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Signing the Jesus Manifesto

Participating in Prophetic Ministry – The Politics of Jesus

Fr. Larry Hart

 

Synopsis

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 

Conclusion 

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.

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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.

Upon My Fiftieth Year of Ordained Ministry
Father Larry

I wish on this day of such significance to my own life, that I had something especially wise and profound to say to you; or, at least something that while simple might be extraordinarily helpful. But the reality is that as the years glide away with ever increasing rapidity, I know less and less of what or how to say anything to anyone. Although, as for that, my comfort and confidence now grows stronger, almost daily, that the pathless path I chose all those years ago, or that chose me, what the first Christians called “the Way,” was the right path – none of Robert Frost’s regret that I could not have been one traveler and traveled both divides, where the road bent in the freshly fallen leaves of the yellow wood. If I have any regrets or discontents, it is that I have not been a better exemplar or expositor of the beauty of Jesus – especially to those closest and dearest to me.

I know formally, both when I first committed myself to the Christian Way and to the work, the ministry, of Christ. But I do not know even informally, perhaps none of us do, when I first accepted the invitation to this whole great adventure of the spirit. When I was a very young boy, four, five and six, I would sometimes play at the back of our property near an abandoned oil sump –Jesse James stealing from the rich folks and giving it to the poor or Geronimo fighting against all odds to save his little ragged and hungry band of Apaches from the white man’s greed and genocide. Sometimes, not often, but sometimes, in the midst of my wild play, I would hear a voice I did not recognize, distant but distinct, one clear single call — “Larry.” I would freeze and listen with the utmost intensity. No one would be around. No one talking in a nearby field. My beautiful protective Collie, Prince, the only living presence to be seen anywhere. I think, although I can not prove this with analytical logic, that the Spirit of Christ, which is the Holy Spirit of God, often speaks to children, calls to children, not necessarily in an audible voice, but in subtle response to their own muted cries of loneliness, of sadness, of helplessness.

By the time I was eleven or twelve I worried, a lot, about the possibility of a meaningless life. The way I framed the question in my own youthful mind was: “Is life nothing more than getting up in the morning, tying your shoes, brushing your teeth, going to work, coming home, eating dinner, watching television, untying your shoes, brushing your teeth and going to bed?” If I had known about Henry David Thoreau and his experiment on Walden Pond, I would have strongly resonated with his assertion: “Most people are asleep, and in their sleep lead lives of quiet desperation.” I did not want to sleep my life away. In the desire for “something more” to life we all hear the mysterious voice of God, distant but distinct, calling as we go about our funny little games.

Did you notice how Saint Paul refers in the reading from 1 Timothy 4:14, to “the gift” given Timothy at Timothy’s ordination? The gift Timothy received is the gift of ministry itself. There are no words in any language capable of saying what a magical, blessed, gifted life I have lived. I have had hours and days, months and years to ponder those things that matter most. Time to seek the face of God and to find in Christ the chief glory of my life. And work to do that is of ultimate significance and therefore, ultimately fulfilling. To paraphrase the British mystic Evelyn Underhill, the opportunity to be a tiny part of God’s vast transformative work — the triumph of charity. For this gift my soul often cries out in silent exaltation and gratitude, “Thank you, thank you, thank you Lord.” Of course, the reality is that one need not desire, or ever become, clergy to receive this gift – the only requirement is a listening heart!

So, are you familiar with the Robert Frost’s poem that begins:

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.
I have out walked the furthest city light.

Sometimes, as a young teenager, at night I would walk up and down the quiet country road that ran in front of our house. If I had been asked then what I was doing I probably would have answered, “Nothing.” An objective observer might have said it looked like I was pacing; or, like I was thinking. But what I would say now looking back, is that I was praying. For prayer can be and is many things, and the Holy Spirit makes them all plain in heaven. Walking and praying, I came to the conclusion that all the things of this world, in the end, come to nothing. That the writer of Ecclesiastes, Qoheleth, was right: “All is vanity.” We spend our lives, “Chasing the wind.” Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great and Augustus Caesar, like all the greats who came before and after them, and who are yet to come, dust and ashes. Their empires – historical curios. “Vanity of vanities its all just chasing the wind.” A number of years ago I cam across this aphorism: “No life can be counted a success that is not lived for something or someone that time and circumstances cannot destroy.”

In the night, walking and praying, I experienced a second moment of spiritual clarity in which I saw that the One time and circumstances could not destroy was the God of the Bible, the God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, of Jacob, Rachel and Leah, of Paul and Dorcas and Phoebe, and Mary Magdalena. I knew that God was not a person as we think of persons, not even a super person, but I also knew that God was not merely a sort of nebulous Star Wars force, or the sort of “loving feelings” espoused by the modern self-help movement, and could only be truly known as we might think of knowing another person – a dear friend or a loving mother or father. All such words are, of course, metaphors, symbols pointing to something we cannot describe, but that does not mean that what they are pointing to is not real. I saw that my only hope in this life — and beyond — was this warmly parental, but mysterious unseen God, who had been revealed in the love, joy, peace, and sacrificial strength of Jesus the Christ. And so one Sunday morning I walked to the front pew of our little one room ramshackle church of poor Southerners, Texans and Okies as they sang an old Gospel hymn. The Pastor, Dennis Campbell, asked if I believed that Jesus was Christ and Lord – Son of the Living God? And upon my simple confession of faith that Jesus is the Christ — a confession that millions upon millions have made across the centuries in spite of torture and death,  and that thousands will make and die for this very year — I was baptized by immersion. This is the sign, and has always been the sign, we call it a sacrament, that one has embraced and been embraced by a new reality. It was the sign that I had died to my old life, and my old self, and had risen from this “watery grave” to live a new life, that was to be nothing less than Christ living in me, and my living in Christ. Of course, none of us ever fully grasps all the spiritual implications of our baptism, so I remain a spiritual novice to this day.

When I was a boy there was a pastor, W.J. Lynch, who occasionally visited in our home, and I always stayed in the room for those conversations. I somehow sensed that they were significant and were about the chaos in which our family was nearly always engulfed. What was utterly amazing was that each time, at the end of his visit, it was like Bill left the peace of Christ with us. Sometime in the year after my baptism, I heard that Bill, who had moved a couple of hours a way, was in town and was going to hold what we called a “Gospel Meeting.” And so that Wednesday night I drove to our little church on the wrong side of the river to hear him preach. Like many teenagers, I was in an intense period of questioning what to do with my life. There was an inaudible desire in me to be able to do for others what Bill Lynch had done for our family. That is probably part of what drew me there that night. But there are so many ways to really help people, and many of them far more lucrative and secure than pastor or priest. That was a time when I wrestled with the angels. From my conversations with you I know that sometimes you also wrestle with the angels. Bill began his sermon with the reading of Matthew 16:24-27 which is our reading this morning. And this is how I heard it in the English of the old King James Version of 1611:

16:24 Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.
25 For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.
26 For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?
27 For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works.

W.E. Sangster the great English Pastor said in his book, The Secret of the Radiant Life, “The most sublime moments of the spiritual life, are those in which we understand in our hearts what we may have known in our minds all along.” I don’t know how to describe it. My mind stopped at the end of the reading. The sermon stopped at the end of the reading. The service stopped at the end of the reading. The whole world stopped at the end of the reading. I have no idea how many homilies I had heard on this text by that point in my life – and could have given my own acceptable explanation of its meaning. I had always understood it as a dire warning of the consequences of faithlessness, and of valuing and pursuing what is ultimately worthless, but in that sublime moment I heard it as a beautiful promise, an elegant invitation and an exquisite gift offered by Jesus in pure love. The possibility of seeing each moment, choice, and incident as an opportunity for communion with God through Christ, in the Spirit. If you have consecrated your heart, mind, and soul to another, I have no criticism as long as it makes you a better person, but as for me, my heart belongs to Christ alone.

I am sometimes asked rather dismissively how can I think all this business about Jesus is possibly true? Or that Jesus can be trusted? This homily is hardly the place to attempt to answer so large a question. So, I will just say I trust Jesus because in him I find an unsurpassed goodness and beauty – a unique goodness and beauty that I have at times also seen in his followers; and, I believe the ancient Greeks were right, that what is both good and beautiful is most likely also true. Jesus himself suggests a rather pragmatic test, “Follow my teachings,” he said, and discover for yourself where they come from.” Knowledge of the divinity of Jesus, insight into the true nature of Christ, comes only by living into it.

The next thing I was aware of we were all standing for the closing song and prayer – replacing our hymnals. I walked into the night without saying a single word to anyone, and drove home through the olive orchards — quiet and gnarled old trees that seemed to possess some “secret and ancient wisdom.” And that’s how an ignorant, messed up, dysfunctional, Okie boy from Bakersfield felt the throb of angel wings, seraphim and cherubim, shake the temple, and heard the voice of the Lord, saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? “And answered, “Here am I; send me.

May you each be given the joy and the grace of a listening heart. Amen.

After The Election

After the Election
Fr. Larry

I never cared for Hillary, and was never enthused about her candidacy. She is the sort of insipid Democrat that creates the illusion that change is coming for the sick, the hungry, and dispossessed, but an illusion is all it it is – it’s not real change you can count on. She said it herself, she is “a proud moderate.” And Bill is not only a sex addict, but one willing to prey on a young vulnerable woman and dismiss the whole sordid thing as mutually consensual as if there was no gaping power differential. It was Bill who came up with the notion that the way for Democrats to get elected was to embrace both a progressive social agenda and fiscal conservatism – something of an oxymoron. So with his Welfare Reform he increased the poverty of the poor, while enhancing the wealth of the rich and powerful – and of Hilary and himself. I think Hillary was telling the truth when she told the Wall Street rich that her working class roots had been severed. What Gertrude Stein said of Oakland is an apt description of Hilary: “There is no there there.” She is smart, knowledgeable, and competent, but there is no “presence.” I don’t think Hillary is totally corrupt and dishonest. I don’t think she did anything dishonest or that put the nation at risk with her e-mails. Her and Bill are smart and well educated attorneys who know how to stay out of trouble with the law even when squeezing it to their advantage. And it is just silly to blame her as being single handedly responsible for Benghazi – give me a break. I trust Hillary as a highly competent manager. The problem is we need leaders who are more than competent managers. We need leaders who exceed conventional thinking. I think often of Einstein’s comment, “You can’t solve a problem by thinking at the same level that created it in the first place.” The point is simply this, had Hilary won the Presidency, and the Democrats a majority in both houses, we would have felt and been safer, but the need to advocate for the poor, the dispossessed, and marginalized in America would have remained. The call to champion human rights, a non-violent society, and a politically, economically and ecologically sustainable society and world would have remained.

With Trump people are afraid. Trump suffers from a Narcissistic Personality Disorder — DSM 5 301.81. That’s not good. His rhetoric is frightening and it is meant to be – lock them up (without due process), smash them in the face, take them out and shoot them – hang them. His scapegoating of minorities is a classic sign of evil. And what tyrannical regime has not called for an excessive enlargement of the military? That question itself is, of course, rhetorical. But there are other questions that are not rhetorical: What will happen to Social Security, Medicare, civil rights, food stamps for hungry children, medical care for 45,000,000 people, hope for a minimum wage capable of sustaining working men and women, the right of the poor and minorities to vote in fair elections, and what will be the end of belligerence and nuclear proliferation – not to mention the crisis of climate change? It is, as they say, “still early in the game, but the signs are not encouraging. It is all quite Orwellian. Of course, Orwellian “doublespeak” actually began in American politics with George W. Bush more than with anyone else. Bush you may remember referred, with a slight grin and twinkle in his eye, to “enhanced interrogation techniques” when what he really meant was torture – which he denied was practiced by the U.S. It appears we have made national progress, what once was abhorrent is now endorsed by the U.S. President. But I pray for Donald Trump. I do not pray for him as the fundamentalists and far right prayed for President Obama – for his failure and death. I pray for his success in everything that is right, and true, and good. Everyday I pray: “Lord, may it please you to rule the hearts of your servants, the President of the United States, and all others in authority, that they may do justice, and love mercy and walk in the way of truth.” Our focus must be on issues, principles, and actions, and not on whether we think someone personally objectionable; or, as Hilary might say, “deplorable.” So everyday I pray for Donald Trump, and everyday I pray, “Lord, keep this nation under your care; and, guide us in the way of justice and truth.”

The Gospel Reading for last Sunday was Matthew 5:1-10 – The Beatitudes. The last in that list, but of crucial importance in our time, is Jesus’ counterintuitive, as all the beatitudes are counterintuitive, “Blessed are you when you are persecuted for the sake of righteousness (the Divine love and truth, and goodness which underlies all things). Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great.” I think this is Jesus telling us, as he so often does, to trust him, and not to be so afraid – but to be of good courage. Gerald Jampolsky tells a wonderful story that is pertinent here.

In his little book Love is Letting Go of Fear, Jampolsky tells how as a medical student he was, like most other medical students, afraid he would catch a terrible disease. For him it was tuberculosis. When he was an intern in Boston he had to spend one month on the TB service and was scared to death he would catch it and die. On his first day, at about 11:30 at night, he received an emergency call. A fifty-year-old woman who not only had tuberculosis, but was also an alcoholic with cirrhosis of the liver, had just vomited blood and had no pulse. Jampolsky massaged her heart, removed the blood from her throat with a suction device, and when the oxygen machine wouldn’t work gave her mouth to mouth resuscitation. The woman’s pulse returned and she started to breath again. When Jampolsky got back to his intern quarters he saw himself in the mirror. He was covered in the woman’s blood. He was, he says, “a bloody mess.” All of a sudden it occurred to him that he had not been afraid at anytime during the episode. What he learned that night, what this bloody, alcoholic, TB patient with cirrhosis of the liver taught him that night, was that when we are absorbed in giving, in loving, we feel no fear. Regardless of who is president there is, in the words of Saint Paul, something significant required of us, given to us: “For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline (2 Timothy 1:7).

Now, I can only write as a person of faith. I have nothing to suggest for anyone else. By “person of faith,” I mean Christian faith. And by “Christian faith” I mean following Jesus in the way of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5-7). Quite frankly, I see little connection between modern Catholic or Protestant fundamentalism and the Jesus Way. Last February, I listened with keen interest to Republican House Representative David Brat’s assertion that “the conservative movement owns the entire tradition,” by which he seemed to mean the tradition of Christian love and compassion. Poor man. Poor man. But I am beginning to digress.

To be more succinct, Christian Scripture teaches us to speak truth in love, to care for and to champion the hurting and vulnerable, and to be messengers of peace and justice whether doing so is convenient or inconvenient. And in the practice of love our fears evaporate; for, as Saint John wrote so reassuringly, “Perfect love casts out fear.”