Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Practicing Progressive

Issue 23
May 22, 2007

The death of Jerry Falwell has brought a plethora of punditry surrounding the unique American understanding of the relationship between religion and politics. The late Reverend has been condemned as a demagogue and hallowed as a champion of Christ. He has been lifted up as a paragon of virtue and decried as the personification of evil. He has…well, you get the picture.

All of this frenzy has set me to pondering my own understanding of this complicated connection between the church and state, particularly as it affects the role of the clergy.

Early in my ministry, I was profoundly influenced by a story, now oft-told, of a chance meeting between then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and William Sloan Coffin, the chaplain at Yale. If you know anything of The Rev. Coffin you are very much aware of his willingness to express his passionate beliefs to anyone who would listen…or even those who wouldn’t. Coffin somehow managed to corner Kissinger while both were attending a White House function intended, one would suppose, for cordial conversation and convivial dialogue. What Kissinger got was anything but. Coffin railed at the Secretary over the administrations multitudinous failures on both the domestic and foreign fronts. Coffin was particularly incensed over the continued chaos in Vietnam and Nixon’s reluctance to admit defeat and terminate the U.S.’s involvement.

Once Coffin wound up it was difficult if not impossible to calm him down. Finally, Secretary Kissinger had had enough and interrupted the pastor long enough to say: “OK. Bill! I get your point but what exactly would you have us do?” Whereupon, Coffin replied with these immortal (at least for me) words: “As a Christian minister, my calling is to say to you, "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”, and your job, sir, is to figure out the irrigation system!"

The prophetic role of the pastor, priest, rabbi or imam is, at least in the American context, a valuable and desperately needed responsibility. Clergy are called to protect “the least of these” from any attempt to exclude them from full participation in all the rights and privileges of citizenship. Sadly, this needed role has too often been ignored by both the clergy and the religious establishment. This failure often comes when religious figures find themselves in positions of power, either in a localized congregation where fear of unsettling the parishioners precludes the prophetic voice or when proximity to political powers has religious authorities cowed and submissive. In either case, this crucial duty is too often shuffled aside and replaced with less offensive functions.

There isn’t a clergyperson around who hasn’t faced this issue. Some have managed to maintain ethical clarity and vocational integrity even as the rest of us pretty much just muddle through, trying to keep the folk in the pews and the money in the plates. Being at the occupational mercy of a lay-led Church Council may have its benefits but speaking truth to power is probably not one of them.

There is great relief, I can assure you, in retiring from the ministry and no longer being asked to offer pleasant little prayers or inoffensive homilies to the good and gathered folk. Worst of all, were the invitations to do the same before civic groups and community organizations. No, no…worst, worst of all came when I was invited to intone a brief prayer before the Colorado State Senate. I was informed by the smiling sergeant-at-arms that the prayer was to be both short and unobjectionable to those in attendance, qualities that were rarely part of my prayerful consideration. Nevertheless, I performed as expected and left the capital’s occupants pleased, I am sure, with both my brevity and my innocuousness. I also left vowing never to again repeat such a dishonest display of pastoral cowardice. I did, of course…not before state senators but too often before people that mattered much more to me. It was only in the waning years of my career when a modicum of wisdom mixed with the courage that comes with a career’s end that I stopped performing religious tricks and tried instead to speak the truth, at least as I struggled to understand it.

I remember reading of the suicide of a Lutheran pastor who had served for over 20 years as the chaplain for the U.S. House of Representatives. I wondered then as I wonder now if this sad event might have been instigated, in part, by his long participation in a process that was inherently fraught with a conflicted conscience. Could two decades of inoffensive offerings to an inoffensive God eventually have taken its toll? Clergy everywhere struggle with the call to be, at the same time, pastor, priest and prophet. When this triad of professional tension is ignored the result is troubling at the very least and sometimes even tragic.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Practicing Progressive

Issue 22
May 15, 2007

As you are no doubt aware, there have been several books recently published that have set as their foil no less an opponent than the Almighty. The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins and Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris both have hit the bestseller lists. The latest tome to generate considerable interest is Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great. Those familiar with Mr. Hitchens, know that he is a gifted writer, a seasoned journalist, a diligent researcher and, curiously to some of us, an adamant support of President Bush’s war on Iraq. Although I haven’t read all of the preceding works, I am bold to suggest that these books, and several others recently released, tend to aim their arguments less at God and more at her representatives. Often these designated representatives are hardly indicative of religion as many of us understand it. Quoting Jerry Falwell (who died today) or Pat Robertson as spokespersons for Christianity is tantamount to employing Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as your average Muslim. And yet, these authors turn to those folk who represent the very fringes of religious movements, rehash their outlandish pronouncements and policies, then proceed to dismiss the 90+% of us who, unfortunately, share the same religious affiliation.

The failure of these books is not in their argumentation which is quite logical and reasoned…as far as it goes. What the authors fail to understand is the vast array of emotional, cultural, communal and psychological subtleties that shape our spirituality. It is terribly easy to build a ludicrous image of an anthropomorphic deity in order to successfully chop the straw-god down. It is far more difficult to dismiss those finely formed aspects of religious experience that guide the lives of millions.

In my own spiritual journey, I’ve found myself drawn closer and closer to religious community even as I move further and further away from believing in God. Such a paradox can really only be understood, I believe, by those involved in the life of the church. Witnessing the power of community to heal, comfort, inspire, forgive, work for peace and passionately advocate for justice is to realize that the sacred might be more readily found in the dynamics of human relationships than in belief in a superhuman being.

Certainly religions have been the cause of incalculable calamities…anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of history will acknowledge that sad fact. But it is also true that religions have been the source of untold blessings to the human community. Millions upon millions of our planet’s residents, past and present, have been fed, housed and helped in a myriad of ways that have enriched their lives and served as a foundation for developing peace and justice in the world. I suppose it makes it easy for the current crop of successful authors to write off these infinite acts of charity in light of the enormously dark acts religions have foisted upon us but such cavalier belittlement is intellectually dishonest and certainly shoddy scholarship.

The biggest challenge in my own ministry was countering a similar, if more personal, argument. Many, many times I would be confronted by folk who had experiences with religion that were anything but healthy…a bigoted Sunday School teacher, a hellfire and damnation preacher or an abusive “Christian” parent, to name but a few. Their view of religion was profoundly affected by such experience and understandably so. But it also offered an opportunity for a dialogue that might include the potential benefits of a healthy religious life. Taking my cue from some of my mentors, I would often say, “Tell me more about this God you don’t believe in because I probably don’t believe in him either.” The Progressive Christian movement is surely an outgrowth of pastoral conversations like these.

Monday, May 07, 2007

The Practicing Progressive

Issue 21
May 7, 2007

Has Ratzinger Returned?

I was both surprised and delighted to read in The New York Times today that Liberation Theology is still giving fits to the Vatican. Despite my lament last week that this most formative movement had gone into hiding, Pope B. must still be bugged because he’s headed to Brazil to apparently pick up where John Paul II left off. Check it out here.

Vaya con Dios, Molly and Eric!

Today our second child, Molly, and her husband Eric, head off to The Sudan to begin a two year stint, he with the American Embassy and she as Director of Regional Development for the Mid-East and North Africa for peacexpeace.org. Naturally, as parents we have mixed feelings about their choice of vocations but are enormously proud of their commitment and shared desire to implement peaceful strategies in an increasingly violent world.

Recently I received a copy of a speech by Craig Barnes, an international negotiator and author, delivered last month in Santa Fe. With the author’s permission (and his good wishes to Molly and Eric), I share it here as a poignant and profound reminder that there are many who join our daughter and son-in-law in both spirit and deed.
The Need for Empathy and Generosity in Foreign Policy

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

The Practicing Progressive

Issue 20
May 1, 2007

If I was concerned about the future unity of Christianity, I would be particularly worked-up over what is going on in the church of the Third World, especially in Africa.

It is ironic that it was to the Third World that my fellow seminarians and I turned, some thirty plus years ago, to discover a theology that resonated for many of us with the authentic teachings of Jesus. Liberation Theology with its keen minds and brave hearts shaped our theological formation in ways that continue to this very day. Although the remnants remain, Liberation Theology, punished and persecuted by Rome, is now relegated to historical textbooks and the occasional obscure treatise.

The irony, of course, lies in the fact that Third World Christianity, now dominated by the mega-churches of Africa rather than the mini-movements in Latin America, is shaping a future fraught with thinking vastly removed from the life and teachings of Jesus. It is out of Africa that we hear demands for the continuing bigotry against homosexuals including suggestions from church leaders to reinstate barbaric punishments against practicing gays and lesbians.

African Christianity also includes a plethora of pejoratives against women, particularly as church leaders. The stereotypical gang of old, white males running ecclesiastical institutions in America continues down south with one significant descriptive change.

Much of African Christianity now is a replay of some of the worst of 19th century Protestant piety complete with scriptural literalism and cultural conditioning. I remember how disappointed I was some years ago attending a large gathering of African Lutherans outside Arusha, Tanzania for Sunday worship. I expected to be regaled with the rhythms of native African themes and was surprised to hear the congregation sing all of their hymns straight out of the European colonial world. Progressive theological movements have been thwarted in Africa by the institutional church just as they have been in America. Those in power desperately seek to keep their authority by relying on practices and perspectives that have little in common with the life and teachings of Jesus. The difference being the African church is growing by millions while the American church is dying by the thousands. So if we want to see what Christianity will be looking like in the not too distant future, turn south.

As I say, if I was worried about Christian unity this demographical as well as theological surge would be highly problematic for me as a Progressive Christian. But rather than fret, I welcome the onslaught as I believe it will more than likely serve as a catalyst for a clear delineation within Christianity, dividing those who are drawn to a progressive understanding of the faith based on the teachings of Jesus from those who wish to remain locked in an orthodoxy molded by the traditional teachings about Jesus.

Such a division is being played out right now. The Anglican Communion is agonizing over the actions of the American Episcopal Church and the threat of a schism is very real indeed. Representatives of African Anglicanism are staking their claim on American soil, ordaining Episcopalian traditionalists as bishops and advocating congregations to leave the Episcopal Church en masse. Surprisingly to some, many Episcopalians are digging in their heels and declaring their conviction in the legitimacy of women and gay priests and bishops. Anglicanism is in an uproar and the result, I believe, will be an ecclesiastical split that will be seen by the traditionalists as justified punishment but by the progressives as liberation. The Episcopal Church of America will emerge as a leader in Progressive Christianity and as a shining beacon to those who worry about the growing influence of a restrictive Third World Christianity on the church.