Saturday, October 31, 2020

What's really on the ballot

We are coming to the end of a long election season. Honestly, in the United States, it feels like we are in a never ending election cycle these days. As a priest, I've often been criticized for being "too political" and my critics tell me "Jesus was not political." To be clear, I have never been "partisan from the pulpit." I do not endorse candidates from within the walls of the church. To do so is a violation of the Johnson Act and as a Jeffersonian constitutionalist, I believe in the separation of Church and State. However, I do not believe the Church is to be silent on matters of Christian ethics which, inevitably, means being political.

The word politics derives from the Greek words polis (city) and politikos (citizen). It refers to how we organize our public life together and Jesus, following the tradition of the Torah and the Hebrew prophets, had a lot to say about how we organize our public life. His primary concern was the same as God's concern spoken to Moses and the prophets: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength" (Deuteronomy 6:5) and "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18b).

Love of God is not complete without love of neighbor. Many of us feel we can separate these two commandments - as if there's an "or" implied. There are many who say they love God, but their actions have no regard for the well-being of their neighbors unless the neighbors literally live next door and look, think, and act like them. Love your neighbor demands far more than that!

The prophet Isaiah speaks the word of the Lord which says that even eunuchs and foreigners who keeps the commandments and observances of God are to be included in the covenant community (56:4-7). The sign of God's covenant people is how they embrace and care for those who are not like them. This ethic is foundational for the teachings of Jesus.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus reached out to Samaritans (hated foreigners) and showed compassion for the hurting and marginalized. Jesus was neighbor focused in obedience to God. He gave us a vision for how to organize our public life together. It was an ethic of loving God by loving neighbor because they are inseparable.

What is really on the ballot in this election is not partisan - it is Christian political ethics. We live in a country that is far too privatized where individualism has become a false, idolatrous god we worship. "What's in it for me?" is the overriding American ethic and it is deeply offensive to God. To paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we must learn to live together as family or we will perish together as fools. Individualism is not a Christian ethic - care for community is.

As Christians, we cannot shirk what Jesus taught: Love God and love neighbor. Rather than asking "What's in it for me?" each of us needs to ask "What's in it for you?" and by you, I mean people with whom God is concerned:

  • Widows and orphans - including the orphans our government has created with the separation of migrant children from their families
  • Sick and Disabled - including millions who are suffering from COVID-19 who have fallen ill because of bad policy, those who suffer from lack of economic opportunity and live in fear of losing their health care
  • People of Color - who suffer from systemic racism, poverty, and violence
  • Women - who suffer sexual and domestic violence at far higher rates than men and whose dignity to make medical decisions is under threat
  • Poor - who are often working but not paid a living wage and are blamed by society for being poor
  • LGBTQ+ persons - who live in fear of violence and losing hard won rights for dignity
These are our neighbors whose life and their dignity matter to God. Their life and dignity need to matter to us too. This is what is really on the ballot.

Saturday, June 6, 2020

White Supremacy vs. Liberation in Christ

I grew up in California. For the first seven years of my life (1964-1971), I lived in San Diego. The neighborhood I grew up in was in Tecalote Canyon, nestled between the University of San Diego (Jesuit) and St. Mary Magdalene Church Roman Catholic Church. The neighborhood was nicknamed "Vatican Heights" and most of the folks there were Roman Catholic (we and one other family were Lutheran). Our neighborhood had one family of color: the Glorias. They were Latinx. They had a son named David and I would play with him from time to time along with the White kids in the neighborhood ... that is until girls became "icky" to boys and vice versa. It was a time of racial turmoil in our country but as a young child, I was only vaguely aware of what was going on. Life was pretty good from a kid's perspective. I started school in San Diego and we had kids of color there, mostly Latinx, Chinese, and Filipinx.

In 1971, we moved to Concord, California, to a neighborhood called "Pepper Tree." Back then, the BART trains didn't go through and the area was mostly walnut orchards and horse country. It was a suburb of San Francisco with some fairly new housing developments. My dad worked in Walnut Creek, the neighboring town. When we moved there, our neighborhood was all White. We had a couple of families with teenage boys who were troublemakers: especially the Duffy and Schmidt boys. I remember my dad having to deal with their petty vandalism, filing complaints with the police, and nothing much got done. My school was majority White with some minority students. Our minority students were largely the same demographic as San Diego but with some kids from India too. I really hadn't had a close encounter with a Black family until the mid-1970's when the Longs moved in next door.

Bob and Evelyn Long were the first Black couple I ever really got to know. Bob was the Postmaster at the Martinez Post Office. Now, for those of you not familiar with California, Martinez was a huge operation in the USPS, a major distribution center for the mail. This was not some backwater job, it was a significant position. Evelyn was a school principal - I can't remember at what level. They had two college aged kids, so I didn't get to know them very well.

My parents went over to welcome them to the neighborhood and, over the next few years, we got to know each other as well as a Black and White family could given the baggage of our country's history. It seemed normal to me to welcome new neighbors, but I didn't know anything different. I remember my father coming home one day fuming. Apparently, Mr. Schmidt (the father of one of our neighborhood troublemakers) said to my dad, "I heard your new neighbors are N***ers! I'm selling my house and getting out of this place." My dad told him, "Good! What can I do to help you get you and your delinquent kid out?!" That was the first time I saw overt racism directed at a Black person. I saw my father's anger at it too.

I was still a kid and unaware of a lot of things. I remember we would go over to the Long's house for dinner and they would come to ours too. I don't remember details, I just remember these were just like all the other dinners when we had guests over. Mom always knew how to throw a great dinner party and make people feel welcome. One day my mom shared with me a conversation she had with Evelyn. It was a brief encounter and I think it happened in the grocery store. Mom was dressed in very casual clothes and Evelyn, as always, was dressed impeccably and professionally. My mom said something about how amazing she looked (she always did) and how my mom felt under dressed. In a moment of incredible trust and candor, Evelyn told my mom, "I can't go out in anything less to shop, otherwise I'll be followed by store security." That was my first encounter with what I would later be able to name as White privilege.

It's not that I didn't grow up steeped in White supremacy and racism. Of course I did. I'm a White American. But in my context, I encountered it towards Mexicans, Asians, and even my great-grandmother's disparaging of Native Americans (her family were White settlers in Nebraska and South Dakota). I just hadn't been directly exposed to how this impacts Black Americans until then. The fact these memories are still with me almost 50 years later says something.

The events of these past two weeks have once again ripped open the unhealed wound caused by our nation's original sin: White supremacy. This sin was exported from England and every other colonizing power that walked lock step with the Catholic Church's Doctrine of Discovery. In an unholy alliance of Church and State, Northern European traits (Whiteness) became normative and preferred and the subjugation of those who were different was politically, legally, and religiously sanctioned. It is so baked into the character and social order of colonizing countries (the United States included) that we don't even see it if we are White - that is until riots start in the Black community and other communities of color. This is why Black Lives Matter marches have broken out in former colonizing countries: England, Spain, France, Germany. Young people have learned more about this history, but I did not. Anti-racism educator, Jane Elliott, rightly said our social studies classes were actually "anti-social studies" classes because they only highlighted the stories of White men - as if that's they are the only ones who did anything in this country. Check out her video:

I have an obligation to work to dismantle White supremacy if I am to faithfully follow Jesus Christ. Not the White Jesus America portrays in images, but the brown-skinned Jesus who was also lynched by an Empire for disrupting the peace of Rome and shaking the status quo. Liberation in Christ is the message of the Gospel and means equality for all of God's beloved. Don't believe me? Try on some Scripture:
  • "Jesus said, 'The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.'" (John 10:10)
  • "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." (St. Paul's Letter to the Galatians 3:28)
  • "Jesus said, Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away;" (John 6:37)
If we are to take a hint from the world around us, diversity is the plan of God. If Jesus came to bring all people to the Father and bring us life abundantly, how can we be silent or complacent when our BIPOC siblings are suffering? As Paul reminded the Corinthians, "If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it." (1 Corinthians 12:26). God's plan is not the zero sum game of this World. God's plan means we flourish together when every member is honored.

Anti-racism work is hard. It will take the rest of my life. It will take having the courage to engage, to try, to screw up, and to keep trying. It takes willingness to be vulnerable and not get defensive when a Black or Brown person speaks their truth and it clashes with my experience or beliefs or when they call me out for getting it wrong. It takes a lot of listening and understanding that White supremacy isn't my personal fault, not a personal attack, and not a condemnation that I am a bad person because of White supremacy. It's not about us, fellow White people. It's about being the Beloved Community and that can't happen unless Black Lives Matter as much as White ones do.

Here are some curated resources I've found helpful:
Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber (ELCA) wrote a very extensive pastoral letter with an awesome list of resources which you can read here.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Christian Subjection to Government Authorities - Misquoting Paul to Serve Caesar

Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions quoted Romans 13 in his justification of the Trump Administration's border policy of separating migrant children from their parents. This passage seems to be a favorite of Christianists who use Christian scriptures in service of the American government. It is a distortion of what Paul likely meant in his exhortation to the Roman Christians. But what did Paul mean and why does his context matter?

First, let's look at Romans 13:1-7 from the New Revised Standard translation:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God's servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due them-- taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.
On the surface, this passage seems to say Christians are to obey anything the governing authorities tell them to do. On the surface reading, Jeff Sessions' using this passage to justify migrant separations at the border seems to be supported. Of course, this passage was also used by those who upheld the institution of slavery in the 19th century. It seems this is the "go to" cover for any act of governing authorities, even when those authorities are acting in ways which violate "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" - or even God's commandments in other parts of the Bible. The problem is these verses are being taken out of their original context and distorted in a process we call "proof-texting" - that is, looking for scriptures to justify our ways instead of letting the scriptures move us towards God's ways. If that's the case, what was Paul talking about??

First remember this: being a Christian in 1st century Rome automatically made you a criminal in the eyes of Caesar and the government authorities. That's something we forget in America because Christianity has held a place of privilege in Western Civilization since the Emperor Constantine converted in 313 CE. Christianity became the official religion of the Empire and was co-opted by it even to this day (a good read on this is Meg Gorzycki's Caesar Ate My Jesus: A Baby Boomer's Reflection on Spirituality in the American Empire). In order to really understand Paul, you have to start from the place of being a criminal. Paul was an outlaw follower of a criminal enterprise founded by a convicted Palestinian Jew named Jesus who was crucified by the Romans in collusion with the local religious authorities. Following this movement meant you were against the governing authorities by virtue of your faith and nothing more. If Paul was giving blanket approval to government authorities as one who was branded a criminal by those same authorities, well that just doesn't make much sense, right?

Paul, a Roman citizen who is a criminal by the Empire's definition, is writing this letter to fellow criminals in Rome. Since that's the case, Paul is not saying that the governing authorities are necessarily doing God's will. He is saying God has allowed them to be appointed and whatever they do to you, do not resist. This is a call to radical non-violence. If the governing authorities arrest you and put you to death for being a Christian, so be it and do not resist. Americans have a hard time wrapping their heads around the radical call to submission and non-violence. I once heard Stanley Hauerwas give a lecture on "Luther and War" wherein he said, "American Christians are more American than they are Christian." (Ouch! True but ouch). Living in a place where Christianity is nominally practiced and privileged if it conforms to the government, we struggle to understand Paul in his own context of being a criminal subject to persecution by the governing authorities.

There is also an historical context to these verses having to do with his exhortation to the Romans to pay their taxes. His comments on submission to the governmental authorities is directly tied to the matter of paying taxes. For Jews and early Christians, paying taxes was a troublesome thing because taxes supported the Roman religious cult of Caesar - whom the Romans were to worship as a living, incarnation of the Roman god Zeus. If the Romans worshiped a "god incarnate" in Caesar and Christians proclaimed the Jewish God incarnate was Jesus of Nazareth, we have competing belief systems, don't we? Belief in Jesus was a direct contradiction to worship of Caesar. If Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not. Therefore, to pay taxes to Rome was to commit blasphemy in the eyes of both Jews and early Christians. So questions of paying taxes were fraught with both theological and political implications - something we Americans do not understand.

Because of the tension around paying taxes being blasphemous, Jewish tax protests and riots broke out sporadically. The Roman historian Tacitus (b. 54 CE, d. 120 CE) wrote the history of the Empire in his work The Annals. In it, he spoke of the Emperor Nero putting down tax riots in Puteoli by the dispatch of Roman troops and "a few executions." Paul, writing to the neighboring Romans whom he had never met personally, had the matter of these Puteoli riots on his heart as he crafted his letter. At this stage of Christian history, Jews and Christians often worked closely together and, in the Holy Land, Christianity was known as "The Way of the Nazarene", a fringe sect of Judaism. Paul would have been quite concerned that the Roman Christians would be tempted to get involved in these tax protests because of a shared theological view the taxes were blasphemous.

With this event on Paul's mind, it is likely he wrote these opening lines to Romans 13 to essentially exhort the Roman Christians to stay out of these particular tax protests and riots. After all, if just being Christians makes you outlaws and criminals in the eyes of the government, why bring down Caesar's wrath if you don't have to? Taxes are not the theological hill Paul thinks the Roman Christians should die on so submit to the governmental authorities, pay your taxes, and otherwise keep your nose clean. After all, there is more important work to do for the Kingdom of God.

So the next time someone tells you that Romans 13 instructs Christians to blindly and unquestioningly obey government authorities, even when they are doing ungodly acts, share this with them. It's too bad Jeff Sessions, a member of Ashland United Methodist Church in Mobile, Alabama, didn't do the deep dive into the meaning of this scripture before misusing it.