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Post-Christian America?

The loss of the political agenda of the religious right and Christian dominionists is not a marker for the demise of Christianity in the U.S.

Writer Jon Meacham apparently felt the need to clarify further the point of his cover story in Newsweek which was provocatively headlined The End of Christian America .

Meacham’s demurer isn’t a concern here. What intrigued me as I read the remarks of Albert Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, is how different I respond to the same dynamics that he’s concerned about. The issue of how to live a meaningful spiritual life and make it inviting for others in a post-modern, secularizing society is real. One need not be naive or unrealistic about that. More people seem to be opting out of Christian faith and that’s a significant concern.

But the interweaving of politics with theology over the past several years has muddied the waters and also caused real harm to perceptions of religion and religious communions.

However, the broad principles of social justice, as distinct from the specific ethical issues that were written into the Republican platform, still remain strong and I hope will endure. So the fact that the political agenda of the religious right has been solidly rejected does not spell the end of Christianity. It spells the end of a political and social agenda advanced by one of the many branches of people who identify themselves as Christian.

I am encouraged by a new-found and growing sense of urgency in my own denomination. It’s expressed through reaching out to new people, tackling the killer diseases of poverty, addressing poverty, recruiting and training new leaders and living with greater concern for the whole of creation including concern for the environment.

I came away from a couple of meetings in the past two weeks with uncharacteristic optimism. Those who know me well are sucking air right now asking, "what’s happened to him?"

What’s happening is I’m seeing signs of awareness that the church (as it is represented by this particular denomination) needs to be relevant and to engage with people in an authentic, life-enhancing way. I hear concern about how the church provides opportunities for people to become servants in faithfulness to their religious convictions as followers of Jesus. And I hear sensitivity about language and culture and how the church talks with people who want to find purpose and meaning in these difficult times. And I see action that is energizing and fresh.

This is important and whether it results in renewal, transformation or completely new forms of religious communities and expressions, it’s exciting and encouraging.

We’re not facing the end of Christianity, nor its demise but there are urgent reasons for some of us to change and seek new ways to be faithful and relevant in the world today. The rejection of the public agenda of the evangelical right is instructive, but not a measure of the relevance of Christian faith to life today. Whatever it’s importance, the evangelical right is a branch of the Christian community, not the whole of the community in the U.S. much less Christendom across the world.

As I look at the challenges faced by people of faith today I am not discouraged, I am curious, enervated and charged up. We (followers of Jesus and those who don’t) live in hard times. Many are unsettled, in pain and struggling with life. The Christian faith was born in times like these. This is a wondrous time and we are a people of hope.

Social Ethics, Global Trade and Christian Faith

A few years ago I said in a meeting of colleagues I thought my denomination needs a global trade specialist. My remarks were met with a chuckle by one person and fell into the bottomless silence of rejection without words.

Now we’re in the midst of a global economic crisis that demands more of theologians than the balm of words. It demands structural change to address accountability, responsibility, equity and justice through specific actions.

Churches are good at offering words of comfort and hope. Words of hope and comfort are necessary and important. We need to be reminded that meaning and purpose in life are not defined by the bottom line of balance sheets. In Christian teaching, the core of faith is hope.

However, sometimes we need to be reminded that quality of life is also about our relationships to each other individually and collectively in communities of people, some of whom we know and some we don’t. Another core teaching of the faith is that we exist in community.

We need social policies and laws that at least attempt to ensure equity and justice in the economic system for all people. That’s why I thought we needed a global trade expert who could operate deftly in both social ethics and global economic policy. Mohammad Yunus is already offering insights that provide a different lens through which to view economic policy with his social business models, for example.

For the past several years religious faith in the public conversation has been narrowly defined by conservative politics and a culture war agenda. Morality was framed as individual behavior. Corporate accountability was ignored. While these debates raged, the world got its pockets picked by those who gamed the system. This is a theological issue and it’s about more than individual behavior, or even good personal intentions. It’s about our responsibility to ourselves, to each other and to God.

William Sloane Coffin said "Given human goodness, voluntary contributions are possible, but given human sinfulness, legislation is indispensable. Charity, yes always, but never as a substitute for justice. What we keep forgetting in this country is that people have rights, basic rights; the right to food, the right to decent housing, the right to medical care, the right to education." (Credo , William Sloane Coffin, Westminster John Knox Press, pp. 55-56)

Thomas Freidman writes that the world has reached a point of historic change. He refers to Paul Gilding’s phrase, the "great disruption." We’ve hit a wall. The whole growth model we created over the last 50 years, Freidman writes, is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically.

That behavior has led to the collapse we’re all struggling through just now, but it will return. And when it does, we as a society must ensure justice and collective responsibility are more than promises. They must be expressed in social policies that protect human rights and look after our communal responsibilities on a global scale.

It’s now abundantly clear that the world is so interrelated that economic ripples in one region slosh into other parts and cause erosion, or worse. Much as some try to deny it and fall back into national parochialism, we are global citizens. The system in which we live is global. Sometimes we forget how interdependent we are. But everything from the fruit we buy to the clothing we wear is now a globalized product. Our churches and educational systems have not caught up to preparing us for global awareness and a few loud voices are actually opposed to it.

We need new models . And the models should be informed by our best ethical thinking in addition to new sustainable economic policies. As Coffin said, Christian faith teaches that we are connected to each other through a variety of bonds that include human rights and a fundamental belief in human dignity. Where these values have been overshadowed by the contentiousness of the past few years, we need to put it to rest and offer a more holistic definition of faith.

In the perceptions of many in the U.S. and globally, Christianity is viewed as intolerant, doctrinaire and anti-science. Among other things, faith leads to probing questions, inclusive thinking and a framework for ethical behavior individually and collectively. It’s a comfort in times of distress but it’s also a challenge to act, to question and to stand for universal values that affirm the goodness of Creation and the human community.

Further, as I understand it, Christian faith is ultimately about service and sacrifice, both values that are counter to the  culture of individualism and acquisition. As the world looks for new models of behavior individually and collectively perhaps adding these values to the discussion could benefit the global community. They need not be proposed in a sectarian way. They are shared values that permeate many of the world’s great religions and ethical systems. The tragedy of the past decade is that we forgot them, or they got out-shouted by fear and undermined by self-serving behavior.

If we are indeed at a hinge point in history, and if the cultural values by which we’ve lived these past decades must change, then the time has come for a new social ethic , or a review of the social ethic that got set aside and ignored as we fought about these other issues.

And that’s why I thought my denomination needs a specialist in both social ethics and global trade, and it still does.

Neglecting the Global Economic Crisis?

As the economy continues downward, attention narrows and becomes more local. Much of what I’ve been reading lately treats the financial crisis as a U.S. issue. In doing research recently I looked at several statements about the crisis by religious groups in the U.S. In each case they referred exclusively to conditions in the United States.

What strikes me about this is the absence of global perspective. The International Labor Organization says 50 million jobs will be lost in 2009, causing more people, especially in the developing world, to fall into poverty. The World Bank says 53 million will drop into poverty, of those 46 million will try to exist on less than $1.25 (U.S.) and 7 million will earn under $2 (U.S.). The Bank also estimates that 2000,000 to 400,000 more children will die if financial conditions continue at this pace into 2015.

To recognize this global reality does not minimize the pain of those in the U.S. who have lost jobs and homes and are facing their own experience of destitution.  But it does highlight the extreme conditions faced by those least able to absorb such an economic hit. These are people already living at risk of poverty in nations with shakey national economies.

It seems to me that religious folks must help frame the global reality so that we don’t ignore the horrible suffering around the world. We are interconnected globally and we in the affluent world cannot ignore the plight of those who by accident of birth were born into places of economic insecurity.

This is a global crisis and we’re all in it together, like it or not.

Wesley Study Bible

The United Methodist Publishing House has hit a home run with the publication of the new Wesley Study Bible . The Bible includes textual commentary and other resources in a well-designed layout. Commentary and the text to which it refers are arranged so they appear on the same page, making it functional and convenient for study.

Boxed sidebar entries provide additional information. Appearing under the title, "Wesleyan Core Term,"  one type of sidebar connects scriptural verses to key terms from commentaries, sermon texts or letters of John Wesley. Others connect to the hymns of his brother Charles. This material brings freshness and unique insight to the thoughts and theology of the Wesleys. The juxtaposition of scripture and original Wesleyan sources results in a compelling presentation.

The third resource is meditational sidebars under the title "Life Application Topic." These meditations refer to scriptural verses and relate them to contemporary life experience. They are not biblical exegesis; that is, the critical interpretation or explanation of the text. They extrapolate meaning from the scripture and relate it to everyday living (isegesis).

The Bible is bound in soft brown leather cut to form a semi-circle that merges into an attractive forest green leather  stitched with brown thread. The pages are edged in brown ink matching the cover. It’s a visually appealing package.

The long list of contributors is also impressive, ranging from Wesleyan biblical scholars from across the Methodist movement to well-known pastors and writers with Wesleyan knowledge.

I’ve had a copy for only two days but the more I work with it the more excited I become about it.  Knowing what it takes to produce a project of this magnitude adds to my appreciation of the team who worked on this Bible. It’s a great tool for any reader who seeks to understand the roots of the Methodist movement and how scripture informs it.

A Facebook group for the Wesley Study Bible can be found here .

To Volunteer or Advocate?

How can a concerned, caring individual bring about change? Is it better to volunteer and help one-to-one or to advocate for change in a way that benefits whole groups of people?

Is it enough, for example, to volunteer at a food pantry that meets the needs of one person at a time, or to advocate for changing the food stamp program which serves millions, or better yet, funding job training, or education to equip people to become self-supporting?

Immediate relief vs. systemic change.

It’s a question that requires honest self-critique. I’ve observed for a number of years how individuals and organizations work to bring about change and I don’t see an easy resolution to the question. And it’s not a false dichotomy, though I wish it were. Individuals who volunteer to build a school in a remote village in Africa don’t necessarily move from individual engagement to support foreign assistance that addresses regional economic development. It’s a leap too far.

In my early years of working in this arena I thought it was possible to do exactly this, move people along a continuum from individual involvement on the ground to engaging in policy change. At the very least, I thought, it should be possible to get those who have seen with their own eyes how damaging poverty is to write a letter to request more funds for health care for the poor, or for economically strapped schools, or for foreign assistance for development initiatives. Not so.

It’s a jump some can’t make, or don’t want to, for a long list of reasons. It’s a move from the concrete to the complex, from one to many, from the personal to the impersonal. Some want to see immediate change as a result of a direct, hands-on relationship while others see policy change as the most effective means to create long-term change for whole groups of people.

I heard a polite but pointedly uncomfortable debate about this recently. One person who is ardently committed to advocacy claimed that some volunteers enjoy being in a superior position to those they help. They set up a donor-recipient relationship that is threatened when the "receiving" person becomes self-sufficient. Another, from an economically depressed community, said he wanted people from outside his community to stay away. They try to impose behaviors and solutions upon his community without understanding the obstacles they face nor the culture in which they live. Can’t even speak their language, he said. Better to stay away.

And so it went. Strongly felt opinions shot through the air like lightning bolts, landing with force and exploding preconceptions around the room. And they fell unresolved.

In fact, it’s not a new debate. It’s been around for years. The positions are predictable and more than a little tiresome after decades-long repetition. Worse, this is only an elementary starting point. When the debate takes form as competition for solutions pitting one against another, it becomes destructive. HIV/AIDS vs. malaria. Water development vs. education. Agriculture vs. economic empowerment. Thinking in polarities. Thinking small.

But there is value in the discussion, I think, because we’re at a hinge point in history and this dialogue is likely to shape both public policy and the fabric of our social community into the future. It’s more important now that people of goodwill find accommodation to many methods of change and to comprehensive solutions than to assert the correctness of a single way or a single problem.

The political dialogue we’ve had for the past several years hasn’t modeled a constructive approach to problem-solving. Rather, it’s demonstrated that a polarized, divided community isn’t healthy. If we learn anything from this, it’s that polarizing rhetoric and critical characterizations don’t yield constructive results. I don’t think creating divisions between people of good will about how they can best help bring about change is healthy either.

It should be possible for those with a common desire to make life better to agree that there are many pathways to the good.

In a commentary on the need for a strategic consensus on foreign assistance, Carol Peasley, President of the Center for Development and Population Activities, identifies how differences in priorities have fragmented approaches to health. The result is several "stovepipes" which result in a "mish-mash of vertical programs" that have actually had a negative effect on health systems in a variety of ways.

Peasley calls for bringing the stovepipes together and creating a truly global health approach to health. And she says it’s not enough for development organizations to provide direct services, they must also develop local capacity, yet another issue in this long line of change-making concerns.

What will be needed going forward is a give and take conversation among many actors and a spirit of concern that gives support for holistic, comprehensive problem-solving.

The Gospel of Wealth:Televangelists, Culture and Authority

As I travel, I continue to be impressed with the global reach of television evangelists based in the U.S. propounding the gospel of wealth. I also reflect upon the cultural context in which these evangelists bring their messages. More often than not the message and the context are totally out of sync. The places I’m in are vastly different from the U.S. context and its economic realities, even considering the extreme stress the U.S. economy is presently experiencing.

The occasion for this reflection came when I turned on the television while in Geneva and up came a program by a televangelist in the U.S. He was mining the New Testament with a mix of behavioral psychology and scriptural explication that connected the sacred text to support for creating individual wealth. When I hear this it is so far removed from my understanding of scripture and faithfulness to it that I think I live in a parallel universe to the televangelist.

When I’m in Africa, the distance seems even greater. The culture of a televangelist in the U.S speaking about the gospel of wealth to African audiences living in grinding poverty, for example, is strikingly fantastic. It presumes that by individual initiative alone an individual can overcome the systemic chains that keep people locked in economic inequity and drag down, if not prevent, upward economic mobility. It places upon people who are already burdened with huge disadvantages yet another weight, that of individual responsibility for what are clearly social and systemic constraints.

Hope and optimism are precious motivators and one should not deny either to those who yearn for a better life. To do so would be cruel. At the same time, to hold people individually responsible for circumstances that are structural and  systemic is also cruel.

For example, to achieve successful participation in an economic system an individual must have access to the system itself. This requires a system open to individual initiative. Many systems around the world are not open. They are based on patronage and cronyism. They require capital and knowledge that an individual may not possess.

Meaningful participation occurs when people have access to training, capitalization to allow them to be competitive, market information, marketing and accounting skills and a host of other tools, including access to credit and fair trade policies and pricing. (Mohammad Yunus lays out a blueprint in Creating a World Without Poverty that puts the challenge and the incredible potential into focus. His proposal leaves the gospel of wealth in the dust as it puts structure and system to work on behalf of individual entrepreneurs.)

Thus, it seems to me narrow and short-sighted to advance a gospel of wealth theory based on individual initiative rooted in Western entrepreneurialism resting on the claim that this is the Christian gospel. The hope raised by the gospel of wealth preachers is just that convoluted and circuitous, it seems to me.

If it is not rooted on scriptural authority, it’s reasonable to ask what gives authority to the claim? The televangelist will most certainly object to the critique that his theory is not scriptural. But that claim is only possible by ignoring the historical tradition of Christian theology and the accumulated body of scholarship that defines the gospel as a call to discipleship and servanthood, a far cry from market capitalism and behavioral psychology. It is a tradition that recalls the graciousness of a loving God manifested in human form, a God who, according to the apostle Paul, emptied God’s own self and took upon the fragility and pain of human life in order to offer healing, wholeness and meaning.

This is a far cry, I think, from the pleas of a televangelist for funds to sustain a television broadcast that enriches the broadcaster and offers an ephemeral hope to the audience.

If authority does not rest in scripture, the next best thing I see is the legitimating role implied by being on television, and by the support base of a local congregation who believe the claims being made by the preacher. This isn’t much. It’s a pretty thin reed, but in the world of global media and uncritical theological reflection, it’s enough for him.

Reinhold Niebuhr, Where Are You When we Need You?

An economist on Marketplace this morning referred to theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s worldview as a familiar frame of reference for both presidential candidates. Niebuhr’s view of ethically ambivalent individuals yearning for perfectibility, yet caught in a sinful state and working in a fallen world, is found in the attitudes of both John McCain and Barack Obama, according to the Marketplace commentator.

Niebuhr’s theology was formed in the Great Depression and he taught applied Christianity in the New Deal era, a time that saw the depths of human depravity and greed, as well as the heights of sacrifice and service. He brought theology into the wider public conversation as a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York and as a social activist. He helped found Americans for Democratic Action and was politically involved throughout his life, giving particular attention to the rights of workers.

Historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. asked in a 2005 essay in the New York Times why Niebuhr isn’t remembered and provides an overview that demonstrates why his worldview remains salient.

Schlesinger cites Neibuhr’s cautionary view of religion in public discourse: “religion is so frequently a source of confusion in political life, and so frequently dangerous to democracy, precisely because it introduces absolutes into the realm of relative values.”

Never the less, Niebuhr also saw the religious claim of human willfulness and fallibility as a corrective to the modern argument that things were “getting better and better in every way.”

Niebuhr understood our capacity for evil is matched by our capacity for good and claims to moral behavior are a corrective necessity, and more.

Schlesinger says the tragedy of 9/11 revived the “myth of  our national innocence,” a concept Niebuhr called into question with substantial critique based on religious teaching.

Since Schlesinger’s essay, Niebuhr has received increased attention, mostly because Barack Obama has referred to him. It’s striking that a theologian who died in 1971 remains relevant on social analysis thirty years later.

Perhaps it’s because Niebuhr brought perspective to individual responsibility and the state of human fallibility as well as insight into the way we organize systems that perpetuate injustice and privilege. This tension between individual culpability and systemic injustice has been largely overlooked in the emphasis on extreme individualism that is found across the culture in the U.S. The evangelical right has focused on individual responses to a few key issues of moral concern, the so-called culture wars issues, and the mainline has been largely absent from the public dialogue or torn apart internally so it didn’t reach outside its own walls to engage in public discussion.

Niebuhr operated from a position in the academy and he was not seen as having an affiliation with a denomination. His relative independence gave him the room to engage in social movements and offer commentary free of the institutional constraints that denominational connections impose.

He also wrote in a pre-electronic age. Television was in its infancy and the written word remained influential. He edited The Christian Century from 1922 to 1940, for example. His ideas, while provocative enough to attract attention in their own right, did not face the kind of competitive overload we face today.

But this begs the question why we don’t have a theological basis for mainline dialogue today. In the final analysis, Niebuhr engaged the culture he found and spoke to people in language they could understand. He connected with people who had real issues that called for the application of theology in a practical way. And finally, he used the tools available and he acted. Perhaps that’s the difference.

Values Votes

Jim Wallis of Sojourners is ambivalent about making absolute religious claims in the mix of faith and politics. He notes a few conservative Roman Catholic bishops and megachurch pastor Rick Warren set out a list of “non-negotiables” that were raised around the time of the event Warren hosted for John McCain and Barack Obama.

In contrast, actor Martin Sheen on the Matthew 25 Network website points to his religious roots in the Roman Catholic tradition as the source for his progressive activism.

Of the evangelicals, Wallis writes, “None of them even included the word “poverty,” only one example of the missing issues which are found quite clearly in the Bible. All of them were also relatively the same as official Republican Party Web sites of ‘non-negotiables.’”

He questions what is non-negotiable for Christians and asks why so many prominent and clear biblical claims for combating poverty and ending injustice were not included in the lists of the bishops and Warren.

Sheen’s comments are less absolute, but no less resolute. His lifetime commitment to progressive positions is widely known, as is his long-time willingness to speak from his faith perspective. It’s a positive contribution.

Mixing the geography of faith with the political process takes you into pretty complicated, if not murky, territory, one that calls for far more care and far less boisterous rhetoric than what we’ve heard the past eight years.

In place of non-negotiables, Wallis offers a list of “faith priorities” and calls on each of us to do the same. We would do well to consider his suggestion and reflect deeply on our own faith priorities, or values, and decide for ourselves how they will influence our choices at the intersection of faith and politics. It would be more than startling if we were to take the biblical injunctions about poverty and well-being and apply them to social policy. This would take us far beyond the culture war issues very deeply into the territory of social change.

The Great Emergence

Phyllis Tickle--The Great EmergenceEvery five hundred years the Western world goes through a period of re-formation. It’s an across the board change that affects the entire structure of society. In our day, according to Phyllis Tickle, it includes globalization, the flattening of the world, technological changes that result in lifestyle changes.

It is a great upheaval, a time when cultural accretions are cleansed, dropped and clarified as the culture moves into new expressions of community, power, meaning and values. This process has deeply shaped human thought and the progress of the humankind as it provides new ways for perceiving the world and our place in it.

As it happens, it isn’t only about socio-economic, political or scientific ideas, it’s also about theological, or faith, understandings of life. The Great Emergence is underway in our time and it portends fundamental changes in how we live our faith, and faith itself, according to Tickle and others who are thinking theologically about the great upheaval in our day.

In the Christian faith community Tickle equates it to a great “great rummage sale” in which much that has shaped the life of the church and faith is put on the table and liquidated as new faith expressions emerge.

It’s understatement to call ours a fascinating time of change. It’s so much more profound.  Tickle describes the contours in a video promoting her new book about the Great Emergence. She says it’s radically Jesus oriented, resting on the belief that he meant what he said and what he said should form how we live if we are to follow his teachings.

It’s communal, post-denominational, post-Protestant, largely virtual and organizes itself on the Internet. It is developing a theological perspective that is not exclusivist and that reaches back to the liturgical life of Christian communities in the first, second and third centuries to discover the passion that enlivened them under persecution, and to recover it today.

Neither Tickle, nor others, hazard a guess about where the Emergence is leading the Western world, and more particularly Judeo-Christian communities. But Tickle believes whatever change is afoot is the work of God, and a new thing is coming.

Matthew 25 Network on Palin

The Matthew 25 Network calls Sarah Palin’s speech at the Republican convention “sarcastic, divisive and often deceptive.” As it happens, I am preaching Saturday evening at a worship service using Matthew 25 as the text so I was interested to read their email.

The group, made up of a mix of religious leaders from across the Christian community, takes Palin and John McCain to task for making a public display of Palin’s Christian convictions while violating them in her speech. The Network says she “went far beyond what could be considered acceptable disagreement and into what seemed like open contempt for a political opponent.” They also say she spoke falsehoods about Barack Obama’s positions.

While Matthew 25 Network identifies the public presentation of Palin as harmful to the faith, others have made an even stronger case that the merger of religious dogma with political ideology is a dangerous mix. The political operators who have assembled this coalition of right wing politics and evangelical religion may be clever but they are manipulating emotions and deeply held convictions beyond the ability of anyone to responsibly control.

There are too many examples of religion blessed oppression, and equally appalling, of civil wars with religion as a pretext to take the mixture of religious dogma and political ideology lightly.

In his forward to Sarah Posner’s God’s Profits:Faith, Fraud and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, Joe Conason describes an underside of the evangelical right–the gospel of wealth preachers–as “irrational, avaricious, xenophobic, exploitative, and hostile to freedom.”

In his Christian Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America, Chris Hedges quotes Rod Parsley, the Ohio gospel of wealth preacher, speaking in Washington in 2006. “Man your battle stations! Ready your weapons! They say this rhetoric is so inciting. I came to incite a riot. I came to effect a divine disturbance in the heart and soul of the church. Man your battle stations. Ready your weapons. Lock and load!” (p. 33)

Heges warns about exploiting the frustration of those who feel the cultural and political institutions have failed them, a theme prominent in the politics of the religious right. “These carefully cultivated feelings of persecution foster a permanent state of crisis, a deep paranoia and fear, and they make it easier to call for violence–always, of course, as a form of self-defense.” (p. 29)

Heges sees danger in preachers and politicians who exploit the frustrations born of social dislocation and personal disruption that are sparked by our current economic downturn and cultural changes. Citing William James’ description of Tolstoy’s and Paul Buynan’s conversions to Christianity, which were born of alienation and frustration, “neither…could become what we have called healthy-minded.” (The Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 184)  “They had drunk too deep from the  cup of bitterness,” writes James. (James, p. 184, Heges, p. 59)

The Matthew 25 Network’s  critique of Palin’s speech merits serious attention. They suggest Palin’s elevation to the national stage now makes her the most visible face of Christian faith in the nation. That places a greater responsibility upon her than, perhaps, she or the political operatives recognize.

As the Matthew 25 Netwok implicitly says, sarcasm, diviseness and deception hardly reflect the spirit of Matthew 25.

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