Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The partisan mindset

Ross Douthat wrote this in an essay in yesterday's New York Times:

Is there anything good to be said about the partisan mindset? On an individual level, no. It corrupts the intellect and poisons the wells of human sympathy. Honor belongs to the people who resist partisanship’s pull, instead of rowing with it.


Wednesday, November 24, 2010

What I said at the Mosque

I was invited last Sunday to be among the speakers at an event at a local Ahmadiyya mosque on How to Promote Peace, Love, and Harmony in a Diverse Society. Here is what I said:

Thank you, Imam Kauser and members of the mosque, for hosting this event and for welcoming us to your place. I am honored to have been invited to share some thoughts on how to promote Peace, Love, and Harmony in a Diverse Society. It is an important topic that needs attention in a world in which there is so little harmony.

I want to begin, somewhat counter-intuitively perhaps, with diversity and difference. I do not think we do ourselves any favors by denying the reality and the significance of our differences. In fact, I think we need to start by recognizing and honoring our differences.

Some differences don’t matter all that much – what sports team we support. Others matter more – our political convictions. Some differences, like race, have a tragic history in this country. Differences between nations lead to the odd situation in which Muslim and Christian Americans fight together in battle against other Muslims and Christians of different nations. And there are differences of faith which are themselves too often a source of disharmony.

How do we pursue peace, love, and harmony in a diverse society? I suggest we are talking about hospitality which is a central virtue in both Christianity and Islam. In the New Testament, we are encouraged, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels” (Hebrews 13:2).

But hospitality requires that we have a place into which we welcome others. That is why acknowledging our differences matters. It is only if I know the place where I am and can recognize the contours of my place that I can be hospitable. That is true of our homes. It is true of this mosque. You have welcomed us to your place. It would not be right for me to walk around this place with my shoes on or treating casually what you consider holy. It is similar when you have visited St. Barnabas. And it is true of the “place” of our respective faiths with their peculiar understandings of God and life.

We see things differently. We understand God differently and those differences are important. I expect that Muslims have difficulty with ideas such as the incarnation in which God in some mysterious way became human, or that the Messiah died on a cross to reconcile us to God, or that God is somehow three persons yet still one God. To be honest, Christians sometimes find these mysteries baffling. And no doubt there are elements of Islam that Christians find hard to accept. We must begin by acknowledging and honoring those differences rather than pretending they are not real or do not matter.

So, what I have to say I say as one whose place is that of Christian faith – not as an American, not as a liberal or conservative, not as a generic spiritual person (I don’t believe such a thing exists), but as a Christian. I am confident our Muslim neighbors have your own way of coming at this.

How should Christians engage non-Christians? We begin with Jesus. Today we celebrated Christ the King Sunday. It is an audacious thing for us to claim Jesus Christ as King. It is a provocative thing. Because we do not just claim that Christ is King of Christians but of everyone, indeed, of the world. The fundamental Christian affirmation is, “Jesus is Lord”. But, Christians do not always live out the implications of this affirmation. We have been good about claiming Jesus is the way. But we have been less good about tending to the way Jesus is.

And, what is the way Jesus is? In short, it is the way of self-emptying love. Jesus tells us to love our brother and sister within the Church. Indeed, even to speak derisively of one another places us under judgment (Matthew 5:22). Jesus also tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves (Mark 12:31). You, members of the mosque, are our neighbors and if Jesus is the Lord and his is the way, as a Christian, it is incumbent upon me to love you. But, Jesus goes even farther and commands that we love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, bless those who curse us, and pray for those who abuse us.(Luke 6:27-28). Brothers and sister, neighbors, and enemies – that does not leave anyone beyond the obligation to love.

So what does that look like in this context? In 1 Peter 3:15 of the Bible, we are told that if we reverence Christ as Lord in our hearts, we should, “Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you" and, very importantly, it adds “yet do it with gentleness and reverence.” We are not to be bashful about the hope that is in us and the particular faith on which it is founded. But, we are commanded to be gentle and reverent. As the great Anglican theologian, Richard Hooker wrote, “There will come a time when three words uttered with charity and meekness shall receive a far more blessed reward than three thousand volumes written with disdainful sharpness of wit.”

Because we are all created by God and in the image of God, we must treat one another with due reverence. In the end we are connected to one another by the God who created us all. Here is another quote from Richard Hooker: “God hath created nothing simply for itself, but each thing in all things, and every thing each part in other have such interest, that in the whole world nothing is found whereunto any thing that is created can say, ‘I need thee not.’”

So, my Muslim neighbors, I am happy to come to your place – your physical place to be sure – but more significantly, the place of your hope and faith. Show me around. You might even invite me to stay. And I welcome you to visit the place of my hope and faith. I may invite you to stay. We can engage one another, discuss and even debate our differences. We might learn from one another. Sometimes we will agree. Other times we might walk away shaking our heads convinced that the other is just plain wrong. But, if we do it with reverence and gentleness, we will be practicing a hospitality that leads to harmony even as it acknowledges and respects our differences.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

If Christ is King . . .


This Sunday is the Feast of Christ the King. Claiming that Jesus Christ is King is pretty radical. And it is a claim that raises questions about where our true loyalties lie.

I once saw a woman wearing a t-shirt that I found disturbing and very telling. It was a white t-shirt that had JESUSAVES written across the front. I believe he does. But that was not the only message on the shirt. All the letters were blue except for those in the middle - USA - which were red. [A similar shirt is here] It was a telling icon of the confused syncretism of many Christians in America. Who saves? Jesus? The USA? Or, are the two so emotionally entwined in our imaginations that we can't tell the difference? It is an illustration of Stanley Hauerwas' assertion that for many Americans, the nation is their true church. For many Americans, America is the social body to which their ultimate allegiance is pledged regardless of what religious affiliation they formally claim.

Patriotism might not always be idolatry. A distinction must be made, however, between holding dear or celebrating the particular culture and history of a place/people and the sort of nationalistic exceptionalism that too often gets expressed. Even if patriotism is not always idolatrous, Christians should be wary of its appeal and suspicious of those who appeal to it to shepherd them in one direction or another. If Jesus Christ is the King, Christians need to beware of the temptation to confuse that King with other entities, including Uncle Sam, who would claim the kind of loyalty and emotional attachment that belongs to him alone. If Christ is King, do we have any business pledging allegiance to anything or anyone else?

Related posts:
Idolatry of a Certain Sort
The Impossibility of Religious Pluralism

Sunday, November 14, 2010

A Parable Regarding the Kingdom of God

There was once a mother who decided to bake a batch of cookies. She knew that she could bake the cookies all by herself and it would be quick, easy and simple. But the mother invited her child to join in the endeavor knowing that if she invited the child to participate in baking that it would not be quick, simple or easy. In fact, if the child was a part of the process there was likely to be flour on the floor, eggshell in the batter, and perhaps, spilled milk on the counter. It would be a much messier project. But the mother invited the child to participate with her because part of the point of the project was to include her child in the very act.

I suggest God is like that.

God has promised to
create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed. They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord— and their descendants as well. Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent—its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord. (Isaiah 65:17-25)

And God could do that all alone, with a snap of the fingers. Like the mother baking cookies, God does not need our help. So why doesn't God just do it? Why the delay in the final establishment of ultimate justice, freedom, and peace? Why are there still children of calamity? Why is there still weeping? Why are hurting and destruction still so common? Why are the wolf and lamb not eating together? I suspect it is because the God we know through the Bible desires our partnership, our participation in addressing "the evil powers of this world that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God" (Book of Common Prayer, p. 302). God has made space in the world for us to take part in the new creation, to take part in His mission. "If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us." (2 Corinthians 5:17- 19)

It is not our task to make the kingdom of God happen. But neither are we to check out of the realities of life in this world and passively wait for God to act. Christians are called to be a people who live now in anticipation of the kingdom, who bear witness to the kingdom of God's beloved Son in the midst of a world still under the dominion of darkness (Colossians 1:13), and who know that
To work for healing, restorative justice - whether in individual relationships, or anywhere in between - is a primary Christian calling. it determines one whole sphere of Christian behavior. Violence and personal vengeance are ruled out, as the New Testament makes abundantly clear. Every Christian is called to work, at every level of life, for a world in which reconciliation and restoration are put into practice, and so to anticipate that day when God will indeed put everything to rights. (N. T. Wright, Simply Chrtistian, p. 226)

Along the way, no doubt, our participation has been and will be imperfect - egg shell in the batter and spilled flour are part of the risk God appears willing to take for the sake of including us in the ministry of reconciliation in God's new creation kingdom.

Saturday, November 6, 2010


Comments are most welcome here. After hearing that some people have had a hard time leaving a comment, I've reconfigured the setting. We'll see if that makes it easier. And we'll see if I get more comments as a result.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Idolatry of a Certain Sort?

I voted on Tuesday. While I usually vote Democratic, I am registered as an independent and voted a split ticket this time around. For representative to congress, I voted for a pro-life, enviromentalist Democrat. Given the local politcal realities and the fact that his own party did little to support him, this candidate was unlikely to be elected. And he wasn't. Still, I was glad to have the opportunity to vote for someone who messes with the given categories.

Messing with the categories is something Jesus did. It seems to me that if the church is going to be faithful it needs to do the same. At the very least, the church needs to take care not to fall into the trap of identifying with one or another set of political, social, or cultural categories and prejudices.

This has me wondering.

In his book, “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart”, Bill Bishop writes,
We now live in a giant feedback loop,” says Mr Bishop, “hearing our own thoughts about what's right and wrong bounced back to us by the television shows we watch, the newspapers and books we read, the blogs we visit online, the sermons we hear and the neighbourhoods we live in.

I wonder about the Episcopal Church's participation in this sorting.

I am concerned that General Convention and our national leadership have a propensity to collude in this sorting by creating an Episcopal “brand” that is decidedly reflective of and geared toward one “sort” of American. We have cultivated a specifically “liberal” ethos in which certain sorts of people are culturally more comfortable than other sorts. When we speak on public policy and social issues, we invariably endorse what is already the standard liberal/progressive position. One starts to wonder if TEC as a whole or its leaders can distinguish a gospel imperative from a liberal prejudice. We risk a sort of idolatry in which whatever else we might or might not be willing to say about God, we are pretty sure God is our sort of God - a Big American Liberal In The Sky.

No matter how much theological gloss we give it, the predictability of our Liberal/Progressive positioning leaves many of our members – and potential members – not so much challenged by our “prophetic witness” as wondering if we are not just the church of a certain sort of American (sub)cultural identity. The result is not conversion, but alienation. If the challenge only ever goes in one direction, we end up congratulating ourselves for how uncomfortable our Jesus is for some sorts of people while actually making Jesus safe for us and our sort of people. Consequently, we screen out a certain sort while only truly welcoming another sort. Such sorting compromises our catholicity and our ability to welcome people of all sorts and conditions to respond to the good news of what God has done – and is doing – through Jesus Christ.

Unless we are content for our identity to be that of chaplain to one sort of American, i.e., the 22% that self-identify as liberal, we need to rethink the way we engage political and other issues. We might first of all acknowledge that people can agree on a goal (reducing poverty, for example) while disagreeing on the politcal means to achieve that goal. If we believe we must make political statments, we would do well to focus more on the goals and less on specific policies. And, if we want to avoid the idolatry of a certain sort, we would do well to mess with the categories.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Feast of Richard Hooker

Collect for the Feast Day of Richard Hooker
O God of truth and peace, you raised up your servant Richard Hooker in a day of bitter controversy to defend with sound reasoning and great charity the catholic and reformed religion: Grant that we may maintain that middle way, not as a compromise for the sake of peace, but as a comprehension for the sake of truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

From Hooker’s Of the Laws of Ecclesial Polity:
There will come a time when three words uttered with charity and meekness shall receive a far more blessed reward than three thousand volumes written with disdainful sharpness of wit.
Preface 2.10

When we are not able to do any other thing for men's behalf, when through maliciousness or unkindness they vouchsafe not to accept any other good at our hands, prayer is that which we always have in our power to bestow, and they never in theirs to refuse.

And here are a couple more Hooker quotes for which I unfortunately don't have a reference:
God is no captious sophister, eager to trip us up whenever we say amiss, but a courteous tutor, ready to amend what, in our weakness or our ignorance, we say ill, and to make the most of what we say aright.

God hath created nothing simply for itself, but each thing in all things, and every thing each part in other have such interest, that in the whole world nothing is found whereunto any thing that is created can say, “I need thee not.”