Monday, January 29, 2007

The Practicing Progressive

Issue 8
January 29, 2007

I have a good friend who is convinced that the only solution to the Palestinian problem is to relocate Israel. He’s crazy, of course.

The only problem is he’s not. He is bright, articulate, enormously creative and courageous to boot so I am reluctant to dismiss his “crazy” idea as so many others do. After the exclamations of “Impossible!” and “Ridiculous!” come the discomforting charges of “Anti-Semite!” and “Racist!” He is neither. He is a citizen of the world who is deeply concerned about this planet’s future. He envisions a world where his children and grandchildren can live in peace, even the precarious peace we now share. He is convinced, along with millions of others, that unless and until a solution is found for Israel and Palestine any hope for a peaceful planet is microscopic. And so he proffers his opinion to others…and is resoundingly rejected.

There are a myriad of reasons why his argument appears futile and I will leave it to others to invoke them but, as a Progressive Christian, I would like to address one aspect of his argumentation that, it seems to me, makes abundant sense.

It is, not surprisingly, the theological argument.

Unless you are a Biblical literalist, you must acknowledge that the Hebrew Scripture is an attempt by a particular culture to describe a particular understanding of God. The Hebrew Bible was written by Jews for Jews. It was written, as it were, from the bottom up rather than visa versa. It is divine not because it comes from God but because the people declare it so. The same is true for any sacred book, of course. The Hebrew Bible, the Christian Bible, the Koran, etc. are all human attempts to describe God rather than God’s attempts to describe God. This should all go without saying but it is important that we make that distinction when we pursue the theological argument for Israel’s relocation.

Hebrew Scripture is primarily shaped around a powerful myth that encapsulates stories of divine blessing, horrific enslavement, dramatic exodus, eventual conquest, sorrowful defeats and prophetic hope. It is the story of a people trying to make sense of their history. Its underlying assumption is that Israel and its religious tradition exists because of God’s benefaction. They are the “chosen people”. It is a beautiful and moving collection that has served as inspiration for millions of people over thousands of years.

The problem is there is little, if any, evidence that many of the stories related in the Bible have any connection to factual data. We have no archaeological or historical records, for instance, of thousands of people fleeing from an Egyptian pharaoh. We have no archaeological or historical records of burning bushes, divinely inscribed stone tablets or, for that matter, of a charismatic leader named Moses. What we do have is a collection of stories written by a particular group offering their interpretation of whom they are and how they got where they are.

The problem comes, of course, when this collection of parochial writings becomes politically authoritative. The argument that claims Israel’s divine right to the land they occupy, even a divine right to exist at all, because it is guaranteed in the Bible, is fallacious and, obviously, self-serving.

I certainly believe that the Jewish people, who have suffered in incalculable ways, deserve a place of refuge and security. I do not believe, however, that a particular piece of real estate in the Middle East has somehow been divinely foreordained to belong to Israel. The current boundaries may, indeed, be the best place for Israel’s continuing existence but an argument based on any divine right deserves to be dismissed forthwith.

Recently a parent of a student in the Seattle public schools threatened to sue the school district if they continued to show Al Gore’s film on the environmental crisis: “An Inconvenient Truth”, without offering a contradicting position. The parent is an evangelical Christian who believes that global warming is a sign of the imminent return of Jesus. Indeed, one could assume that this parent finds the disconcerting Gore film quite concerting. What is disconcerting to me, however, is the willingness of the school board, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, to make room for religious-based pseudo-science in their classrooms. Yes, there are those convinced that the world is but 6000 years old and others who are certain they’ve been abducted by aliens but such claims are scientifically unverifiable. One may sincerely believe the moon is made of cheese or the angel Moroni paid a visit to Joseph Smith but such sincerity does not make it worthy of inclusion in science or history textbooks.

Although religious understandings of reality can be enormously helpful in deciphering a constructive worldview and healthy lifestyle, any political argument that claims divine sanction is inherently deceptive because it is based on faith not facts.

So there is one argument against Israel’s displacement fairly disputed. Disputing the others I’ll leave to my friend.

Monday, January 22, 2007

The Practicing Progressive

Issue 7
January 22, 2007

If you are a member of a mainline Protestant congregation, you are probably very much aware of the decline of most traditional denominations. What’s more, you needn’t be told by others. A sad look around your sanctuary on a Sunday morning will confirm what the statistics claim.

There are exceptions, of course. And some of them are very dramatic indeed. But, by and large, the outlook for denominational Christianity in America as represented by Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, etc. is bleak at best.

The causes are myriad with sociological and cultural changes playing a very significant role but one must also recognize the place that Progressive Christianity has played in this denominational downturn. Unintended, to be sure, but nevertheless destructive, Progressive Christian thought has challenged the orthodoxy of Protestant theology and worship. Most PC adherents, I suspect, have simply found Protestantism’s reliance on archaic worldviews and ancient rituals to be irrelevant to their own spiritual journeys. Why participate in something you don’t believe in? I further suspect that most of these drop-outs had never heard of Progressive Christianity and certainly never thought of themselves as Progressive Christians. But over my years in parish ministry, I met many of these frustrated spiritual sojourners who were Progressive Christians Unaware, as it were. It is abundantly clear to me that these folk were simply hoping to follow Jesus’ teachings but, paradoxically, found the Church blocking their way.

An additional contributor to the demise of denominationalism is Evangelical Christianity. This fiercely independent form of the ancient faith often expresses its independence by refusing to align congregations into denominations. This reluctance gives rise, at times, to huge congregations, often centered on the charismatic appeal of a particular, usually white, handsome and male, pastor.

Much of Evangelical Christianity, it seems to me, has a kind of adolescent mindset that seeks definitive answers to highly complex questions. There is a child-like yearning for universal absolutes and solid moral clarity. In a world filled, as ours is, with ethical ambiguity and political uncertainties, this desire often develops into a rigid delineation of what is good and what is evil, what is right and what is wrong, what is beautiful and what is ugly. This certitude is, I suspect, a rather pleasant state of being and its great popularity among the masses is understandable. How peaceful one must feel knowing that the complexities of life can be narrowed down to a few fundamental certainties!

But such faithful confidence must be fervently protected from the onslaught of a modern world. Scientific achievement, intellectual curiosity, political innovations are only some of the forces that must be fought against. Even more destructive to the certitude of much of Evangelical Christianity comes in personal encounters that belie rigid beliefs. A dearly-loved son announces he is gay or an atheistic co-worker exhibits an enviable kindness and generous spirit…and the first step on the slippery slope toward spiritual maturity is taken, like it or not.

Not all of mainline Christianity is on shaky ground, of course. Christianity is booming in the southern hemisphere. Almost every major Protestant denomination is experiencing dramatic growth south of the equator, particularly in Africa. Indeed, in a curious reversal of history, missionaries are now being sent to America and Europe from these growing African denominations. Witness the recent alignment of a number of Episcopalian congregations in America to African bishops and dioceses.

Such statistics may bring joy to some but I find them enormously discouraging. The Christianity that is growing in these third-world settings is disturbingly reminiscent of a Christianity that is best left in the past. Adamantly hierarchical, brutally biased against both women and homosexuals, this emerging Christianity is centered on a theology that most of us would consider bankrupt and destructive. This is a Christianity immersed in 19th century American Protestant triumphalism. This is a Christianity that pits Christ against the infidels rather than welcoming strangers to the table. This is a Christ that many of us long ago rejected and to this day fear.

Once, while visiting Lutheran congregations in Tanzania, I was both surprised and disappointed to find the African natives singing hymns written in German and advocating an evangelism that denigrated other systems of belief. Was it moving to listen and watch as hundreds of folk sang of their faith in Christ? Of course! Such devotion taps deep into the souls of most of us. But it was also terribly troubling to think that these same faithful folk would have to repeat the failures already experienced by western Christianity.

The emerging Christianities of Africa, Asia and American Evangelicalism are impressive in size and scope with enormous potential for continuing growth but continuing on their current course, they run the risk of being religions without reason, Christianities without Christ.

Monday, January 15, 2007

The Practicing Progressive

Issue 6
January 15, 2007

More on the church’s culture of deceit…

You have certainly read of the nasty business in the Virginia Diocese of the Episcopal Church. There, two congregations have voted to separate themselves from their American bishop and diocese and join forces instead with the Diocese of Nigeria. The ostensible reason for their defection was to align themselves with a church body that more closely adheres to a strict interpretation of scripture and the traditional teachings of the Anglican Communion.

In fact, barely scraping the surface, one can quickly discover that these desertions have less to do with custom and more with convenience. Conveniently, the Diocese of Nigeria is rabidly anti-gay with a bishop who advocates the restriction of civil as well as religious rights for homosexuals. If these pious Virginia parishioners were sincere in their need to honor the ancient cultural prohibitions listed in the Bible they would be forced to change more than their diocese. Women would be forbidden to assume any leadership role in their parishes, priests would be stripped of their robes and titles and a perpetual ban on pig roasts would have to be invoked, just to name a few. The truth, as I see it, is that these two parishes, and a growing number of other Episcopalian churches, even dioceses, wish to continue the barbarous biases against women and gay folk that have marked Christianity for far too long. Hiding behind a rationale of scriptural literalism is a cheap and obvious sham for perpetuating hatred.

Another interesting albeit depressing example of deceit in the name of Christianity comes in the peculiar alliance between Evangelical Christians and Israel. Millions of dollars to support the continuing military build-up in Israel have been raised in Evangelical churches for many years. According to conventional Evangelical theology, Israel plays a key role in the second coming of Christ and its maintenance as a political power is essential. So the money pours in. What is so strange to anyone looking in from the outside is the transparent deception of this arrangement. In the eyes of most Evangelicals, Jews will be damned to an eternal punishment for refusing to accept Jesus…and the quicker he comes, the more imminent their damnation. Israel, on the other hand, appears more than willing to accept the Christian’s cash. It doesn’t matter where the money comes from as long as it keeps coming (and beats the arrival of Jesus). Politics may make strange bedfellows but religion seems to make bizarre ones.

Such an alliance may seem nothing more than an exercise in hypocrisy but it can be far more sinister. Think, only hypothetically of course, if a certain president of the United States was to accede to this odd understanding of Israel and shape his foreign policy in accordance. Unprovoked and ill-advised incursions into sovereign Middle-Eastern nations may have more to do with the man’s religious perspective than his political one.

On a more personal note: Pastors are reasonably expected to live lives of integrity and purity but often congregations move far beyond reason. Many a pastor friend has found him/herself caught up in a charade that has them pretending that all is well even when it is not. To act as if doubt never enters the cleric’s consciousness, or to make believe a world of divine order, creates a conundrum for both pastor and parishioner that ultimately results in a culture of deceit. I’ll pretend if you’ll pretend and we’ll all pretend together. That, it seems to me, is the very definition of a dysfunctional relationship. Honesty, from both sides of the pulpit, is the only antidote for this kind of self-destructive behavior.

Finally, on this day for honoring Dr. King, I share with you a poem I came across a few weeks ago that I found both profound and profoundly moving:

By Stanley Moss

I salute a word, I stand up and give it my chair,
because this one Zulu word, ubuntu,
holds what English takes seven to say:
“the essential dignity of every human being.”
I give my hand to ubuntu-
the simple, everyday South African word
for the English mouthful.
I do not know the black Jerusalems of Africa,
or how to dance its sacred dances,
I cannot play Christ’s two commandments on the drums:
“Love God” and “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”
I do not believe the spirits of the dead
are closer to God than the living,
nor do I take to my heart
the Christlike word ubuntu
that teaches reconciliation
of murderers, torturers, accomplices,
with victims still living.
It is not blood but ubuntu
that is the manure of freedom.

From “New and Selected Poems: 2006”
(Seven Stories Press: 248pp., $18.95)

Monday, January 08, 2007

The Practicing Progressive

Issue 5
January 8, 2007

Recently there was a report of a Christian encounter that caught my eye. Actually, it was an encounter between Christians, Christian monks, as a matter of fact. These monks became so passionate about their religious authority they were willing to forego their religion’s teaching for the chance of punching one another’s lights out.

The brouhaha was born out of an ancient disagreement over which order of monks controlled a monastery on Mt. Athos in Greece. The latest engagement involved crowbars, sledgehammers and fire extinguishers. Seven monks were hospitalized. The abbot of one of the warring factions claimed, “We were attacked and we had to respond.”

So much for turning the other cheek.

Actually, anyone who has been involved in a church for any length of time can probably recount similar, if not so physical, battles. Indeed, some of the nastiest fights between folk can trace their lineage back to congregational life.

Why, one wonders, would an organization founded on principles of peace and compassion so often degenerate into one that gives rise to such war and hatred?

I’ll submit that part of the reason, perhaps even the primary reason, is the culture of deceit that has been perpetuated throughout much of Christianity. By this I mean an unwillingness to honestly engage in the complexities of being a Christian in the modern world. An organization that continues to employ archaic metaphors as if they were contemporary realities invites a communal mindset of pretense and make-believe.

I have a sneaky hunch that most folk don’t really believe that heaven is “up there” and the devil deep below us. They don’t really believe Mary managed to give birth without benefit of Joseph or the resurrected Jesus shot up like a spaceship heading toward Mars. They don’t really believe that eating bread or drinking wine has us swallowing flesh and blood…and yet, week after week, we continue to employ such imagery.

The result is obvious and disastrous. Christianity becomes a church of wink-wink and nod-nod. We don’t really buy all this ancient tomfoolery but we’ll act like we do for an hour a week. For an hour, we’ll re-enter an ancient time and pretend it still matters today and when time is up we’ll go back to the real world to live out our lives.

Sadly, the eternal truths of Jesus get caught up in the church’s chicanery and inevitably we leave his teachings on peace, justice, compassion, hospitality and more, back at the door with Church’s pretenses. The message OF Jesus gets lost in Christianity’s often muddled message ABOUT Jesus. All of Christianity, the good and the bad, the helpful and the hurtful become intertwined in a concoction that is easily dismissed as irrelevant and superfluous.

Such a reality allows for churches to blissfully pretend that all is well when it is decidedly not. The sex-scandal among the priesthood is a good if sad example of what happens in a culture of deceit. If what we say we believe about our religion is based on pretense then why not base our religious lives on pretense as well? Why are we shocked when pastors have affairs or steal from the coffers or sexually abuse others? When we’re all engaged in deception around our faith, what’s the matter with a little deception around our lives?

Everything, of course.

Authentic Christian discipleship is centered, it seems to me, on a life of integration, of melding the timeless truths with the modern age. We can assist that process if the language we use and the songs that we sing reflect the genuine tensions and triumphs that following Jesus brings.

Monday, January 01, 2007

The Practicing Progressive

Issue 4
January 1, 2007

One of the most encouraging developments in Progressive Christianity comes from a most unlikely source: Evangelical Christianity.

Over the past year, numerous Evangelical Christian leaders have begun involving themselves and their followers in projects that, surprisingly, mesh quite well with some of the goals of PC. Environmental awareness, the fight against AIDS, the empowering of the poor in New Orleans, the war on hunger in Africa, are just a few of a growing number of undertakings that have Progressives and Evangelicals moving in a similar direction.

The benefits of such mutuality seem obvious. Working to eradicate the sources of injustice and global destruction are noble goals to be sure but there is a secondary benefit that may ultimately prove even more beneficial.

Evangelical Christianity has, for the most part, arrived late on the social justice scene. Historically, EC’s concern has been centered more on the afterlife than this life. There are exceptions, of course. Many leaders of the abolitionist movement in the 19th century could be categorized as Evangelical Christians and many a soup kitchen over the years has been operated by good folk who would be quite comfortable in the Evangelical camp. Nevertheless, Evangelicalism has not been noted, by and large, for concern about social problems much beyond their opposition to abortion in particular and homosexuals in general.

Now, however, some Evangelicals, most notably Rick Warren of “The Purpose Driven Life” fame, have begun to align themselves strategically, if not theologically, with folk of a very different sort. Folk like us.

When Warren marshaled thousands of his followers to head to New Orleans shortly after the hurricane or now as he generates millions of dollars to fight the AIDS epidemic, he is acknowledging a fundamental tenet of Progressive Christianity: Christian belief is secondary to Christian action.

Although the generating force of a compassionate act certainly matters to the actor, it is the act itself that matters most to the recipient. Warren, a deeply committed Evangelical, has begun to acknowledge, whether he admits it or not, that the paramount Christian challenge is not right doctrine but right action.

Such recognition has enormous ramifications. Some of Warren’s Southern Baptist brethren have loudly criticized his growing alliance with non-Evangelicals as he moves further into the war on poverty and disease. His conservative critics wisely recognize the inherent danger of Warren’s decision-making. For once compassionate action takes precedence over orthodox belief; the invulnerability of religious institutions that claim to speak for God is threatened. This, you may remember, is what got Jesus into so much trouble.

In my experience as a parish pastor, I had the privilege of witnessing, over and over again, the life-changing power of compassion. I remember quite clearly a father, whose aversion to gay folk was once both deep-seated and very loud, deciding that loving his homosexual son mattered more than his prejudice. It was a courageous act made possible by compassion. I can recall numerous similar occasions where love trumped the law. Sadly, I could also tell stories of good people caught up in the illusion that tradition and ancient dogma were of more worth than welcoming strangers or, even harder, strange ideas.

Habitat for Humanity, a Christian organization, has long brought folk from a variety of religious and non-religious backgrounds together for compassionate action. Evangelical Rick Warren is beginning to do the same. It bodes well for those of us who claim to be Progressive Christians. Perhaps putting down Bibles and picking up hammers can make us all better disciples of Jesus.