Reflecting on What is an Evangelical? A Movement in Crisis
Fr. Larry Hart

The Criteria
I once took a test, meant to be humorous, that identified me as an ex-fundamentalist radical with neo-orthodox leanings. So I recently read with considerable personal interest Alan Jacob’s article in the The Atlantic, “Evangelical Has Lost Its Meaning.” Jacob’s article, which is actually a sort of review of Thomas Kidd’s book, Who Is an Evangelical: The History of a Movement in Crisis. Jacob’s article, like Kidd’s book, has to do with what these two professors at Baylor University see and discuss, over carnitas and guacamole at their favorite taco restaurant, as their complicated relationship with an American evangelical Christianity in crisis. Alan Jacob and Thomas Kidd are writing about evangelicalism then, not from a purely academic, but from a profoundly personal perspective. They both see evangelicalism as having been co-opted by the Republicn party to serve its political purposes. The result is that evangelicalism has become virtually synonymous with conservative politics and increasingly diverted from its original purpose of helping each other to live in conscious connection with Christ. This matters to Jacob and Kidd not only because their own religious identity lies in the evangelical “movement,” but because it matters to the spiritual, social and political health of America. I think they are basically correct. Evangelicalism is indeed in crisis––as are all religious institutions, movements and expressions in our post-modern world. And so, the future of evangelicalism and its impact on the larger Christian community matters to me also––and matters greatly.

One way Alan Jacob and Thomas Kidd seek to rehabilitate evangelicalism is by defining it in as positive a manner as they can. In his book Kidd acknowledges that formulating such a definition is fraught with problems and more than a little complicated. Nevertheless he offers this definition of evangelicalism: Evangelicals are born-again Protestants who cherish the Bible as the Word of God and who emphasize a personal relationship with Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. Although there have been a number of attempts at more technical definitions I think Kidd provides a simple and practical point for beginning to reflect on what it means to be an American evangelical––I say “American” because what it means to be an evangelical in America is not quite the same as what it means in the U. K. But there are other more important ways in which, while I can sympathize with Alan Jacob and Thomas Kidd, that I nevertheless find their definition problematic and in need of clarification.

Born Again
First of all, the expression “born again” occurs in only two chapters of the New Testament––The Gospel of John chapter 3, and the Epistle of 1 Peter chapter 1. In neither instance is it used as a specialized definition, religious jargon, or as a cliché for what it means to become, or to be, a Christian.

In the Fourth Gospel Jesus uses it in his late-night conversation with Nicodemus. The immense status Nicodemus enjoys as a member of the Sanhedrin, his considerable wealth, and his education are all his by virtue of the family he has been born into. But to “see” or to “enter” the kingdom of heaven, which includes but is something wider, deeper, higher, and infinity larger than being “saved” (going to heaven after death) as that word is normally used by evangelicals, Nicodemus will have to surrender the privileges and identity that are his by virtue of his birth–– die to them, empty himself of them and live a life that can be described as having been born of the spirit.

1 Peter 1:3; 23, also speaks of “being reborn.” The Christian, says Peter, is someone reborn, “not of mortal but of immortal seed.” This could mean either one or both of two things. It could mean something similar to John 1:13; namely, that this spiritual rebirth is not due to human action, thought, feeling, or will, but is the mysterious work of God’s word or truth in the human heart. Or/and, the emphasis may be on how a person is reborn or remade by the entry of the seed, the word, into his or her heart. Here, the Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:1-9) furnishes good commentary. In any case, being reborn does not indicate a unique, one time, or special experience which assures someone that they are now numbered among the “saved.” It is a beautiful metaphor of the transformative process at work in the life of the believer. This inner transformation (Romans 6:1-3) can only be observed in the Christian’s outward attitudes, words, and actions of love, joy, peace, kindness, self-control, gentleness, loyalty, and practice of fairness and justice (Galatians 5:22-23). In the words of Jesus, “By their fruits you will know them.”

“Being born again,” does not work as a definition for one particular segment of the Christian population because it is descriptive of the transformation, metamorphosis is actually the word Paul uses, taking place in every Christian regardless of denomination or of where they fall on a conservative to liberal continuum. It just does not say anything distinctive about evangelicals, or that is limited to them.
I remember a very conservative Baptist telling me one time: “I am a conservative, born-again, evangelical, fundamentalist, Bible believing Christian.” Notice his piling up of terms as if he could not emphasize his orthodoxy enough, and that in the pile is “born again.” The term “born again,” I strongly suspect, is today simply a way of “conservative” Christians distancing themselves from “liberal” Christians, what they at one-time called “modernists,” and asserting their orthodoxy. Not only does the use of “born again” as used by evangelicals and fundamentalists trivialize that expression to the point of falsity, it also means something, whether acknowledged openly or not, that is just not true.

To reiterate, used as a catch phrase “born again” erroneously assumes or implies that those it identifies as liberal or progressive Christians cannot have had a “born again” experience; or, perhaps better, cannot know that experience as the on-going and continuous reality of their spiritual life. It works as defining terminology for evangelicals only because insiders share a common understanding of the exclusive sense in which the expression is consistently used; that is, its use as a kind of confession or affirmation of a very conservative theology. Indeed, an evangelical does not need to talk with you more than five minutes before being able to determine whether you are one of them or not. The clichés in which they speak, and for which they listen, are the shibboleths by which they determine Christian legitimacy and genuineness––just as “liberals” can quickly grasp by their clichés whether you are one of them

The Primacy of the Bible
Sola scriptura, Latin for “by scripture alone,” was one of the essential principles or doctrines emphasized by Luther at the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. It simply meant that the Christian scriptures are the sole authority for the faith and practice of the church as well as for individual Christians. Church councils, hierarchy, leaders, teachers, preachers, Bible commentators, a message allegedly from an angel or even a talk show host does not possess the decisive authority of Scripture. Luther and the other reformers in declaring the doctrine of sola scriptura meant for it to work as a counter weight to the authority of popes, bishops, conferences, synods, creeds, statements of faith, canon law, or the formalized traditions of the Roman Catholic Church. Thomas Kidd, in his book, uses “the primacy of scripture” as an alternate for sola scriptura and so that is how we will think of it here.

For most evangelicals the primacy of scripture includes far more than what Luther meant. For most American evangelicals primacy of scripture includes the idea of inerrancy. The further one looks to the right of the theological spectrum, the more inerrancy is understood as plenary verbal inspiration. Beginning around 1972 Fuller Theological Seminary came under severe criticism from Harold Lindsell, the editor of Christianity Today, and other prominent evangelical leaders for removing the word “inerrancy” from its statement of faith––even though it continued to uphold the “primacy of Scripture.” Inerrancy is a doctrine which insists that every word of the Bible is divinely inspired and absolutely authoritative––that it is there because God wanted it to be there.

Where many people, both Christians and non-Christians, have difficulty with this is when they encounter the sort of biblical interpretation engaged in by fundamentalist. For example, I read somewhere recently of two seminary students who many years ago hitched a ride while traveling through Appalachia. This was during the early years of the space program. They asked the man giving them the ride what he thought about John Glenn circling the earth. They were just making pleasant conversation and so were surprised when he said he didn’t believe that had really happened. He said the photos of a round earth were just made up. The earth is flat, he told them, and so it can’t be circled. When asked what made him think the earth was flat he said it was right there in Isaiah 11:12, “God will gather the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth.” The Bible he argued, says that the earth has four corners, and if it has four corners it is flat and cannot be circled like a ball. I don’t think that for a moment that anyone who is a genuine evangelical engages in such nonsense. I am saying that it is the sort of absurdity to which the doctrine of inerrancy and plenary verbal inspiration, which reads scripture rigidly and literally, tends to lead.

Actually, even the Roman Catholic Church believes in the primacy of Scripture––just not in this evangelical sense. The inerrancy of scripture held by the Catholic Church as expressed by the Second Vatican Council is that “the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully, and without error that truth which God wanted to put into the sacred writings for the sake of salvation.” And mainline protestant denominations while acknowledging the primacy of Scripture have also emphasized that the Bible must be interpreted in light of the reason, tradition, and experience of the people of God––the reason tradition, and experience of the whole Church not just that of a single individual. Kidd’s definition of “evangelical” is again problematic because it uses criteria that applies to Christians in general rather than to something unique to evangelicals. Many Christians both within and well beyond the evangelical circle cherish the Scriptures and believe them to be inspired (literally God breathed) or energized in such a way that one may experience the mysterious reality of God as the supreme glory of life.

The Divine Presence of God the Son and the Holy Spirit
This leads quite naturally into the third part of Alan Jacob and Thomas Kidd’s definition of an evangelical as one who experiences, “The divine presence of God the Son and Holy Spirit.” There is no point in belaboring the point any further, so I simply repeat one cannot take a characteristic meant to be true of the whole and then make some sort of semantic leap to where it is a defining characteristic of a small part. The entire history of Judeo-Christian spirituality can be defined as the experience of the presence of God. The main difference I would see is that the great saints, mystics, and Christian teachers through the centuries have emphasized this experience as an experience of the Holy Trinity (The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit) rather than limiting it as Thomas Kidd seems to do, to the Son and Holy Spirit. Indeed, for every Christian to desire God is the greatest passion, to seek God the greatest adventure, and to find God the greatest discovery.

An Evangelical By An Evangelical
One of my first steps away from evangelicalism came as I realized that it was no longer possible to say, “I am an evangelical,” without simultaneously saying, “I am a fundamentalist.” One can think of any number of British scholars, or in America of the Fuller Theological Seminary faculty, or of people like Jim Wallis at Sojourners, who refer to themselves as evangelical but who would not be considered as true evangelicals by a great many, perhaps a majority, of American evangelicals. The greatest problem for the evangelical “movement” is not that it has been co-opted by the political right, but that it has been superseded or absorbed by fundamentalism. In both the media and popular mind evangelical has become synonymous with fundamentalist. The greatest problem I see with what both Alan Jacob and Thomas Kidd write is that they both, at least tacitly, accept the idea that evangelical and fundamentalism are the same. And as soon as you accept that notion, evangelicalism becomes difficult to define because it includes a whole ethos, numerous assumptions, beliefs, norms and ways of thinking which you won’t find written down anywhere, but are definitive. From here on in this paper, I will use evangelical/fundamentalism to refer to evangelicalism, not in its generous and intellectually honest sense in which I first experience it, but in its use as a synonym for fundamentalism.

I once heard the humorist Sam Levenson tell this little “parable” on The Johnny Carson Show: A man put on a tugboat captain’s cap and went to visit his mother. “Look Mom!” he said, “I am a tugboat captain!” Slowly and gently his mother replied, “Yes son. By you, you are a tugboat captain. And by me you are a tugboat captain. But tell me this: By a tugboat captain are you a tugboat captain?” What we all know is that it takes much more to be considered an evangelical by evangelicals (evangelical/fundamentalist) than what we have here in Thomas Kidd’s definition. Let me suggest a few:

• One must angrily oppose gay rights and denounce homosexuality.
• One must be militantly anti-abortion (In spite of the fact that the Old Testament does not understand human life as beginning before the fetus exits the womb).
• Women are regarded as “the weaker vessel,” which for practical purposes translates into treating them as inferior, and minimizes their potentiality for Christian ministry.
• Racism is to be tolerated.
• Nationalism is elevated to the point it becomes idolatry and the flag to the status of a religious symbol.
• Status and power are admired and honored; and, therefore, corruption and greed are overlooked while the poor and powerless are denigrated even as they are being used.
• Wars of aggression and crimes against humanity (such as those at our border) are seen as patriotic.
• In a complete reversal of what Scripture actually says, sexual sins are taught to be far worse than social injustices like denying workers a livable age, an unjust criminal system, or making life difficult for the poor.
• Salvation is to be understood primarily as a system of reward and punishment––going to heaven rather than hell after death.
• Leadership by coercion is considered biblical.
• Science and technology are thoughtlessly rejected, unless they can be used for one’s personal profit or benefit; and, the Biblical responsibility to care for the earth ignored and demeaned.
• Conservative Republican ideology is to be uncritically and religiously embraced.
• Thinking “correctly” (believing the “right” things) matters more than how someone actually lives life.
• Faith tends to be characterized by “magical thinking,” meaning that if I pray in the prescribed manner, believe the prescribed things, and act as scripted I can control God and nothing bad will happen to me (see Wayne Oats When Religion Gets Sick).
• I would add that one must learn to speak in clichés, but liberals have their own clichés and beside that it would probably be snarky which my wife, who is correct, tells me is no way to be.

All of these characteristics, and more, are what it means to be an American Fundamentalist. Evangelicals by allowing themselves to be lumped in with fundamentalists do themselves no good, nor do they help the cause of Christ.

A Futile Project
I keep arguing, I hope politely, with my evangelical friends, whom I know to be men and women of genuine faith and integrity, that their attempts to distinguish themselves from fundamentalism is an exercise in futility. For one thing, as I have mentioned, in the media and in the popular mind they are now seen as one and the same. And I see no way for evangelicals to disengage from this popular perception as long as they allow fundamentalists to speak for them. If evangelicals don’t want to be equated with fundamentalism they will need to quit allowing people like Jerry Falwell Jr., Robert Jeffers, Paula White, Franklin Graham and Ralph Reed to speak in their name––to speak in the name of evangelicals. However, it is, in my opinion, unlikely that the evangelical brand can ever be salvaged. In many instances what evangelicals believe is so close to fundamentalist thought that the two are difficult to tell apart, and the ancient temptation to touch the President’s head and “eat his dainties” too great.

Mark of the Christian
Jesus said, “If you love one another everyone will know that you are my followers.” As the quite conservative Francis Schaffer noted years ago, the world of humanity around us has neither the ability nor inclination to determine theologically or doctrinally whether we are Christian; but, it does have the competency and right to judge whether we are followers of the Jesus Way by our love. What is it the Grateful Dead sang?

Think this through with me
Let me know your mind
Whoah-ho what I want to know
Is are you kind?


Joe Biden and Telling The Truth: Does it Matter?
Fr. Larry

All truth is true, but all truth is not equal. It’s true that eating fast food, or whatever that stuff is, and ingesting copious amounts of alcohol on a daily basis are both bad for your health, but their consequences are not equally immediate or deadly. The same sort of thing applies, of course, in the realm of mendacity. All falsehoods are false, but all falsehoods are not equal. For example, George W. Bush’s lies about his National Guard service were by definition false, but nowhere near as consequential as his lies about Weapons of Mass Destruction or inflicting torture. So when Joe Biden, or the news media, suggests that his ventures into deception or mental stumbling are really no big deal, once you compare them to the quantitative and qualitative magnitude of Donald Trump’s lying or cognitive malfunctions, it has a certain logic to it. I mean, my parish shouldn’t be nearly as upset over the fact that I momentarily mix-up whether we worship in the town of Oceanside or Seaside as it should be over my confusing the Epistle of Jude with Cloud Atlas. The question, then, is do gaffes matter? Does truth matter?

Everything is Diagnostic

One of my favorite graduate professors was Charles Swenson. His course in the tools and techniques of projective testing was, I thought, fun and one of the most enjoyable classes I took. So much so that I have been amazed at how much serious stuff I have retained from that class. One of the things I have retained and continue to find useful is his oft repeated assertion that everything, absolutely everything, is diagnostic. Before laughing off Biden’s many gaffes because, well that’s just one of lovable Ole Uncle Joe’s foibles, we need to ask what the gaffes may tell us. In the hectic whir of a campaign, confusing Burlington Vermont with Burlington Iowa when you have just gone from one to the other may not say much other than that you need to catch your breath. But when mix-ups become a repetitive pattern questions need to be asked. And when campaign statements have to be sorted out and rearranged to make sense, or when their meaning has to be guessed at, then if nothing else the ability to provide clear and effective leadership becomes an issue. For example, what did Joe mean when he said that immigrant kids “become American before a lot of Americans become Americans?” You don’t have to be a political consultant to know Trump should use that in his campaign ads. But I think Joe meant the dreamers in their hard work and positive values demonstrate the American spirit more than a lot of kids born in the United States. However, that I have to work at construing his words in this positive way is worrisome. Joe needs to be able, as a leader, to say what he means clearly without my having to guess.

Not All Gaffes are Gaffes

Sometimes the media gives Joe a pass by referring to something he has said as a gaffe when it is not a gaffe, but a perfectly clear remark which he either needs to defend or take back. For instance, echoing a Republican slogan, he said in the last debate that undocumented immigrants need to “get in line.” That statement was a gaffe only in the sense that it proved embarrassing to Joe and created problems for him with the Latino community, but not necessarily in the sense that he did not mean what he said. And there is a difference between the two. Likewise, when Joe stated: “We prefer truth over facts,” it was written off as just another of his head-scratching verbal blunders. However, in light of subsequent events it makes perfect sense. He has now repeatedly asserted that it is not the facts of an event or a story that matter, but whether its point, its moral, or essence is true. How Trumpian of him. And how dangerous, because it leads to the sort of autocratic thinking that says, “Things mean whatever I explain to you they mean.” This all leads to the further notation that when caught in either a dissimulation or a serious “gaffe,” Biden’s immediate reaction is to become defensive and combative or to go into “damage control.” He seems incapable of saying he was wrong. This is not reassuring.

But what do Joe Biden’s genuine gaffes indicate? I don’t know, but I can name some possibilities: Some may be slips indicating nothing of significance. Some may suggest a person who is not highly articulate. Others may be rather “Freudian;” that is they may suggest true inner thoughts. Saying, for instance, that “poor kids are just as smart and talented as white kids,” may indicate that deep down he doubts that is really the case. They may indicate that he simply does not get the subtilties and nuances of the postmodern world. Or, they may suggest slippage in cognitive functioning.

Substituting Fiction for Truth

But more concerning than “gaffes” is the creative license Joe takes with the truth––as in his dramatic story of the hero who asked that Joe not pin the Silver Star on him. Joe, as is now widely known, combined elements of three real stories into one fictional story and embellished and honed it for dramatic effect. He was doing what movie producers do all the time––telling a story “based” on reality but altered and dramatized to achieve a certain emotional impact. This is, evidently, what it means to “prefer truth over facts.”

Now Joe says this is no big deal, because the essence of his story is true; that is, his portrayal of the beauty of heroism and the tragedy of the fallen is true even though his story is false. I think Joe Biden is wrong. I think the media is wrong. I think dishonesty matters for several reasons:

1) By making up a story of heroism and claiming it to be God’s truth (“on the word of a Biden”) rather than acknowledging it as an imaginative illustration of courage; Joe diminishes and tarnishes all the true stories of uncommon valor and devotion.

2) But Joe’s story is also false in another more serious way. The essence of his story is not about the extraordinary character of a courageous and humble Captain––it’s about Joe. The story is ultimately about Joe’s personal experience and the kind of compassionate, understanding, caring, and wise leader the story, and the way he tells it, shows him to be. But if it never happened, that’s not what it shows. What it shows is not who Joe is, but who Joe wants us to think he is.

3) That Joe Biden may not lie as often or as diabolically as Donald Trump should be of no comfort to anyone. A wife doesn’t want to think that her husband only lies occasionally; or, that usually the “essence” of what her husband tells her is true. She wants to know that when he tells her something it is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. There is no relationship that is not diminished by falsehood. That Joe doesn’t get the need for rigorous honesty in this time of chaos, crisis, and anxiety is profoundly disturbing.

4) What makes Joe Biden’s falsehoods reprehensible is that like all falsehoods they are self-serving. The death of his first wife, Neilia, and year-old daughter, Naomi, in an automobile accident was a heartrending tragedy most of us can feel. But somewhere along the line Joe began to help perpetuate the story that the truck driver who struck his wife’s car was intoxicated. But the police exonerated the driver, Curtis Dunn, of any wrong doing. Neilia Biden had a stop sign that day but didn’t stop. Curtis who did not have a stop sign plowed into the side of her car. There is speculation that she was holding the baby as she drove and never saw Curtis. Pamela Hamill, Curtis’ daughter has, in the past, asked Joe Biden to help dispel the false claim her father was drunk. There is so much sorrow and suffering in Neilia and little Naomi’s death. Who can not feel it? Mourn it? And who cannot admire Joe as a father afterwards. But we don’t get to use the tragedies of life to serve or enhance our self-image––and to embellish them, especially at the expense of someone else’s reputation, is morally reprehensible.


The problem is that for Joe it’s not simply a matter of an isolated event here and there, but that it is a pattern. To his long list of dissimulations Joe has just added false accounts of the why and how of his support for the Iraq War––that goes on and on and on. Apparently, his latest story is that George II made him do it, but Bush and friends say that is not true.

Fallacy of the Only One

That in comparison to Donald Trump Joe Biden looks really good does not necessarily mean that he should be president. That given the polling numbers of today he would win by a wide margin does not mean that he should be chosen as the Democratic nominee over others whose numbers show they also could win decisively; and who might, because they are more “with it” and more genuine, be the better choice. However, I readily acknowledge that if truth, integrity, cognitive functioning and intelligence mattered much to most voters, the United States of America would never have elected George W. Bush or Donald J. Trump. My personal conviction is that truth matters, and on that, to appropriate Joe’s language, we have “God’s word.”

Winning Matters But It’s Not All That Matters

Joe Biden is campaigning on the proposition that only he can defeat Donald Trump, and that is the only thing that matters, or that voters should consider. But he is wrong on both counts. He is not the only one who can defeat Trump. And after Trump is defeated whether there is someone in office who has the integrity, the requisite values, and competence to deal with the global existential (life and death) crisis we face, or is just another establishment lacky will matter immensely.

Trump as Explained by Dr. Henry Goose
Fr. Larry Hart

First A Vignette Regarding Wealth
Saint Lawrence was one of the seven deacons of Rome in the time of Pope Sixtus. The Emperor Valerian issued an edict that all bishops, priests, and deacons should immediately be put to death and their goods confiscated by the Imperial Treasury. Pope Sixtus was arrested while celebrating the liturgy and immediately executed. After the death of Sixtus the Prefect of Rome demanded that Lawrence turn over the riches of the Church. He was given three days in which to complete the task. During that three days he distributed as much of the Church’s property as possible to the poor. On the third day he presented himself before the Prefect, and when ordered to turn over the treasures of the Church he presented the indigent, the blind, the crippled, and the suffering he had gathered, and declared that here were the true treasures of the Church. I would tell you that this act of holy defiance led to the martyrdom of Saint Lawrence the last of the seven deacons, but then you would think that is the point of the story.

Dr Henry Goose
If you have never seen the movie or read the novel Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, I would recommend you do so. It is a thoroughly postmodern work with ever shifting perspectives of time and space and mood. The film’s synopsis describes it as “an exploration of how the actions of individual lives impact one another in the past, present and future” Mitchell has said that his book is about reincarnation and the universality of human nature. Cloud in the title represents that which is ever moving, ever forming and reforming, ever gathering and dissipating, ever changing, while atlas is that which does not move, the mountains (the pillars), that support the seemingly whimsical clouds of the heavens. Atlas, then is a metaphor for fixed human nature. I find the film, and this may be too idiosyncratic an interpretation, but I find the film an apt metaphor, or parable, or whatever along those lines you might call it, providing a kind of impressionistic portrayal of the human condition here in the United States at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
I say this based in part on the single most memorable line in the whole book or film. The line I have in mind, and which is so essential to my interpretation, is spoken by the smarmy Dr. Henry Goose who is imperialism personified. “As philanthropists,” he asks calling evil good during a refined dinner discussion, “might it not be our duty to likewise ameliorate the ‘savages’ sufferings by hastening their extinction?” Dr. Henry Goose argues that, “There is only one rule that binds all people. One governing principle that defines every relationship on God’s green earth: The weak are meat, and the strong do eat.” This is no abstract or academic principle for the satanic Dr. Goose, it is the rule by which he lives. If Cloud Atlas is about reincarnation, which seems evident, it is not about reincarnation in any hopeful sense, but rather more in the sense in which the Buddha saw it––reincarnation as the ever turning wheel of birth, and life and death in which the constant of human pain, suffering, and grief is manifested. Cloud Atlas whatever else it may be about is, intentionally or unintentionally, about the relentless struggle, not only to survive against implacable evil, but to overcome it. But in spite of men and women of remarkable courage and wisdom Dr. Goose’s one rule, his one principle, remains: “The weak are meat, and the strong do eat.”
Devouring Evil
Now, although it has taken me some time to get here, I am sure you have seen where this was going all along. The whole world is being devoured by evil––by the greed, the violence, the deceit, and the pathological cruelty of the strong. It is no longer any use in denying the complicity of the United States in all this, for in our internal practices and external support we have joined virtually every corrupt and murderous regime in the world––Russia, North Korea, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the list goes on. If there is money to be made or power to be grabbed count the United States in regardless of who it hurts or kills.
Tucker Carlson, sounding a lot like Dr. Henry Goose, recently said on Fox and Friends, “You’ve got to be honest about what it means to lead a country, it means killing people.” In Tucker’s interview with Trump the two of them lamented how the “filth” of homelessness is destroying a whole way of life. By “filth” the two did not mean trash as in paper wrappers, cups, uneaten fast-food, or cigarette butts, but people living on the streets––many of whom we might note are veterans for whom Trump promised to provide care. Ignoring the economic policies, lack of health care, and endless wars that fuel homelessness, Trump claimed, with Tucker’s prompting, that cities with liberal attitudes toward immigrants are largely the cause of the problem. There was no discussion of any remedy that is both compassionate and practical. Only the assertion that this “filth” must not be allowed to destroy our cities. There are people, the interview observed, working in prestigious buildings (you can be sure they did not mean the janitors or receptionists) who should not have to see this “filth.” The trajectory toward a “final solution” is all too obvious.
Russell Moore, is a Southern Baptist ethicist, theologian, pastor, and current head of the Southern Baptist Public Policy Committee. Recently he commented on the conditions of the border concentration camps like this: “The reports of the conditions for migrant children at the border should shock all of our consciences. Those created in the image of God should be treated with dignity and compassion, especially those seeking refuge from violence back home. We can do better than this.” A refreshing, surprising, and welcome perspective from a fundamentalist. But Jerry Falwell Jr., betraying his own anti-Christian values, ripped into Russell Moore saying, “Who are you (Russell Moore)? Have you ever made a payroll? Have you ever built an organization of any type from scratch? What gives you authority to speak on any issue? I’m being serious. You’re nothing but an employee –– a bureaucrat.” In a similar vein Falwell, in an interview with the Washington Post, denigrated the poor saying: “A poor person never gave anyone a job. A poor person never gave anybody charity, not of any real volume. It’s just common sense to me.” In regard to the San Bernardino shooting Falwell told students at Liberty University: “If more good people had concealed carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they go out trying to kill us. . .Let’s teach them a lesson if they ever show up here.” He has repeatedly said that the character of the people we elect to office, specifically the president, is irrelevant. Falwell’s ignorant rants, and I use the word “ignorant” in its most literal sense, should be entirely expected. What kind of “Christian” man makes pornographic pictures of his wife, attacks the poor, the homeless, the helpless, and claims the criminally corrupt and sexual predators as personal friends on whom he can call to “fix” his sordid indiscretions? I do not use the word “pornographic” above loosely, for even a wife may be seen and treated as a pornographic object. What is inside a man who regards his wife in that way? What is in the heart of a person who thinks it acceptable to torture children in cages that smell like filth and piss and shit and fear? What is in the heart, mind, and soul of Jerry Falwell Jr., who has never built anything from scratch (to use his own worldly and diabolical criteria), who has no more theological credentials than a B. A. in Religion from a university of dubious quality and reputation, who has nothing that did not come to him except through what was given to him by his father –– money from men and women of simple faith who could never have measured up to Juniors standard of real worth––a standard denounced in Holy Scripture from beginning to end? There is only one explanation: “There is only one rule that binds all people. One governing principle that defines every relationship on God’s green earth: The weak are meat, and the strong do eat.” I think, Jerry, I prefer to be the failure I am.
And, what are we to say of the concentration camps. Let’s be both clear and honest, these are not “detention centers” but concentration camps in the horrific sense of that term, camps in which children, women, and men (entire families) are physically, psychologically, and sexually abused and (by definition) tortured. Trump’s response is if immigrants don’t like the treatment they receive they shouldn’t come here. For him cruelty is an acceptable deterrent. Donald Trump is, clinically speaking, a psychopath. He is without normal human feelings of empathy, compassion, and remorse, and exhibits bold, uninhibited egotistical traits. He is without any inner religious, philosophical, moral or ethical restraints. He is fundamentally antisocial as revealed in his behavior as an advocate of violence against those who disagree with him, as a misogynist and rapist, as a congenital liar, and in his long career of fraudulent business practices. His philosophy is that of Dr. Goose: “The weak are meat, and the strong do eat.”
Trump likes to describe the armed services as “his” military. He must, then, feel a special affinity for ICE with its Gestapo like attitudes. I am, of course, thinking of its treatment of immigrants–– of its willingness to follow Trumps advice not to be gentle or even civilized in its treatment of the poor and desperate under their control. And I am thinking of its vile Facebook page of violence, sexual assault, depravity, and fantasies of humiliating people whose humanity and Christian faith not a one of the 9,500 of them will ever match even if they could fulfill their fantasies –– well especially if they fulfilled their fantasies.
As Hitler rose to power the Nazi government, step by step, ushered in key changes to the Protestant churches. One of those steps was to urge all Protestants to unite regional churches into a national church under the centralized leadership of Ludwig Müller, a well-known pastor and Nazi Party member, who was appointed as Reich bishop. Amazingly, most German Protestants embraced these changes. They were rather like the man who said, “Even if Jesus Christ came down from heaven and told me otherwise I would still believe Donald Trump.” Actually Jesus is telling him something entirely different than Trump, and the man does indeed believe Trump rather than the Christ from Heaven. All of Hitler’s proposals were ultimately approved in a national vote by Protestants taken in July 1933. The national church supporting Hitler and the Nazi party was approved by two-thirds of the voters, and Müller won the election to lead them. By January of 1934, Müller was vowing to purge Protestant churches of all “Jewish influence,” including removing the Old Testament from the Bible because it is based on the Hebrew Scriptures. Church leaders claimed, sounding very much like Jerry Falwell and his ilk, that God’s will for the German nation was given shape in the Leader Adolf Hitler, and in the National Socialist state created by Hitler. An opposition group called the Confessing Church was formed. Confessing Church pastor and theologian Martin Niemöller and two Protestant bishops met with Hitler and his top aides. They reaffirmed their support for Hitler’s domestic and foreign policies and asked only for the right to disagree on religious matters. Hitler did not compromise at all, and after the meeting both bishops signed a statement of unconditional loyalty to Hitler; Niemöller did not. As a result, Niemöller was imprisoned for seven years in concentration camps.
Even in the Confessing Church the overwhelming majority of pastors and members supported the Nazi regime. A few, like Niemöller and Bonhoeffer, did resist. When a protest statement was read from the pulpits of Confessing churches in March 1935, Nazi authorities quickly arrested over 700 pastors. After the 1937 papal encyclical “With Burning Concern” was read from Catholic pulpits, the Gestapo confiscated copies from diocesan offices throughout the country. But in general both Protestant and Catholic Churches followed a policy of compromise with the Nazi government as it carried out its program of unutterable horror––of course, the economy was great.
Remembering Who I Most Want to Be
George Santayana, the nineteenth century philosopher, once said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” So, I find myself wondering whether self-absorbed clergy, and sheep eating bishops, inattentive churches and unconverted but professing Christians have any memory at all––any memory of history, of Holy Scripture, or of Christ and his teaching. Or, whether they have been so seduced by the materialism of our age and the delusion that if they co-operate with evil, call evil good, they too may hope to join the oppressors and eat the meat. It is a decision that the various characters of Cloud Atlas must make across great expanses of time and in different settings––whether to resist evil and risk being eaten; or, to acquiesce and perhaps be eaten anyways. My personal opinion is that my Mama was right: “It is better to fail in loving-kindness than to succeed in someone’s destruction.”

Good and Great

Good and Great
Fr. Larry

Alexis de Tocqueville the famous French diplomat, political scientist, and historian is famously quoted as writing in his Democracy in America, published in 1838, that after much thought he had come to the conclusion: “America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.” It has been a favorite quote of presidents, congressional representatives, political commentators, historians, and the media for 180 years now. The thing is, Tocqueville never said any such thing. Apparently its original source has been traced to the sermon of a Presbyterian pastor. It is really a rather “self-congratulatory” illusion that sounds real and genuine when, irony of ironies, it is put into the mouth of a foreign citizen and outsider –– and a political historian at that. The reality is that America is not good and whether she is great depends on what one means by greatness. I am not suggesting that there are not many good people in America. Obviously there is quite a large number of people who are deeper, more moral and ethical, and more spiritual than myself. But when the people of the world think of America today, “goodness” is not the first word that comes to mind. What I am saying is that if America could let go of its self-righteousness and see itself as it is, if it could take a “rigorous and fearless moral inventory,” it could open the possibility of a new era of peace and liberation from its self-created culture of violence.

Economic Violence
As I wrote in my book, Hell’s Abyss, Heaven’s Grace (2006), “the details of our selfish life are daunting in their number and kind.” In June 2016, the International Monetary Fund warned that the high U.S. poverty rate needed to be tackled quickly and vigorously by raising the minimum wage and offering paid maternity leave to women to encourage them to enter the labor force. In December 2017, the United Nations special report on extreme poverty and human rights investigated the effects of systemic poverty in the United States, and sharply condemned “private wealth and public squalor;” that is, a society in which privately owned resources are generally clean, efficient, well-maintained, and improving in quality while public spaces are dirty, overcrowded, and unsafe. The Alston report issued in May 2018 found that 40 million U.S. citizens live in poverty and over five million “live in ‘Third World’ conditions.” According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 73.7 million children between 1 to 17 in 2011 in the United States. Of this number, it was estimated that approximately 18.6 % lived in poverty; that is, about 13.5 million children. Beginning with Bill Clinton and continuing under George Bush and now Donald Trump, and the Republican Party, programs for the poor, including children, continue to be slashed. Consequently, the number of children living in poverty has risen steadily at a rate of 2.8% every five years. Children under the age of six have been the most affected showing the highest level of poverty of any demographic group. Older children, teenagers, in low income communities are at risk for being forced to join gangs, sell drugs or turn to prostitution because they cannot afford food. A 2013 UNICEF report ranked the U.S. as having the second highest child poverty rates in the developed world. Almost two-thirds were staying in an emergency shelter or transitional housing program and the other third were living on the street, in an abandoned building, or another place not meant for human habitation.

It is interesting that around 44% of homeless people are actually employed. Interesting because Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan and the Republican Party see anyone who accesses an anti-poverty program as a “taker” –– what the Nazis, whom I would assume Trump idolizes for their efficiency, called “useless eaters,” or “Lebensunwertes Leben” meaning “life unworthy of life,” as the designation for those segments of society who have no right to live. Or, in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, admired by Paul Rand and the “Libertarians,” there are the “looters.” “Makers and Takes” is actually a Republican meme. The basic idea is that the takers take from the makers –– usually by using the power of the government such as taxation. When the rich are taxed so that we can provide for the health and common good of all, they think you are stealing from them. Political conservatives and religious fundamentalists see the poor (takers, useless eaters, looters) as the problem.

Yet, it is the policies of the wealthy oligarchy that rules the United States that creates poverty. Dealing with an insurance company, for example, is like playing against the house in Los Vegas. Republicans are all for privatizing education not as an honest effort to provide a better and more accessible education for all, but as a money-making venture. We have an unjust criminal system that is loaded against the poor and minorities and one need not look far for the reason –– there is big money to be made in the incarceration business. And, there is “The Big Business of Housing Migrant Children.” Juan Sanchez, is the CEO of Southwest Key Programs which is a charity providing shelter for unaccompanied minors. Most of its income comes from government funding. Sanchez’s salary in 2016 was 1.5 million. There is a line in Cloud Atlas that an evil character keeps repeating: “The weak are meat, and the strong do eat.” The “eaters” are the elite, and it is the poor and vulnerable that they eat. As a priest I can’t help but recall Jesus’s words directed against the rich, the powerful, and the religious fundamentalists of his day, “Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you devour widows homes, even while for a pretense you make long prayers; therefore, you shall receive the greater condemnation (Matthew 23:14).

In the United States, income inequality, or the gap between the rich and everyone else, has been, by every major indicator, growing almost exponentially. Please forgive me all the euphemisms which follow here, but it’s the way this sort of thing gets reported. At any rate, “income disparities” have become so pronounced that America’s top 10 percent now average more than nine times as much income as the entire bottom 90 percent. Americans in the top 1 percent tower stunningly higher. They average over 40 times more income than the bottom 90 percent. But that gap pales in comparison to the divide between the nation’s top 0.1 percent and everyone else. Americans at this lofty level are taking in over 198 times the income of the bottom 90 percent. The recession in 2008 did dampen this top 0.1 percent share, but only momentarily. The upward surge of the top 0.1 percent has resumed. So much for the notion of trickle-down economics –– the delusion that the richer the rich become the wealthier everyone will be. Was it P.T Barnum or a rich Republican that said, “A sucker is born every minute?” Sounds a little low but I haven’t seen any scientific studies.

Speaking of the working-class, unions today have a much smaller economic presence than they did decades ago. With unions playing a smaller economic role, the gap between worker and CEO pay was eight times larger in 2016 than in 1980. The CEO-worker retirement benefit gap is even larger than the wage gap. As of the end of 2015, just 100 CEOs had company retirement funds worth $4.7 billion — a sum equal to the entire retirement savings of the 41 percent of U.S. families with the smallest nest eggs. Workers lucky enough to have a 401(k) plan through their employer had a median balance of just $18,433. With the recent decision of the conservative Supreme Court matters are not likely to improve.

One would think that especially the working poor would be incensed, making it impossible for any Republican to be elected to office. But there is a strange phenomenon at work. The poor and the oppressed always hope, regardless of how unreasonable their hope actually is, that they will one day through luck, genius, hard work, magic, or divine providence join the oppressors. Saint Paul was indeed correct: “Money is the root of all kinds of evil.” Spiritually and morally it is the love of money, of power, and of status that is the problem for both individuals and societies and not its actual acquisition. But ahhh! “The American Dream.”

The last time I looked it up the poverty line for a family of three was a yearly income of $20,780 and $25,100 for a family of four. This roughly equals a monthly income of $1,700 and $2,100 respectively –– pun intended. The average monthly cost of a one-bedroom apartment in Oceanside California, where I have ministered the last seven years is $1,800, and that of a two bedroom $2,300. Which means neither family can afford to rent an apartment. If our poverty family of three were by some miracle able to find a place $100 cheaper and the family of four something $200 a month cheaper there would still be nothing left for food, clothes, transportation, medicine, or school supplies

I started, just now, to write something I thought humorous, but then remembered a woman with a teenage daughter who would come to Saint George Episcopal Church in Cherry Hills Village Colorado where I was the rector, begging. And it knocked the humor right out of me. She had never been wealthy but with her and her husband both working real jobs they had done okay. With time his drinking had grown worse and he became abusive. She made the decision to get out. And everything cascaded down, down, down from there. She developed a major health problem and couldn’t work. She had no insurance. One Colorado winter her car which would barely go was vandalized –– most of the windows were knocked out. She left it that way because she couldn’t afford the repair work. Begging was humiliating and so she didn’t show up at the church often regardless of her need. When she did knock on the church door she never asked for much. She would say something like, “I am sorry I have to come again, but if you could just help me with the purchase of a sanitary product so my daughter can go to school I would be very grateful.”

Both Republicans and fundamentalists, according to numerous surveys, believe the poor are poor because they are morally deficient. A rather strange conclusion for a party whose greed and criminal corruption dwarfs even that of Ulysses S. Grant, a Republican. But, I guess not so surprising for a political party or a church whose members believe God wants them to buy their pastor a $42,000,000 plane. Obviously, it is not an honest argument. It is a cruel, unholy, self-justifying fabrication

Last week the U.S. intensified its policy of violence against poor American children and families (its own children) by pulling out of the U.N. Human Rights Council. Nikki Haley, our Ambassador to the U.N., responded to a special United Nations report on poverty in America by saying: “It is patently ridiculous for the U.N. to examine poverty in America.” In saying this Nikki shows herself not to simply be ridiculous, but to be just a bad person. It is unclear from reports whether Nikki Haley is a Methodist or Sikh. Either way here are some proverbs in which anyone sincere and serious about the practice of either tradition and the distinction between good and evil might find wise guidance.

Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker,
but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.
(Proverbs 14:31)
One who oppresses the poor to increase his wealth
and one who gives gifts to the rich — both come to poverty.
(Proverbs 22:16)
A ruler who oppresses the poor
is like a driving rain that leaves no crops.
(Proverbs 28:3)

Just a couple of days after the above story broke the Unite States began threatening the United Nations and its member countries for supporting breast feeding over manufactured formula substitutes. The U.S. delegation threatened retribution on trade and military aid to Ecuador in an effort to get Ecuador to drop a resolution recognizing the importance of breast feeding for infants and working against misleading attempts to sell substitutes for a mother’s milk. It was further suggested by the United States that if the resolution were adopted funding for the World Health Organization might be cut.

Jesus’s words about giving a drink of water to a little one may take on new meaning in 21st century America. Fourteen million American households find water bills too expensive And, in the not all too distant future that number may well triple. It is estimated that water prices will increase by as much as 41 percent in the next five to ten years. That will mean nearly 41 million households, or one third of all US households, may not be able to afford water for drinking, cooking, bathing or sanitation.

Attacking the Sick and Injured
The number of Americans without health insurance increased by about 3.2 million during President Donald Trump’s first year in office. The 1.3 percentage point increase in the uninsured rate was the highest increase seen since 2008, two years before Obamacare became law. As a result of the repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate it is expected the number of people without health insurance will rise dramatically –– probably to 49 million uninsured persons. A total of 12.2 percent of all adults now lack health insurance, and insurance premiums are projected to be 10 percent higher than they would have been as a result of the mandate’s repeal.

The cost of providing health care in the United States is more than double the average of second place Switzerland. Of course, the Republicans would like to lower what is spent, or at least by cutting Medicare and Medicaid, shift who pays for health care more from the rich to the poor. But think about this: Medicare spent $2,000,000,000 on one drug while the manufacture paid doctors millions to promote the drug. Again, the reason for the high costs of health care in the United States is based on a simple principle: “The weak are meat, and the strong do eat.”

Perpetual War
A report by the U.S. military, obtained by the New York Times, acknowledges the U.S. is currently engaged in seven wars around the world. It has been fighting sixteen years in Afghanistan against the Taliban, the Haqqani network, Al Qaeda, and the Islamic State group. In Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Libya the U.S. is fighting and materially supporting regional combatants to defeat the Islamic State group. The fighting in Iraq has gone on since our attack on Saddam Hussein and his forces fifteen years ago (an illegal war of aggression according to international law). Actually, we have been bombing in Iraq for twenty-five years. “Support” is given Saudi Arabia to defeat the Houthi and Saleh-aligned factions in Yemen. The direct sale of U.S. weapons to the Saudi government has reached well over two billion dollars since that conflict began in 2015. Right now, the whole world is in mourning for the fifty-one people, forty of them children, who were killed when Saudi war planes bombed that school bus in Yemen. It is probably appropriate that America, “great and good,” has shown no grief as a nation over this vile tragedy, for American complicity would render any display of sympathy for the victims hypocritical.  It should be further noted, that not included in our list of seven wars are places like the Republic of Niger, where four American soldiers on a military mission were ambushed and killed. Even a casual reading of the most pro American history books leaves the honest reader with the awareness that America is a nation perpetually at war.

When I was a young boy my family sincerely believed that America had never been involved in a war of aggression. They believed that every war America ever fought was purely defensive. The opposite is, of course, true. America has never been involved in a war which meets the criteria established by just war theory. The closest, in terms of motivation, would be World War II, but even the Second World War was not waged according to just war principles. The atomic bomb was dropped on the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with great deliberation, as was the firebombing of Tokyo. On the night of March 9-10, 1945, what is regarded as the single most destructive bombing raid in history occurred. Sixteen square miles (41km2) of central Tokyo were annihilated, over one million people were made homeless with an estimated 100,000 civilian deaths. Drone operators now kill innocent civilians with the ease and casualness of playing a video game.

From the time of the first American colonies Europeans engaged in genocidal aggression against the Native American population, at times even engaging in germ warfare by giving them smallpox infested blankets. In 1829 President Andrew Jackson, who had killed thousands of Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks and Seminoles, proposed to Congress that all these peoples be removed from their own lands, guaranteed to them by treaty, to West of the Mississippi as a solution to the “Indian problem.” It is all somewhat simpler today. We don’t need to send an entire army. Now if they protest that they do not want a potentially environmentally devastating pipeline across their tribal lands and rivers we just call out a few armed enforcers and the bulldozers. “Treaty? Treaty?” The American government  “don’t need no stinkin’ treaty.”

In recent history the Vietnam War and both Bush wars against Iraq were based on fabricated evidence. You can look the word “fabricated” up in the dictionary but in this context it just means “lies.” The resulting death and destruction visited on Iraq was both enormous and horrifying. Even before actual combat hundreds of thousands of children under the age of five died as a result of U.S. sanctions. We have littered the land of Iraq with munitions coated with depleted uranium guaranteeing that we will continue to kill untold numbers with cancer well past the furthest horizon. Toby Keith sang at the beginning of the Iraq War:

Don’t mess with the U.S. of A.
’cause we’ll but a boot in your ass.
It’s the American way.

Yeah, and we may do it even if you don’t mess with us. Like if we decide our oil is under your ground.

Fifty-three cents of every federal discretionary dollar goes to military spending while only fifteen cents is spent on anti-poverty programs. What ordinary people simply do not get is that for the elite, for the wealthy and powerful oligarchy that controls this nation, war with its unspeakable violence, maiming and killing means enormous profits. For the people as a whole it represents financial, physical, moral, psychological, and spiritual catastrophe. That is because the rewards of war, and even the preparation for war, are private where as its costs are public and social. Historically, nations have squandered their resources on senseless wars leaving them without the means to care for their own citizens or to defend themselves against enemies. There is says, the Republican congress and their Blue Dog Democratic friends, no money to rebuild infrastructure, create a sustainable environment, educate children, insure everyone has adequate medical care, food to eat, clothes to wear or a place to live because we must dominate the whole world –– and now outer space as well. But to reiterate. It is not the rich who suffer the direct consequences but you. Empire, even an American empire, is inherently evil because it is based on greed, violence, selfishness and dominance.

In the movie “Gandhi” there is a wonderful scene in which a young Gandhi in South Africa quiets an unruly and chaotic assembly of Indian men, who are shouting they will kill any British soldier who dishonors their wives by entering their home in their absence. After quieting them Gandhi tells them he too is willing to die for this cause, but that there is no cause for which he is willing to kill. This is goodness that is greatness. There are convictions, commitments, and loves to which I have given my heart and for which I would hope to be willing to endure any suffering. But there is nothing for which I would be willing to torture another person.

During his State of the Union Address, President Georg W. Bush spoke of the horrifying torture inflicted on political prisoners under the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein. Bush described the use of electric shock, burning with hot irons, acid and rape. Children were tortured, he said, to get parents to confess to crimes. “If this isn’t evil,” he concluded, “then evil has no meaning.” Yet Bush would go on to authorize, with a wink and silly grin, “enhanced interrogation techniques.” The brutal German Gestapo had a similar term, “verschärfte vernehmung” or “sharpened interrogation.” But no matter how high one piles the euphemisms or the rationalizations torture is what it remains –– an evil act inflicting hideous agony on a helpless victim and reducing the perpetrator to not only something subhuman, but to a thing that does not meet the threshold of animality.

In the early part of the U.S. War on Afghanistan and Iraq it was denied by both the military and civilian government that America was engaged in torture. In time it came to be not only acknowledged but accepted as an appropriate means of gathering information. Even the late Antonin Scalia, so idolized by conservatives as a great Supreme Court Justice, offered his personal opinion that torture was in some cases justified. And yes, I am aware he was Roman Catholic, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he was any more than “culturally” Christian. Just days ago Gina Haspel was appointed as the CIA Director. Gina was the CIA Agent who destroyed the recordings, evidence, of the torture sessions conducted by CIA interrogators, including herself. Gina, and her colleagues, should have been turned over to the Hague for investigation and possible prosecution for War Crimes. I suspect that one reason the newly elected President Barack Obama did not do so was that he knew that this could mean the eventual prosecution of Bush and Cheney for Crimes Against Humanity. This may make it sound as if America’s inhumanity to humanity, as if its enthusiastic use of torture, is a development of contemporary history, but the reality is torture has been employed across our history –– against the indigenous population, against African slaves, against the Filipino people fighting for their independence first from Spain and then the United States, and in every war before and after. The thousands of lynchings that occurred in the South were not just lynchings, but included torture, castration, and mutilation of the victims To appropriate former President George W. Bush’s own words: “If this is not evil, then evil has no meaning.”

Violence in the Streets
The United States is according to a number of indicators the most violent country among developed nations. One report concluded that Americans are seven times more likely to be murdered than people in the sixteen other industrialized countries with which it was compared in the study, and twenty times more likely to be killed by a gun. Nearly 300,000 students are physically attacked in secondary schools each month, 100,000 students carry a gun to school each year, and more than three out of four say they have been bullied. A report of child abuse is made every 10 seconds in the United States, and the equivalent of a classroom full of children die every week, more than five children a day, as the result of child abuse. This is the worst record of any other industrialized nation. Firearm deaths among U.S. children younger than fifteen years of age is nearly twelve times higher than that of children in twenty-five other industrialized countries combined. Among the twenty-five wealthiest countries in the world, the United States has the highest rate of youth homicides and suicides. Every nine seconds in the United States a woman is assaulted or beaten, and up to 10 million children witness some form of domestic violence annually.

Finally, here is a statistic I would guess that even as I write is already out of date An average of one school shooting per month (175+ total) has occurred since 1997, and more than five mass shootings per month (450+ total) since 2005. That amounts to one in every six days. The last day of school this year our grandson, a super nice, good looking, and incredibly intelligent fifteen-year-old (As Walter Brenan used to say on The Guns of Will Sonnett, “No brag just fact.”) decided, along with a friend, that the assembly presented an inviting target to any would be shooter, and so they just hid out until it was over and returned to class. Students live in fear, teachers live in fear, parents live in fear. All the while Republicans and religious conservatives resist even minor steps that might nudge America toward a culture of nonviolence.

Conservatives instill fear in the gullible and ignorant that their Second Amendment rights are about to be taken away. The Second Amendment does not, of course, guarantee every angry psychotic, or even every citizen for that matter, the right to run around with an AK47 in their pocket or hanging like an ugly necklace around their neck. If the Supreme Court, beholden to the Oligarchy (whether a U.S. or Soviet oligarchy it is no longer always easy to tell) makes such an interpretation, then the Constitution itself needs to be changed so as to make sense in the 21st Century. It is in the self-interest of Republicans to ratchet up anxiety in such matters –– it provides a distraction from the money and power to be found in cooperating with the corrupt NRA and Russia in the slaughter of our own children. A culture of violence results in a culture of fear, and in a culture of fear everything eventually crumbles.

Violence at the Borders
Concern for the integrity of national borders is most certainly a legitimate concern. I remember Anthony Kempster, a British scientist, international peace worker, and at that time President of the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship, saying over ten years ago that with the growing world population, starvation, and especially climate change the future would see mass migrations the likes of which the world has never witnessed before. If you can find a stronger motivator than hunger, thirst, and physical safety then you will have found the solution to not only the American but the global migration problem. Kempster noted that there were already, at that time, governments preparing for how to deal with the problem with military force. I was a little dismissive of Tony’s “prophecy.” But with the migration out of Africa and across the Mediterranean to Europe, and what is now happening on our southern border I am far less skeptical. The Associated Press, June 25, reported that Algeria is forcing thousands of migrants, many at gun point, out into the Sahara Desert with deadly effect –– 13,000 in the last fourteen months. As they wander dehydrated in the blistering heat they have only two hopes –– that they will either be picked up by U.N. rescue workers or find a tiny town where there is water. But large numbers have already perished in the desert waste.

If America were good it would seek to find creative ways of working with other governments to solve the problem at its source. The fact is that the U.S. is responsible for creating much of the problem to begin with The United States of America has overthrown democratically elected governments. It has backed right wing terrorist groups whose weapons say: “Made in the U.S.A.,” and followed economic and political policies that keep the people of Central and South America in the depths of fear, misery, and poverty which are the source of the present problem. Well the real source is in wicked hearts, but you get the idea. Last August, Trump held a meeting to discuss new sanctions against Venezuela. At the end of the meeting, he shocked aides and senior officials by asking, “Why can’t the U.S. just invade the country?”

Rather than seeing the migration problem, which is in many respects really a refugee problem, as a humanitarian crisis Donald Trump, the Republican party and the religious right sees it as an “infestation” problem as if all the suffering men, women, children and babies, are nothing more than cockroaches. Do not doubt this: No one who thinks of any other human being as an insect or as dirty vermin, “life unworthy of life,” “useless eaters”, or “takers” thinks any higher of you than they do of the person they are calling a cockroach. If the child in the arms of a poor Honduran woman who comes to the American door seeking sanctuary is not safe, no child held in its mother’s arms, not even yours, is safe. For the devil it is all merely a question of timing and expediency, not moral goodness.

The American War Against the Planet
In May 2010, the National Research Council concluded that “climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for, and in many cases is already affecting, “a broad range of human and natural systems.” Denial of climate change due to human activity is the Medieval equivalent of denying the earth is a sphere. Climate Change or Global Warming is not a theory, it is a fact. Congressional Representatives who deny climate change ought to be given a lie detector test, and if they pass it ought to then be given a competency hearing. I am being silly of course. Republican leaders do not really disbelieve climate change is taking place. But they have prostituted themselves to corporate lobbyists and that  requires saying things both stupid and evil. Actually you don’t really need any scientific knowledge or explanations to understand the catastrophic effects of pollution. It is simply a matter of common sense. You can only put a limited amount of feces in a finite space. Or, fundamentalist might think of it like this. In the limited space between “the dome above and the dome below” (Genesis 1:6-8), you can pump only so much poison before it kills everyone –– kind of like turning on the gas to your oven and sticking your head inside.

The risks to public health and the environment from climate change are substantial and far-reaching. Climate change will lead to more severe storms, heavier more frequent flooding, drought, and raging  wildfires – events that can cause deaths, injuries, and billions of dollars of damage to property and the nation’s infrastructure. Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas pollution will leads to more frequent and intense heat waves resulting in an increased mortality rate for the poor and elderly. Growing ground-level ozone pollution enhances the possibility for  the spread of waterborne and pest-related diseases.

Other effects of Climate Change, or human pollution of the environment, include ocean acidification, sea level rise and increased storm surge, harm to agriculture, damage to forests, species extinction and injury to the ecosystem that cannot be reversed. Climate change is already leading, in certain regions of the world, to food scarcity, water shortages, disease, mass migration and violence as security concerns grow. Yet, the United States pulled out of the Paris Accord and is busy dismantling its own Environmental Protection Agency. But do not be mistaken. It is not the rich powerful who will suffer. They have the means to escape. No. They do not suffer. They inflict suffering –– on the whole planet

Chlorpyrifos, is an organophosphate pesticide sprayed on agricultural crops in places like California’s Central Valley. Symptoms of exposure include nausea, dizziness, confusion and, in the highest levels of exposure, respiratory paralysis and death. The EPA’s 2016 Revised Human Health Risk found there are no safe uses of the pesticide. The EPA was set to ban this pesticide and then suddenly reversed its decision in March 2017 under the newly appointed antienvironment EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.

Researchers have identified exposure to organophosphate pesticides, like chlorpyrifos as a serious health threat. In 2011, three studies found a link between levels of prenatal exposure to organophosphate pesticides and lower IQ in the children at the age of 7, in both rural and urban settings. A 2014 study from the UC Davis MIND Institute found that pregnant women who lived near fields where organophosphate pesticides were sprayed saw an elevated risk of their children being born on the autism spectrum. Research also indicates a link between parents who are exposed to high levels to pesticides, for example in farm workers, and increased rates of cancers such as leukemia and lymphoma, both in the parent and their children. Exposure can also occur through dust or residue that can blow into homes and schools near farm fields, as well as residue on produce. One study noted that more than half a million pounds of pesticides were applied within a quarter mile of public schools in the 15 counties with the most agricultural pesticide use; more than 118,000 students attended the schools within a quarter mile of the highest levels of pesticide application. Hispanic children were significantly more likely than their white peers to attend schools where exposure was higher.

A favorite counter argument of the wealthy corporate farmers in the Delano, CA area was that the abnormally high rate of cancer in the poor children there could have nothing to do with the use of pesticides since their own children breathed the same air and they would never expose their children to something they knew to be harmful. The flaw in their logic was that their children lived in airconditioned home where the air was filtered, showered and shampooed in clean water every day, and went to schools and played in playgrounds of less exposure.

Polluting industries have put our waters in great jeopardy. They’ve been pushing to weaken the Clean Water Act ever since it first passed more than 40 years ago. After spending millions of dollars on lobbyists and lawyers, they carved loopholes in the law that have left more than half of America’s streams open to pollution.

The Western Creed
In 1983 Charles T. Tart published what he called “The Western Creed.” It represents, contrary to all the vociferous denials, the guiding principles by which most Americans live. It reads as follows.

I believe in the material universe as the only and ultimate reality, a universe controlled by fixed physical laws and blind chance.
I affirm that the universe has no creator, no objective purpose, and no objective meaning or destiny.
I maintain that all ideas about God or gods, supernatural beings, prophets and saviors, or other nonphysical beings or forces are superstitions and delusions. Life and consciousness are totally identical to physical processes, and arose from chance interactions of blind physical forces. Like the rest of life, my life and consciousness have no objective purpose, meaning, or destiny.
I believe that all judgements, values, and moralities, whether my own or others’, are subjective, arising solely from biological determinants, personal history, and chance. Free will is an illusion. Therefore, the most rational values I can personally live by must be based on the knowledge that for me what pleases me is Good, what pains me is Bad. Those who please me or help me avoid pain are my friends; those who pain me or keep me from my pleasures are my enemies. Rationality requires that friends and enemies be used in ways that maximize my pleasure and minimize my pain.
I affirm that churches have no real use other than social support; that there are no objective sins to commit or be forgiven for; that there is no retribution for sin or reward for virtue other than that which I can arrange, directly or through others. Virtue for me is getting what I want without being caught and punished by others.
I maintain that the death of the body is the death of the mind. There is no afterlife, and all hope for such is nonsense.

Tart’s Western Creed is ugly and evil. It could be thought of as The Creed of the American Dream. No nation where people live believing, whether the belief is acknowledged or unacknowledged, that other human beings are to be used to maximize personal pleasure, power, status, or wealth can be considered good. The blatant racism, corruption, violence, selfish ambition, criminality, and inhumanity of Donald Trump and his ilk are not Christian virtues.

Symptoms of Evil
M. Scott Peck, the well-known psychiatrist and popular author, wrote a helpful book on the nature of evil as psychological pathology. Truly evil people Peck argued in his book, People of the Lie, are not usually to be found in prisons and jails. They are most often encountered among legislatures, government officials, clergy, the helping professions and church leaders. They are after all people of deception, “people of the lie,” and it is therefore important to them to look good. However, Peck said, if one looks at the history of such a person, what will be discovered is a trail of damaged and destroyed human lives. He thought it important for the progress of psychology, philosophy, and theology, as well as the good of society as a whole, to develop an understanding of evil as a discreet pathology.

Evil, Peck thought, as a discreet diagnostic category includes the same abdication of responsibility found in the other character or personality disorders listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual but it is further distinguished by the following criteria:

1) a personal history or life-pattern of behavior which is harmful, destructive and even fatal to   others, especially the vulnerable, physically, intellectually, psychologically, or spiritually.
2) consistent scapegoating behavior which can be either overt or quite subtle.
3) excessive intolerance to criticism, and other forms of narcissistic injury.
4) pronounced concern with a public image and self-image of respectability, contributing to a certain stability of life-style but also to pretentiousness and denial of hateful feelings or vengeful motives,
5) intellectual deviousness, with an increased likelihood of mild schizophrenic like disturbance of thinking at times of distress.

With considerable ease one can apply these criteria to Donald Trump, to those he has gathered around him, and to the evangelical leaders who have aligned themselves with him (Jerry Falwell and Liberty University is even making a morally revolting propaganda film, “The Trump Prophecy”) but that is not the point here. The point is that Trump and his henchmen and henchwomen (to be politically correct) have come to power by the will of the American people. In one way or another we are all complicit. And so, I repeat, America as a nation is neither good nor great.

Wishing for Fake News
I have been promising the people of St. Auggie’s Parish that I world complete and post this blog for several weeks now. One of the main reasons I have not done so is that I have been unable to keep up with the torrent of real, tangible unmitigated evil reported night and day. For instance, moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to solidify the support of both fundamentalists, with their bizarre eschatology, and the American Jewish community for the Republican Party. Israel is, I guess according to those in power (Trump, Pence, the Republican Freedom Caucus and the Jewish Republican Conference) kind of like Russia in that it is one of our closest allies. It is for sure that Israel like Russia is a brutal, ruthless, oppressive regime.The only people in the world who either don’t seem to know that or care are  American fundamentalist, Republicans, and the Israelis. Then I see Sacha Cohen, who has made a career out of punking celebrities and stupid ass politicians, has a new show in which he is able to get well known Republican leaders to endorse the arming of school children age twelve down to four. My Mama used to ask when someone had said or done something really egregious, “Well what on earth ever possessed them to say such a thing?” Something pretty bad would have to possess your mind and the heart of your political party to say what Cohen got these Republicans to say. The title of Cohen’s new show is “Who Is America?” A pertinent question indeed. This last Tuesday Trump again slashed funding that helps people sign up for Obamacare. The Affordable Care Act, brags Trump and the conservatives is “now essentially dead.” Yes. Cohen’s question is a good one: “Who is America?” Who is America that it can deny the sick life sustaining medical care without compunction? In the face of not only an American but a global refugee crisis, it has been pointed out by those who actually understand his teachings that Jesus was himself a refuge –– fleeing from Israel into Egypt in the arms of Mary and Joseph in order to escape the massacre of the innocents by the diabolical King Herod. But Paula White, a preacher of the so called “prosperity gospel,” which in reality is no gospel, and supporter of Trump, argued last week that no comparison can be made between modern refugees and Jesus because, although Jesus was a refugee he didn’t do anything illegal. How asinine! And how wicked –– but maybe no more so than Paula’s scamming men and women out of the money that is their living. It is obviously true that Jesus did nothing illegal, but then no child under the age of two does anything illegal. Whether his parents did anything illegal or not we don’t know Paula, because we don’t know every detail of the story or ancient Egyptian immigration law. Furthermore, when mothers and fathers show up at the border, our American border, seeking asylum they are not doing anything illegal. Paula being more than a little ignorant of Christian Scripture and an obscurantist of the wealthy “religious” right, is not aware that more to the point than the flight into Egypt by Jesus, Mary and Joseph is the flight out of Egypt by the ancestors of Jesus hundreds of years earlier. From their own escape from suffering and oppression, from their own experience as homeless refugees they should have, says Moses instructing them in the way of God, learned something of compassion and kindness. Therefore, the law of God is this, says Moses: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:21). And what are we to say of Jesus’s identification from birth to death on the cross with the poor, the vulnerable, the hungry, the sick, the suffering the oppressed, and the outcasts. None are so blind as those who have eyes but will not look, much less see. It’s enough to make you wish news of all the evil in our country was fake news.

As for being great, whether America is great depends on what one means by “greatness.” If by “greatness” is meant the power of one nation to overthrow the legitimate government of another, to intimidate, to impoverish, to extort, to blow someone to hell without fear of reprisal, then America is indeed great in the sense of being powerful –– just as Mordor, dark, desolate and dead, is powerful. Actually, China is probably now the greatest military and economic power in the world. If by “greatness,” however, is meant responsiveness to human need, then America’s response to the devastation in Europe and Japan after World War II was a sign of greatness, but alas those days are rapidly disappearing in the rearview mirror of rapidly accelerating time. The question for America is not how it can remain the most powerful nation in the world in perpetuity, for that path leads, as historically it always has for every empire, to fatigue, exhaustion, and complete collapse. The humbler question of how America can simply contribute to peace, justice, and the well being of humanity in all it says and does is the better question.

Do you remember how The Rev. Jeremiah Wright, President Obama’s pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ on Chicago’s South Side, said that the United States had brought 911 on itself through its own terrorists acts around the world and the injustices perpetrated on its own people? And that blacks and the poor shouldn’t therefore sing “God Bless America,” but rather “God dam America?” I have been thinking about that. To be “damned” suggests something, or someone, has been condemned or is deserving of condemnation. Certainly, evil needs to be resisted and condemned. Not rationalized and praised as virtue. Love of country cannot mean there is no accountability for national sins, for cruelty, and unmitigated mendacity. Yet, Christian resistance begins and lies along the lines of nonviolence, courage, purity of heart, the recognition of one’s own complicity in the ills of the nation, and soulful repentance. To be Christian is to be profoundly committed to the triumph of justice, not to the sort of justice in which someone suffers for the damage they have done or the hurt they have caused, but justice as a pervasive and transformative sense of mutual compassion and energetic caring –– that spiritual, I would say divine, power that alone can redeem the soul of an individual or a culture.

Three Things I Have Been Wondering About
Fr. Larry

Three Things
Lately, I have been thinking a little about three things which may at first seem unrelated, but I think are connected, even if somewhat loosely, by questions which, for people of faith, ultimately have to do with moral theology; or, politics considered in the light of moral theology. Actually, I am not thinking about the really heavy questions of moral theology and politics – say like war, or freedom, or genocide, but some of the smaller stuff we may not ordinarily think much about. The first has to do with why evangelical/fundamentalists support Trump’s actions in the Middle East, fraught as they are with such potential for utter catastrophe and carnage. Come to think of it, perhaps that is a larger and more pertinent question than it first seemed to me. When I began I was just thinking of the utter offensiveness of Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. He is kind of like a guy I once knew who regarded his intolerable bad odor as if maintaining it were a matter or principle. The second has to do with the way in which evangelicals simply shrug off Donald’s foul language. That used to be a really big deal with such folks. And maybe it shouldn’t be a big deal. Maybe saying “fuck,” and “cunt” and “shithole” is just being – I don’t know, not sophisticated exactly, but real. Yet, since so many evangelicals are ideological Calvinists, one wonders what’s up with them. Have they reassessed the conservative doctrines which they have traditionally used like war clubs to beat the vulnerable? Or, do they just suffer from the same malady as the rest of postmodern America – a kind of numbness to what they themselves once called “human “depravity,” especially their own. Or, is hypocrisy some sort of badge of honor like Trump’s obnoxious odor. That’s the third thing I have been wondering about; that is, does character really matter?

First Thing: Israel, Evangelicals, Republicans and Armageddon
So, I have been wondering whether Israel, Republicans, and Evangelicals aren’t the necessary elements for the perfect storm — as in, you know, the mother of all storms. Like end of the world stuff. Are Evangelicals and Republicans hell bent, so to speak, on a literal Armageddon as a self-fulfilling prophecy

Not all, but a good many, evangelical/fundamentalist “Christians” believe not simply that God’s promises to Abraham and to Moses continue to be “religiously” valid, but to still be in force literally and specifically. Consequently, they are obsessed with the notion that Jerusalem ought to be the capital of Israel, as it was in 586 B.C.E. before its catastrophic and tragic fall to the Babylonians; and, along with fundamentalist Judaism, that the national boundaries of Israel ought to be those given in the ancient text of the Hebrew Scriptures. “The lines are drawn in the Bible,” they assert, and for them that precludes any further rational discussion or reasonable interpretation of Scripture. Unfortunately, fundamentalists embrace a kind of unyielding ignorance that fails to recognize that there is an older tradition (older than their 150-year hermeneutic or eschatology) which maintains that Scripture is to be interpreted in the light of reason, tradition, and experience.

Many “Christian” evangelicals and fundamentalists also embrace, not only a literal, but extremely violent interpretation of the Book of Revelation. Instead of grasping Revelation as a symbolic book of comfort and reassurance that ultimately good will triumph over evil, they see it as a book of wrath, a capricious wrath which might easily be visited upon them so that their destiny, along with the devil and his minions, could be a literal lake of fire in which those who get it wrong burn hideously forever and ever.

The fundamentalist understanding of eschatology, of the End Times, is that the Jewish people must remain in control of Israel and Jerusalem, and retake the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the Dome of the Rock, before Jesus returns. There will be great disasters and wars, and finally Israel and the United States, representing the forces of righteousness ( a miracle within itself truly worth witnessing), will engage in a horrific battle, Armageddon, in which the forces of evil, which include Russia, China and the Arab people will be defeated. How that fits with evangelical support of a “president” who colludes with Russia to undermine the integrity of the United States I don’t know. What is known is that evangelicals believe nothing less is at stake than the salvation of their own individual souls, as well as the souls of all humanity. You see, it’s not that fundamentalists don’t want brown people to be saved, it’s just that they want them to stay south of the Rio Grande until the proper time. In heaven we will all be together, but for now people ought to be color coded. Now that there are more brown and black Christians in the world than white, and with the U.S.A bombing the hell out of everyone, all the good guy and bad guy stuff is getting a little complicated. But however it all works out the U.S. and Israel, and maybe some white guys from Norway, will wind up in this big fight with the bad guys. This is essentially why evangelicals are willing to amplify anger and resentment and conflict at every moment – it is all, they believe, a matter of biblical prophecy — which may need their helping hand to come true. And, “believe me,” you can bet they are not about to be caught opposing what they think to be divine providence. Evangelicals have been known to say, for example, that they don’t look at the trouble in the Middle East and long for peace – hope things will work out. They don’t want things to work out, they want the cataclysmic end to come. It is this belief which makes them so very scary, Trumpian scary, for the blood and destruction they prophecy could well become an entirely self-fulfilling prophecy having nothing to do with the God who longs for our peace.

The Second Thing: What’s So Bad About “Bad Language”
I like words. I wish I knew more of them. And I wish I knew more about their etymology, the history of where they come from. Words are like music in the ear. They are like sunlight dancing in the leafy branches of trees. Some are playful and some quite serious. At their best they encourage, heal, and enlighten. Yes. I like words. No wonder the Son of God is called “The Word.” Some people think there are bad words, but I don’t. It’s just that words may be used badly or even for evil purposes. And, of course, they may be entirely misused or even abused –like a bully pummeling a helpless vagrant on the street. But I digress – as I often do.

It is a quite commonly assumed that swearing, cursing, foul, vulgar and obscene language all refer to the same thing. Although we frequently use them as if they were synonymous they are not. To swear is to take an oath. To say, “By God;” or, “So help me God,” is to promise to do, or not to do, something on the basis of God’s honor. To take the name of God in vain is to swear such an oath falsely, with no intent of keeping it, or to frivolously invoke the power or presence of God. This is, of course, something that would matter only to those who believe in God, and reverence that which they feel and cherish as sacred. Quakers and Mennonites do not believe even in swearing an oath in a court of law. They point out that Jesus taught his disciples to live and honor God in such a way, as to speak simply, always saying what they meant and meaning what they said. In this way everyone would recognize their sincerity and integrity. To curse is to invoke harm or injury on someone. To say, “Dam you,” is to say something like, “May you suffer eternal torment.” Christians, evidently this is not necessarily true for evangelicals who prayed for President Obama’s death, are to think none ill – to desire no one harm. That pretty much eliminates, for anyone belonging to one of the great wisdom or spiritual traditions of the world, cursing according to its dictionary definition.

Contrary to what many fundamentalists imagine, there is no list of “bad words” in the Bible. Instead, there are a number of passages that give guidance on the sort of language considered inappropriate for spirit persons. Here are just five:

“Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking” (Ephesians 5:4).

“Let no corrupt talk come out of your mouths” (Ephesians 4:29).

“But now you must put them away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk” (Colossians 3:8-10).

“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain” Exodus 20:7).

‘Perverted speech I hate” (Proverbs 8:13).

Rotten, corrupt, obscene words are, then, words of anger that cut and stab painfully, that are meant to diminish, devastate, harm or humiliate another. Bad words are words that make what is large and beautiful look small and ugly. I recall a James Garner film in which Garner falls in love with a much younger divorced woman. Her ex-husband returns to the small town where they live, and asks Garner in one scene, “Are you fucking my wife?” Garner replies something like this, “I would never use that word to describe what we do.” It’s a well-conceived line. Foul and vulgar language objectifies — that is, it sees others as objects rather than persons. As, for example, when Donald Trump told Howard Stern he could call his daughter, Ivanka, “a piece of ass.” Or, when Trump called Hope Hicks the “best piece of tail’ Corey Lewandowski will ever get.” When Trump referred to “shit-hole countries,” we know what he meant. He meant there are shitty countries and the people that come from them are shitty people. Never mind that the Western world is largely responsible for the awful conditions in those nations. Well, we now know why he has not been helpful to the suffering people of Porto Rico. What should trouble evangelicals is not so much Trump’s foul words, but the rotten heart out of which they come. The question that should concern them, and certainly their many followers, is what is in their own heart.

The Third Thing: Character
I have been wondering does character really matter? Is it just too uncool and irrelevant in postmodern culture to be of consequence? People tend to joke about the confusion of old people, but I tell you it is not a bit humorous. When you have been told your whole life that “real” Christians believe sleazy sex is just wrong and deplorable, especially when the fellow’s wife is at home caring for their two-month-old infant, and then wake up from your afternoon nap to learn “born again,” hell fire believing, self-righteous fundamentalists, I mean these are the people who speak infallibly, have changed their mind. Well, it is as I say, a mega disorientation for someone my age.

According to Tony Perkins of the ultra-right-wing Family Research Council, Trump gets “a mulligan.” for his rotten language and sexual debauchery. In informal golf, a mulligan is an extra stroke allowed after a poor shot, and is not counted on the scorecard. I am not sure what it is that gives people like Perkins, Jeffers, or Frankie Graham, the spiritual and moral authority to casually dispense with over two thousand years of Christian moral theology and the whole tradition of confession and penance — the sacrament of reconciliation. I once heard a Baptist say that the Southern Baptist Church was superior to the Roman Catholic Church in that the Catholics only have one Pope where the Baptists have one in every church. Maybe that’s it. They certainly do an awful lot of ludicrous pontificating, without any demurring from those of a simple and wholesome Biblical faith.

Jerushah Armfield, the granddaughter of Billy Graham, whose place as an evangelical spokesperson seems to be derived solely from her celebrity status as a member of the Graham dynasty, rather than any spiritual or theological basis, has attempted to find a way around the glaring hypocrisy of evangelicals, by arguing that the President need not be a Christian as long as he pursues the right policies. Jerushah, who is quite skillful in providing disingenuous and weasel answers to interview questions, thus puts her finger on the very problem inherent in all legalistic and rigidly literal understandings of Christian teaching — well of life and reality itself. It always results in a manipulation of the law, whether sacred or secular, to suit neither justice nor goodness, but one’s own personal, egocentric, purposes.

Nevertheless, Jerushah is correct, although I am not sure she really believes it herself, the President need not be a Christian. However, to say that the President need not be a Christian is not synonymous with saying character is irrelevant. Bernie Sanders, is apparently a self-acknowledged atheist, but is nevertheless possessed by a higher standard of values than Jerry Falwell Jr., Paula White, Franklin Graham, Robert Jeffers or Tony Perkins. Character, and as a professed “Bible-believing evangelical” Jerushah ought to know this, has to do with who we are in our heart — our innermost being. Our outward actions emerge from who and what we are within (Check out Luke 6:45 if you need proof text). Compassionate, benevolent, peaceful and liberating actions and policies do not come from a racist, hateful, sexist, greedy, violent, arrogant, cruel heart. What does not live within us cannot live around us.

It’s the Pattern That Counts
When Tony Perkins talked about giving Trump a mulligan since his sexual encounters with the porn actor occurred before he was elected President, or when Frank Graham argued it didn’t count because Trump is a changed man, they both ignored an important principle. Character is manifested not by a single incident, but by the pattern of one’s life. An alcoholic who has been sober for a considerable amount of time, goes on a three day drinking binge, and then remains sober again for a significant time, is said to have had “a slip.” Alcoholics who get sober, drink, get sober, drink, get sober, and drink without ever accumulating any real time of sobriety are not having slips — they are actively alcoholic. It is not Trump’s isolated words, actions, dirty mindedness, or lies that are troubling it is there fixed and consistent pattern. No Frank. He is not a changed man.

Perkins insisted that Trump’s mulligan is merited on the basis that evangelicals “were tired of being kicked around by Barack Obama and his leftists.” Just how that is worse than being manipulated and kicked around by the wealthy right-wing oligarchy (Graham earns nearly a million dollars a year as CEO of a supposedly charitable Christian organization). is something of a puzzlement. But it is no wonder at all, that for evangelical/fundamentalists “character” is irrelevant and of minor importance in comparison to ideology, politics and self-centered ambition. Please forgive me if I am being too much of a “Bible thumper,” in quoting Jesus’s words to folks of this very sort: “You snakes. You bunch of reptiles. How will you ever escape eternal damnation” (Matthew 23:33)?

Signing the Jesus Manifesto

Participating in Prophetic Ministry – The Politics of Jesus

Fr. Larry Hart



Recently I read an opinion piece on the Religious News Service website by Richard Mouw – “Why I Decline to Sign ‘Prophetic’ Declarations.” Dr. Mouw is a prominent and influential evangelical — evangelical in the sense of a conservative but not fundamentalist Christian. He is a highly respected academic and was President of Fuller Theological Seminary for twenty years. After retiring as President he returned to teaching as Professor of Faith and Public Life at FTS. But this article is not about evangelicalism or liberalism. It is about Christian social responsibility, it is about what the Mennonite ethicist John Howard Yoder, and the African Methodist Episcopal pastor and scholar Obery M. Hendricks, and the evangelical editor, James Wallis at Sojourner’s Magazine, all refer to as The Politics of Jesus. It is about the ministry of Jesus, and our participation in it. It is about the practice of “prophetic” ministry, not of prophecy in the modern Pentecostal or charismatic sense, but in the Old Testament sense of an intense concern for justice and compassion. Amos, for example, condemns those who rig the scales in buying and selling wheat, take bribes, show contempt for the poor, and squeeze the poor to make themselves even richer. In his article, Dr. Mouw explains why it is that he doesn’t sign petitions and proclamations of social justice, or become involved in speaking “prophetically.” What follows here is not so much a response to Richard Mouw as it is an engagement with the question he raises.


I love the ancient Hebrew prophets. The word that best characterizes the spirituality of the prophets is “justice.” The just person for Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Micah and the others, was one who had identified completely with the concerns of God and humanity; and, who out of that sense of communion sought to do good to everyone. Justice, for the prophets, was not a matter of insuring that “the wicked” were punished for the wrongs they had done, but of championing the vulnerable.

Seek justice,

Undo oppression,

Defend the fatherless,

Plead for the widow.

Isaiah 1:17

This declaration of Isaiah makes me think think of the modern Christian monk and mystic, Thomas Merton, who said that what he had found was that the deeper he went in contemplative prayer, the further out his feeling of concern and compassion for the plight of the whole world went.

Prophetic Justice as Spiritual Practice 

I love the prophets, I revel in their spirituality of compassion, but I am not a prophet. I love the theologians, seeking to know the deep mystery of God, but I am not a theologian. I love the Biblical scholars, the spirituality of study, but I am not a Biblical scholar. I am a quite ordinary priest and pastor, a very small fellow in a very large world, a world with enormous problems threatening to overwhelm church, state, and civilization — like giant waves crashing down on an already capsized boat. I find considerable enjoyment as well as helpful guidance in the Cadfael Chronicles, Edith Pargeter’s wonderful novels of a twelfth century Benedictine monk who solves murder mysteries – well really who solves human problems with spiritual wisdom. In the first novel of that series, Cadfael observes the brothers of the abbey of Shrewsbury filing into the chapter-house from the choir after the third mass of the day. They enter in due order with Abbot Heribert, old and gentle, leading the way. He is followed by the princely and arrogant Prior Robert, then large and unambitious Richard the Sub-Prior, Jerome the Prior’s Clerk, ever conniving and self-righteous, and finally all the other brothers in their hierarchies. At the end of the procession come “the commonality of the convent” – of which there is a “flourishing” number. When I write, then, I write as one from the commonality of Christian clergy.

And this brings me to the first real point in my reflection. Although nothing more than a simple priest and pastor, this does does not, and cannot, ever absolve or excuse me, or any other priest or pastor of “the commonality of clergy,” from participation in what has often been called “prophetic ministry.” Neither does it excuse the “some-whats” of the church, or “the commonality of the laity,” from the labor of peace and justice. When Ted Kennedy died I saw, and heard, on television someone who had been one of his close friends. “I once asked Ted,” said this person, “why all this concern with the poor?” And what Ted answered was, ‘Haven’t you ever read the New Testament?’” Christ is the indicative from which, for every believer, every imperative emerges.

The Jesus Manifesto

Saint Luke represents the beginning of Jesus’s ministry, and what is thought of as the first sermon of Jesus, his “inaugural sermon,” like this:

14 And Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about Him spread through all the surrounding district. 15 And He began teaching in their synagogues and was praised by all.

16 And He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up; and as was His custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and stood up to read. 17 And the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. And He opened the book and found the place where it was written,

18 The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
Because He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor.
He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives,
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set free those who are oppressed,
19 To proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.”

20 And He closed the book, gave it back to the attendant and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on Him. 21 And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Luke 4:14-21

Jesus says, then, that he came to “preach good news to the poor,” indicating that he saw his ministry as involving struggle against circumstances, systems, and institutions that kept people impoverished. In this sermon he announces, in the words of Isaiah, the release of captives, the liberation of political prisoners, and “freedom for the oppressed.” “Oppressed” is from a Greek word meaning “to crush.” Jesus came proclaiming help and freedom for those crushed by all the injustices of empire – whether Roman or American.

In Matthew 23:14 Jesus makes this specific and damming application: “Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you devour widows’ houses, even while for pretense you make long prayers; therefore, you will receive greater condemnation.” This verse brings me closer to Dr. Mouw’s opinion piece and why it has been bothering me.  I find it troubling in that the article is not only about why he does not sign social justice proclamations; but, why, in his words he “avoids engagement in ‘prophetic’ activity.” That seems a little strange for a Professor of Faith and Public life.

One cannot help but wonder what happened. As a graduate student Richard Mouw helped organized “ban the bomb” marches, and protested the Vietnam War. He was also a supporter and signer of “The Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern.” As Mouw himself notes, he was “clearly out of step with much of the evangelicalism of that time. Billy Graham, for example, opposed the Chicago Declaration. But he writes almost as if, and perhaps I am reading him wrong, his social justice concerns from an earlier period in his life, have earned him a “pass” in confronting the ubiquitous violence, cruelty, bigotry, falsehood and economic oppression here at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Mouw’s article even seems to caricature those engaging in “prophetic ministry” as presumptuous, deficient in patience, and lacking humility. It recognizes that there are moments of extreme crisis when there is no choice but to speak prophetic truth; for example, one may reflect on that decisive moment in which Martin Niemoller, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth stood nearly alone in saying “no” to Adolph Hitler’s face. It’s interesting that he does not mention Emmett Till’s mother, Rosa Parks,or Martin Luther King, Jr. One can only wonder at what point the frog in the boiling kettle must say to his fellow boilees, “I think it time to take a decisive hop out of here.”

The fact that Fuller Theological Seminary takes a strong stance against such questions as same sex marriage, must also come into play here. The feeling one gets is that Mouw is not opposed to all social action – only those actions and statements that might be described as somewhat more progressive. He acknowledges that a “cynic,” I would say a realist, might think his convictions and values tempered by the need he had as Fuller’s president to raise vast sums of money from people who find more progressive views reprehensible. I even appreciate the efforts he made to “stay honest with himself about that possibility.” But as they say, “Motives like stowaways are discovered too late.” One must wonder whether the contingencies of fund raising were not behind his rather ambiguous and tepid response to George W. Bush’s unprovoked attack on Iraq.

Teaching Justice as Spiritual Practice

In the New Testament, argues Mouw, there is no clear call for leaders to function as prophets. In fact, he says, the New Testament suggests that the “offices” of prophet, priest, and king have all come together in Jesus.  “The role of teacher, he maintains, seems to have become more important.” But there is an unwarranted semantic leap made here. The Bible itself obviously, does not use our modern American English words and phrases like “prophetic ministry,” “social justice,” “peace and justice,” or “social activism” to refer to specific ecclesiastical “offices;” or, as descriptive of some particular aspect of “pastoral work” or “practical theology.” In fact, for hundreds of years there was no well defined theology of Pastoral Care. There was simply the profound sense that all, both clergy and laity, are called to continue Jesus’s work of love and compassion. What is determinative for the Christian is not to be found in semantic gymnastics, but in the person of Jesus.

So, in the light of Christ’s presence and word as given in Matthew 23:14, am I likely to sign a petition or declaration condemning the devouring of widows’ homes by a predatory Wall Street? Well, yes, I am. Most certainly! In light of the Book of Amos, or Saint James, or the Sermon on the Mount, am I likely to lend my voice to those speaking out against violence of every kind and wars of pure aggression — like Iraq? Am I likely to shout, no matter how faint or small my voice, “Not in my name!” Yes, I am. And am I likely, in light of John the Baptizer’s denunciation of Herod’s sordid relationship with his own brother’s wife (Mark 6:18), to keep saying, “Donald! It is not right,” in the words of The Gilgamesh Epic, “to grab a woman by her ‘feminine attractions,’ as if she were an inflatable sex toy with no heart, mind, or soul.” Yes. You can count on it.

Dr. Mouw’s article assumes, perhaps unintentionally, that “prophetic ministry” is the single purview of the clergy, but as I have indicated here all people of Christian faith, whether clergy or laity, are to be imitators of Christ, consecrated to the purpose of God, and passionate about the family business – God’s work. Pastoral theology with out a heart for peace and justice is neither pastoral nor theological. The church that does not champion the cause of the vulnerable, the poor, and the powerless is not the Church.

Although someone of his erudition surely knows better, Mouw compounded his error by categorizing the pastoral office as almost exclusively that of teacher. Even if that were entirely true, it would still leave the question of what it means to be a teacher. If all that pastors, priests, catechists, teachers, ministers and leaders have to convey are academic concepts, dogmas, factual information, hypothetical constructs, ideology, or ideas and notions about God, then they have nothing beyond theological curios to offer. Postmodern men and women are tired, and have given up, on a church too trivial to be of any consequence to a humanity drifting on a sea of suffering. Certainly teaching is central to the pastoral or priestly life; and, we do indeed need teachers, but the teachers we need so desperately are like those of which Martin Buber wrote. Buber saw the exemplary educator in the image of the Zaddik – the righteous or saintly leader of a Hassidic community who teaches in such a way that the pupil participates in the teacher’s life, and thus “discovers the secret of the doing.” A teacher with violence in his or her heart cannot teach ahimsa. A teacher without the warmth of Christ’s peace and the living flame of God’s justice in his or her heart, cannot teach the Way.

There may be one more important question to ask here. Paul Freire, who wrote Padagogy of the Oppressed (1968), discovered in working with impoverished people in Brazil, that the educational system controlled by the rich and powerful, serves to internalize the values and perspectives of the oppressor in the oppressed. Freire developed a new educational approach to assist the liberation of both oppressed and oppressor. Shouldn’t the church, be at the forefront in developing such transformative teaching practices 


Well, that’s about all I have to say about that, other than this: “Prophetic ministry” should be entirely natural to every man and woman of faith. There should be nothing forced or mechanical about it. The Christ manifesto, the Jesus proclamation of Luke 4:14-21, is not a bit of ideology to be argued and fought over, it is a way of life. It is a way of life that sometimes requires extraordinary generosity and courage. Always it requires a spirit of kindness. Those who are anxious and angry simply cannot practice Christian ministry. They have no “amen” – no hold on Christian faith. The great British theologian of the nineteenth century, Frederick Denison Maurice, adopted a German saying as one of his favorite mottos, Werde was du bist. “Become what you are.” Maurice meant, of course, become what you are in Christ. In Christ you are love and mercy. Become love and mercy. Practice the spirituality of prophetic compassion.


American Civil Religion

American Civil Religion
Fr. Larry

Members of any particular group, whether the faithful of a church, adherents of a political party, or the citizens of a nation need an agreed upon set of values and principles, even if that agreement is assumed rather than stated formally, which have the power to hold them together, and to keep them from ripping their church, their party, or their nation apart. In 1762, Jean-Jacques Rousseau coined the term “Civil Religion” to describe what he saw as the moral and spiritual foundations essential for emerging modern governments and societies. Rousseau thought of civil religion as a kind of social glue that, by providing a national state with sacred authority, helped unify that nation. In the 1960s the work of the sociologist, Robert Bellah, brought new attention to the reality and significance of this concept for the American people.

Civil Religion

The following characteristics of Civil Religion may make it easier to see more concretely how it functions in America society.

• The invocation of God in political speeches and public monuments. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution comprise the two “sacred” documents of American Civil Religion. The Declaration of Independence uses the phrase “Nature’s God,” and “Creator.” In his inaugural address of 1789 George Washington did not mention “God” or “Christ,” but rather spoke of the “Almighty Being who rules over the universe,” “propitious smiles of Heaven,” and “divine blessings.” As much as fundamentalist Christians of today might like to think these are all references to the God of the Bible, the fact is that for the most part the founding fathers were either gentlemen political philosophers, Deists or through-going humanists who used such expressions as culturally acceptable allusions and metaphors. As for public monuments, the Washington and Lincoln Memorials are themselves sacred American shrines.

• The quotation of or allusion to religious texts in public speeches by political leaders. Think, for example, of Ronald Reagan’s constant use of the Biblical image of “a shining light on a hill.” When Reagan repeatedly used that phrase he wasn’t thinking of Christians or the Church as the Community of Faith, but of the United States of America as a political, geographical, military, sociological and cultural entity; that is, he appropriated a well known spiritual image to clothe American Civil Religion in a sacred robe.

• The veneration of past political leaders. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Harry S. Truman, or even Ronald Reagan are regarded as the sages and “holy men” of the past whose words, apocryphal or not, are quoted as wisdom for our day. During the last presidential primaries, Republicans who were opposed to the Trump candidacy frequently referred to how Trump failed to embody the mythical qualities of Ronald Reagan; and, measured policy and political statements of candidates by how well they harmonized with those of Ronald Reagan. In pushing back against charges of bigotry and racism they often claimed to be the party of Abraham Lincoln – which is, of course, only technically true.

• The use of the lives of these leaders to teach moral ideals, or what is desirable. So. bourbon drinking, poker playing, small town politician Harry S. Truman becomes, in American Civil Religion, the epitome of the strong leader – “Give ‘em hell!” “The buck stops here.” Catholic Radio recently featured the author of a book on Andrew Jackson, the seventh President of the United States who first gained fame in winning the battle of New Orleans. Jackson, this author gushed, was a man who had been given so much by America that he was driven to give much back. The reality is that Jackson was a crude and arrogant man who had little understanding or appreciation of the balance of powers in our democratic form of government. His victory at New Orleans may be attributed as much to British ineptitude as to his own leadership. As President he was responsible for one of the darkest and ugliest marks on American History, the Trail of Tears, an egregious act of Genocide.

• The veneration of the military, and of the veterans and causalities of national wars. Everyone in military service is now referred to as a hero who is to be honored for preserving the freedom and rights enjoyed by the American people. There is in Princes Park, Edinburgh, Scotland, a war memorial, a simple wall, with an inscription which says, as best as I can now remember some thirteen years later, that it is in honor of all the Scottish soldiers who died in foreign lands, far, far from home. The inscription says in poetic prose, that they did not die for glory or money but so that others might be free. As I read that inscription I thought of the slow conquest of India and its colonization by the British Empire – lasting 500 years. And I wondered how that inscription was chiseled with a straight face. I think we have a moral obligation to take much better care of veterans than we do. I don’t think anyone wounded in body or mind should ever have to worry about food, shelter, or medical care once they return home. I do not believe this because I think them heroes, but because they are victims of dishonest politicians who, motivated by money and power, used them for their own ends.

• Founding national myths: School children of my generation grew up hearing both parents and teachers declaring that the United States never goes to war unless it is attacked. It has been said, even in recent times, that the United States does not engage in wars of aggression. And that the United States does not use torture – although that is now changing to the equally untruthful, the United States uses torture only when necessary to save American lives.

Perhaps this is the point at which to be clear. Leaders of the American Revolution, unlike many of the first colonists, had no intention of founding a Christian, or even Judeo/Christian, nation. In all of their religious talk their central concern was with political rights and social well being. They were allowing their vaguely religious language, which was culturally relevant, to spread easily and bind the emerging nation together. As Derek Vreeland notes, “They felt free to borrow some of the more nondescript references to ‘God’ and ‘Providence’ never assuming civil religion would overtake the reach and purposes of the Christian faith.”

• The practice of what can only be categorized as religious rituals. And so, children are taught to stand and place their hand over their heart, a posture of prayer, to say the pledge of allegiance. American flags are prominently displayed on patriotic holidays – which may be observed in many Christian churches as if they were holy days. As I write, I am thinking of an Episcopal Church which observes Veterans Day with a Marine Honor Guard bringing in the flag, the same flag that is always prominently on display on the dais near the pulpit as if a sacred symbol. On that Sunday, that congregation is likely to sing a rousing rendition of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” – a song so pagan that it ought to be an embarrassment to any Christian. This last Veteran’s day Vice President Pence assumed a priestly role in cleaning a portion of the Vietnam Memorial and laying a wreath at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Please note, that I am not saying it was necessarily wrong for him to do so – only that it represented a “religious” ritual.

• The use of slogans, principles, and values which take on a religious character; and, are not therefore to be questioned: One only need think of such expressions as, “The American dream,” “America is the greatest nation on earth,” “America is good.” Each used, as justification for greed and power. With George Bush American style democracy came to be seen as a value true for all people in all places; and, therefore, justification for wars of aggression – “holy wars.” Positively stated “the American dream” expresses the dogma that in America those who work hard and intelligently can be materially successful. Negatively, it expresses the “religious” belief of the conservative movement that poverty is due to the failure of the poor to work hard and live responsibly.

The Decline of American Civil Religion

 Bella believed, even as he wrote, that American Civil Religion had been in decline for a very long while, and that what now remains is no more than an empty shell. It is now generally recognized that the ethical core of American Civil Religion has been eroded and replaced by the values of political, economic, and military power. General Cumming’s prediction, or prophecy, in Norman Mailer’s novel, The Naked and the Dead, has come true. “In the future the only morality will be the morality of power.”

After the Civil War the South, devastated by the scorched earth terrorism of the Union Army under General Sherman, Carpet Baggers, a vengeful U.S. Congress, and the war itself, was an unequal partner in the growing wealth of the rest of American society. In its unrelenting attitude of defiance, it failed to reasonably integrate modern society and classical Christian faith. Consequently, even in the twenty-first century Southern Baptists have failed to recognize that “evolution is more than a theory,” and continue to resist the fact of human caused global warming with impregnable ignorance. In the 70s and 80s the Republican Party developed its “Southern Strategy,” with the result that the Neo-Confederate South, now, embraced and aided by a rigid national conservatism, a wealthy and powerful oligarchy, and Roman Catholic fundamentalists dominates the Republican Party. The traditional liberal values of the founding fathers – equality, justice, “the blessings of liberty,” “a more perfect union,” and “the general welfare,” or common good, no longer hold the imagination or devotion of the American people as a whole. They are no longer guiding principles, but merely words used in an increasingly Orwellian culture for purposes of corruption and control.

There is, of course, no necessary or fundamental problem with Civil Religion itself. Civil Religion is good and needful. Nations need shared principles, values, and understandings that knit people together and provide a fulcrum with which to handle weighty problems and difficult issues. Civil Religion becomes problematic when it is mistaken for the highest to which we may aspire. In the Lincoln-Douglas debate, Stephen Douglas spoke of how the United States had it within its power to become the most feared nation on earth. Lincoln responded that he had rather America become the most respected nation on earth. Sparta and Athens were driven by two entirely different sets of values – two different civil religions.

The famous theologian, Paul Tillich, described faith as our human concern with what is ultimate, and God as our Ultimate Concern. If we make money, or power, or status, or sex, or drugs and alcohol our Ultimate Concern, which is ever so easy to do, then said Tillich, our faith becomes idolatrous. To this we obviously could specifically add one’s nation, or its symbols like a flag, as Ultimate Concern. Misplaced Ultimate Concern becomes all the more tragic as it becomes impossible for those who have devoted themselves to the idol of nationalism to discern good from evil. For example, before George W. Bush unleashed shock and awe on Iraq, a reporter was interviewing a group of Roman Catholic men gathered in a Boston diner. Their consensus was that even though the Pope had issued a formal statement saying an American attack on Iraq would not meet the criteria of a just war, they were, nevertheless, determined to support the President’s decision. Or, as I write this both the leaders of the Republican Party of Alabama and the Southern Baptist Church are expressing their unequivocal support for Ray Moore. In those immortal words of one sports announcer, “Who would have thunk it?” Who would have ever thought, that American Civil Religion, or Southern Baptists, would deteriorate to the point that the White House would argue electing the likes of Roy Moore, in order to pass Trump’s tax plan, to be more important than any consideration of character; or, that political party should be more determinative for how we cast our vote than any ethical, or moral imperative, or even basic human decency.

The Inadequacy of American Civil Religion

The more the Civil Religion of any nation unravels, the more that nation becomes stuck; the more it will become mired in anxiety, anger, blame, and in a general inability to find constructive remedies to problems – or even to choose capable leaders. People who are stuck react to situations rather than respond. To react is for our words and actions to be determined by our own inner turmoil, anger, anguish, passions, compulsions, fears and concerns. A reaction seems to almost just jump out of us on its own accord. A response is more reflective, more thoughtful, and asks questions like: “What would be most helpful here?” Or, “What most needs saying or doing in this moment?” Obviously, some values,principles and religions contribute to a more reflective and responsive practice than others.

Unreasoning conservatism lacks the flexibility to respond to new and unforeseen challenges intelligently and creatively. To be “conservative” means, by definition, to “conserve.” The Republican party, and the South in particular, is determined to conserve a culture dominated by rich old white men, but like it or not, approve or disapprove, the racial demographics, not only of the United States, but of the whole world are changing. Barack Obama was not the last American President of color — he was just the first. Clinging to a Medieval understanding of science will not prevent or prepare for the problems of climate change. It will not assist Christians, or those of any faith tradition, in conversing with postmodern men and women in a way that possesses both comprehensibility and spiritual depth. And, it will not, as Roman Catholic radio suggests, make the problems of the eventual overpopulation of the planet untrue. The “American Dream” as a tenent of American Civil Religion cannot be sustained (conserved) indefinitely. The American Dream is a fiction of capitalism. It relies on an ever expanding population in order to have an ever expanding market and economy. It may all work out well for the very few at the top but for the rest of us – not so much. One must ask, what sort of religion is it that is okay with nearly the whole of humanity living in the most deplorable conditions imaginable, while a ridiculously few live long healthy lives in unimaginable luxury and safety. It seems to me, based on what I know of my own “supernatural” faith, that a truer and more practical principle and goal would be one of sustainability for all rather than the “dream,” or even possibility, of unlimited wealth and power for fewer individuals than you can fit into the Mar -a- Lago.

Say Who You Are and Where You Are Going

I have loved Walker Gibson’s funny little poem Advice to Travelers ever since discovering it in high school:

A burro once, sent by express,
His shipping ticket on his bridle,
Ate up his name and his address
And in some warehouse, standing
He waited till he like to died.
The moral hardly needs the showing:
Don’t keep things locked up deep inside —
Say who you are and where you’re going.

Gibson’s amusing little poem offers good psychological advice and help in building leadership skills. Those leaders who make the most positive and constructive contributions to their family, church, nation, or work are those who know who they are and where they are going. In terms of systems psychology, they are the most self-differentiated among us. They know what they think and feel without believing it incumbent upon them to force anyone else to feel or think as they do.

This doesn’t mean they say or do nothing, but that what they say and what they do is an honest expression of their inner life – as natural as a blade of green grass or a drop of falling rain. Men and women who understand the Christian faith, perhaps who understand any faith or wisdom tradition, adequately, know that being always precedes doing. They are more concerned with the meaning than with the how or efficiency of things. The how or efficiency of things is concerned with doing and with results. Love is concerned with meaning.

What frequently happens is that if someone is able to focus on just simply being, they discover, sooner or later, that their very “being” is in “Love.” Others who are adequately self-differentiated will generally want to travel with them – the neurotic and less self-differentiated will, at least initially, reject this healthy, non-anxious, non-angry way, but later may decide to come along even if it is with kicking and screaming. There is no guarantee of the least bit of success in following this path; and, those who do not believe personal spiritual transformation to be its own rich reward, or the Christian notion that “it is better to fail at love than to succeed at hate,” are not likely to follow it in winter.

As with Gibson’s donkey “the moral hardly needs the showing.” If we want to work for a saner, happier, more peaceful, life-sustaining nation and world for everyone without exception, we will need to begin by working on ourselves – to transform a church, a nation, or a planet we need to be, as Saint Paul put it, “transformed by the renewing of our mind.” There is much to do – there is much to be.

Christian Fundamentalism and that Hideous Darkness
Father Larry

Great evil has been committed throughout the centuries—and is still being committed—by nominal Christians, often in the name of Christ. The visible Christian Church is necessary, even saving, but obviously faulty, and I do apologize for its sins as well as my own. Crusades and inquisitions have nothing to do with Christ. War, torture and persecution have noting to do with Christ. When he gave his one recorded sermon, the first words out of Jesus’ mouth were, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Not the arrogant. And as he was dying he asked that his murderers be forgiven.
M. Scott Peck — People of the Lie


How shall I begin? I think by saying I believe evil, real, palpable and vile, exists – a malevolent darkness that seeks to devour noble causes, good people, nations, churches, and human souls. J. R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy, Lord of the Rings, is a wonderfully imaginative description of a cosmic struggle between good and evil; however, it is not entirely fantasy. Tolkien was a devout Roman Catholic, and as such was surely familiar with Saint Paul’s words of alarm and encouragement: “Finally,” wrote Paul in his letter to the Christian community at Ephesus, “be strong in the Lord. . . For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12 NASB).

The implication here is that as Christians the struggle with that hideous darkness begins in our own heart and mind, and in our own church. Lying on a bed of rotting, rancid straw in one of the brutal camps of the Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn says not long before his conversion from atheism to the Christian faith, he experienced a moment of spiritual clarity regarding the problem of good and evil. He wrote of his experience saying:


Gradually, it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. Since then I have come to understand the truth of all the religions of the world: They struggle with the evil inside a human being (inside every human being).

So, then, I believe in evil. And, like Solzhenitsyn, I believe the line between good and evil in our own heart shifts and “oscillates. But even in the best of hearts, and certainly in my own which is not among the best, there always remains “an unuprooted small corner of evil.” This is why Saint Paul in Ephesians, urges vigilance, alertness, spiritual attentiveness. However, having said this, I want to be clear that I am in no way attempting to minimize the enormity of evil.

The ordinary, garden variety of sin (literally falling short of the mark or the best to which we can aspire) that constantly plagues us, and interferes with our spiritual progress, is not what I am talking about here. We shouldn’t sin, not just because it is wrong, but because we don’t have time. It distracts us from the sort of spiritual practice that opens our hearts to the Divine Mystery of Christ living in us. But evil is far more sinister and lethal than that.

Peck says that when he was writing People of the Lie, he asked his then eight-year-old son, “Do you know what evil is?” And his son immediately answered, “Yes Dad! Evil is ‘live’ spelled backwards.” That’s about as good a definition of evil that you will ever find. Evil is what kills or destroys life in any of its forms – physical, psychological, or spiritual. Whatever diminishes or devours life is not simply a sin, but evil. There is, therefore, that hard saying of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: “You’re familiar with the command to the ancients, ‘Do not murder.’ I’m telling you that anyone who is so much as angry with a brother or sister is guilty of murder” (Matthew 5:21-22). Hate is evil because it kills.” If anyone boasts, ‘I love God,’ and goes right on hating his brother or sister, thinking nothing of it, he is a liar. If he won’t love the person he can see, how can he love the God he can’t see” (1 John 4:20-21)?

As M. Scott Peck further notes, most truly evil people are not in prisons and jails. They are not found principally among junkies and juicers – or immigrants. They are most likely to be found in legislatures and churches, for, remember, they are after all, People of the Lie, and it is important to them to look good, to be thought good. They are expert at scapegoating and rationalizing and dissimulating. And, their lie and their cruelty grows in proportion to the vulnerability of those in their power. The reality is that we become the person we practice to be. The question of our character is not answered by an isolated incident, but by the pattern of our life; and, when one looks at the pattern of a life and sees a trail of destruction, especially the destruction of vulnerable people, it exposes the lies of evil.

Evil is not only individual, it is also systematic. Everything, absolutely everything, is connected. The great Christian thinker C.S. Lewis said somewhere that if we could see the reality of humanity as God does, it would not look like separate dots on a page with nothing connecting them, but rather more like a tree with leaves, branches, limbs and roots all connected. We are all parts of various systems – family, work, church, community, nation. And these systems are all interlocking. Not only that, but every system is strangely greater than the sum of its parts. Together your family is something more than just adding up the total number of its members. Your church, to the extent it is truly the church, is mysteriously something more than its aggregate membership. What affects one part of a system therefore affects the whole. I think Lewis also suggested this analogy. If you add, say a drop of red dye, to a large glass of water, it will spread and contaminate all the water in the glass. Evil not only can be, but often is, systemic.

This, then, brings me to what I really want to say: The American fundamentalist conservative religious/political movement is antithetical to Christianity and systemically evil. A recent survey from the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation reveals what just ordinary common sense observation already knows. White fundamentalists, including white Roman Catholic fundamentalists, are more than twice as likely as are atheists, agnostics or those with no religious affiliation to blame poverty on laziness or some other individual character flaw. John Gehring, author of The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church, writes: “In this upside down world, white Christians can justify taking away health care coverage from struggling families and blindly worship the false idol of ‘trickle-down’ economic theories that Pope Francis has already called a ‘crude’ and ‘naïve’ fantasy.”

While 57 percent of Americans acknowledge racism against black people as a significant problem only 36 percent of white Protestant fundamentalists and 47 percent of white Roman Catholic fundamentalists see it as a significant problem. Following Trump’s election signs immediately went up, “Make America White Again!” There really is no doubt that much of the hatred for President Obama was due to racism. Fundamentalists acknowledged Christians ought to pray for him, but suggested praying after the fashion of Psalm 109, “Let his days be few, and let another have his office.” At the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s Road to Majority Conference, Senator David Perdue said, “I think we should pray for Barack Obama, but I think we should be very specific about how we pray.” He then cited Psalm 109, and here, very specifically, is what that Psalm says:


8 Let his days be few; and let another take his office.
9 Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow.
10 Let his children be continually vagabonds, and beg: let them seek their bread also out of their desolate places.
11 Let the extortioner catch all that he hath; and let the strangers spoil his labor.
12 Let there be none to extend mercy unto him: neither let there be any to favor his fatherless children.
13 Let his posterity be cut off; and in the generation following let their name be blotted out.

That’s pretty ugly evil stuff to have prayed on President Obama – but indicative of the malicious stink in the hearts of fundamentalists. Certainly, if I had ever said anything like that my Mama, from whom I first learned that the hope of salvation is to be found in the love of God, the knowledge of Christ, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, would have been unbearably disappointed with me. Yet, they gush over laying hands on Donald Trump in the Oval Office – a man that can’t speak two sentences without lying even when there is no point to the lie; a three-times married man who, as a matter of record, is a creepy sexual predator, vengeful and arrogant beyond concealing, and violent in words and temperament. What is it Jesus said? “A good person out of the good treasure of the heart brings forth good; and an evil person out of the evil treasure of the heart brings forth evil. For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45).

So, out of the abundance of his heart, Robert Jeffress, Pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas and some sort of “religious” advisor to Trump, released a statement saying Trump has the moral authority to “take out” North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. “When it comes to how we should deal with evildoers,” said Jeffress, “the Bible, in the book of Romans, is very clear: God has endowed rulers with full power to use whatever means necessary — including war — to stop evil.” Just what we might expect Jesus to say – right? Sure, rip the guts out of your enemy, burn, maim, kill the children, smash them in the face, lock them up. Run them over with your car.

And, what is their response when that happens as it did last Saturday in Charlottesville? What is their response to the hate inspired death of Heather Heyer, or the brutal beating of Deandre Harris? Evangelist Rodney Howard-Brown, following Trump’s lead said, “We strongly condemn all white supremacists, KKK, Antifa and Black Lives Matter, Main Stream Media in the strongest of terms !!!!!” Franklin Graham, wrote, “Shame on the politicians who are trying to push blame on POTUS Trump for what happened in #Charlottesville.” And, Jerry Falwell, Jr., uttered not a word about Charlottesville, just an hour and fifteen minutes down the road from Liberty University. Neither was there anything from Richard Land. Out of the abundance of the heart. Out of the abundance of the heart.

Or, who can forget Pastor Steven Andersen who celebrated the Orlando massacre: Pastor Andersen, who is evidently too dumb and too uninformed to know that homosexuality and pedophilia are not at all the same thing, said:


The good news is that there’s 50 less pedophiles in this world, because, you know, these homosexuals are a bunch of disgusting perverts and pedophiles. That’s who was a victim here, are a bunch of, just, disgusting homosexuals at a gay bar, okay? But the bad news is that this is now gonna be used, I’m sure, to push for gun control, where, you know, law-abiding normal Americans are not gonna be allowed to have guns for self-defense. And then I’m sure it’s also gonna be used to push an agenda against so-called “hate speech.” So Bible-believing Christian preachers who preach what the Bible actually says about homosexuality — that it’s vile, that it’s disgusting, that they’re reprobates — you know, we’re gonna be blamed. Like, “It’s all extremism! It’s not just the Muslims, it’s the Christians!” I’m sure that that’s coming. I’m sure that people are gonna start attacking, you know, Bible-believing Christians now, because of what this guy did.

My simple argument is that Steven Andersen is neither ‘Bible- believing’, nor “Christian.” The words of Isaiah the Prophet are certainly appropriate and applicable to both Protestant and Catholic Fundamentalism in America:


Woe to you, who call evil good
     and good evil,
who put darkness for light
     and light for darkness
who put bitter for sweet
     and sweet for bitter

Let me be clear. It is not “woe” to the fundamentalists because of anything I can say or do, but first of all because of what they have done with the gift of life God has given them, and what they do with the gift of God’s love. Second, fundamentalists need to be careful on a very practical level. Evil is interested in who it can use, not in who it can love, and so can turn on anyone or any group, at anytime. Robert, has just said that if the the President, whoever he or she may be, decides you are evil, there is biblical justification to stop you by “whatever means necessary.” When I listen to the pastors who support policies that hurt the most vulnerable people among us, I am reminded that less than a third of the Lutheran Church and pastors in Germany had the Christian integrity to defy Adolph Hitler.

Wherever you look conservative, born again, bible believing, evangelical, fundamentalists, are antilife. Their denial of climate change and refusal to work for a habitable world is fueled by both a Biblical and scientific ignorance that is cruel, appalling, and totally unconscionable in its ignorance – “ignorance” in its literal sense. There is no compassion, sympathy, or human feeling for the plight of others. They have supported American use of slave labor in the Northern Marianna Islands. And their deportation of “dreamers” is heartbreaking.

Rachel, a young, hardworking, law-abiding, Latino girl in her mid-twenties, was brought to this country by her undocumented parents when she was only a few months old. The American way of life is the only life she has ever known. Not long ago she went to a dance with some of her young friends. She was snatched up by the INS and sent to an internment camp in Arizona where she continues to wait in fear for her fate to be decided. Most likely, she we will be sent to Mexico where she has no family, no friends, no knowledge of the culture or how to make her way. And, I will add, little facility with the Spanish language. I remember a documentary on the Queen of England’s carriage horses. The interviewer asked the head Groom, “When one of these horses is retired, do you give it a life of ease out in a pasture somewhere?” The Groom responded emphatically, “Oh no! These horses are fed a healthy diet of quality grain and hay. The stable is climate controlled. They are blanketed to protect and enhance the quality of their coats. They are brushed and groomed every day. They have a carefully prescribed regime of exercise. The dogs and cats, the people coming and going and working n the stable, and the other horses all keep it company. It would be terribly cruel to take one of these horses out and leave it in a pasture.” What the British consider too cruel for a horse, is considered by some Americans to be just fine for Rachel and people like her.

Now you may think I should have been more judicious in my choice of words here; and, that may very well be the case. But I am aware that both Jesus and Saint Paul called clergy of the religious establishment “whited walls,” or as I once heard a pastor friend paraphrase it – “piss pots.” And Jesus called Herod, “That old fox.” Actually I am more concerned that I have done something a little silly. The blog preceding this one is an open letter challenging the religious right to debate the proposition: “The Conservative Fundamentalist Movement is Antithetical to Christianity and a Religious and Political Force for Evil.”

By way of clarification, I should acknowledge that all conservatives are not necessarily fundamentalists, and while evangelicalism and fundamentalism have become somewhat synonymous in the media and in the popular mind, they are technically not the same thing. However, I am afraid that those who want to maintain that distinction, like Fuller Theological Seminary or Sojourners Magaine, are engaged in a futile effort. Nevertheless, most of what one reads in the media about evangelicals supporting Trump, is really about the support of fundamentalists.

Finally, I would like for you to know that I take Scripture with the utmost seriousness. I believe the Bible should be interpreted in the light of reason, tradition, experience, and is best understood by those steeped in contemplative practice. I do not see it as an ancient and flawed manuscript without relevance, but rather hear it as the voice of God speaking simple yet profound and mysterious wisdom. As a result, I believe that if we are not saturated with the same love with which Christ loves us, then we stand exposed as frauds before the watching world (John 13:35). The Medieval saint, Teresa of Lysieux wrote to her sister, “If you are willing to serenely bear the trial of being displeasing to yourself, then you will be for Jesus a pleasant place to shelter.” M. Scott Peck saw this as a good definition of what it means to be a true Christian; however, he noted, “There are hundreds of thousands who go to Christian churches every Sunday who are not the least bit willing to be displeasing to themselves, serenely or otherwise, and who are not, therefore, for Jesus a pleasant place to shelter.” This would be an equally good definition of a true church; indeed, in similar fashion, are we not likely to find, in the end, thousands upon thousands of churches which, in spite of their words and pretensions of piety, were no pleasant place for Christ to dwell.

An Open Letter To The Christian Conservative Movement


Dear Leaders of the Religious “Right:”

I originally intended this as an open letter to Jerry Falwell, Jr., who I believe would describe himself as a born again, evangelical, fundamentalist, conservative, Bible believing Christian. However, I have since “repented,” and now address this letter to include not only Mr. Falwell, but any fundamentalist, conservative, Christian who like Mr. Falwell can claim, with some legitimacy, to represent the “conservative movement.”

This is an invitation, no more of a challenge, to debate some form of the following proposition:
The Conservative Movement Is Antithetical to Christianity and a Religious Force for Evil.

I say some form of this proposition because I would be willing, along with other possible alterations, to affirm the proposition as it stands; or, to reverse and deny the proposition; that is, deny that,
The Conservative Movement is Christian and a Force for Good.
I am suggesting something like a two-person collegiate debate. An Affirmative and a Negative presentation of perhaps thirty minutes each, followed by an Affirmative and a Negative rebuttal of perhaps fifteen minutes each. The order normally is: Affirmative Presentation, Negative Presentation, followed by the Negative Rebuttal, and then the Affirmative Rebuttal. But the order is not important to me. There would be an MC/Time Keeper but no Moderator with a set of questions. Other than the time allocated each speaker and maintaining a civil, and, hopefully, thoughtful audience, I am quite flexible.

I believe it was last February that Republican Congressional Representative Dave Brat from the 7th District of Virginia said in an interview, “The Conservative Movement, owns the whole Christian compassion thing.” I wrote Rep. Brat at the time suggesting we debate that assertion, but, of course, did not receive a response. Maybe Rep. Brat recognized he was on the wrong side of Exodus 20:16, or Proverbs 16:6-19, and decided not to compound his error. But here’s hoping better from some other recognized leader of the born again, evangelical, fundamentalist, conservative, Bible believing Christian movement of the late 20th or 21st century.

With sincerity and in good faith, then, I offer the above invitation – or challenge.

“For freedom Christ has set us free,”
Larry Hart
The Rev. Larry Hart
1470 Encinitas Blvd
Box 223
Encinitas, CA 92024

Sex, Contraception, Abortion, and Roman Catholicism
Father Larry

I don’t know why anyone would design a car radio this way, but my little all electric Fiat has a radio that comes on, whether I want it to or not, every time I turn the key in the ignition. While my generous free trial of satellite radio was still in effect I just left it tuned to the Grateful Dead station – ever since I was a child I have tended to space out a lot and the Grateful Dead’s music is supportive of that endeavor. I probably should just leave the radio set on the Bob and Coe Show (KGB-FM San Diego), but that’s no help after 10:00 a.m. So somehow by default, it’s left for the most part on the Roman Catholic Station. Usually I turn it off as soon as it comes on, but sometimes I leave it long enough to become hypnotized by how fundamentalist Roman Catholicism can be.

For the most part I don’t think whether people classify themselves as conservative or liberal matters terribly. And, those terms each include such a wide swath of people that they are largely meaningless. What, in my often flawed opinion, seems to matter more is what our convictions, whether liberal or conservative make of us. That is, do our beliefs make us more loving, compassionate, kind and helpful? The doctrine of transubstantiation seems to me to be the spiritual imagination trapped in fourth century substance philosophy; but, I have no doubt that many of the great saints have embraced that doctrine. It does annoy me when it is suggested that since I do not accept the notion of transubstantiation, I do not believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

I have a lot more difficulty with matters that have to do with civil law and public policy – like birth control and abortion. If Roman Catholicism is opposed to all birth control as a matter of deep religious conviction, I can get that. It does puzzle me as to why that issue is such a top priority with the Roman Catholic hierarchy and teachers, I mean it seems to me that in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus was much more concerned about poverty of spirit, gentleness, peace making, mercy, hunger and thirst for God, generosity and trust than birth control. But I understand and respect that it is an important matter of faith for Roman Catholics. What I don’t particularly respect is the desire of Roman Catholic apologists to have their cake and eat it too; that is, for their educational institutions, like Notre Dame or extensive network of hospitals, to accept massive amounts in tax dollars while suing to be exempted from federal requirements. My suggestion would be, don’t hire thousands of non-Catholics at all professional and working levels, don’t offer expensive medical and educational services for millions of people who are of some other faith, or no faith at all, and then claim that offering insurance that provides birth control violates your conscience. Forego the government money, and be free to follow your conscience with integrity and no public scorn. The reality is that 98% of all Roman Catholic women who have had sex, have practiced birth control measures other than the “natural method.” If a church is essentially its people, then in light of this statistic, Roman Catholicism is not opposed to birth control – birth control does not, in fact, violate the conscience of most North American Catholics.

I understand, of course, that the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church is that it is intrinsically wrong to use contraception to prevent new human beings from coming into existence. Contraception is wrong, it is argued, because it is a deliberate violation of God’s natural order built into the human race. The natural law or purpose of sex, the argument says, is procreation. The pleasure that sexual intercourse provides is an additional blessing from God, designed to encourage human mating with the intended result, or possibility, of new life. At the same time, sexual intimacy within marriage, strengthens the mutual love and respect between husband and wife which is necessary for nurturing new life, not only physically and intellectually, but also emotionally and spiritually. I agree with that. However, the Old Testament is filled with instances where a positive view is taken of human sexual pleasure itself with no mention of procreation:

Three things are too wonderful for me;
four I do not understand:
the way of an eagle in the sky,
the way of a snake on a rock,
the way of a ship on the high seas,
and the way of a man and woman.
(Proverbs 30:18-19)

The Song of Songs is an intensely sexual book. It is most likely a collection of ancient songs sung during the week long celebration of Hebrew marriages. Its metaphors are poetically graphic and highly erotic. And while these songs are sung within the context of a marriage celebration, there is nothing in them about procreation as the justification of their sexual passion – such passion and its fulfillment is seen in the Old Testament as a gift from God which may be celebrated within itself. One might make a silly argument that the natural purpose of wine is to quench thirst, but the Bible says that as God gave food to sustain our strength, so wine was given “to gladden our hearts” (Psalm 104:15). Both the Old and New Testaments have a lot to say about the abuse of wine as well as sex, and how each can wreak terrible devastation, but both wine and sex, from a biblical point of view, are gifts of God meant to be received and enjoyed with gratitude. They need no further justification than that.

There is no where in Scripture, any explicit or implicit prohibition against birth control. The Old Testament does say children are a gift from God; and, O’ they are. We loved our son and daughter before they were conceived. Now they have their families and we mostly lavish our parental affection and concerns on the dog. Children are a gift from God, but we can be content and prize two as readily as twelve. Genesis 38:8-10 has sometimes been used as evidence that birth control is a sin, specifically coitus interruptus as a method of preventing the conception and birth of a child:

Then Judah said to Onan, “Sleep with your brother’s wife and fulfill your duty to her as a brother-in-law to raise up offspring for your brother.” But Onan knew that the child would not be his; so whenever he slept with his brother’s wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from providing offspring for his brother. What he did was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put him to death also.

Onan’s sin is not “spilling his seed on the ground,” it is his unwillingness to impregnate his brother’s widow in order to perpetuate his brother’s “name” and “rights.” A strange idea for us, but what was expected in the ancient culture of the Middle East. To read this as a text speaking to the issue of birth control is to read into the text what is simply not there.

The New Testament recognizes that sex is always about more than sex. It involves an intimacy, and emotional and spiritual bonding that goes beyond the physical act of intercourse.  “For this cause,” say Saint Paul, “shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and the two shall be one flesh.” The logical conclusion of Roman Catholic theology would be that sex, even within marriage, without the possibility of producing a child cannot lead to a deep and genuine spiritual intimacy, and as countless couples unable to have children, or who have practiced birth control know, that is utter nonsense. Those searching for a larger meaning and purpose to sex and marriage, will find it in something beyond procreation – it will be found in the mystery of how two people becoming one points to the even greater mystery of becoming one with Christ.

Roman Catholic dogma does, of course, approve the rhythm, or “natural” method, in which a couple abstains from sexual intercourse during the time the woman is believed to be most likely to conceive. The insistence that this is some how different from “artificial” methods of birth control is mere sophistry. Whether a couple practices the “natural method” as approved by the Roman Church, uses condoms, the pill, resorts to a vasectomy, or tying the fallopian tubes, it is all essentially the same in that the intent is to prevent the conception of a child, and in the New Testament intentions are always of critical significance.

Opposition to the “morning after pill” as a means of contraception rests on a different premise. The Roman Church sees the morning after pill as a form of abortion, and believes abortion to be wrong under any circumstance and for any reason. The central issue then becomes, “When does human life begin?” According to Roman Catholic theology life begins at conception. Taking the morning after pill is, therefore, abortion, or certainly potentially the abortion of a child. This just seems so, I don’t know, medieval.

In the sixteenth century, but perhaps as far back as the third century, many, especially among the alchemists, held to the idea of the homunculus — a supposed microscopic but fully formed human being contained in sperm and from which a fetus was believed to develop. Trent Horn, an excellent recognized Roman Catholic apologist, makes basically the same argument using a more modern scientific understanding. Trent asserts, if I correctly understand him, that since all the genetic coding, all the biochemical mathematics, necessary for that zygote, the fertilized ovum, to become a fully developed human being are present it is a living child. He illustrates his point with the twentieth century process of polaroid photography. When you took a photograph using a Polaroid camera, the picture was developed on the spot inside the camera. When it first came out of the camera it just looked like a brown smudge until it had a few moments to fully develop. Suppose, Trent Horn says, you are on a boat on that famous Lake in Scotland, and you take a Polaroid picture of the Loch Ness Monster. You immediately hand the photo paper that has come out of the camera to a friend saying, “Here’s a photo of the Loch Ness Monster.” Your friend looks at it and then tosses it overboard. “Too bad,” says your friend, “that was just a brown smudge and not the Loch Ness Monster.”

You would respond, suggests Trent, angrily and shout, “No! That was a picture of the Loch Ness Monster; you just didn’t give it enough time to develop in order for you to recognize it, now it’s gone forever.” Trent’s analogy is that just as everything necessary for that piece of polaroid paper to develop into a pictures was right there in that brown smudge, so everything necessary for a diploid cell to become a fully developed human being is right there as the ovum is fertilized.

An interesting analogy, but one which ignores the enormous gulf between potentiality and actuality. When that paper with the brown smudge comes out of the camera it is not a photograph, but rather has the potential of becoming a photograph. With the fusing of those two haploid gametes the potential exists, a process initiated, that, if all goes well, will result in about nine months in the birth of a human life. But to refer to that fusion as a human life, strains the scientific and psychological imaginations of even devout Christians.

When asked about abortion in the case of incest or rape, Trent Horn’s response as a Roman Catholic apologist, is that the child conceived in rape or incest is just as innocent as the mother and should be just as protected from suffering. But he is begging the question, stating as a fact the very thing to be proved; namely, that a zygote, or embryo, or undifferentiated mass of tissue without consciousness, brain, or intelligence is in fact a child – a living human being. Nor do I understand how ending a potential pregnancy by taking the “morning after pill,” say in the case of rape, saves a “child” from suffering that is equal to or greater than that of the mother – who is, at least biologically, a fully living human being. And to tell a couple, that has discovered that any child they conceive is likely to have serious birth defects, that it is a sin to use contraception, is incomprehensible to me – so cruel, barbaric, stupid and irresponsible as to be un-Christian.

But to reiterate, it is difficult to believe, scientifically, that an undifferentiated mass of cells is a human child. But how about biblically? What does Scripture actually say? The answer is not much, and nothing that is helpful to the Roman Catholic argument. The Torah, for example, says this in Exodus 21:22-25:

And if men struggle with each other and one strikes a woman with child so that she has a miscarriage, yet there is no further injury, he shall surely be fined as the woman’s husband may demand of him; and he shall pay as the judge decides. But if there is any further injury to the woman, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.

In spite of the numerous convoluted explanations by Roman Catholics attempting to make this passage mean something other than what it plainly says, the gist of its straightforward interpretation remains: If two or more men get into a fight and a pregnant woman who is present is injured and miscarries, loses her baby, then the man who injured her must pay a fine for causing the miscarriage. But note that he is not guilty of murder. He is neither accused of nor punished for homicide – as he would have been had the woman herself died. Under the Law of Moses given on Sinai, for the death of a fetus one is fined, for the death of a woman, pregnant or not, one is executed. Why is that?

The simple and demonstrable explanation is this. The ancient Hebrews, of what Christians commonly refer to as the Old Testament, did not believe that life begins at conception. They thought that life begins as the fetus exits the birth canal. Up to that point the fetus was considered to still be a part of its mother and not an individual person. To cause the death of the fetus was to injure the mother, but it was not to murder another human being. This is not only the Old Testament perspective, but of the Talmud as well. In standard print the Talmud, dating from sometime before the fifth century B.C.E. is over 6,200 pages long. It contains the teachings and opinions of thousands of rabbis on a wide range of subjects, and for Judaism is the authoritative interpretation of Scripture. As noted above, the Talmud unambiguously sees human life as beginning once the fetus has partially exited the birth canal. It is only at that point that the life of the child is to be saved at the expense of the mother.

It is now decades ago that I came across Albert Schweitzer’s phrase, “reverence for life,” as an expression of his own Christian understanding and philosophy. I thought it beautiful then, and I think it beautiful now – would that I could live into it far more deeply and richly. I have the utmost admiration for those, who out of their love for Christ, reverence all life. But I find myself wondering at times, how can I claim to love unborn children whom I have never seen, if I do not love all the hungry, homeless, desperate children I can see. I hope you will understand me when I say that reverence for life requires something more than dogmatically denouncing abortion; or, screaming that women who have abortions are murderers and baby killers, or embracing contraception as one of the great existential evils and spiritual threats of our time. Reverence for life requires a loving wisdom that precious few of us seem to possess. Nevertheless, I am thankful that my own denomination, the Ecumenical Catholic Communion, encourages me to see these issues in the light of pastoral reflection.