins of society; the freeing of people from bondage to disease or conditions that the New Testament describes as demons; the self-giving nature of God revealed in the cross; the overcoming of all forms of death proclaimed in the Resurrection.

The forest of the Bible, if I may use that image, is shaped by these larger themes, by the central concerns of God revealed in the lives of Moses and Jesus.  It is this forest that we must not lose sight of as we meander among the individual trees — the passages of the various biblical texts.  When we lose sight of the forest, we lost sight of what is most important.  We lose track of the central concerns of God revealed by Moses and Jesus:  liberation, freedom, compassion, generosity, healing, self-giving, death-defying love.   Moses is credited, in the Book of Deuteronomy, with saying, “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Now choose life….”   However we interpret the Bible, whatever lens we use, we should be sure that we are choosing life and blessing — and not just for ourselves, but for all people.


Let’s Get Over Ourselves

Nativity-of-Christ (1)

I have tried to avoid this whole “War on Christmas” issue.  It seems rather clear to me that those who believe that there is some sort of war on Christmas have clearly never experienced anything like actual war.  I would much prefer to simply ignore the whole thing as the product of people on the stranger fringes of the Christian tradition.

However, those of us who refuse to buy into this frame of mind should be concerned that the birth of Jesus is being used to create division.  Because whenever the name of Jesus (or his birthday) is used to create a “them” — a group of people who are cast in the role of outsiders — all of us who seek to follow him should be concerned.

How strange it is that the one whom we Christians hail during the Christmas season as the “Prince of Peace” should be used to create anything less than peace during this season.  Yet, this is precisely what the Christmas warriors are doing.  They are placing those who do not celebrate Christmas — or, at least, don’t celebrate it as a religious occasion — as enemies of Christ and Christians.  And having thusly cast them, made them part of an imaginary war.  Having conjured up this imaginary war, the Christmas warriors would now cast Christians in the role of Christ- and Christmas-defenders.  How very sad, and how very unChrist-like.

Those of us who see in Christ the revelation of God should also be able to see that this revelation seeks to overcome division.  In Christ, there is to be no us and them.  In Christ, God is seeking to overcome all forms of tribalism — including the conceited tribalism of religious people who think that God is somehow more concerned with them than with the rest of humanity.

Well, we Christians need to get over ourselves.  Or, at least the Christmas warriors need to get over themselves.  There is no evidence in the New Testament to support the idea that, when one day we appear in the presence of Christ, we will be told, “You said Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas — therefore I know you not.”

Christian people are sometimes their own worst enemies.  And this whole Christmas warrior business is a prime example.  It is another opportunity for the world to talk about how ridiculous and out of touch Christians are.  Another opportunity to make true that saying attributed to Ghandi:  “I like your Christ, but I don’t much like your Christians.”

Remember people:  we are to love people into loving God — not beat them up until they submit or run away.  We are to cross barriers, not set them up.