Saturday’s Stray Thoughts

Another week-ending entry surveying several topics having no necessary or intended connection to one another. Give a shout if any of them need further reflection on this blog; one such request spawned the most active exchange yet for “What’s the Story?”

Speaking of that topic—poverty and wealth—what should I take from the fact that it was an issue concerning money and wealth that created more fire from the troops than any other topic yet addressed on this page? I’m hoping that it doesn’t indicate what really engages us, in spite of our stated opposition to focusing on money. Just asking.

It is discouraging to think that the general election is still more than six months away. Rhetoric, innuendo, name-calling, accusations, character assassination, and other forms of uncivil engagement must be yet another spectacle that we really shouldn’t be so willing to put on display for the entire world. It becomes ever more difficult to have much confidence in either side when the rules of engagement are themselves so foreign to the way Christ would have us present ourselves and evaluate others. On the other hand, it might serve as a reminder to not put our trust in princes or kings. Or presidents. I love what John Wesley said in defense of the early Methodists against all manner of false accusation. Paraphrased, he indicated that it is the way of the world to criticize others; it is our way to criticize ourselves. That criticism of self was not in the way of self-flagellation, but of improvement as examples of Christ. I continue to be dismayed at the level of vitriolic comment made by Christians against political leaders. Yes, there is corruption and deceit; it’s about power, not truth. But should we not be more attuned to our deficiencies, our inability to present a better way of life than we are to pointing out the failures of others?

This week delegates will begin gathering for the General Conference of the United Methodist Church. As a mainline denomination, it has some of the same struggles and challenges as others in that category; but as the major organized descendant of Wesley, it has resources within its heritage to guide the way through the difficult choices that inevitably arise when a church body is trying to maintain unity with parties who cannot agree on important matters. For those of us outside this particular expression of the body of Christ, prayer for them and for their deliberations would be appropriate.

I’m not sure what to make of the reaction of Yankee fans at a game last played last week. There was a Tim Tebow sighting during the game, and the ever alert video crew at Yankee Stadium put Tebow on the large screen beyond the outfield seats. The response was a chorus of booing. Is that an indication of just a few New Yorkers that he is not really wanted? And if not, why not–the guy hasn’t done anything in a Jets uniform to this point. Or is it an inhospitable reaction to Tebow’s well publicized conservative Christian views and attitudes on a wide range of topics he has been asked about? I’m just curious.

Here’s one to ponder—but not too deeply. Do we make the faith too complicated? In a class session this week the topic was eschatology, the doctrine of last things—where is the world heading, what is the expectation for a return of Christ, what is the nature of the kingdom which will follow his return, who will be involved in what sorts of ways, etc. This topic is one about which a small segment of believers becomes extremely engaged and often intractable; nothing will sway their conceptions, and anyone not sharing them will run the risk of being portrayed as outside the faith. Other. perhaps the majority of Christians, have only confused thoughts about the topic—or no thoughts at all. One student in particular was distressed over the topic because of encounters with some people within that small segment. But the encouragement to focus our attention on the doing of justice, the loving of mercy, and daily life of humbly walking with God (Micah 6:8) came as a new revelation to this student. How is it that the simplest, clearest word from the Bible, repeated in various ways by Jesus and Paul, becomes lost in so many other things (like politics and ecclesiology and economics)? Wouldn’t it seem to occupy our minds and spirits sufficiently to find and enact the ways in which living rightly, extending mercy, and maintaining godly humility might happen in the world we actually live in, rather than the world we think ought to exist?

Enough straying for this week. May God bless you in your 6:8 living.

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“That’s Not Who We Are”–Are You Sure?

This has been a bad week for the public image of the United States. The negative impressions are well deserved; one can only hope, though without a great deal of confidence, that the events now well publicized will be the occasion of some serious soul-searching. Secret Service agents having a very busy time with Columbian prostitutes; American soldiers in Afghanistan posing with body parts of suicide bomb carriers and (perhaps) slain combatants. Not the stuff the land of the free and home of the brave ought to be posting on the shingle at the front door.

In both cases Washington officials were quick to point out that this is not who we are, not what we are about, not consistent with our values. I believe they genuinely believed what they were saying. I’m not so sure that what they said and believed was entirely true. There is a very real and quite legitimate question about whether these acts were really far off the mark we currently aim at in our culture, by default if not by intent.

Both the Hillary Rodham Clinton (Secretary of State) and Leon Panetta (Defense) are part of a generation that takes a given moral order for granted, whether or not their actual beliefs adequately account for or uphold that given order. According to that order, some actions are just plain, self-evidently wrong; and the actions that have made the recent headlines fall very clearly within the category of the forbidden. They are disturbing actions, in one case because, while prostitution is certainly nothing new, employing prostitutes while engaged in the doing of the country’s business in a foreign land obviously disrespects one’s fellow citizens, let alone one’s own family members; in the other case, the actions seem so heinous that many of us cannot comprehend anyone thinking it, let alone doing it and documenting it. It’s not the stuff we would expect anyone to treasure for home viewing in their later years.

But much has happened to undermine the assumptions on which Clinton, Panetta, and the entire generation they are part of, uncritically relied. And the failure of that generation (my own) to think through and validate the moral law with sound reasoning has led to the virtual demise of even its most basic ideas of decency, civility, and discipline of both self and offspring. When the only virtue remaining is a badly warped sense of tolerance, we mistakenly and tragically lose the power to draw lines other than by political force. And among the first to take advantage of this void was the entertainment industry, which continued to push the boundaries with ever weakening resistance. The result has been music, movies, games, and conversation about the same which devalues decency, civility, and discipline. And now we face the generation which such an approach has spawned, and we find ourselves in disgust, yet with no recourse other than to lament.

I am going to venture an opinion an opinion here against which some readers may well scoff, bristle, or rail. It seems plausible, however, to lay some of the responsibility for our moral situation at the feet of a political agenda which includes the leveling of the religious landscape. That is, when a governmental position is adopted, as undoubtedly and avowedly has been done, holding all faiths to be of equal value, it actually holds none of them to be truly worthwhile. And in so doing, it has removed any constraint against on the (im)moral impulses of its citizens other than those imposed by law. This serves the government well in that it allows no room for other lords than itself. If that is too strong a statement, consider the real meaning of religious freedom, including the freedom of grounding morality in a transcendent reality, when government itself defines religion, as the current president has done. It does so in order to control and shape citizens in its own image.

But if the truth about mankind includes a fallen nature along with our undeniable wealth of potential for creativity, watch out for what we create and the purposes for which we do it. And I submit we are reaping the consequences. Or am I just an old curmudgeon?

What Did John (Wesley) Say About It?

Nothing like ending a two-week hiatus from the blog with a controversy. And controversy there will be on the matter of economics, fairness, and justice. I think (hope) a fair-minded person would conclude several things from the discussion following the previous post. Let’s see if I can get agreement on this much:
1. There is an unequal distribution of wealth in the world and within our own nation.
2. The Bible is aware of the poverty of some people and the wealth of others. It condemns neither person because of their wealth or poverty, nor does it find those estates to be the source of their respective virtue.
3. When sloth is the cause of poverty, it is a deserved condition and one that is just; but not all poverty is so induced. When wealth is gained by unjust means it is a blight upon all and will bring oppression to any land; but not all wealth is unjustly acquired.
4. The hand is never to be closed toward the poor. And scripture does not restrict this message to the super rich.
5. Generational poverty is something which concerns God; hence, the Jubilee provisions by which land and other collateral was to be returned, so that fresh starts could be made.

How these observations and principles, which could obviously be expanded, are to be instantiated in today’s world is a difficult matter to discern, but it cannot be totally ignored simply because it is difficult. In trying to do so, we do not turn to a secular government. (This is something I thought I clearly did not advocate, yet some respondents assumed the contrary.) The government has no interest in discerning the message of scripture unless it can be turned to the state’s advantage for its own purposes. Someone mentioned John Wesley in the comments exchanged. I’d like to reference his formula for a just economics, independent of the state but under the guidance of the church.

The formula Wesley gave was simple and straight-forward: Gain all you can, save all you can, and give all you can. On one hand, it is simply an expansion on the apostle’s encouragement to work with our hands so that we may have something to share with those in need. It goes farther than Eph. 5:28, however, in suggesting that there is a diligence with which one should go about making every possible effort to gain as much as one can gain, to use one’s given capacities fully in order to accumulate not just a little extra for a rainy day, but an abundance. That much sounds like any generic encouragement to put nose to grindstone and make hay while the sun shines (lots of good old sayings come to mind–and that’s the point).

But unlike the secular version of success, Wesley’s formula encourages the saving of what can reasonably be saved. This is not an economic stimulus package, geared toward spending and consuming so that others have something to produce for our further consumption, enjoyment, and comfort. Quite the opposite. He encouraged frugality, eschewed ostentation, and preached the value of saving what has been earned through all that hard work. No building of bigger barns, moving to higher-end neighborhoods, or otherwise displaying what one has accumulated. Then when the time and occasion would move one to do so, one should give all one can give in order to meet the needs of others, spread the gospel of Christ, and enter into the very character of God, who so loved that He gave. And gives.

That’s not a message we’ll hear from either party’s platform between now and November. Unfortunately, it is also one we will hear little of from our pulpits and “Christian” television. But it is one we should take to heart, not as a weapon with which to beat one another within the household of faith, but with which to challenge and encourage one another toward good works. I’m not an economist; but I wonder whether the church of Jesus will be bold enough to take its cues from its own story, knowing the end toward which it is focused, and allow those who are economists to speak to the wind.

Is Wesley’s formula too simplistic, too unworkable, or just too challenging for double-minded Christians?

Rich, Poor, Fairness, and the Bible

Back to work. And what better way to restart the blogging than to fill a request from a former student? Who can resist an opening like “I wonder what my former theology professor would say about this”?

The issue is one of growing concern for Christians and non-Christians alike. It has to do with the growing disparity of income between the very wealthy and the rest. But this particular round in the on-going battle began with an interview of Rick Warren, whose considerable presence on the evangelical stage was further enhanced a few years ago by his book The Purpose-Driven Life. The following line in the interview struck a nerve with at least one reader:

There’s over 2,000 verses in the Bible about the poor. And God says that those who care about the poor, God will care about them and God will bless them. But there’s a fundamental question on the meaning of “fairness.” Does fairness mean everybody makes the same amount of money? Or does fairness mean everybody gets the opportunity to make the same amount of money? I do not believe in wealth redistribution, I believe in wealth creation.

The Rev. Susan Russell, pastor of All Saints Church in Pasadena, responded through an open letter in the Huffington Post, the gist of which cited Matthew 20 as demonstrating that everyone should indeed be paid the same wage. That response prompted the former student’s curiosity as to what I thought, to which the reply was that I thought both parties were seriously wrong, and that more would follow. This is the “more,” though I know full well that it will not satisfy the desire for a full-blown position on wealth and poverty to which Christians ought to subscribe.

I don’t think many biblical exegetes would suggest what Rev. Russell does regarding the parable of Jesus, in which workers hired at various points throughout the day all received the identical compensation for their labors. For one obvious feature, the issue is not the difference in the type of work done but in the length of time the different parties engaged in the labor. More fundamentally, Jesus was in no way making a statement about how things ought to be handled on the farm, much less the factory or broader marketplace; he was making statements about spiritual pride of place and privilege, turning prevailing assumptions about deserving God’s favor on their head. In order to make this into a text about compensating everyone equally regardless of their contribution, one must bring a lot of preconceived ideas to the reading.

But what about Rick Warren’s statement? Certainly, he is correct about the numerous mentions of poverty and just treatment of those in that position. But it seems to me that the real issue is obscured by asking the question of what fairness entails (a “fair” enough question) in the way he does it. Moving from the very legitimate question of fairness to the incendiary discussion of wealth redistribution changes everything; it’s an emotionally charged term, and I think he knows it. It has the effect of saying “we know you don’t want that—nobody would want that,” and using it to predispose anyone listening to accept the rest of what he will say as necessary to avoid the evils of wealth redistribution.

Let’s think about this for a moment. I suspect that what he really has in mind is government enforced redistribution; that, indeed, could cause significant problems on a number of levels. But that’s not what was said. The fact is that every transaction we engage in is a redistribution of wealth. And over time, the tendency is for more of the wealth to end up in fewer hands, which raises the question of whether the transactions were fairly structured to begin with. If you have experienced a real estate settlement, and actually analyzed all of what you were paying for, you would have serious questions about how fair the redistribution really was; but the only recourse would be to end the transaction without gaining the property. Are prices for many of the things we purchase on a routine basis fairly set? Whether they are or are not, it is a redistribution.

Here are some not-so-new statistics. Every indication is that the current ones would be even more stark than these from a few years ago:

• 83 percent of all U.S. stocks are in the hands of 1 percent of the people.
• 66 percent of the income growth between 2001 and 2007 went to the top 1% of all Americans
• Only the top 5 percent of U.S. households have earned enough additional income to match the rise in housing costs since 1975.
• For the first time in U.S. history, banks own a greater share of residential housing net worth in the United States than all individual Americans put together.
• In 1950, the ratio of the average executive’s paycheck to the average worker’s paycheck was about 30 to 1. Since the year 2000, that ratio has exploded to between 300 to 500 to one
• As of 2007, the bottom 80 percent of American households held about 7% of the liquid financial assets
• The bottom 50 percent of income earners in the United States now collectively own less than 1 percent of the nation’s wealth.
• Average Wall Street bonuses for 2009 were up 17 percent when compared with 2008
• The top 1 percent of U.S. households own nearly twice as much of America’s corporate wealth as they did just 15 years ago
• The top 10 percent of Americans now earn around 50 percent of our national income.

Data such as these are not to be unexpected in a world of sinful, self-absorbed people. That’s why some form of redistribution was envisioned for us by God. Though never fully practiced, the Jubilee principle nonetheless acknowledges the need for fresh starts, including the release of bonded workers, and the forgiveness of debts. It is God’s plan of (dare we say) redistribution. And while the government is a poor candidate for enacting/enforcing/interpreting its version of the provisions, it would be in the best interest of Christian thinkers and leaders to provide leadership in helping us to think better about how we might care for one another in fair and just ways which neither encourage sloth nor punish industry. Christians cannot in good conscience simply give endorsement to political and economic models which do either of these.

What do you think? What does this suggest about our political priorities?

Short Break

In case anyone was looking for the remainder of the Holy Week series, I’ve had to curtail my writing for a few days. Medication has the side effect of turning letters on the keyboard into moving targets. Hope to be back on Monday, 4/9.

Radical

G. K. Chesterton once noted that the problem with Christianity is not that it has been tried and found wanting; the problem is that it has never been tried. I think of that as I read again Mark 12. I’d encourage you to read the entire chapter, which is not printed here, but perhaps is summarized by the familiar passage below:

12:28 And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 32 And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. 33 And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34 And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions.

I doubt that Jesus said anything in the days between Palm Sunday and Maundy Thursday that he had not said before. Perhaps a different shape, a different context, a different poignancy is given to the words because of where the gospel writer now locates them. The version of events as given by both Matthew and Mark shows that challenges were coming at Jesus from various interest groups. They seemed intent on having him answer one group in a way that would show him to be completely wrong in the eyes of another. Scribes, Pharisees, Saducees, Herodians, and just plain skeptics and unbelievers wanted their turns at asking the question which would expose Jesus.

“After that no one dared to ask him any more questions.” That’s the conclusion to the challenges, except that Jesus continued by adding some positive teachings of his own, demonstrating his wisdom as superior to that of his erstwhile interrogators. Should we have to pay taxes to a foreign occupier; is resurrection a coherent idea; what’s the most important command? This was followed by his own question, one which challenged assumptions about ideas that didn’t normally receive challenges—concerning what type of messiah they were anticipating, what kind of salvation they expected. The section closes with the example of a widow who got it; she trusted God implicitly with everything she had. She knew what the love of God with heart, soul, mind, and strength really meant.

What I’d like to suggest for our thinking is that what Jesus provides in his encounter with all of the challenges presented is an example of what we should be in our apologetics and in our living of the faith. There is nothing in what he had to say that relied on his divine insights beyond what was already in the revealed word of the Hebrew scriptures. His manner was one of calm assurance that comes from the knowledge of the truth—not of particular phrases from the text, but from the whole of the text. Wisdom. And it’s the kind of wisdom that stood out then as radical. Not irrational, not non-rational, but radical. At the root. Not asking about anticipated consequences.

The radical love of God with all of our being and of our neighbors as ourselves is radical. It’s in the widow in a way not found in the scribe. It isn’t often tried. I doubt that it will be found wanting if it is tried. The matter before us is to reflect on where it will take us today.

Trees and Temples Under Attack

Continuing the walk through Holy Week with the man Jesus, as seen in Mark’s account of the gospel.

Mark 11:12-25 (ESV)

12 On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. 13 And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. 14 And he said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.

15 And they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. 16 And he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. 17 And he was teaching them and saying to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” 18 And the chief priests and the scribes heard it and were seeking a way to destroy him, for they feared him, because all the crowd was astonished at his teaching. 19 And when evening came they went out of the city.

20 As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. 21 And Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” 22 And Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. 23 Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. 24 Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. 25 And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.”

One of the more common human experiences just might be frustration. We all feel it, though it is surely true that some of us fall into it far more easily than others. I wonder—was Jesus exhibiting frustration in the two incidents recorded as taking place the day after Palm Sunday? Is this how the one hailed as king would act in his reigning capacity? Cursing fig trees, overturning business in the temple? Acting impulsively and exhibiting his authority over things and men, just because he could, or just because he was momentarily frustrated and wanted folks to know that his desires really needed to be tended? That would be disastrous—human frustrations linked to divine powers to act on them.

I confess that I haven’t fully comprehended what was going on with the fig tree. Without borrowing from the other gospel accounts of the incident, I’m at a loss to see fully the connection between the cursing of the tree and the explanation given in the latter portion of the text for today. It appears to be a simple demonstration, an arbitrary one, of the principle later spelled out: the normal limitations of nature, the things that often cause us momentary frustrations, do not apply to the people of faith. Things that are apparently impossible need not be seen as such when we trust the power that made nature more than the power of nature. And the power to forgive sins falls into seems to be linked to that which is impossible by nature, yet possible for the person of faith because of what the ruler of nature is about to do in the coming days.

And perhaps that’s the problem in the temple. The power and wonder and transformation of human life through the forgiving desires of God had been obscured by the day-to-day business of conducting ceremonies and observances. The very power of prayer to enact and enable the forgiveness of sins, the one world-changing activity for which all of the system had been designed to draw attention to had been lost in the shuffle of making change, providing the right offerings, and, oh by the way, turning a profit.

We’re quite adept at experiencing frustration over the things that seem to get in our way as we walk along roads and look for some good and pleasant things; are we frustrated similarly by the things of God put to mundane use, removing the transforming power of the grace of God we think we’re all about? It’s Holy Week. It’s time to think about such things and ask such questions, not of the other, but of ourselves.