Monday, January 31, 2011

Notes from a Reluctant Liberal Christian

A few years ago, a dear friend of mine described me as an evangelical turned liberal Protestant.  I remember blanching at that definition.  Politically, I tend to lean more center-right/libertarian.  Theologically, I'm pretty orthodox.

But the fact is, I am a liberal Protestant these days.  I'm ordained into a mainline Protestant denomination (Disciples of Christ) and I have standing in another denomination that in some cases is the very embodiment of liberal Protestantism (the United Church of Christ).

I've been a part of mainline Protestantism for nearly 20 years.  In the years after college, I found the evangelicalism of my youth wanting and left it seeking a better fit.  I found that in mainline churches.  I should add, that I never looked down on evangelical past; I think it is still a worthy tradition and it made me who I am.  But, my home is now in a different tradition.

And yet it has at times been an uneasy fit.  Don't get me wrong; I am thankful for a tradition that honors diversity.  My evangelical roots would never accept an open gay pastor, but liberal Protestantism did.  It has also been on the forefront of issues such as civil rights and helped give women a more equal footing in America.

But while in many ways, I am liberal in my theology, I feel at times that the liberalism I am talking about is from another era.  Some of my uneasiness is reflected in Bruce Reyes-Chow's excellent essay on the good and bad liberal Christianity.  Unlike me, he is way more comfortable wearing the liberal label, but he also able to be critical of it:

Over the past few months I have found myself frustrated a lot.  Sitting on the sidelines observing a few interactions between Christians with whom I find theological and ideological commonality, I've found myself whispering under my breath, "I love ya. I agree with ya. But you are really not helping." It seems that in an attempt to respond to actions and words that we liberals feel are wrong, even destructive, we often do more harm than good.

Now I realize that for me to make such broad sweeping statements is pretty arrogant and I fully admit my participation in most of the following accusations in my life. But let me be equally arrogant in saying that if the liberal or progressive church - and we can fight over "liberal," "progressive," etc. definitions HERE - is going to lead the way forward in the church and be part of a larger cultural conversation about morals and faith, we have got to quit shooting ourselves in the proverbial foot and driving people away from our particular approach to faith and life.

His post reads as a love letter to his fellow liberals, telling them to do good work, but also calling them on where they fall short.

On the other hand, Walter Russell Mead's essay from last year reads like a letter from a longsuffering wife to her cheating husband.  He rails against liberal Christianity's willingness to get in bed with the political left at the expense of the life of the church:

In the mainline churches, which is what I know best, the political views leaders express are generally those of what could be called the ‘foundation left’ — emotionally grounded in concern for the poor and development, historically linked to the ‘new left’ mix of economic and social concerns as developed in the 1960′s, shaped by an atmosphere of privilege and entitlement that reflects the upper middle class background of the educated professionals who run these institutions.  The social sins they deplore are those of the right: excessive focus on capitalism, too robust and unheeding a promotion of the American national and security interest abroad, insufficient care for the environment, failure to help the poor through government welfare programs, failure to support affirmative action, failure to celebrate and protect the unrestricted right of women to abort.  I am of course speaking very generally here and there are lots of individual exceptions, but many of these folks are generally tolerant of theological differences and rigidly intolerant when it comes to political differences: they care nothing at all about doctrines like predestination but get very angry with people who disagree with them about issues like global warming or immigration reform.  Theological heresy is a matter for courtesy and silence, but political heretics fill them with bile.

Back in the days of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war, it was news when Episcopal bishops sided in public with liberal causes.  It took real courage for bishops and priests to speak up in some cases; one of the clergymen in the town where I grew up had been driven from his last parish in Alabama because he spoke up for the Montgomery bus boycott led by Martin Luther King.  Other priests received death threats; some who participated in the Freedom Rides and other demonstrations were beaten by angry mobs.

But these days an Episcopal bishop would have to go to a lot of trouble to get into the news for backing a liberal political cause.  The headline says it all: Liberal Official of Small, Declining Liberal Denomination Endorses Liberal Idea.  This isn’t news for two reasons: it is utterly predictable and it doesn’t matter.  Trivial and predictable are not news, and the political stands that the mainline clergy take are almost always both.  A statement by an Episcopal bishop will not change one mind or one vote; at least in all my years in the pews I’ve never met a single Episcopalian who said that the opinion of a bishop does or should have the slightest influence on how Episcopalians vote and if the churchgoers aren’t paying attention to the bishops I can’t imagine anyone else is.

I’m not urging the bishops to change their politics.  I’m urging them to shut up.  More precisely, I’m urging them to base their ministry on a clearer understanding of their situation and their role.
It's important to note that both Reyes-Chow and Mead are liberal Christians from mainline Protestant denominations.  Both talk about the decline of the mainline church.  But where Reyes-Chow has a more sunny and hopeful view, Mead is far more dire- his post is fire and brimstone.

In many ways, I feel that I have both views living inside of me.  There are days that I am more like Reyes-Chow, wanting to gently admonish people who I consider my friends, and there are days I want to rip them a new hole.

I would agree with Mead that liberal Christianity has become too chumy with the political left.  I've long agreed that American evangelicalism sold itself out to the GOP, but it didn't take me long to figure out that mainline Christians had done the same with the Democrats.  What's frustrating at times is to see Christians have mirrored the larger world: Team Red on one side and Team Blue on the other.

I'm not asking that liberal Christians who are politically liberal change their ideology, but could we not try to ape the larger society?  Can  we be willing to critical of the political left as we are of the political right?  Can we worry less about getting people to support this viewpoint and give people the tools to think as Christians in the world, influencing culture in different ways? Can we find a way to separate partisan politics from faith? Can the church be follwers of Jesus and not try to make Jesus the mascot of either party?

I guess what I'm asking is that we find ways to talk about justice without it devolving into some kind of pep-rally for this or that political party.  When I work on issues like homelessness or poverty, I want to help people think of how they can put their faith to work, not to tell them to support an agenda. 

Blogger Nathan Gilmour had this to say about justice, the political left and right in a commentary on last Sunday's texts:

...far too often any old cause of the New Left gets baptized in the name of being not-fundamentalist, and far too little inspection and criticism happens, especially when libertarian/capitalist categories of “choice” and “rights” rather than Christian practices like hospitality and thankfulness govern Christian discourse about “issues.” The univocality of Being once again threatens what I take to be genuine Christian reflection in these circles as well: throwing one’s time, effort, money, and sometimes more behind the DNC (just as much as the GOP) machine far too often requires participation in the Manichean machinery of American political discourse, and  such participation far too often loses sight of the common lot of mortals in light of the strong analogical difference between God and humanity.  (And there are few more dishonest moments than when a dedicated New-Left Democrat says that “this is not a left-right issue”: if I had money to gamble, I would bet every time that the next line out of the New-Left Democrat’s mouth is going to be party-line social liberalism.)  Not unlike the Right-Wingers that the Christian Left (rightly) holds in suspicion, the stance in favor of some kinds of Social Justice tends towards a strong division: contract-enforcement for one’s political enemies and seeking-for-shalom for one’s political friends.  The urge is neither inhuman nor unexpected, but it’s not all that different from its mirror image.  The hesed and the mishphat that Micah points to in this week’s reading call everyone to account and to repentance, not in the spirit of some flattened “moral equivalence” but in the realization that, when seen in the light of analogically different divine justice and kindness, no mortal’s sense of the good life should remain un-illuminated.  Perhaps the best place to start is indeed to walk humbly.

Walking humbly.  It sounds like a good start for all of us.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Autistic's Guide to Grooming

This might seem like rather odd advice to give to person- after all it's something that most kids learn at an early age. But for someone who might be autistic, this might not occur to them at all.

I've always been good when it comes to grooming- especially when it comes to taking a bath or brushing my teeth. But I do remember that after I grew a goatee, it took me a while to realize that I had to keep it neat and trim.   Walking around with a scraggly goatee probably didn't help me on the job front way back when.

None of this is to say that anyone with autism has a problem with grooming, but is something to know about.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Stop Making Sense

The fallout from the shooting of US Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 12 others on Saturday has been both fascinating and frustrating to watch.

It's been fascinating because the gun barrels had yet to grow cold when people starting pointing fingers and assigning blame. It's frustrating because we seem to be more interested in blame than in stopping for a moment and simply mourning the loss of life.

Since Saturday, everyone has been trying to offer some explaination about what happened. The one issue that keeps coming up again and again is the tone of political rhetoric in our daily disc0urse. The more nakedly partisan among us dig up maps used by Sarah Palin and point to the former governor and the larger conservative movement as the problem. The less partisan bring up calls for more civility. More than one fellow pastor has called for our political speech to be more charitable.

All of the folks in question swear up and down that such speech is not what killed six people and injured 13 others, but in reality, that is exactly what they are saying. They are saying inflamed speech, such as the use of crosshairs on an ad by a certain former Alsakan governor, is what lead to the massacre in Tuscon.

But the reality is, we really don't know why Jared Loughner decided to open fire at a Safeway. We have a lot of odd writings that don't seem to make sense. On Saturday, James Fallows admitted that many an assasin has shot someone for motives that really had nothing to do with anything:
- Leo Ryan, the first (and, we hope, still the only) Representative to be killed in the line of duty, was gunned down in Guyana in 1978 for an investigation of the Jim Jones/Jonestown cult, not any "normal" political issue.

- Sirhan Sirhan horribly transformed American politics by killing Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, but Sirhan's political causes had little or nothing to do with what RFK stood for to most Americans.

- So too with Arthur Bremer, who tried to kill George C. Wallace in 1972 and left him paralyzed.

- The only known reason for John Hinckley's shooting of Ronald Reagan involves Jodie Foster.

- It's not often remembered now, but Manson family member Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme tried to shoot Gerald Ford, again for reasons that would mean nothing to most Americans of that time.

- When Harry Truman was shot at (and a policeman was killed) on the sidewalk outside the White Blair House, the attackers were concerned not about Cold War policies or Truman's strategy in Korea but about Puerto Rican independence.

- The assassinations of William McKinley and James Garfield were also "political" but not in a way that matched the main politics of that time. The list could go on.
And Ross Douthat's Monday column shows that the assisnation of John F. Kennedy was not due to the anti-Democratic climate in Dallas at the time:
When John F. Kennedy visited Dallas in November of 1963, Texas was awash in right-wing anger — over perceived cold-war betrayals, over desegregation, over the perfidies of liberalism in general. Adlai Stevenson, then ambassador to the U.N., had been spit on during his visit to the city earlier that fall. The week of Kennedy’s arrival, leaflets circulated in Dallas bearing the president’s photograph and the words “Wanted For Treason.”

But Lee Harvey Oswald was not a right-winger, not a John Bircher, not a segregationist. Instead, he was a Marxist of sorts (albeit one disillusioned by his experiences in Soviet Russia), an activist on behalf of Castro’s Cuba, and a man whose previous plot had been aimed at a far-right ex-general named Edwin Walker. The anti-Kennedy excesses of Texas conservatives were real enough, but the president’s assassin acted on a far more obscure set of motivations.
I think part of the reason there has been all this talk about cooling our political speech is because we want to find some answer for this tragedy. We want to make sense of the horror. What better way to make sense of this all than to pin the blame on something or someone else?

But can we really blame it on inflammatory speech? Crosshairs aside, was anybody really calling for the assasination of Representative Giffords? And if the culprit is speech, then how in the world do you "cool down" down the rhetoric? Is this simply a moral problem that can be solved by faith communities or is it something that requires the state to take part?

People are trying hard to find a way to pin a villian, usually a villian that people already don't like. It makes this horror easier to understand to our anxious hearts. But I think the awesome reality is that we don't understand what is going on. We want to, but we don't. There is no easy answer to this situation.

And that scares us. Because if there is no easy answer, then it means that life can be random, that sometimes things happen for no discernable reason. We want there to be an easy reason for endangering the life of a public servant and for killing a nine-year-old whose only crime was going to this event to learn more about government.

There is no real way to make sense of this tragedy and I wish others would stop trying to do so.

What I wish we would do is what Daniel Hernandez did. Hernandez is an intern at Giffords' office and after the Congresswoman was shot on Saturday, he stayed by her side and applied bandages to her wounds. Many people think he might have saved her life.

Instead of pontificating and seeking easy answers, I think we need to simply stand by the side of the hurting. As blogger Michael Kruse says, we need to be able to grieve and comfort those who mourn.

The book of Job is a biblical account of a man who goes through immense suffering. He loses everything- including his children and is visited by his three friends. Later on, the three friends try to offer reasons for Job's sufferings, which were never much helpful. At the beginning, though, they met with Job and just sat with him.

Sometimes, in times of tragedy, nothing needs to be said. We just need to sit, mourn and pray for those lost. We don't have to make sense of everything.

Crossposted at Big Tent Revue

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Growing Up and Letting Go

A friend from high school said something on Facebook recently, that really stuck with me.  The friend pulled an all-nighter, not partying, but chatting and commented that at 41 he wasn't spry as he once was.

Being the same age, I could totally agree with him.  I can't do the same things I used to do when I was 21, and in some cases, I don't want to.  Once you hit your 40s, you start to realize you aren't young anymore.  It might sound odd, but I feel more of an adult now than I did when I turned 21. 

Knowing your age is important.  Ageing means accepting limits and being open to new possibilities because of those limits. 

Which has led me to think about Brett Farve.  Farve is just a few weeks younger than me and we all know, he is ending his long football career...we think.  Farve was supposed to have retired two years ago, and then came back, retired again and then came back again.  I don't know what is it about Farve that he wants to remain in football, when his body is telling him its time to give it up.  What I do know is that it's pretty sad to see a guy trying to hold on his youth, even though his youth left him long ago.

Lane Wallace has written a wonderful essay on Farve and letting go in the Atlantic. (I guess I wasn't the only one thinking about this.) She writes:

...pursuing something you're so passionate about that you not only excel at it but feel it was something you were born to do makes that activity far more central to both your life and your identity. So what do you do when you edge closer to Father Time than the possibility-filled infant year? When enough years pass that the top of the bell curve slips through your grasp and you find yourself sliding down the far side? When you're past your prime, or not physically or mentally able to do or be what people recognized you for anymore? Who are you, then?

The entertainer and comedian Carol Burnett once said she ended her variety show while it was still getting high ratings—a show that gave her a level of fame and success she never again equalled—because she wanted to exit before the hostess started turning out the lights and asking her to leave. If only Elvis could have had that strength and self-control!

In the church, I've been aware of pastors who stayed in the pulpit way past their time and I know the damage that can do to a congregation. The fear is that when the last sermon is given, they will lose their identity. 

Which is what I think Farve is dealing with right now.  He is known as a great quarterback and if he leaves the stage, what will he be then?

Of course, one can be a lot of things, as Wallace notes in her essay.  But it's hard to see that when you're wrapped up in living in your glory days.

So yeah, I'm not a spring chicken anymore.  If I'm not in the "man of a certain age" territory, I'm damn close.  And that's okay.  I still have a future ahead of me and I'm looking forward to see what I will do...when I "grow up."

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Where Dennis Tries to Write A Bible Study

For the last few months, I've been leading a Bible Study at church where we did an overview of the Gospels.  I used some material from the Thoughtful Christian and I think the study went over well.  In looking for what to do next, I stumbled upon a curriculum called Joining the Story on Discipleshare, an open-source Christian Education resource that contains materials written by Disciples of Christ pastors and lay leaders.  Joining the Story was written by Lee Yates, a Disciples pastor in Kentucky. It's written to provide some Bible literacy to youth.  While I'm all for that, I wanted to make it accessible to adults, so I got this fool idea to adapt Joining the Story to adults.

Now, you have to understand a few things.  I have this love/hate relationship with Christian Education.  I'm fascinated by it and want to learn more, but I don't consider myself a teacher and feel like a poor Biblical scholar at best.  That's always made me hesitant to teach, even though people think I do a good job. 

So, I decided to try to adapt this study.  Some of it includes Lee's words (I did ask for permission).  I don't know if I will do a good job, but if you want to see what I'm doing, I've set up a blog where I am writing the curriculum (I'm taking a page from Landon Whitsitt's idea of writing a book online). Take a look a please feel free to let me know what I should add (or detract). 

I look forward to you all joining me on this odd journey.  God help me.  Really.  I mean, what the hell am I getting myself into?