Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Practicing Progressive


A long dead local newspaper may have accelerated its demise by publishing a weekly column written by yours truly. Certainly accounts differ as to the actual cause of death. In my own defense, I should like to point out that the editor of that now distant periodical would add the following postscript to each of my entries: “Please note: The opinions and ideas expressed in this column do not necessarily represent the position of this paper.” I suppose the addendum was included to satisfy both the occasional complaint of a valued advertiser and the subsequent security of my editor’s job. Eventually, both concerns were rendered moot not long after an upstart daily (and free!) newspaper began publishing up here in the high country.

During my tenure with the now dead paper, I managed to keep my day job as pastor of a local congregation. On one Sunday morning, having just preached a sermon that seemed, at least to me, to be of particular profundity, I stood at the door to the church to receive, what I was certain to be, the exuberant expressions of a grateful flock. One of the first people to meet me at the door was a faithful member who had weathered many a storm in the life of the congregation. Wise beyond his forty-some years, he shook my hand but before he let it go, he looked me in the eye and said, “The opinions and ideas expressed in this sermon do not necessarily represent the position of this congregation.”

I remembered that little confrontation with reality this week while following the enormously overwrought expressions of outrage induced by the preachings of Barack Obama’s former pastor, Jeremiah Wright. By now, we all have heard one outrageous sound bite or another that sought to shock us into rejecting the retired reverend as a racist demagogue, wild-eyed fanatic or ungrateful traitor. Obama’s carefully crafted speech was a brilliant response to the outcry that, I suspect, resonated especially with congregational folk who know all about putting up with the often hyperbolic homilies of their pastors, priests, imams or rabbis.

Despite what some might think or even wish for, the sermon has a long history of causing controversy and concern among its listeners. The Hebrew Scriptures tell of the prophet Hosea who illustrated one of his sermons on the unfaithfulness of the people by going out and marrying a prostitute. You can be sure that caused a stir among the pews. Amos, another prophet from that sacred collection, shook the foundations of Israel with loud condemnations of his congregation’s failing to care for the poor and oppressed. Among Christians, John the Baptist is remembered for calling his own religious leaders “a brood of vipers.” Now there was a sermon that not only set the people chattering but brought enough outside attention to have the preacher’s head served up on a silver platter.

I suppose it depends on your perspective, but folk who have the good fortune to have a provocative preacher (a good and my perspective) rather that someone who just dishes up pious platitudes week after week (a not-so-good and another’s perspective), are bound to be burned on occasion by bellicosity, belligerence or even bull****. The religious fervor generated between a preacher in the pulpit and the people in the pews can reach a point where carefully crafted sermons give way to plain spiritual exuberance and anything can happen.

Pastor Wright is well-known in Chicago and beyond for being a leader in the fight against poverty and injustice. He has a long history of siding with the underprivileged and underrepresented. He has been respected and revered by community leaders of all colors for decades. A few outtakes of some admittedly outrageous preaching pyrotechnics are not an accurate summary of this man’s life and work. His congregation knows it. Barack Obama knows it. It is time for the rest of us to know it as well.

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Practicing Progressive


I don’t know if it is the impending celebration of one of Christendom’s favorite saints, but both the faithful and semi-faithful have been busying themselves this past week making the news and sometimes wishing they hadn’t.

Southern Baptists don’t officially recognize St. Patrick but that hasn’t stopped some members of America’s largest denomination from going a little green. Forty-four Baptist elite signed a declaration this past Monday deploring the inaction of their religious body in fighting the good fight against global warming. Indeed, there was genuine dismay over the denomination’s continuing commitment to doing nothing while the rest of the world, including a Christian or two, is developing and implementing strategies to avoid the greatest calamity the earth has ever faced. The official Southern Baptist position, articulated at its 2007 convention, was filled with all manner of theological manipulations but what it came down to, according to Wiley Drake, then the convention's second vipresident, is: "We don't believe in global warming."

Kudos to those brave forty-four but, speaking only for my slightly bruised Christian self, I have to ask: What took you so long? Why are Christians usually among the last to arrive at the same conclusions the rest of the world long ago thought settled? Whether it’s the abolition of slavery or the suffrage of women, the Copernican revolution or the theory of evolution, some Christians seem to revel in their ignorance. Inevitably, inexorably, most of these Christians finally join the rest of the modern world and announce, with considerable solemnity and professions of piety, their conviction that segregation is bad, women should vote and the earth is, surprisingly, not the center of the universe. Disposing a six-day creation may take a few more centuries.

Mormons made it to the news this week as well. Three Mormon young men to be exact, who were discovered desecrating a sacred Catholic shrine right here in Colorado. It would be grossly unfair to extrapolate such despicable behavior into a general condemnation of an entire religious movement but it is fair to wonder aloud if eighteen year olds are particularly unprepared to represent a religion that claims to be moving rapidly into the mainstream. Immature minds that have been indoctrinated by religious absolutes may have considerable difficulty integrating the ambiguities inherent in the modern world. Religious traditions and cultural worldviews different than their own limited perspective would seem to ill-equip them to be citizens of a planet rapidly moving toward globalization.

Mr. Bush offered a speech this week to a gathering of Religious Broadcasters where he boldly declared: “that every man, woman and child on the face of the Earth has been given the great gift of liberty by an Almighty God.” A warm sentiment, indeed, and a cherished part of our Declaration of Independence, but one that even the most devout Jew, Christian or Muslim may find difficult to justify from their respective authoritative books. Religious monarchies, oligarchies and downright dictatorships have infused history with sobering examples of how glib spokesmen for God have defined liberty. Today’s complex and culturally competing world provides equally vivid examples of differing definitions. Is it fair to assume that at least some Iraqis would gladly trade President Bush’s grand theological doctrine for a little peace and quiet?

Across the pond, our allies in England were debating a bill on blasphemy this week. It seems there is a centuries-old common law that makes it a crime to have a laugh at the expense of You-Know -Who. The debate comes on the heels of an English schoolteacher’s imprisonment in the Sudan for allowing her students to name a teddy-bear Muhammad. The problem is disallowing blasphemy against Allah means equal mistreatment of the Christian God and that isn’t sitting too well among some of the faithful. “This is all part of a move by the atheists to turn us into a secular state.” decries Stephen Green, the national director of a local organization called Christian Voice.

All of which might have St. Patrick wishing we all do a little more whispering.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

The Practicing Progressive

Rich Mayfield

For: 3-8-08

Mother knows best.

And from what I know about John McCain’s 96 year-old mom, she knows better than most. Maybe you’ve heard the story, told by Sen. McCain, of how she reprimanded her son for using some rather raw language in describing his captors during his time in a Hanoi prison. “But Mother,” McCain replied, “They were very bad men.” “That doesn’t matter,” she insisted, “I never taught you to use that kind of language. I have half a mind to wash your mouth out with soap!” This when the senator was a 60 year-old whipper-snapper.

Mom McCain also drew attention when asked by a reporter what she thought of her son becoming such a prominent public person. “Fools’ names and fools’ faces are often seen in public places.” was her wise reply. So one could fairly wonder what Mrs. McCain the elder would make of the display of the very public display of affection on the White House steps between her son and the man who only eight years ago helped spread vicious lies about the senator, his wife Cindy and their adopted daughter, Bridget. Was Mom’s aphoristic warning about public fools whispering in Johnny-boy’s ears?

Even more maternally disconcerting might be the recent endorsement by Pastor John Hagee of her son’s presidential campaign. Hagee is a popular Texas televangelist who is widely known as being both anti-catholic and downright weird. Hagee’s theological reflection on the cause of Hurricane Katrina included this bizarre line of reasoning:

“All hurricanes are acts of God, because God controls the heavens. I believe that New Orleans had a level of sin that was offensive to God, and they are -- were recipients of the judgment of God for that. The newspaper carried the story in our local area that was not carried nationally that there was to be a homosexual parade there on the Monday that the Katrina came. And the promise of that parade was that it was going to reach a level of sexuality never demonstrated before in any of the other Gay Pride parades. So I believe that the judgment of God is a very real thing. I know that there are people who demur from that, but I believe that the Bible teaches that when you violate the law of God, that God brings punishment sometimes before the Day of Judgment. And I believe that the Hurricane Katrina was, in fact, the judgment of God against the city of New Orleans.”

Less she become too discouraged over her son’s new pastoral partner, Mom might take some comfort from the memory of her John’s description of the late reverend, Jerry Falwell, as an “agent of intolerance” but, come to think of it, that accuracy was ameliorated when John and Jerry made nicey-nicey shortly before the populist preacher put his head down for a final time.

I suspect the spry Mrs. McCain is getting more than a little uneasy over her son’s recent travels outside his Straight-Talk Express. His nauseating but necessary attempts to reach out to the wackos on the far right wing had her reflecting aloud on C-Span only a few weeks ago on the state of the Republican Party: “I think holding their nose they are going to have to take him.”

The Republicans may be holding their noses but Mrs. McCain had better plug her ears before she hears what some of the GOP’s most famous voices have to say about her son. Rush, Sean and Ann have loudly articulated their conviction that there will be nothing grand about the old party if Mr. McCain is the master of ceremonies. She may also have to cover her eyes when little Johnny makes his requisite visits to these three voices of viciousness in hopes of making room even for bullies under the Republican big tent.

Of course, Dr. James Dobson has declared he’d never, ever, ever, vote for McCain and that should have mama feeling just a little bit better. There’s one less religious demagogue demanding John’s subservience. Only a few thousand left to go.

Here’s hoping the now Official Republican Presidential Candidate will remember from whence he came and what he once proclaimed. Get back on the Straight Talk Express, Mr. McCain. It will make your mama proud.