“With God On Our Side”

Anyone familiar with Bob Dylan would know that this is the title of one his great songs. This song popped into my head on Sunday during the gospel reading from Luke 9:51-62.  Here Luke tells us that Jesus had “set his face to go to Jerusalem” and when passing through Samaritan villages was not welcomed because of this.  Samaritans were against worshipping in Jerusalem, they believed that Mt. Gerizim was where one went to meet God.  Nonetheless, upon witnessing such a cold reception given to their Rabbi, the disciples James and John thought it a good idea to tell fire to come down from heaven to consume the inhospitable and unclean Samaritans.  Surprisingly, Jesus rebukes them for such an idea.

At this point it would be easy to shake our heads and wag our fingers at James and John, but that would be a little too presumptuous on our part.  You see, as Israelites they had grown up with a solid narrative framework that taught them that they were God’s chosen people and that they were to hate their enemies. They had the stories to back that up too from Sodom and Gomorrah to Joshua’s violent conquest of the Promised Land to Elijah and the prophets of Baal and to the most recent and successful Maccabean revolt.  Throwing down fire from heaven on one’s enemies was a logical thought when one considers these stories and the narrative framework of Jesus’ disciples.  In their minds, and for good reason, they believed that God was on their side and those who rejected them were not.  That’s what they had been told all of their lives.

The problem, though, was that Jesus was offering a different framework of sorts.  You’ll note that earlier in Luke Jesus had taught his disciples to love their enemies.  He even shares with them an interesting description of God saying, “But love your enemies and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.  Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.”  Jesus walks the talk too, showing love to the Centurion by healing his servant and raising the son of the Widow of Nain.  Despite these things, when we come to Luke 9 the disciples are ready to unleash all holy hell on the Samaritan villages.  I would imagine that Jesus’ words were barely sinking into the minds of his disciples.  Cognitive dissonance is a scary thing, we often fall back on the familiar.  God is on our side is way easier to believe than God is for all people.  One provides a strong sense of identity and superiority while the other is kind of boring as it levels the playing field.  The former can be quite dangerous and has the ability to quickly unify in such a way that can lead to some very bad places such as dehumanization, abuse and ultimately death.  Examples of this include the theology of many churches that has served to validate U.S. Imperialism which oddly enough has led to the blossoming and promulgation of radical jihadist Islam.   A force and culture that for so long has been convinced that God is on its side is now being terrorized by a force and culture that is convinced that God is also on its side.  Go figure, right?  Then again, “those who live by the sword shall die by the sword.” And so here we are.

On one of the bookshelves in my office I have a framed picture of a house in New Orleans that has a sign on it that says, “A precondition of doing violence to any group of people or nation is to make them less than human.”  In many regards, I think that sums up well why Jesus rebuked his disciples for wanting to tell fire to come down from heaven to consume the Samaritans.  Let us ponder these words well as we follow Jesus.

NOLA2

 

 

 

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Learning From Dorothy

I’ve recently began reading the writings of Dorothy Day again during my devotional time in the mornings.  Reading Day has been simply refreshing and joyous. For those who don’t know, Dorothy Day was the founder of the Catholic Worker movement and lived and did ministry amongst the poor and downtrodden in the midst of New York City’s Lower East Side.  I say refreshing because it brings me back to the essentials, to the basics of a life lived under the Cross of Jesus.  With Day there are no frills, it was just barebones ministry amongst the poor of the city.

dayOne of the sections that I have been focusing on has been her stories about the people she has worked with at the Catholic Worker, all sorts of odd characters they are.  She writes of Peter the revolutionary who talked endlessly and only had one suit that he wore everyday, of Mr.O’Connell who had quite the temper and was terrible at welcoming people to their farm, of Ammon the anarchist who was quite lawful but didn’t care too much for the Apostle Paul along with a few others of distinct characteristics.

Despite the good, the bad, and the ugly of such a cast of characters, Dorothy continued on and saw many blessings.  Quite frankly, much of what she dealt with would be quite unnerving for many a churchgoer.  We tend to prefer to be led by the polished well-adjusted successful pastor and to surround ourselves with similar personalities.  Many of the personalities that Day encountered and ministered to on a daily basis had nothing to give, weren’t attractive, and for all intents and purposes were “losers” by our cultural standards.

I will confess to you that reading Day has been refreshing because of where we now live. My family and I live in Bronxville, one of the more affluent areas in the New York City area.  We live in the parsonage surrounded by neighbors who are quite affluent.  This is not a commentary on them as they are quite kind and friendly, but I’ve noticed how living in such an environment can shape what one considers to be normal.  Bronxville is beautiful, lush, and scenic and it’s easy to forget that many don’t have similar neighborhoods to walk around in.  This always hits me whenever I go to my parents house in South Yonkers, which is where I grew up.  I never noticed until living in Bronxville how ugly my childhood neighborhood was, in fact many of the trees on my block have been cut down throughout the years.   My point is that normal can be entirely subjective and has every bit as much to do with class, race, and gender.  We need to be aware of such biases or we risk further disconnection from human beings who are not like us.

Yesterday I was reading a book on moral theology written by Jesuit James Keenan.  In his chapter on sin he writes that we spend too much focusing on “sins of weakness” meaning the sins of lust, getting angry quickly, or cursing.  Instead, Keenan argues that we should spend more time on our “sins of strength” meaning the sins of arrogance, self-sufficiency, and moral narcissism.  Keenan explains that these sins of strength eventually lead to a sort of complacency, not bothering to love, which is a far greater problem than the weak sins. I think he’s onto something. I think this is why I find Day so refreshing. She brings me back to the basics, to what really matters in a church world that is saturated with much worldliness.  In the midst of such comfort I can easily become complacent and forgetful about those outside of the community I live in.  Out of sight and out of mind can be very detrimental to the soul and to others. In fact, reading Day brings me back to my time in Colorado where being amongst the poor and homeless was simply the norm.  I didn’t have to go to a bad part of town, they were there already.  Schizophrenia, alcoholism, epilepsy, gender confusion, cancer, addiction and the list goes on.  When I read Dorothy Day I can imagine the smells of the Catholic Worker Houses where she and others worked.  The smell of coffee, of staleness, of the many of who have come through that place.  I know that from personal experience, it’s hard to articulate here, but you know it after you’ve experienced it.  I miss that lack of pretension, it’s good for the soul.  It softens the heart.

 

Mourning Again In A Culture Of Death

As we mourn the loss of those who were killed and wounded in that Orlando night club just a few days ago I am pressed by a nagging thought. These mass shootings don’t seem to be letting up, in fact, they seem to be getting worse.  After what happened in Paris and then San Bernadino, the prospect of a mass shooting at any public event I attend is ever on my mind.  Understandably, I shake such thoughts off, what good will it do to obsess about, if it happens it happens.  That’s where things are at now.  But then, again, as a New Yorker, it’s been that way for awhile.

The nagging thought that I have been having is the idea that we are a culture of death.  Those such as William Stringfellow have argued that we always have been, just now it’s finally becoming apparent on our own soil.  Or as Malcolm X once said in response to the assassination of JFK that our “chickens are coming home to roost”.  The stories and the mythologies that we tell ourselves are beginning to crumble or at least have little holes poked in them.  Our sense of safety and blessedness are being called into question more and more.  In fact, it seems that we are finally beginning to get a taste of what we’ve been dishing out.

Invariably, there will be those calling for stricter gun laws and those ready to defend their 2nd amendments rights from being infringed upon in any way.  There will be those like Donald  Trump calling for a harder stance on radical Islam. There will be the desire to bomb ISIS even more because our anger has to go somewhere.  Unfortunately, we will fail to make the connections needed and will continue the spiral of violence.  With Trump at the helm it may only get worse.  Though, to be fair, Hillary won’t be much better and we all know she’ll continue President Obama’s drone strikes.

As someone called out of Babylon I am inclined to agree with Stringfellow that we are a culture of death and always have been.  Though, to be fair, we really upped the ante in the 20th century.  I was reminded of our selective history just yesterday when someone posted a picture of the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890.  There, the US Calvary killed upwards of 200 Native Americans, half of whom were innocent women and children.  This massacre signaled the last cry of the Native Americans who we had treated poorly by continually breaking treaties and taking their lands.  We tend not to spend much time on this aspect of our history and for good reason.  But it’s there, whether we like it or not.

When we look at the 20th century, we witness our investment in this culture of death.  Those on the right will immediately go to the legalization of abortion in 1973, but they fail to note that it goes back before then.  Along those same lines, there will be those who will claim that such shootings are the product of a people and culture that have turned from God but that too is problematic and too simple.  All of this reveals the inability of many  Christians to notice the interconnectedness of sin and the power of the powers and principalities.  It was right after WW2 that we as a nation began to build our national defense at a ridiculous rate.  It’s also fascinating to note that during this time the church in America witnessed the greatest growth it has ever seen.  President Eisenhower even warned the American people of what he called the Military Industrial Complex right before he left office.  Since then we have continually increased our national defense to the point in which we now spend more on defense than China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, France, the United Kingdom, India and Germany combined.  As Martin Luther King Jr. said so succinctly in April of 1967, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”  Bear in mind that this was 6 years before the legalization of abortion.

It’s death combined with fear that keeps the engine of American culture running.   War makes for a good economy, for jobs, for prosperity.  There were four million civilian deaths in Vietnam, 58,000 American soldiers. After the 1960s it only made sense that we would legalize abortion.  First, we would sacrifice the lives of civilians and the lives of our own young men to the gods of war and security and then we would sacrifice our unborn to the god of self.  And quite frankly, it hasn’t stopped.  A whole industry and economy is bound up with the war on drugs from weapons manufacturers, to prison companies, to politicians. Many are quick to point out abortion statistics, that we have lost 54 million to abortion.  What we often fail to note, due to our own ignorance perpetuated by our cultural narratives, is that our domestic and foreign policies have resulted in the destruction and death of millions of innocents.  There are people who live in the midst of repressive regimes that were sponsored by us.  In places like the Middle East, terrorist attacks like those we are now witnessing on our soil, have simply been the norm.  In large part, this has to do with results of US foreign policy.  Our meddling has created the monsters we now face.  In large part, we are reaping what we’ve sown.  It’s just taken some time to catch up with us.  We are in a never-ending spiral of death and it’s all connected. As William Stringfellow once wrote, “Corporations and nations and other demonic powers restrict, control, and consume human life in order to sustain and extend and prosper their own survival.”

And here we are, in the midst of mourning yet again.  The tears, the what-ifs, the heartache all pile on.  We’ll look for a solution but I’m afraid it’ll evade us in the cross section of media pundits, political rhetoric, American triumphalism, and theological hard-heartedness that often oversimplifies evil. We’ll fail to connect the dots like prophets such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. so succinctly did. Instead, we’ll become more tense, more scared, more uneasy.  Death will continue to be victorious.

And so I find myself pondering the words of Revelation 18:2, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!”  There is my comfort.  Babylon fell when Christ rose from the dead.  But I yearn for its final fall and I continually find myself repentantly hearkening to the words of the voice from heaven, “Come out of her my people, lest you take part in her sins.”

May the blood of the Lamb wash the blood on these hands.  And may the God of all comfort be with the victims in Orlando and all victims of needless violence everywhere.

On the Periphery: What John the Baptist May Teach Us Today

It’s out in no man’s land that John the Baptist calls people to repentance. In fact, it was the people of Judea and Jerusalem who were going to him to be baptized.  Away from Zion and the Holy Temple to the mucky insignificant waters of the River Jordan.  It’s there that they sought renewal.  Given the status of the Temple in the religious life of the average Israelite it was quite the statement that the people went to John instead of to the priests.  Surely the wilderness is lacking in resources, empty and desolate.  The city of Jerusalem, on the other hand, beams bright with all that is needed for a pious Israelite.

But it’s here, on the periphery, that John the Baptist is called.  He is a prophet in the tradition of Elijah who lived in the wilderness and on the outskirts of King Ahab’s power and influence. Elijah was the perennial thorn in the side of the pinnacle politician for all time – King Ahab.  At the sight of him it was Ahab who said, “Is it you, you troubler of Israel?”  I suppose what drove King Ahab nuts was that he could not control Elijah.  He was the man in power’s worst nightmare.  Those in power were bothered by John the Baptist too.  The Pharisees and Sadducees came out to investigate what he was doing in the wilderness.  Any threat to the Temple apparatus must be investigated because it is God’s Holy House and there’s much to lose.  Politically and economically, that is.  King Herod was intrigued by John, but he was also put off by him because he called him out on his adultery and all the evil things he had done.  Plus, John lived out in the wilderness where many revolutionaries were known to live as well.  In Herod’s mind, John could easily foment a military revolt given his influence and favor.  John probably gave King Herod and many others in power more than a few gray hairs.

There was no way to control these men because they were not beholden to status, to privilege, to getting ahead and all the normal kickbacks that comes with ambitious persons.  The “you scratch my back I’ll scratch yours” was a science in such a culture, that’s how one got ahead.  But these peripheral men lived according to the great tradition of faithfulness that began with Abel in Genesis.  They were not to be found in the midst of the cities, the creation of their brother Cain, but on the outskirts.  Their sole authority was the Creator – Yahweh – no more and no less.

We are often inclined to think that in order to make a mark, to be considered important, to have a significant impact,we must be in the thick of things and amongst influential and powerful people.  One can almost hear the echo from Genesis 11, “Come…let us make a name for ourselves.”  But John the Baptist and Elijah reveal otherwise.   A recurring theme throughout the Scriptures is that God often shows up on the periphery, in strange places and amongst outsiders.  God appears to Moses in the wilderness with no one around and Jesus grows up in Nazareth in the northern land of Galilee.  And think about what both ended up doing.

We’ve often downplayed the prophetic voice of such persons and, in particular, Jesus.  Prophetic voices are not palatable to the polite and nice or even to the rigid traditionalist.  But we Christians ought remember that we are called to speak truth to power when necessary.  Such a call should be heeded as our nation shifts towards authoritarianism as evidenced by the rise of Donald Trump and leaders in my own denomination, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.  Authoritarianism is but the result of the anxiety and fear that comes from a loss of control, whether real or perceived.  These are nothing more than the  workings of the powers and principalities that Paul spoke of and John wrote about in his Revelation.  But Christians are called to see beyond, to lift the veil, and to understand that they result in death and not life.  Remember, these put Jesus to death, but Jesus was raised to life.  We’d do well to remember such a reality.