Tuesday, October 30, 2012

the problem with small government

The problem with small government is that there are big problems.  We saw that this week in a major way.  Sandy barreled down on the northeast and the damage is astounding.  There is no way that the strapped states could meet the needs of their devastated populations.  Many of them have provisions in their constitutions that they must have balanced budgets so the only way they could address the problems of a natural disaster like Sandy would be to decimate all of their programs.  It simply would not work without obscene human costs.

Beyond that, when we have people in leadership whose basic assumption is that government is a bad thing that needs to be shrunk until it is small enough to be drowned in the bathtub, it doesn't matter whether they are skilled and competent or not.  They will not respond in an adequate way.  We saw that after Katrina when FEMA blew it big time.  There were reasons even beyond the incompetence of the leadership (and they were incompetent).  They simply didn't see it as their job.  The response was inadequate and many areas of the gulf still have not recovered.  On the other end of the spectrum, we see the Obama administration who put FEMA resources in place as soon as it became clear that Sandy would be horrific.  They began to make contacts with the governors and building coalitions to get things done before the storm hit.  Even Gov. Christie of New Jersey praised the Obama administration for their efficiency at addressing the problems.  He also said that he is expecting significant funds from the federal government to help meet the needs of his state.

Romney implied during the primary debates that FEMA should be privatized or at least that the responsibilities it owns be passed down to the state level.  Republicans significantly cut funding to FEMA over the past few years and Ryan's budget calls for further cuts.  All of that is while holding the recent memory of Katrina.  They simply do not believe it is their job to help out in times like this.  The responsibility is given to the states, who simply cannot address the biggest issues.  The expectation is that charities and the private sector would help.  We saw how that worked with Katrina.  Faithful volunteers spent hundreds of thousands of hours helping out and slowly drifted away as the months passed.  Some are still working there but they cannot begin to address the problems that persist 7 years later.  The private sector?  The casinos went back up on the gulf coast in a matter of months.  Housing for poor folk?  Still waiting to be constructed.

The next time you hear a Tea Party person claim we need smaller government, remember the images of New Jersey and New York and ask them, "If we didn't have a big government, who would help in times like this?"  They very well may answer that folk are on their own... that is not a country where I want to live.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Church Music Redux

Yesterday there was a op ed that said that revitalizing the Roman Catholic mass will involve abandoning pipe organs.  While I have to say that I have no commitment to revitalizing the mass nor do I think that scraping pipe organs is the solution to any problems the RC church is having in attracting younger folk, I was very interested to see a response to the piece on Felice Me Fa.  The author gives four recommendations:
1. encourage music education
2. prioritize and support music in the parishes
3. give people more time
4. let music come to life
The author betrays a number of problematic ideas that often characterize the mainstream church.  Let me give a little background here first.  There is an interesting disconnect where more theologically liberal churches tend to be more conservative in style, while churches with a conservative theology are often more attuned to cultural change when it comes to their worship style.  It makes some sense.  If you believe that your neighbors are all going to hell and care about them at all, then you'd be willing to do just about anything to get them "saved."  If couching the message in contemporary music and a Jay Leno style worship works, then you do it.  If on the other hand, you do not believe that all of your unchurched neighbors are going to hell, there is a different motivation for what goes on in the life of the church.  All too often that gets translated as a responsibility to convey some higher culture.  That is the problem with the blogger's recommendations.

It is not the responsibility of the church to teach folk about any type of music and even less is it the responsibility of the church to preserve arts and culture from centuries ago, regardless of the beauty of those arts.  Likewise, it is not the responsibility of the church to make judgements regarding the relative value of different styles of music.  While I agree that music is extremely important in the life of a church, its role there is not a central one.  It is supportive.

I have served three churches, two of which had pipe organs and one of which was a very significant instrument.  I have worked with stellar organists and have been deeply moved by some of their performances.  I have also seen significant amount of church resources go into organ maintenance when there were other issues that I judged as being more important to the overall ministry of the church that were ignored.  Personally, I do not experience the presence of God in organ music, listening to a church choir, or a hand bell choir.

Let me address her four recommendations individually. 

1.  Is it sad that young people don't have an appreciation of much of the serious music from our past?  Yes.  (FWIW, my bachelors degree is in music)  Fixing that issue is not the job of the church.  It belongs to schools.  By all means encourage music education, but put it where it belongs.

2. Yes, prioritize music in congregations and spend enough money to make sure the music is done well.  Music is important in our culture.  But remember the role of music in the church.  It is there to help people to experience the presence of God.  It is not the role of the church to preserve the popular culture from previous centuries in Europe.

3.  Unfortunately, waiting for people to become more aware of unfamiliar and unappreciated music styles is not a possibility for the church.  People will leave for churches where they can experience music they already find meaningful... or jettison church altogether.  They are not there to receive a cultural education... they are there to experience the presence of God.

4. Here we agree... more or less.  There is nothing like live music, but music in the church is not about performance, it is about participation. 

So, unless your congregation is one that is showing by the attendance numbers that it deeply appreciates the organ, dump it.  And more than that, dump all of those vestiges of a different age so that the church, especially the mainline and progressive churches, can speak a message which the larger culture can hear.  I believe in the good news.  I believe a progressive gospel message is needed in our broken and fragmented world.  An organ along with those practices and ideas from a past long gone, in almost all instances, only keep that message from being heard.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Mormonism in the news and the ballot box

Let me begin with a disclaimer.  Being a Mormon (or a Muslim, an Athiest, a Unitarian, a Bahai, or whatever else) does not disqualify an individual from running for president.  At the same time a candidate's religious commitments or lack thereof can certainly be considered when an individual decides for whom they will vote.  All of that has nothing to do with this post.

A second disclaimer... while there are lots of Mormons in the area where I live and the property owned by the church I serve shares a boundary with a Mormon church, I don't have any friends who are Mormon.  I do have some acquaintances who are Mormon.  The Mormon folk I know are nice people.  As a community, the hold some values that I admire.  They care deeply about their families (even if the definition is a lot more narrow than mine).  They care for one another in community and are there for one another when there is need.  They take their faith seriously and live it... a two year commitment to mission work is a serious thing.  They do have some values that I find problematic as well.  The misogyny built into their theology, the belief in American exceptionalism, and a general secrecy about their faith that borders on and perhaps is at times dishonest all trouble me.

And an affirmation.  My personal theology is not exclusive.  I affirm the truths in other religions and deeply appreciate what they can teach me as a person of faith.  In addition to a variety of different brands of Christians, I have friends who are Muslim, Bahai, Jewish, and Hindu.  I also have friends who are agnostic and others who are atheist.  I learn from all of them and I am glad they are all part of my life.
Last week the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association removed Mormonism from the list of cults on their website.  It was clearly a political move as Franklin Graham, Billy's son, has been an outspoken opponent of Obama and there have been many evangelicals who have been reticent about voting for a member of a cult for president.  Remove any mentions of Mormons as a cult and perhaps remove a bit of that reticence among some evangelical voters.  Early in the campaign a PAC supporting Romney made a television ad raising the issue of Obama's ties with Jeremiah Wright and the brand of Afro-centric Liberation Theology preached at Trinity UCC Church in Chicago.  Romney quickly asked that the ad be dropped and it was.  He clearly was worried that issues of religion would cause large numbers of evangelicals to stay home on election day if they learned more about Mormonism.  Coinciding with the removal of the cult definition, Romney brought up his faith at the end of the second presidential debate.

Mormons are not Christians... at least not in any traditional use of that descriptor in spite of the fact that they call themselves Christian.  Yes, a person named Jesus is central to their faith, but that could be said about other non-Christian religions as well.  Jesus appears in Islam and is affirmed in many eastern religions but that does not make them "Christian." 

Let me just point to two different Mormon doctrines that take them clearly outside of historical Christianity.  First is a little saying "As God was, man is, as God is, man may become."   Some folk may see parallels here to the traditional Christian idea of the incarnation, but it does go far beyond that idea.  This is a Mormon idea that each man can evolve into a god and that God was once like we are now and evolved into whatever God now is. 

Second, Mormons are polytheists.  Christians have always called themselves monotheistic and placed themselves in the same traditions as Jews and Muslims.  Now, some Jews and Muslims might raise questions regarding Christian monotheism we struggle to make sense of the Trinity, but Mormons again clearly believe something beyond that.  Joseph Smith taught that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three separate gods.  Other Mormon profits have affirmed numerous times that there are many gods with each world having its own god.  You can also see that theme in the previous paragraph.  If we all (men) can become gods, then there clearly are multiple gods.  Indeed, one prophet, Orson Pratt, said that there are more gods than there are particles of matter.

I do not know whether or not one should include Mormons in a list of cults.  I guess that becomes a matter of definition.  I would say that they clearly should not be included in any historical definition of Christianity. 

Should that affect your vote?  Only you can decide that.  There are Mormon politicians whom I respect and for whom I might vote - Jon Huntsman would be one.  There are politicians who call themselves Christian for whom I would never vote.  George Bush was one.  Romney?  Sure, you can consider his religion if you want, but more importantly,  look at his policies and both his expressed values and the things he has said and done in the past... vote accordingly... just don't vote for him because he is a Christian.  He isn't.  He is a Mormon.  For that matter, don't vote for Obama because he is a Christian.  He is.  Instead, look at is policies, his expressed values, his actions, and the things he has said and vote accordingly.

Friday, October 19, 2012


I've been unfriended on Facebook... more than once.  The first time I was aware of it, I was upset.  Yes, I am opinionated and I'm not shy about sharing opinions, but I try to be respectful of those with whom I disagree and I try to learn from them.  I also try to help them better understand my position.  Yes... there is a degree of "evangelism" inherent in that, but I am more concerned about discussing and learning than about converting.  I really wanted to know whether there was something I had said that was offensive and fix it.  I didn't try but I still am curious about that first unfriending.

I never imagined that I would do it.  I have some pretty conservative friends and I treasure their input especially when we don't agree.  That reminds me that there are other ways of seeing the world and they always have something to teach me.  They also remind me of some of the fallacies on my side of the theological, cultural, and political boundaries.  That is very good.

This week, for the first time I unfriended someone.  It wasn't easy for me to do.  I really do treasure those connections across viewpoints and I really do try to be both respectful and humble.  This time, there was no discussion and no respect coming my way at all and no interest in seeing anything from another's viewpoint.  More than once I got messages from other friends asking what was up with that person on my timeline.  Then the questions became "why are you putting up with that?"  and I began to see that some of the remarks were hurtful to other friends or worse than that, were bringing out the worst in me and in other people.  So, I unfriended this individual.

I wish we had been able to talk and learn from one another.  I wish that both of us would have been stretched and encouraged to see things in new ways.  That just wasn't happening and as another friend reminded me, "don't feed the trolls."  I don't regret it, but I am sad.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Redistribution of Wealth

a popular graphic on Facebook
The catch phrase "redistribution of wealth" has become an important one in this political season.  It is often thrown out as a criticism of Obama, that he is for the redistribution of wealth.  I'd like to make a few observations about the issue.

First, every economic transaction involves the redistribution of wealth.  When I receive my paycheck from Cambridge Drive Community Church, it represents a redistribution of wealth.  Church members have placed checks in the offering plates and their wealth is redistributed to me and to other obligations of the church.  When I go to the grocery store and purchase groceries, my wealth is redistributed to workers, stockholders, property owners, and before them to producers.  The question is not whether wealth will be redistributed, but whether the rules that govern the redistribution are fair to all involved.

I have to say that I often respond to Facebook posts and to the graphic above about redistribution of wealth by saying it is a Biblical idea.  It clearly is and basically always involves redistributing from the wealthy to the poor.  The Old Testament laws regarding the Year of Jubilee are the archetype for the issue.  In those laws, every 50 years all debts were cancelled, slaves freed, and land - the primary means of production - returned to the original family of ownership.  Think of what that means for a minute... John Doe was an excellent businessman, worked hard, and was able to acquire significant property.   He dreamed of passing it on to his grandchildren so they could have a leg up.  Doesn't happen though because in 50 years, everything is equalized and all of the additional property he purchased through his hard work went back to the original families of ownership with no reimbursement to him or his heirs.  On the other hand, Jack Smith was a lazy do nothing.  He lost all of his family's property due to sloth and poor decision making.  He never thought a moment about his grandchildren.  Because of the year of Jubilee, they didn't need to live with the consequences of his poor choices.  Everything was equalized and they started on a level playing field with the grandchildren of John Doe.  Neither would benefit or suffer from the decisions made by their ancestors.  Scholars do not believe that the laws were ever observed.  It is no wonder.  By the time the first observance came around, those who had accumulated goods and advantages weren't willing to give them up.  In spite of the clear proscriptions in the Law, they refused to follow God's plan for redistribution of wealth.  Like the graphic, they shouted, "It's not fair!  We worked hard for that property."  The law looked at a deeper question of fairness and observed that systematically denying the means of production to some people is worse yet.

A particular verse in the discussion of the year of Jubilee has been on my mind a great deal this week as I've been thinking about this issue.  Leviticus 25:23 says,  "the land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants."  In an agrarian time, the land was the primary means of production.  Leviticus tells us here that the primary means of production belongs to God, never to an individual, and therefore cannot be sold or owned in perpetuity.  The "owners" are always tenants or aliens rather than owners of the means of production and that property is always God's to redistribute.  More importantly, the assumption is always there that those who hold the means of production are stealing from the poor.  This especially clear in the minor prophets but we see it just as clearly in the words of Jesus - Mark 10:23-25, Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

So what do we do with this today?  Clearly we are not going to institute the Year of Jubilee.  Still, we can see the tax code and government programs shaped in such a way as to favor the poor over the wealthy so regardless of whether one is wealthy because of hard work or an accident of birth or whether one is poor because of laziness or an accident of birth, all receive equal opportunities.   We can imagine schools funded in such a way as to remove the systemic advantages that go to the already wealthy.   We can imagine the means of production as equally available to all.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Mutiny! Why We Love Pirates and How They Can Save Us

first two disclaimers and an apology...

I received this book for free in return for writing this review.  Second, I have met the author.  A few years ago we met at an event called Soliton and had a few beers together.  I found Kester to be delightful and very bright.  Neither issue will impact any opinions I have regarding the book.   And the apology, I promised to write this review by September 30.  I didn't.  I'm sorry.  Here it is.

The other day I was sitting in front of the television watching a rented movie.  Before the film began there was the typical announcement that "piracy is not a victimless crime."  Of course it is not... we've all imagined the violence of Somali pirates taking hostages of the coast of Africa, families terrified, life disrupted, and on rare occasions, people dying.   But how is that the same as copying a DVD or CD?  And is the situation in Somalia really what we've imagined?

I knew next to nothing about pirates before reading Mutiny.  I do have a friend who is doing her doctoral dissertation on pirates so I've heard a little bit about the way that they were used by the powers that were in the political machinations of the 1600's.  Still, I knew very little more than the cartoonish pictures so prevalent in pop culture.

Brewin has two themes that are central to his argument, the benefits of the commons are being confiscated by those with power and resources, leaving the common people without, and whenever the commons are blocked, pirates emerge to unblock things.  Indeed, his definition of pirate is "one who emerges to defend the commons wherever homes, cultures or economies become ‘blocked’ by the rich." (Kindle Locations 783-784).   He does push the argument a bit further into metaphor as well and talks about the unblocking of the self as a psychological act of piracy necessary for maturation.

The short review of the book is that I loved it.  Go buy it.  The longer review is a little more nuanced.  Brewin clearly says again and again that the pirates are not out to change the game, they have just refused to play.  At the same time, there is more than a bit of romaticization of the pirates, turning them into counter-culture heroes and heroines.  I asked my dissertation friend about Brewin's picture of freedom and equality loving pirates and she reminded me not to forget that they killed people... lots of people.  Evidently piracy was not a victimless crime... but neither were the situations that led to piracy victimless.  That is the message of the book.

In a world where labor and its rewards are more and more separate, where the commons of creative thought and traditions of music and writing, where the power of religion is used to bind people rather than free them, piracy becomes a naturally occurring response.  The questions are many and the answers not simple, but Brewin argues the spirit of the pirate is needed to fix the problems of the world.  What do I say to that?  Argh!

Thursday, October 04, 2012

St Francis of Assisi Day

St. Francis preaching to the birds

In the Roman Catholic Church, each saint has a day assigned to honor them.  Today is St. Francis of Assisi Day.  I thought of him this morning as I fed my cats, as we drove to work and saw three deer feeding beside the road, watched a herd of cattle and then of llamas in the fields along the highway, passed a murder of crows dropping walnuts to the road to break them open, saw a pair of mockingbirds trying to run another crow off that had gotten too close to their nest, listen to the insects and birds sing outside my open office door, listened to the squeals and laughter as children arrived for nursery school...  Francis saw the presence of God in the faces of all of his little brothers and sisters, heard the voice of God in their songs, and preached back to them the good news of God's love.  He calls us to find the very presence of God in the wonders of creation surrounding us.

In yesterday's daily e-mail meditation, Richard Rohr had this to say about Francis

In most paintings of people waiting for the Holy Spirit they are looking upward, with their hands outstretched or raised up, the assumption being that the Holy Spirit will descend from “up” above. In the Great Basilica in Assisi where St. Francis is buried, there’s a bronze statue of him honoring the Holy Spirit. His posture and perspective are completely different from what we have come to expect. He’s looking down into the earth with expectation and desire! This is the change of perspective that became our alternative orthodoxy—although it should have been mainline orthodoxy! He was merely following the movement of the Incarnation, since Christians believe that the Eternal Word became “flesh” (John 1:14), and it is in the material world that God and the holy are to be found.
 Today, I will honor Francis by looking down to find the presence of God.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Pulpit Freedom Sunday

Religion and politics has become a hot button topic these days.

Roman Catholic Archbishop John Meyers has said that members of his church who are pro gay marriage should not receive the Eucharist.  

For the past five years a group of conservative pastors have observed what they call Pulpit Freedom Sunday.     Each year there is a lot of discussion about the propriety of the day and of churches making political endorsements.  It is scheduled for this Sunday.

First let me come clean.  I believe in absolute freedom of religion.  The State has no right to dictate what a religious group can say or believe or constrain the way that faith lives itself out unless it is a danger to the general public.   I also believe in freedom from religion as a necessary corollary to absolute freedom of religion.  If individuals are not able to escape the influences of faith, they cannot freely choose.  Public policy is therefore never to be based on religious doctrines. Freedom of religion is clearly an important issue in the two situations raised above.

A Roman Catholic archbishop can restrict who receives the Eucharist based on his understanding of Roman Catholic teaching.  If he deems that advocating gay marriage is a sin, and that sin precludes one from the Lord's table, he can do that.  The Roman Catholic church is not a democracy and it is irrelevant whether the majority of members agree or not or even if the teaching has no credible basis in scripture.  He is the bishop and he speaks for the church (I know that is a slight over simplification).  There is a set body of doctrine and practice, set by the church, which members are obligated to hold and observe.  Now, if he is misinterpreting the church's teaching, that is for those above him in the hierarchy to say, not the members, not the US government, and certainly not those outside of the Roman Catholic Church.  If an individual disagrees, he or she can leave that communion.

I also agree with the founders of Pulpit Freedom Sunday that the state has no right to control anything said from the pulpit.   Part of the issue of freedom of religion is precisely that, that the government has no right to dictate what a religious group can or cannot say.  Indeed, for many of the early framers of freedom of religion, a significant part of the equation was the ability of the Church to judge the State.  How could they do that if they were not allowed to speak on political issues?  If you look at the history of political speech in churches, it was not against IRS rules until the time of LBJ.  Before then, pastors often spoke on political issues and no doubt, endorsed candidates at times.

Many folk misunderstand the way the tax code impacts separation of church and state.  They often believe that religious organizations receive their tax exemption because they are like other charities that receive special tax status because they provide some community good.  While I would argue that religious groups do a tremendous amount of good in our society, that is not why they receive tax exempt status.  They receive tax exempt status solely because they are religious groups.  The Supreme Court said in 1819 that the power to tax is the power to destroy, and the State has no grounds for any type of control over any religious group... therefore no taxation.

Some see the tax exempt status as a government subsidy to religion.   The argument goes that because religious organizations do not pay taxes but do receive the benefits of government services, that equals a subsidy. The argument itself is not all that strong, but even if accurate, it does not matter.  The Constitution precludes the establishment of religion and as was said above, the ability to tax is the ability to destroy... thereby interfering with religious freedom.

Now, I would not dare endorse a candidate from my pulpit (even though anyone who knows me could make a pretty accurate guess who I'll be voting for).  I believe that God calls each of us to weigh the questions and make a decision.  I believe there are some views that are clearly mo but that reflects my theology, not everyones'.   Some religious groups have very well defined beliefs and extremely narrow options for disagreement.  Freedom of religion requires that they be allowed to speak their religious beliefs from their pulpits.

Two other issues that have been raised a lot lately are not so clear - payment for contraception by medical insurance paid for by Roman Catholic institutions and the issue of abortion and public funds.  The Catholic institutions in question are involved in matters not quite so clearly religious in nature such as hospitals, hire individuals who are not Roman Catholic, and serve in ways that are not quite clearly religious.  I think the solution given by the Obama administration is an inelegant but workable solution.

As for abortions, public funds are not eligible to be used to pay for elective abortions anyway so the question is moot.  It does raise a sticky point for me.  What about taxes that are used to pay for things clearly in violation of a group's religious principles?  If public funds were used to pay for elective abortions, should Roman Catholics or members of some evangelical groups be allowed to withhold a portion of their taxes because the funds are being used in ways that conflict with their faith?  How about tax dollars that fund the military or capital punishment, both of which have been forbidden in Anabaptist doctrine for centuries?  Should Anabaptists be allowed to withhold the percentage of their taxes that go to fund the military?