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Archive for February, 2018

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)?

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