Friday, November 23, 2012

Now On Kindle: The Year of Luke

The Year of Luke is the first in a series of commentaries on biblical scripture found in the three-year cycle of Christian liturgical readings of the Revised Common Lectionary. Instead of interpreting these readings as a precursor of messianic salvation from Hell, culminating in the exclusive Body of Christ and the imperial violence of the Church Triumphant, postmodern exiles from the premodern orthodoxy of the Christian church can begin to realize the radicality in Jesus’ original message, and join the struggle to find the courage to live it out in Covenant, non-violence, justice-compassion, and the deep peace that passes all understanding.

The project is grounded in the postmodern biblical scholarship of Karen Armstrong, Marcus J. Borg, John Dominic Crossan, and the Jesus Seminar, as well as the transforming work of Rev. Dr. Matthew Fox, whose theology of Creation Spirituality has reclaimed Catholic mysticism for post-modern cosmology. Appendix One contains reimagined rituals of Holy Communion that reflect an invitation to commit to the ongoing salvation work of non-violent, distributive, justice-compassion. Appendix Two is a Bible study for Holy Week that explores in depth the meaning of kenosis.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Money in Trust and a Failed First Harvest – Lammas 2012

Romans 13:11-14, 14:17; Mark 13; Luke 18-19

In the Northern Hemisphere of Planet Earth, now is the time of the first harvest.  In the old European Celtic Wheel of the Year, the bread for the festival Communion Mass (Lammas, August 1) was made from the first grains – barley, wheat, rye.  This year, 2012, the great “bread basket of the world” – midwestern United States – has been in drought for months.  The winter wheat crop was good. But the summer corn and soybean crops are gone.

Economic uncertainty is a symptom; the disease is planet-wide: ecological breakdown, climate change, “global warming.”  Denying the facts of climate change has been a priority for right-wing business and Christian fundamentalist leaders.  Unlimited sums of money have been poured into research that surely would destroy the credibility of left-wing “socialists” determined to destroy the “freedom” of the people to make all the money they want to make; until Richard Muller, professor of physics of UC Berkeley took his “no strings attached half-million bucks” from the Koch Brothers and discovered the scientists were right – not only about climate change, but the fact that humans are the cause.  What really fries the right is that Prof. Muller was a climate change skeptic.

One of the prophets of our time is the Rev. Dr. Matthew Fox. Fox is the founder of a theology called Creation Spirituality, which has at its core the revolutionary conviction that the Universe and everything in it is an original blessing, not an original sin.  At a recent conference sponsored by Evolve Chesapeake (a Creation Spirituality community), Fox discussed the necessity for “awakening imagination for transformation” – a mouthful of words that boils down to putting human creativity to work to solve the problem.  After all, as Professor Muller says, human creativity got us into this ecological mess and human creativity can get us out of it.

Fox suggests that super-capitalism – the hegemony of the very wealthy – runs on the suppression of our own creativity – i.e., wilful ignorance.  Wilful ignorance prompted Marie Antoinette to wonder why – if they don’t have bread– the people can’t eat cake instead?  Now as then, the economic precariousness of the working classes has not yet percolated up through the layers of protective investments to affect the well-being of the wealthy.  In a New York Times Op ed, “Corn for Food, Not Fuel,” Colin A. Carter and Henry I. Miller (July 30, 2012) write:
        By suspending renewable-fuel standards that were unwise from the start, the Environmental Protection Agency could divert vast amounts of corn from inefficient ethanol production back into the food chain, where market forces and common sense dictate it should go. The drought has now parched about 60 percent of the contiguous 48 states. As a result, global food prices are rising steeply. Corn futures prices on the Chicago exchange have risen about 60 percent since mid-June, hitting record levels, and other grains such as wheat and soybeans are also sharply higher. Livestock and dairy product prices will inevitably follow. . . . The price of corn is a critical variable in the world food equation, and food markets are on edge because American corn supplies are plummeting. The combination of the drought and American ethanol policy will lead in many parts of the world to widespread inflation, more hunger, less food security, slower economic growth and political instability, especially in poor countries.

“Who cares?” says the ghost of the clueless Marie Antoinette.  But inevitably, the shortage of cake (never mind the absence of bread) will become apparent, even to those who thought that the higher the price the greater the profit for them. 

The writer of the Gospel of Luke reports a parable told by Jesus that has stumped the faithful for centuries.  But the meaning is perhaps not so mysterious, despite the ending – which may or may not be an addition supplied by Luke.  At the end of the parable of the money in trust, in which a landowner returns to find that one of his slaves had been too afraid of the master’s ruthlessness to risk investing the money entrusted to him, the boss says “I’m telling you, to everyone who has, more will be given and from those who don’t have, even what they do have will be taken away.”  He then rewards his corporate allies ten-fold, and orders the execution of the members of the board who opposed his plan to merge with another company ( Luke 19:12-27).  Putting the parable in the current context, suppose your CEO, a known crook whom everyone hates, gives you a million dollars to invest in corn futures and ethanol production.  The only way to maintain your livelihood may be to bury the money in the atrium garden. You won’t get a raise – your colleagues who play the game will get their reward – but you will at least save your life. Or, as in the parable of the Shrewd Manager, if your boss is threatening to fire you because the profit margin isn’t satisfying the shareholders, make side-bets that pay off the creditors and save the business (Luke 16:1-8).

Jesus’ parables tell us how use our creativity to subvert the putative rulers of Earth.  Jesus got into trouble for suggesting that the way to assure that all of the people have food to eat is to share whatever they have.  And don’t assume that your traditional enemy has no soul.  The very powers that are supposed to have your best interest at heart will pass you by on the other side of the road while you die in the ditch (“The Good Samaritan” Luke 10:30-35).  To love your enemies is to have no enemies.

The much-misunderstood and dismissed Apostle Paul wrote in the first century:
        I don’t have to tell you that we are living in the most decisive moment in human history.  The hour has already passed for you to be roused from your sleep, because the time of ultimate fulfillment is nearer now than when we first put our unconditional confidence and trust in God.  The night is almost gone, the day is almost here.  Let us rid ourselves of the preoccupations of the darkness and clothe ourselves with the armor of light.  Let us conduct ourselves in ways befitting those who live in the full light of day, not in gluttony and drunkenness, now in promiscuous sexual behavior nor in uninhibited self-indulgence, not in contentiousness and envy.  But adopt the manner of life of our lord, Jesus, God’s Anointed, and make no concession to the lifestyle of this age and its pursuit of self-gratification. . . . For the empire of God is not about food and drink, but it is about the integrity and peace and joy that comes through God’s presence and power among us. Romans 13:11-14, 14:17.  The Authentic Letters of Paul (Polebridge Press, 2010).

The first step is to acknowledge the depth of the sin, but what does this mean in a secular world?

Paul is not talking about petty trespass, like making love before marriage, or eating too much at a party.  Paul is not suggesting that the answer is easy piety – going to church, giving money to charity, volunteering at the soup kitchen.  When Paul talks about making no concession to the lifestyle of this age, he’s not implying the internet is evil, or technology is de-humanizing, or that abortion, divorce, and contraception will send you to hell.  That’s the easy stuff.  What’s not so easy is the integrity that comes through the presence and power of God. 

The presence and power of God is radical fairness – distributive justice-compassion.  The only way to achieve that is through the radical abandonment of self-interest.  In Paul’s words, “no concession to the lifestyle of this age and its pursuit of self-gratification.”  This is the “inner work” that Matthew Fox calls the via negativa.  To do this inner work means acknowledging and owning the conditions that lead to fear for survival, greed, war, and the destruction of the Planet.  That “inner work” results in a transformation of attitude that then leads to creative ways to act with distributive justice-compassion – to a share world instead of a greed world.

In a share world, when corn is lost to drought, what is saved is not dedicated to conversion into fuel, but used for food.  In a share world, mountaintops are not destroyed to save the expense of deep-mining for coal. In a share world, land and water are not destroyed for short-term economic gain.

Paul claims that Jesus “made no concession to the lifestyle of this age and its pursuit of self-gratification.”  Indeed, Jesus got into major trouble for suggesting that while Cesar may have thought he was master of the universe, he in fact owned nothing but the coin with his name on it.  “God” owns the earth and everything in it. 

Apocalypticism is on the rise, whether among religious fundamentalists or atheists.  For the religious – especially Christian fundamentalists – the end times have never seemed more imminent.  Even though the “little apocalypse” in the Gospel of Mark is clearly about the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 66-70, the language has lent itself to every political, social, economic, and ecological disaster of the past two millennia of the common era.  “Wars and rumors of wars”; earthquakes, famines, persecutions, wild weather; and of course “phony messiahs and phony prophets will show up and they’ll provide signs and omens in an attempt to deceive, if possible, the chosen people.” Mark 13:22, The Complete Gospels (Polebridge Press, 2010). 

One effective way to deceive the people is to suggest that misfortune is its own fault.  So poverty is the fault of the poor; drug and alcohol addiction are caused by moral weakness; unemployment is the result of laziness.  The result is denial on a global scale, across all social and economic strata of the seriousness and depth of what we are facing as a species. 

Scientists are telling us that we have the ability to choose whether to listen to the primitive parts of our brains and respond to fear, or to use the intuitive, creative parts of our brains to assure that we continue to evolve. Indeed we are at a point where we can watch over our own evolution – choice not chance.

Matthew Fox reminds us that there is really only one question: How to love the world.  Pessimism, cynicism, and despair teach us how not to love the world.  These are sins that lead us – in Paul’s updated words – to make concessions to “the lifestyle of the age and its pursuit of self-gratification.”  The world is heavily invested in denial.  Denial is the choice to be deliberately ignorant of conditions that will overtake us in the end if we do not wake up.

Please pass the bread.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Relegated to the Fringes: Proper 11, Year B [Revisited]

2 Samuel 7:1-14a; Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 89:20-37; Psalm 23; 
Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

With this week’s readings, the nature of the detour from the Way first chronicled by the writer of Mark’s Gospel comes into focus.  The orthodox conclusion that Jesus is the ultimate ancestor of David who saves and shepherds the lost flock of Israel is nearly impossible to counter or avoid.  From Nathan’s Oracle through Jeremiah’s prophecy of the coming of the legitimate branch of David, to pseudo-Paul’s declaration that “Christ Jesus himself” is the cornerstone of the holy temple, bolstered by Psalms 23 and 89, the supercessionary hegemony of Christianity is clearly and graphically affirmed.  Indeed, dealing with the Elves’ selections from the Christian Bible is like riding a rubber raft down the Upper Youghioghenny. The nearly 2,000-year, Anti-Semitic, blood-soaked, crusading history of the Christian church finds its rationale in such combinations of lectionary readings.  Unfortunately, this is not the only example, as we have discovered over the past three years of study.

Let’s start the reclaiming process from the top: 2 Samuel 7:1-14a.  Since Pentecost, the readings from 1st and 2nd Samuel have chronicled the foundational saga of the great king David.  Like the later legend of King Arthur of Britain, David united the northern and southern tribes under one banner.  David’s power and importance and significance to the spiritual and political history of the Jewish people is unquestioned.  The story should be allowed its own integrity, so that its wisdom can be heard through the millennia. 

That wisdom lies in the ongoing conflict between Covenant and Empire.  The people wanted a King, so God reluctantly gave them a King.  The story lays out the strengths and weaknesses of royalty, and the political pitfalls that constantly undermine the normal course of human civilization as people learn to live together in justice and peace.  Nathan’s Oracle assures us that regardless of what David’s shortcomings may turn out to be, his line and his legacy are settled.  Because we already know what is coming, we are not surprised when God tells Nathan to decline David’s offer to build God a temple.  That task is deferred to a later son of David.  We know why, because we have been told the story since Sunday School. 

But suppose we did not know the whole legend.  Then we would have to look for its meaning not just in Nathan’s Oracle, but in David’s response – which is not included in the readings.  Does David object to God’s decision to remain in a tent while David and his family are housed in royal Cedar?  Does he insist that he owes it to God because of God’s favor to him?  Does God demand a temple in exchange for a kingdom?  The answer on both sides is “no.”  A Covenant with God is not a commercial or even political arrangement.  The Covenant with God – or with the Universe, or with the natural order as we know it – is far tougher than any commercial or political contract.  Whether it is with a personal God, as understood by pre-modern and much of contemporary humanity, or with a kenotic god of post-modern, non-theistic understanding, the Covenant means that so long as we govern ourselves with distributive justice-compassion, so long as we live in radical abandonment of self-interest, we dwell in a realm where even the lion and lamb co-exist.  When we break the Covenant – when we act with injustice, revenge, or selfishness; when we disturb the balance of the natural order – there are consequences.  Sometimes those consequences are life-threatening, such as global warming, pandemics, or, classically, “war, famine, disease, and death.”  David’s Prayer reflects this understanding (2 Samuel 7:18-29): “For you, O Lord God, have spoken, and with your blessing shall the house of your servant be blessed forever.”

The writings of the prophet Jeremiah have been applied so often to the human condition that the word “jeremiad” was coined to characterize similar laments against social and political injustice.  Jeremiah – as we well know – spent his career warning 6th Century B.C.E. Israelites of the dire consequences of ignoring God’s Covenant, and of collaborating with foreign values.  But in the verses chosen for Proper 11 of Year B, Jeremiah’s original intent has been corrupted by its juxtaposition with the other selections.  Jeremiah himself would be justified in applying his charges against the false prophets of Jerusalem directly to present-day creators of the Revised Common Lectionary: “they . . . led my people Israel astray . . . they . . . walk in lies; they strengthen the hand of evildoers” (23:13-14). 

This assertion may be heretical to orthodox tradition, but to use Jeremiah’s impassioned prophetic warning to prove the foreordination of Jesus as the Messiah is worse than heresy.  When Jeremiah accuses the leadership of 6th Century B.C.E. Jerusalem of collaboration with the invading Babylonians (“Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep”), and then says that God will “gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them” he is not talking about how “in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:13).  Further, without judicious use of paddles and ballast, the rushing scriptural torrent let loose by the Elves could carry our lectionary raft into even more dangerous theological waters:  Jeremiah is most certainly not referring to the theories of Zionist fundamentalism.

When we read beyond verse 6 in Jeremiah’s chapter 23, we see that there is hope for those in exile, but only if the false prophets of that same hope are held accountable for their words and actions.  Whether we apply Jeremiah’s cherry-picked words to Christianity’s judgment against the Jews, or to our present-day political and social situation, we do so to our peril.  Indeed, if we read to the end of chapter 23, God has some pointed things to say about that very thing: “I did not send the prophets, yet they ran; I did not speak to them, yet they prophesied.  But if they had stood in my council, then they would have proclaimed my words to my people, and they would have turned them from their evil way, and from the evil of their doings. . . . Am I a God nearby . . . and not a God far off? . . . Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let the one who has my word speak my word faithfully.”  And what is that word?  It is faithfulness to the Covenant.  It is the restoration of God’s imperial rule, which is distributive justice-compassion.  It is following the Way.

The Elves have assigned the letter to the Ephesians for the next five weeks.  If studied in its entirety, keeping it divorced from any association with the other readings, then it may be found to have its own particular relevance.  Certainly it is relevant to an understanding of the earliest gentile Christian communities who had little if any connection with Jewish spiritual practice.  In the portion selected for this week, the writer is explaining how the life and death of Jesus has brought about a reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles.  “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.”  That household stands on the foundation of the prophets and apostles, and Jesus the Christ is the cornerstone of that household.  According to the writer’s metaphor, that household has become a  holy temple, and a dwelling place for God. 

The letter was written by a disciple of Paul, in Paul’s name, some 20 to 40 years after Paul’s death.  Throughout the letter, Paul’s original theology has been subtly changed.  The second coming of the Christ that Paul expected momentarily has still not occurred.  Accommodation to that fact had to have been made by the early Christian communities.  The letter seems to be a gentle pastoral letter with no transformational fireworks such as are found in the letters Paul actually wrote.  An enterprising Adult Sunday School leader might want to compare Ephesians with Romans, or Corinthians, and explore Paul’s theology in some depth.  But to imply that the Temple built by the son of David and destroyed by the Romans has been replaced with “the one body” of Christians as “a holy temple to the Lord” (as the Elves do) misrepresents the writer’s point. 

The point of the portion of Ephesians chosen for this Sunday is non-violent reconciliation and peace.  The death of Jesus the Christ “has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us . . . thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body . . . So [Jesus] came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near.”  Standing on its own, the letter contains no supercessionary violence; but the letter is not allowed to stand and speak for itself.  It is continually interpreted in the misdirected light of spooky Old Testament “prophecy” and miraculous New Testament “gospel.”

The gutted remains of Mark’s powerful parable of the preference of humanity for magic and miracle over the hard work of distributive justice have the last word: “. . . they would lay out the sick in the marketplaces and beg him to let them touch the fringe of his cloak.  And all those who managed to touch it were cured!”

Monday, July 16, 2012

Response to Douthat: Reclaim Scripture, Save Christianity?

Ross Douthat points out that the more “liberal” Christianity becomes, the more members leave.  Perhaps that is because very few people are reclaiming scripture so that it is relevant to a secular world. Most people dismiss the Bible as meaningless myth.  But what will replace it?  Star Wars?  Harry Potter?

Beyond simple “Biblical literacy” – which means you know what the story says – is midrash, which reclaims scripture for the post-modern age.

Coming soon to your Kindle is The Year of Luke:Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary for an Emerging Christianity.  For a preview, click here.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Summer Reading

    Sea Raven has two e-books available from for your summer beach commute. 

    The first is a short, fast-paced, political intrigue:  “Washington Legal: What Secretaries Know and When They Know It.”  Behind the scenes in a Washington, D.C. law firm at the turn of the 21st Century, an unconventional Human Resources Director protects her secretarial staff from dysfunctional bosses, rolls with the punches of outsourcing and evolving digital technology, and uncovers a pre-9/11 international deal that leads to murder.  Yours for just 99 cents on your Kindle

    The second is“The J’Argon,” a full-length, future-fiction fantasy published in 2000 by, now also available as an e-Book from Amazon.  The J’Argon is the leader of a spiritual alliance that has voice but not vote in 22nd century global politics.  She is the Fourth J’Argon and the first woman to hold the title since the Covenant of the Word was formed in 2047.  Her long-time lover, partner, and soul friend, the Arch Deacon of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. is a leader in the liberation underground.  The Year is 2157.  The United States has become a repressive theocracy, where a great evil holds sway.  The Arch Deacon must open his prophetic Christian mysticism to the J’Argon’s ancient earth-based magic and awaken his own adept power so that together they can defeat the Dragon.

    After 25 years as a legal secretary in Washington, D.C., Sea Raven moved to the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia in 2002.  She is now a volunteer chaplain with Hospice of the Panhandle in Martinsburg.  Her work as a free-lance writer, musician, and worship leader is grounded in post-modern Christian scholarship, and focused on justice, peace, and the integrity of creation.  Sea Raven holds a Doctor of Ministry in Creation Spirituality.  Her doctoral project, The Wheel of the Year:  A Worship Book for Creation Spirituality, provides worship experiences that spring from pre-Christian Celtic spirituality, post-modern cosmology, and the theology and four-path principles of Creation Spirituality as developed by Rev. Dr. Matthew Fox.  The project is published on her website along with a weekly blog (the original Liberal Christian Commentary).

    Sea Raven is an Associate of Westar (the Jesus Seminar); a board certified Associate Clinical Chaplain (College for Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy); and a designated Lay Minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick, Maryland.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

David Brooks Respects the Future and Misses the Point

In response to the Snelling family tragedy, David Brooks writes,
        Either Snelling . . . lost control of his faculties, or he made a lamentable mistake. . . Our job is not to determine who is worthy of life, but how to make the most of the life we have been given. . . . But who is to say how Snelling would have felt four months from now? The fact is, we are all terrible at imagining how we will feel in the future. . . our capacities for imagining the future are . . . horrible in moments of stress and suffering.  Given these weaknesses, it seems wrong to make a decision that will foreclose future thinking.  It’s better to respect the future, to remain humbly open to your own unfolding. . . .If you look at life through the calculus of autonomy, then maybe Snelling made the right call. . . . But if you look at a life as one element within a mysterious flow, . . . Charles and Adrienne Snelling still had a few ripples to create.
In present-day U.S. realities, there is no return from Alzheimer's; after age 80 the outlook for an autonomous, productive, and meaningful life in the absence of some form of dementia is bleak at best, even for those with the means to pay for long-term, humane, enlightened, assistance.  To suggest that anyone in the circumstances faced by the Snellings had “a few ripples to create” in the “mysterious flow” of life, is naive at best, cruel at worst.

Brooks declines to present the religious arguments against murder and suicide, “many of which are based on the supposition that a life is a gift from God.”  But larger theological minds than Mr. Brooks’ have gone far beyond such simplistic pietisms and wrestled with the “courage to be” – to live fully and completely in the face of the knowledge that one day we will cease to exist.  Mr. Snelling stands accused by Brooks of either a profound and callous self-centeredness, or romantic delusion.  But neither may have been the case.  Instead, in the face of the failure of both society and the religions that claim to nurture and guide it, Mr. Snelling looked into the possibility of non-existence and chose it. 

That choice shows a trust in the nature of life and the universe that is close to the trust that Jesus taught and embodied.  Progressive, liberal religious people – Christians particularly – should look to Jesus’ relationship to God beginning with Matthew 6:25-34.  Jesus says, “don’t fret about your life . . . there’s more to living than food and clothing . . . Take a look at the birds of the sky . . . the wild lilies . . . the grass in the field, which is here today and is thrown into an oven tomorrow.”  Go on from there to John 14:1-4, followed by Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, 15:51-52.  Read these passages in the context of today’s cosmology – what we now know about the nature of the Universe, including the laws of physics, not the 1st century cosmology of a triple-decker universe with God above, earth in the middle, and hell below that conventional religion insists upon to its continued irrelevance. 

Jesus taught a seamless relationship among the spirit of life, the natural world, and humanity, and he trusted that relationship to the point of his own unjust death at the hands of Roman occupiers.  Paul writes, in the new translation by the Westar institute scholars:

        I am going to tell you a wondrous secret: We are not all going to die, rather we are all going to be transformed, in an instant, in the blink of an eye at the sound of the last trumpet-signal.  The trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised incorruptible and we [too] will be transformed.  Because this perishable man must be clothed with the imperishable, and this mortal man must be clothed with immortality.  And when the perishable is clothed with the imperishable and the mortal is clothed with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: Death has been engulfed by victory.  Where, O Death has your victory gone?  What’s happened, O Death, to your fatal sting?
21st century cosmology is clear:  neither matter nor energy can be created or destroyed, but only transformed.  We should have the same confidence in God that Jesus did: the same confidence in justice-compassion, in the spirit of life, and the nature of the universe itself.

In this Holy Week that celebrates the liberation of Passover and the incarnate promise of Easter, instead of concluding that Mr. Snelling “either lost control of his faculties, or made a lamentable mistake,” progressive spiritual leaders should grant him the courage to look into nothingness and encounter life itself.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Love and Death

In today’s New York Times Susan Jacoby writes,
        As the aging baby boom generation places unprecedented demands on the health care system, there is little ordinary citizens can do — witness the tortuous arguments in the Supreme Court this week over the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act — to influence either the cost or the quality of the treatment they receive. However, end-of-life planning is one of the few actions within the power of individuals who wish to help themselves and their society. Too few Americans are shouldering this responsibility.
The editors could not possibly have anticipated that news of the deaths of Charles Darwin Snelling (brother of the governor of Pennsylvania) and his wife Adrienne would appear to be an accompaniment to Ms. Jacoby’s important and timely opinion piece.  Some reports have named the deaths a “murder-suicide”; and, in truth, culturally, we have no other words to use.  The Times did find a way to be more gentle
        On Thursday, months after contributing a poignant essay to The New York Times about navigating a six-decade marriage upended by his spouse’s Alzheimer’s disease, Mr. Snelling killed his wife and himself, the Snelling family said in a statement released to The Morning Call of Allentown, Pa.. They were found Thursday in their home in Lehigh County in eastern Pennsylvania, the police said. Mr. Snelling shot himself, the coroner said. The ruling on Ms. Snelling’s death was pending. Both were 81.
Does “taking responsibility for death” include killing your loved one and then committing suicide? Ms. Jacoby does not answer that question; but she does have a provocative conclusion that points toward “yes”:
        There is a clear contradiction between the value that American society places on personal choice and Americans’ reluctance to make their own decisions, insofar as possible, about the care they will receive as death nears. Obviously, no one likes to think about sickness and death. But the politicization of end-of-life planning and its entwinement with religion-based culture wars provide extra, irrational obstacles to thinking ahead when it matters most.
The Snelling family tragedy is the most recent publicized incident of murder-suicide among the elderly, and speculation about what might have led to it must not be taken personally.  The Times presented a love story, and that is the way this particular one should remain.  But because this kind of end-of-life experience is not uncommon, we can ask questions on behalf of others caught in the same situation.  Did he know that she did not want to continue the long day’s journey into night that is Alzheimer’s?  Did he then know he could not live without her?  Or was he forced to sacrifice himself to the near-sighted gods of retributive justice – both secular and religious? 

He was likely looking at the death penalty if convicted of murder in Pennsylvania.  According to his essay published by The Times in December 2011, families on both sides were a combination of New England Congregationalists and Quakers – so a liberal view of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness might be assumed.  Certainly it is no accident that his name was Charles Darwin Snelling.  At 81, with his own death far more visible in the road ahead than at any other time in his life, traditional Catholic or protestant views about sin and the sanctity of life may not have been particularly relevant.  But he was a leader in the Pennsylvania Republican party, and his brother is the governor of the State.  Perhaps that “politicization” of end-of-life issues, and their “entwinement with religion-based culture wars” called out by Susan Jacoby left him no choice.

In the Christian liturgical year, we are on the cusp of Easter.  This Sunday is Palm Sunday, which in Mark’s gospel ushers in “Holy Week,” the final week of Jesus’ life.  During that week, Jesus orchestrated two demonstrations on behalf of distributive justice-compassion, and in opposition to those near-sighted gods of retributive justice worshiped by both religion and politics.  The first – in stark contrast to the imperial “motorcade” led by Pontius Pilate – was the legendary rag-tag procession led by an improbable messiah, riding on a donkey.  The second was the deliberate disruption of Temple business.  The religious authorities were collaborators with the unjust policies of the imperial occupation.  When the Romans built the Court of the Gentiles in the Jewish Temple, and even allowed the Roman golden eagle to be mounted on the gate, it was clear to many that the religious leadership had sold out.  That’s why Jesus yells, “This house was to be a house of prayer for all people, but you have turned it into a hide-out for robbers!”

It is time for progressive-liberal spiritual leaders of all faiths to overturn the money-changers and political collaborators and stand for justice-compassion.  Engage the questions of life and death without weighing the political advantage.  Have the courage – the confidence in whatever god or spiritual universe – to create a secular humanity that loves and cares for itself.  Mr. Snelling defined his care-giving as “redemption”:
        So, here comes the redemption. It never occurred to me for a moment that it would not be my duty and my pleasure to take care of my sweetie. After all, she took care of me in every possible way she could for 55 years. The last six years have been my turn, and certainly I have had the best of the bargain.
This is the kind of choice dictated by love that can indeed redeem individual lives.  But so long as our society is immobilized by the collaboration of political systems with religious beliefs that force people into conundrums that leave no choice, there can be no redemption.  That’s why Jesus was executed by the Romans.  Whether the spirit of justice-compassion rises incarnate is up to us.

Monday, February 27, 2012

English as Official Language: Dog Whistle to Intolerance

On Tuesday February 21, Frederick County Maryland became the first in the State to make English the official language.  Some folks fall into the trap of believing that making English official will force more people to learn it, and they will therefore be better integrated into the dominant society.

As columnist Petula Dvorak pointed out in a Washngton Post/Post Local column, it is true that learning English leads to better wages, better opportunity, and better education.  But when Board Vice President Paul Smith says “a common language will build unity in the county and improve county efficiency,” what he really means is what Board President Blain Young made very clear: “I think this measure preserves and enhances the quality of life for Frederick County citizens.”  There’s the dog whistle: As the Huffington Post reports, 19 people addressed the commissioners on the measure during the meeting, but only two spoke in favor of the English-only plan, which the board president, Blaine Young, said would “deter illegal immigration.”

Members of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick Maryland are organizing a protest.  An email to the Board of Trustees and congregational leaders said:  “We believe our congregation needs to publicaly oppose this action and to do so immediately.  The law violates our principles by attempting to marginalize a whole group of people.  Since immigration is the theme of the upcoming UUA General Assembly it seems particularly timely that we should take a stand on an immigration issue that is unfolding in our own front yard. . . .”

The first of seven Unitarian Universalist principles is is to “affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.”  There is no accompanying plan in the Frederick County action for providing English Second Language classes or any other assistance to Hispanic immigrants, regardless of their legal status.  In fact, as WTOP reported early Wednesday morning, part of the reason for taking this action is to assure that no taxpayer money will be spent on language accessibility, other than health and safety, and [of course] tourism and trade.

The second Unitarian Universalist principle is “Justice, equity and compassion in human relations,” not “enhancing the quality of life for . . . citizens.”

Friday, February 24, 2012

Whose Religious Freedom?

Zealots seldom can see outside the boxes they live in.  Virginia Republicans are now expressing distrust of Governor McDonnell because he 1) backed off the infamous “vaginal probe” prerequisite for women who need abortions; and 2) sent the “personhood” bill back to committee until after the election.  Right-wing Christian fundamentalists and Catholic Bishops are feeling oppressed because the Obama Administration has ruled that Catholic universities and hospitals that employ and serve non-Catholic (even non-Christian) people must require their insurance providers to cover birth control for their employees at no extra cost.  Rick Santorum, the current darling of the dissatisfied  GOP, is convinced that religious freedom is under attack.  He says, regarding “the freedom to believe what you want to believe and practice that belief. . . . they don’t talk about “freedom of religion, they talk about freedom of worship. . . . leaders of this country are narrowing the view of what freedom of religion is all about. . . .”  Once you walk out the door, Santorum says, the government controls what you can think, say, and do.

Because the conventional wisdom is that Santorum is completely unelectable, some Democrats are suggesting that in states with open primaries, progressives should vote for Santorum.  As the contemporary proverb says, “be careful what you wish/pray for.” 

Too often extremists are considered to be crazy, or “unelectable.”  Current polls indicate that a mentality of “a pox on all their houses” is beginning to make itself felt in the country.  President Obama is apparently in a dead heat with Romney and Santorum; at the same time, “[t]here is undeniable dissatisfaction with the field. A 55% majority of Republicans say they wish someone else was running; 44% say they’re pleased with the selection of candidates” (Daily Kos February 21, 2012).

Numbers like that mean that quite a few folks might be staying home on November 6.  Some might think this is a good thing for President Obama’s prospects.  But when reasonable people stay home, the fringes win.  Rather than rolling our collective eyes, religious progressives need to start talking about OUR religious liberty.  As Barry Goldwater famously proclaimed in 1964, “You can’t legislate morality.”  But he also said, “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.” 

Not only do religious progressives (formerly known as “liberals”) need to speak up for our religious principles; atheists, humanists, and those who define themselves as “spiritual but not religious” must stand up for ethics and morality.  As recent humanist slogans have proclaimed, you don’t need God to love.  You don’t need God to claim protection under the first amendment.

On Thursday, February 23, the West Virginia legislature passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.  On its face the Act seems benign.  The Elizabethton Star reports:

        CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia’s childhood immunization requirements would not be affected by pending legislation addressing religious freedoms.  House Judiciary Chairman Tim Miley made that point before delegates passed the bill 92-2 to the Senate on Thursday. The bill responds to a 1990 U.S. Supreme Court opinion upholding state laws that unintentionally affect religious practices. Delegate Larry Kump called the measure necessary. The Berkeley County Republican described how fellow Mormons were driven out of other states in the 19th century. The bill applies to government. It would affirm that people could argue in court that their free exercise of religion has been substantially burdened. The government would have to show it’s furthering a compelling interest in the least restrictive way.  The bill would not prevent government from maintaining health, safety, security or discipline.  
 But next on the Republican agenda in West Virginia is “personhood” legislation, mandating that a fertilized egg is a human being with all the rights, responsibilities, and protections of adults.  Without a clear push-back from religious progressives and humanitarian ethicists, basic human rights will be up for grabs.  The fact that Mississippi voters rejected this is no reason to assume it’s so crazy it could never become established law.

As one of the Tea Party’s favorite founders is reputed to have said,“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” – Thomas Jefferson.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Two Adams: An Answer to Brooks’ “Jeremy Lin Problem”

1 Corinthians 15:42-57;Philippians 2:1-11

In a provocative essay in today’s New York Times, David Brooks raises a spiritual dilemma.  He proposes that humanity lives in a tension between two moral universes.  One is a “sporting ethos,” which pervades and defines all areas of competition.  The “primary virtue is courage – the ability to withstand pain, remain calm under pressure and rise from nowhere to topple the greats.”  The second universe is the spiritual/religious morality that demands self-sacrifice: the last shall be first; the suffering servant is the savior; the weak and disenfranchised embody the most powerful force for change. 

Brooks refers to Jewish theologian Joseph Soloveitchik, who “argues that people have two natures. . . ‘Adam the First,’ the part of us that creates, discovers, competes and is involved in building the world. . . . [and] ‘Adam the Second,’ the spiritual individual who is awed and humbled by the universe as a spectator and a worshipper.”  Brooks suggests that the anger people feel when either sports or politics mix with religion rises because we are uncomfortable with both the experience of invincible physical power, and the experience of transcendent self denial.  The anger arises, Brooks says, because “people . . . want to deny that this contradiction exists . . . and live in a world in which there is only one morality, one set of qualities and where everything is easy, untragic and clean.”

If he had ended the piece there, he would have deserved an A+.  Instead he dilutes his challenge with a cop-out: “life and religion are more complicated than that.”

In the Apostle Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians, chapter 15, Paul lays out a theology that for centuries has made seminarians’ heads swim, and lay-folk nod off in the pews.  Now comes a new translation by Westar Institute Scholars Arthur J. Dewey, Roy W. Hoover, Lane C. McGaughy, and Daryl D. Schmidt: The Authentic Letters of Paul: A new reading of Paul’s rhetoric and meaning (Polebridge Press, 2010).  This translation pulls Paul’s theology down from the mind-numbing theological stratosphere into the here and now – which according to the scholars was where Paul was in the 1st century – here and now (in his own time and place.)  So when Paul gets going about “sin” and the “perishable” inheriting the “imperishable” he is not talking about going to heaven when we die if and only if we’ve been believers in Jesus’ “resurrection.”  He is talking about the “corrupting seduction of power” [hamartia for any Greeks reading this].  For Paul, this force is so strong that it becomes personified.  Think about how power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  That begins to get at what Paul was referring to. 

He wasn’t talking about the physical decomposition of human bodies after death, that will magically take on new “spiritual” bodies in heaven.  In 1 Cor. 15:45, he was talking about that same first Adam that Brooks does in his essay when he quotes Joseph Soloveitchik: “the part of us that creates, discovers, competes and is involved in building the world.”  The second Adam, according to the Scholars Version, “became a life-creating power . . . the body fit for life in God’s new world.”  The difference is that for Paul, that second Adam (which was Jesus, the Anointed One) is a prototype for how to bring about God’s rule on the planet.  For Paul, it is not enough to be “the spiritual individual who is awed and humbled by the universe as a spectator and a worshipper,” as Brooks (and Soloveitchik) describes the second Adam.  Paul’s second Adam is an activist who accepts that the way to overturn the inevitable injustices that come from the seductive power of corruption is to radically abandon self-interest.

For Christians, Jesus was the person who managed to contain the supposedly conflicting paradigms of 1st Adam (warrior, athlete, competitor, entrepreneur) and 2nd Adam (self-sacrificing servant, pacifist, humanitarian).  In his letter to the Philippians, Paul says, “I appeal to all of you to think in the same way that the Anointed Jesus did, who although he was born in the image of God, did not regard ‘being like God’ as something to use for his own advantage, but rid himself of such vain pretension and accepted a servant’s lot.”  Jesus was willing to go all the way to death at the hands of the representatives of the “first Adam,” who constructed the systems of Empire, and fell prey to the seductions of earthly power.  That is why – in 1st century Paul’s cosmology – “God raised him higher than anyone and awarded him the title that is above all others. . . Jesus the Anointed is lord. . . .”  small “l” – not a titan of Wall Street, not the Hollywood star, and not the emperor of the known universe.  An executed criminal is the model for how to save humanity from itself.

This is what is so annoying – even enraging – about combining politics or sports or business with religious or spiritual conviction.  That second Adam insists on distributive justice-compassion for the universe s/he holds in awe and wonder.  The problem is that for the work to be legitimate requires a radical abandonment of self-interest.  Like Mr. Lin, most of us have a hard time getting past that old devil hamartia.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Heartland: Ignorance is Bliss

The next great fight in our public schools will likely be over whether climate change is related to human activity.  The New York Times reports that documents leaked from the supposedly non-profit libertarian think-tank Heartland “suggest that Heartland has spent several million dollars in the past five years in its efforts to undermine climate science, much of that coming from a person referred to repeatedly in the documents as “the Anonymous Donor.” A guessing game erupted Wednesday about who that might be.”

The scandal is not that Heartland holds anti-scientific, libertarian views.  The scandal is that in order to be a “non-profit,” an organization may not accept money in order to influence politics: 
        The documents raise questions about whether the group has undertaken partisan political activities, a potential violation of federal tax law governing nonprofit groups. For instance, the documents outline “Operation Angry Badger,” a plan to spend $612,000 to influence the outcome of recall elections and related fights this year in Wisconsin over the role of public-sector unions.       
        Tax lawyers said Wednesday that tax-exempt groups were allowed to undertake some types of lobbying and political education, but that because they are subsidized by taxpayers, they are prohibited from direct involvement in political campaigns.
In The Nation November 28, 2011, Naomi Klein reviewed Heartland’s Sixth International Conference on Climate Change.  The threat that climate change (aka “global warming”) presents to big business is the belief (fear) “that climate change is a Trojan horse designed to abolish capitalism and replace it with some kind of eco-socialism. As conference speaker Larry Bell succinctly puts it in his new book ‘Climate of Corruption,’ climate change ‘has little to do with the state of the environment and much to do with shackling capitalism and transforming the American way of life in the interests of global wealth redistribution.’”

These people are not denying the science; they are terrified of the change in paradigm that will happen if human life on the Planet is going to survive in any recognizable form.  Team that likelihood with Christian fundamentalism, and we have the perfect storm.  Christian fundamentalists are more interested in Biblical inerrantcy and literalism than post-modern, 21st century cosmology.  After all, the sooner “the Rapture” comes, the better.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Holy War? Obama vs. Bishops

It seems the Catholic Church’s outrage over the Affordable Health Care Act has been brewing for some time.  Now we discover that seven months before the Obama Administration made its decision to require religious employers to comply with the Act, the Catholic Bishops “had started laying the groundwork for a major new campaign to combat what they saw as the growing threat to religious liberty, including the legalization of same-sex marriage” (Laurie Goodstein, The New York Times, February 10, 2012).  

Perhaps it was a bit of a hard sell for the Catholic Bishops to convince the majority of U.S. citizens that allowing GLBT people equal human rights with non-GLBT people was a violation of religious freedom.  Despite the claims of groups like Exodus International, being gay is not a choice, nor is it a pathology.  But, writes Laurie Goodstein, “the birth control mandate, issued on Jan. 20, was their Pearl Harbor.”

The Obama Administration is prepared to offer a white flag later today – and not a moment too soon.  Using language that demonizes, equates disagreement with warfare, or denigrates, and dismisses the other, obscures the common ground to our peril. This controversy is not about “church vs. state” or “good vs. evil.”  No one is requiring anyone to violate their beliefs.  The government is requiring no one to use birth control, to have abortions, to marry, or to somehow become gay against their will. The controversy is about how we can assure a sustainable, fair, and just society for everyone.

This disagreement is not a culture clash.  It is part of the psychic and spiritual evolution that has the potential to align conscious human life with how we know the universe works – the emergence of a new cosmology.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Unitarian Universalists Standing on the Side of Love, Charles Darwin, and The Wedding at Cana

This sounds like a total mash-up.  What possible connection can there be among a Unitarian Universalist call to action, the theory of evolution, and a fairy tale about Jesus turning water into wine?

I’ll start with the fairy tale.

The times were changing at the end of the first century and the beginning of the second century.  Jerusalem had been sacked by the Romans; Temple Judaism had become displaced into synagogues; competition between the factions in Judaism that believed Jesus to be the Messiah and those who clung to the old tradition was fierce.  Somebody decided to write a proof that Jesus was the one chosen by God to save the world.  That person managed to get himself identified with one of Jesus’ disciples even though just about all of them were dead by then.  The gospel he created is called “John.”  It is probably the most well-known, and most loved, of all the gospels in the New Testament.

Liberal biblical scholars agree that none of the stories reported by John are true; none of the things John claims Jesus said were ever actually said by Jesus.  The whole thing was an extended argument, a last-ditch effort to keep John and his friends from being thrown out of the local synagogue. 

John’s fairy tale about Jesus turning water into wine acts as a framework around two other stories that John tells about Jesus.  First he tells about Jesus attending a wedding at Cana, in Galilee, where the wine ran out.  Potential disaster was averted when Jesus told the wine steward to use whatever he found in the storage jars that were supposed to contain water.  Instead – abra ca dabra – the jars had the best wine anyone had ever had before.

The next story is about a Jewish scholar – a pharisee – named Nicodemus. Nicodemus seems to be clueless about basic Jewish theology, but eventually comes to believe that Jesus is the Messiah.  After the encounter with Nicodemus – which happens in the dark of night – Jesus travels to Samaria. Now the Samaritans were the enemies of the Jews.  In this story, Jesus breaks several taboos: 1) he visits the enemy Samaritans; 2) he meets a woman at Jacob’s well and talks to her – men were not supposed to talk to women, and vice versa; 3) in the course of his conversation with the woman he says he has living water to offer her in place of regular well water, and he agrees with her – an enemy Samaritan woman – that the Samaritans got it right when they worshipped God on the mountain.  But he says, it doesn’t matter any more where God is worshipped because from now on, God will be worshipped in spirit – which was what Nicodemus had such a hard time understanding.

After that, Jesus goes back to Cana, where he had turned the water into wine.

Now let’s talk about the theory of evolution. According to that famous website Wikipedia, “Evolution is any change across successive generations in the heritable characteristics of biological populations.  Evolutionary processes give rise to diversity at every level of biological organization, including species, individual organisms and molecules such as DNA and proteins.”  But “evolution” has jumped out of the strictly scientific box, and has become a metaphor.  According to my Oxford Dictionary of the American Language, “evolution” means “gradual development, especially from a simple to a more complex form.”  Synonyms include: development, growth, advance, progression, maturation.

Enter a theologian and Biblical scholar from New Zealand, Lloyd Geering.  Lloyd Geering has published a series of essays entitled Coming Back to Earth: From gods to God, to Gaia.  Basically his thesis is that human spirituality has evolved from the most primitive ideas about spirits inhabiting everything from rocks to animals, plants, and people, to multiple gods – such as the Greek and Roman pantheon, or gods that belong to specific tribes  – to the idea of one universal God.  While the progression is demonstrable, it is not linear.  In today’s world, there are still people who claim tribal gods, and who start wars over the definitions of those tribal gods.  Those wars are raging now between progressive and liberal religious traditions and fundamentalists of all varieties.  Similarly, in pre-modern times, there were philosophers and religious dissenters who did not buy into the idea of a separate, personal, god who could be petitioned for relief of grievances.  The discussion, to put it simply, was between theists who believed in one god, and atheists, who believed there was no god.

The Elizabethan playwright, Christopher Marlowe, was accused of being an atheist.  There was a warrant out for his arrest and torture. But before the church police could catch him he was killed in a barroom brawl over a bill.  Later came the revival of the Goddess, and feminist theology, represented by Elizabeth Cady Stanton in the 19th century, and the 20th Century feminist pantheon that includes Mary Daly, Rosemary Radford Reuther, and Starhawk.

Lloyd Geering proposes that humanity is now in the midst of a transition not from theism to atheism, but from theism to secularism.  Fundamentalists of all varieties of Abrahamic faiths – Jews, Christians, Muslims – have declared holy war on that transition. 

Now I’m going to begin to put two of the three threads of this essay together.

There is a place for the stories in the Gospel of John about the wedding at Cana and the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, but only if they are seen as metaphors, and are reclaimed for an evolving 21st century understanding of spirit and cosmos.  John’s metaphor of water into wine that frames the vignettes with Nicodemus who had no clue  and the Samaritan woman at the well, represents not just “transformation,” but “transmutation.”  The fairy tale means that if we follow the teachings of Jesus, life becomes something fundamentally different from what it was before.

John was not satisfied with cleaning and polishing.  John says, whoever believes Jesus is the Anointed One is changed : Ala ka Zam! from water – even living water – into wine.  But this does not mean that your life is saved for heaven in the next life if you believe in a resuscitated corpse.  That’s not what John meant either, but that argument is for another day.

No.  When John says whoever believes Jesus is the Anointed One is changed, he means you no longer live your life in the conventional way.  You no longer are concerned only with your own well-being – with your own health, wealth, and access to power.  Instead, you are concerned with the health and well-being of not just yourself, but your community, and even the planet.  That’s the meaning of justice.  And more than that, it’s the meaning of distributive justice-compassion.  Because it’s beyond the simple idea of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth; it’s beyond the idea that what goes around comes around; it’s beyond the idea of reward and punishment; it’s way beyond the idea of justice as payback.  And it’s for NOW, not after you die. 

It’s a paradigm shift from injustice and death to justice and life.  In other words, when you live in a condition where you are only concerned with your own health, wealth, and access to power, you are spiritually dead.  That’s called “injustice.”  For 21st century non-theists, changing water into wine means a fundamental shift in mind and paradigm from fear to love; from greed to sharing; from unjust systems that are the normal consequence of civilization’s laws to distributive justice-compassion.

And you don’t have to follow or believe in Jesus for this paradigm shift to occur.

Back to Lloyd Geering.  He suggests further that as human spiritual experience evolves from a universal “god” to secularism, as our cosmology changes because of our understanding of the nature of the universe itself, we see ourselves more and more in relationship to our own Planet Earth.  If “God” is “Gaia,” we can apply the list of injustices carried out against people to the earth itself.  With that understanding, the wrath of God that the Old Testament prophet invokes can be seen as the consequences of misplaced dominion over earth’s resources.  Until we stop mountaintop removal, deep-sea oil extraction, “fracking” for natural gas, unchecked pollutants pouring into the earth, the air, and the water; until women are educated and treated as equal in all ways with men, thereby stopping the explosion of population, until those things happen, we can expect continuing climate change, disruptions to growing seasons, famines, floods – the mythic four horsemen of the apocalypse wreaking havoc on life as we know it.

When we experience a sustainable earth as the one that provides all life-forms with “living water,” and join the work of distributive justice-compassion. . . then we will have turned water into wine.  And here is the final strand in the braid:  One way that Unitarian Universalists participate in the work to change water into wine, to change the paradigm, to evolve into a beacon of light for ourselves and others, is to stand on the side of love.  The Unitaian Universalist Association has designated February as THIRTY DAYS OF LOVE – a collective visioning process about making sense of the present moment, and what we are called to do. Followng is the reflection for Day 14 as the last word:

        There is a lot of healing left to do in this country and in the world. There is a lot of injustice and we are called as a people to do what we can to counter it. We can fight for justice as individuals, but I would rather do it as a community guided by a vision. So when someone asks us “Why are you here?” We can answer, “Because there is evil in the world. It comes in many forms ranging from brutal and immediate to the complex and bureaucratic. But evil is not the highest power. We are here because love and goodness are the highest power. We are here because love asked us to come, to sit before you and say this cannot happen any longer.”

Wednesday, February 1, 2012


Mark 5:24-34
Mark 11:15-17

Today’s New York Times reports that the Southern Baptist Convention has scored another victory in the war against women waged by fundamentalist “christians.”
        In a decision that is inflaming passions on both sides of the abortion debate, the world’s largest breast cancer organization, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, is cutting off its financing of breast cancer screening and education programs run by Planned Parenthood affiliates.
        . . . Anti-abortion advocates and Web sites have criticized the Komen foundation’s financing of Planned Parenthood for years. And in December, LifeWay Christian Resources, which is owned by the Southern Baptist Convention, said it was recalling a pink Bible it was selling at Walmart and other stores because a dollar per copy was going to the Komen foundation and the foundation supported Planned Parenthood.
When was the last time any of these people who claim to follow Jesus read the story about the woman with “a chronic flow of blood for twelve years,” who had the audacity to touch Jesus’ clothes because she believed it would cure her illness?  Did Jesus snatch his robes away from her dirty fingers and call her a child murderer?  No – he called her “daughter” and said “your trust has cured you, go in peace.”

The SBC is so incensed at uppity women who want affordable health care, they won’t even give them the Bibles they insist were written by God Himself!  Instead, they SELL them to the poor who shop at Walmart, but only so long as those women don’t attempt to get their mammograms at Planned Parenthood!  Ever wondered what Jesus was protesting when he wrecked the tables of the money-changers in the Temple?  He wasn’t protesting the exchange of money.  He was protesting the corruption of the religious authorities

Monday, January 30, 2012


Matthew 25:14-30

The parable of the talents has nothing to do with pretending you can’t dance, or not following your bliss into your true calling.  It’s a parable about money in trust, and applies directly to today’s breaking news:  Freddie Mac Bets Against American Homeowners. Matthew turns the parable into a judgment against people who don’t have enough faith to wait for Jesus to come again.  But Jesus’ over-the-top joke is actually a blueprint for Occupy Wall Street action. 

“You know,” Jesus says in the Scholars translation, “It’s like a man going on a trip who called his slaves and turned his valuables over to them.”  The master leaves the first slave 30,000 silver coins.  Assuming each coin is an ounce, that’s about $100 million, according to today’s New York spot price.  It’s also not a great deal of money for the 21st Century, given the rate at which the Adelson’s are pouring money into the Gingrich campaign, not to mention Citizens United.  But in the 1st Century of the common era, the first two slaves received a fortune, and the third received what amounts to about 20 years of wages. 

By this time the disciples – who had been with Jesus long enough to know what’s coming – must have been listening closely for the punch line.  Unfortunately we don’t really know what the punch line may have been.  The story certainly reflects the unjust economics of Empire, but as it stands – whether in Luke’s version (Luke 19:12-27) or Matthew’s – the disciples must have just shrugged.  So what?  The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.  Matthew resorts to stating the obvious, then adds insult to injury by having the master throw the slave – who was afraid to invest in the stock market on his behalf – into the utter darkness where, as the NRSV puts it, “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  Somehow “faith” or “belief” in Jesus acquires some means of being measured, and those who have more will get more, and those who have less will be thrown under the bus by a vengeful God.

But suppose the slave was not acting out of fear, but was refusing to participate in a clear violation of Mosaic law (Leviticus 25:35-37)?  Suppose – in an action prescient of Occupy Wall Street – he pulled off the ultimate insult?  The real story Jesus told as he and his band camped beside the Sea of Galliee, not far from Tiberias probably went like this:

“There was a rich man who was planning an extended marketing trip to the Roman colonies in Syria.  Before he left, he turned over his business operations to three slaves.”

One of the women is cleaning fish poached from the lake and throwing them into a cauldron steaming in the fire. She pauses a moment and says, “I heard something about this from Mary’s uncle Mordecai not two hours ago.”

Jesus looks around at the company.  They have seen that look before.  “To the first he gave 30,000 silver coins . . .”

Several snickers are heard as several more fish find their way into the soup.  The woman starts shaking her head.  A child runs into the group, screaming about some outrage his brother has perpetrated.  Another woman catches him, and quiets him down to listen.

“He gave 12,000 silver coins to the second, and to the third, 6,000 silver coins.  The first slave immediately used his master’s name to buy the most lucrative farm within miles, and sure enough, when the crops were harvested he had increased his investment ten-fold.”

“Sounds like that thief Jered,” grumbles one of the men.  “Put my whole family off the land and here we are.”

“The second tripled his money by seizing all the land bordering the lake and charging the fishermen for access, and requiring that they buy back the fish they caught before selling them in the market.”

Nothing is heard now but the bubbling stew.  This is too close for joking.  They wouldn’t be throwing contraband fish into a pot liberated from someone too rich to miss it if not for the recent edict handed down by Herod Antipas.

“The third slave took his 6,000 pieces of silver and buried them in the master’s kitchen garden.”

Jesus smiles a private smile, reaches for a loaf of bread, breaks off a hunk, chews, and waits.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

First Amendment: Lose the “Prayer” Breakfasts

Ocean City Mayor's Special Guest Says “No Mosques in America,” Invokes Hitler Against Obama, Etc.
It’s likely too late to block the Mayor’s choice of prayer breakfast keynoters – but why do government officials have “prayer breakfasts” anyway?  Jesus is reported to have said that when you pray, “don’t act like phonies.  They love to stand up and pray in houses of worship and on street corners, so they can show off in public.  I swear to you, their prayers have been answered!  When you pray, to into a room by yourself and shut the door behind you.  Then pray to your Father, the hidden one. . . . And when you pray, you should not babble on as the pagans do” (Matthew 6:5-8, Scholars Version).

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Who ARE These People?

In the latest issue of Westar Institute’s periodical The Fourth R (for “religion”), long-time editor and member Tom Hall argues with Vanderbilt Divinity School Visiting Scholar Gerd Lüdemann about who can claim the name of “Christian” in today’s post-modern, post-Christian context.  Hall demands, “Who says we must ‘save’ the doctrine of the risen Christ?  Who says we may not disavow clearly obsolete elements of ‘the faith of most early Christians’?”  Professor Lüdemann fires back: “After the bodily resurrection and other supernatural propositions are recognized as fictions, the heritage that remains is simply Judaism.  So why shouldn’t Christians join the local synagogue and become Jews?”

Unfortunately, The Fourth R is not yet published online, and I can’t quote much of it (“fair use,” and all that).  But the question raised is at the heart of Christian identity crises today.  People who have joined the 21st century in terms of cosmology and want to distinguish ourselves from biblical literalists (fundamentalists) can choose between “liberal” and “progressive.”  But what about theologically conservative Christians who staunchly support all of the social justice positions of the political left?  Should they give up the designation “evangelical”?  Is it fair that they get lumped in with the rest of the libertarian right?

My favorite quote from the online discussion at Sojourners God’s Politics is: “With a glass of champagne in one hand and a smile on his face, Rob Bell, former pastor of Mars Hill church in Michigan, answered, “An evangelical is someone who, when they leave the room, you have more hope than when they entered.”

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Biblical Literacy: Who Cares?

Atheists care.  Mormons care.  “Evangelical” “born again” Christians don’t care.  “Spiritual not religious” refugees from organized Christian churches don’t care.  Unitarians don’t care (unless they are atheists).  Keli Goff ranted on Dylan Ratigan and the Huffington Post that:
        . . . an overwhelming majority of those who believe in God are ignorant of basic Biblical facts, and facts about other religions. A 2010 Pew study found only 2% of those surveyed could answer 29 of the 32 questions asked correctly. Most could answer about half. This means that people who aren’t well-versed in their own religious beliefs, or anyone else’s, are making decisions in the voting booth fueled by prejudice that isn't even well-informed prejudice.
        . . . Atheists were among the top scoring groups on Pew’s religion pop quiz.  Mormons also scored well. . . . So . . . If most of us are not knowledgeable enough of our own faiths to truly know if another faith is at odds with our own, then how can a vote based in part on someone else’s designated religion be rooted in anything other than prejudice?
More important than voting based on religious prejudice is indifference to Christian fundamentalist Zionism, and the fervent desire on the part of Christian fundamentalists to establish a theocracy in the United States. Christian Zionism  poses a direct threat to world peace because of its belief in the literal return of Jesus to establish a “new Jerusalem” and usher in the "Kingdom of God."  Christian Zionism is at the root of right-wing Christian foreign policy espoused by all three Republican candidates still in the race for the nomination.

Liberal and progressive Christians need to bone up on Revelation, the Revised Common Lectionary, and the Gospel of John (see John Shuck’s sermons, and my Liberal Christian Commentary Archive), and then join the Westar Institute in its continuing, paradigm-shifting work on the historical Jesus, the development of early Christianity, and – most recently – the Bible itself.  Want more help? provides resources, guiding ideas, and spiritual networking opportunities for progressive individuals, churches, and organizations.

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What Would Jesus Do?

This blog will comment on current events, politics, social, and environmental issues from a liberal (progressive) Christian point of view.  The underlying question is, what would the [historical] Jesus do?

For continuing commentary on New Testament and Biblical literacy, please visit the Gaia Rising website and click on Liberal Christian Commentary.