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Weekend Review: Newt, Unclean Spirits and Today's Dred Scott

Lincoln DouglasTranslating is treacherous.   The biblical term “unclean spirit” from this week’s Gospel reading is prone to our projections.  What is unclean is bound by culture and perspective.  We all think we know it when we see it.   For example, let’s take the latest primary rants of Newt Gingrich.  No, I will not argue he is a man of unclean spirit, but he certainly has the knack of summoning these spirits, and projecting them onto others.  He has vowed to follow President Obama around the country to hold Lincoln-Douglas debates.  I know debaters often use this format, but Newt is also subtly signaling his base.  He is a historian and knows precisely that these debates were about slavery.  As I witness his rise in the polls after calling Obama the “Food Stamp President” (never mind that food stamp use rose more sharply under Bush or that more white people receive food stamps), sadly Newt may be right about something.  Maybe we do need to have the Lincoln-Douglas debate over again.   I spent some time reading over the speeches from 1858 and found some fascinating things I didn't remember from history class.


The great debate was precipitated by the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision.  Mr. Scott was the slave of an Army doctor, John Emerson, who had taken him to live in territories where slavery was outlawed.  (Illinois and Minnesota were not yet states in the 1830s).  Upon Dr. Emerson’s death, Scott offered to buy his freedom from the doctor’s widow and when she refused, he sued for his freedom.   In denying Mr. Scott his freedom, the Supreme Court set an inflammatory precedent, that a slaveholder could take slaves (his property) into a free state or territory where slavery was illegal and not be “deprived” of his property.  Lincoln hammered away at this decision, noting that it was an expansionary move of pro-slavery advocates to extend slavery not only into the territories, which would soon become full voting states, but eventually to make this the law of the land in the North as well.  If Dr. Emerson could bring Dred Scott to Illinois to serve as a slave, what was to stop a Southern slaveholder from buying a farm in Ohio or a factory in New York and working it with slaves?


 Lincoln argued that nation could not live divided between slave and free, not just on moral grounds based on the Constitution, but also on practical grounds.  He feared that Southern slave owners were expansionary and would run over the rights of Northern states to limit slavery in their territory.  (That puts a different spin on the “War of Northern Aggression," doesn’t it?!)  One of Lincoln’s strongest debate points against Douglas was forcing him into a choice between his cherished notion of states’ rights, which Douglas used to defend slavery, with the Dred Scott decision which nullified the laws of the free states and territories in the North to uphold bans on slavery.  Douglass waffled, and while he won the Illinois Senate seat in 1858, Lincoln’s rhetorical trap on this state's rights issue ultimately won him the presidency in 1860.


So what would a Lincoln-Douglas debate look like in 2012?  Once again we have a controversial Supreme Court decision that increases the power of the elite and nullifies the freedom of “we the people.”  The Citizen’s United decision to claim that corporations have personhood, and enshrining money as equal to free speech, is as dangerous to a free and democratic people as the Dred Scott decision was nearly two centuries previous.   It solidifies a campaign financing system that is nearly legalized bribery.  We are currently seeing the “unclean spirits” of this decision in the rise of even more relentless attack ads that can be funded by anyone (well, anyone with millions of dollars!).  Newt’s flagging campaign after the Iowa caucuses  had a $10 million boost from a casino owner and his wife, but I’m sure that this will not influence a man of Newt’s intellect and ethics on issues of gambling, if he was elected.  Right?  We are still a nation based on “one person, one vote” but once the elections are over, corporate CEOs and people of immense wealth are writing our laws.  By the end of this campaign I believe this will become a central issue to be fought out in political process (as long as the EU does not tank  global financial system before then!)   Ironically we may owe Newt a debt of gratitude for shining a light on the “unclean spirits” being unleashed in our country.  Through his racially inflammatory rhetoric, his contempt for people who are poor and unemployed, and for personifying the very nature of our “pay to play” campaign finance system, Newt may truly become an historic figure – much like Stephen Douglas before him.


 PrejudiceMost of my research for the above opinion peice was from Wikipedia, but I will also share a few links from the week that I found interesting.


Timothy Egan had a very well written peice in the NY Times on Friday entitled Deconstructing a Demogogue that is well worth the read:

"When not holding forth from his favorite table at L’Auberge Chez François, nestled among the manor houses of lobbyist-thick Great Falls, Va., Dr. Newton L. Gingrich likes to lecture people about food stamps and how out-of-touch the elites are with real America.

Gingrich, as he showed in a gasping effort in Thursday night’s debate in Florida, is a demagogue distilled, like a French sauce, to the purest essence of the word’s meaning."


Here are a few interesting tidbits from the rest of my week's gleanings:

Governments Spend $1.4 Billion Per Day To Destabilize Climate

 By Lester R. Brown @



Billionaires Occupy Davos as 0.01% Bemoan Income Inequality

By Matthew G. Miller at - Jan 25, 2012 2:18 AM ET
Next Stop Iran?





Weekend Review: Willpower, the Bible and Tea Party Jesus

I'm starting a weekly weekend feature sharing about 4-6 of the most interesting articles I have read during the week.  As I put this week's ideas together I noticed a common theme regarding concerns about religious themes in the Republican primary.  I have drawn on articles from Catholic, Evangelical and Progressive Christian sources, along with some interesting satire about Tea Party Jesus.  But first, how about your New Year's Resolutions?


John Tierney of the NY Times has written a book on the nature of will power called “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.” The Times article has some great ideas to help you stick it out in "Be It Resolved":

Now for a not-so-uplifting prediction: Most people are not going to keep their resolutions all year long. They’ll start out with the best of intentions but the worst of strategies, expecting that they’ll somehow find the willpower to resist temptation after temptation. By the end of January, a third will have broken their resolutions, and by July more than half will have lapsed.

They’ll fail because they’ll eventually run out of willpower, which social scientists no longer regard as simply a metaphor. They’ve recently reported that willpower is a real form of mental energy, powered by glucose in the bloodstream, which is used up as you exert self-control.


Spongbook_302Religion Dispatches is one of my weekly favorites for religious news by authors who actually "get" religion.  Most mainstream news, regardless of liberal or conservative bias, tend to deal with stereotypical views of all religions, and seldom look more deeply into the subtle but important details of religious life.  This week I'm posting an interview with former bishop John Spong entitled "The Bible is a Good Book but did God Write It?" author of a number of controversial progressive books.  


While some people see Spong as a liberal threat to the true faith, Spong was a major influence on my wife, Jeanne, in her journey from the Unitarian-Universalist faith to Christianity.  He was the first major Christian writer that presented the faith in a way that made sense to her.  This is the value of good apologetics, even if it ruffles traditional views.  I haven't read the book yet and tend to be a little less liberal than Spong, but I enjoyed reading the interview.






Catholic Leaders Challenge Gingrich and Santorum on Divisive Rhetoric Around Race and Poverty

From Faith in Public Life

More than 40 national Catholic leaders and prominent theologians at universities across the country released a strongly worded open letter today urging “our fellow Catholics Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum to stop perpetuating ugly racial stereotypes on the campaign trail.”

In the lead up to Saturday’s primary in South Carolina, Newt Gingrich has frequently blasted President Obama as a “food stamp president” and implied that some African Americans are more content to collect welfare benefits than work. Rick Santorum attracted scrutiny for telling Iowa votershe doesn’t want “to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money.”


Christianity Today had a negative take on Evangelical Leaders endorsing Rick Santorum in the following article:

Brothers and sisters, we are neither kingmakers nor powerbrokers.
David Neff | posted 1/18/2012 09:53AM

Tea party JesusThere are at least two websites dedicated to a "Tea Party Jesus" who seem to think that the words of the Gospel are incompatible with the Tea Party Movement.  At Tea Party Jesus on tumblr, the author has put various political statements in the mouth of Jesus.  You can click on the pictures and find out who actually said the words.  (example to the left.)


Another Tea Party Jesus site has actually constructed a "Sermon on the Mall" with the contents of the Sermon on the Mount rewritten with an Ayn Rand twist.  (twisted?)  At first it is funny, buy by the time I hit the middle, it got a little scary, knowing that all the words and signs in the video were actually used.  


That is it for this week.  I'm looking ahead at Lent and looking for articles that specificially link to the lectionary.  Let me know if you have ideas for this new feature.  Have a great week!





For God So Loved the 1 Percent ... -

The concept of “one nation under God” has a noble lineage, originating in Abraham Lincoln’s hope at Gettysburg that “this nation, under God, shall not perish from the earth.” After Lincoln, however, the phrase disappeared from political discourse for decades. But it re-emerged in the mid-20th century, under a much different guise: corporate leaders and conservative clergymen deployed it to discredit Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.


This might provide some good material for thinking about the reluctant prophet Jonah. The belly of the whale is not always far off. I eagerly await Kevin Kruse's new book, “One Nation Under God: Corporations, Christianity, and the Rise of the Religious Right.”


Go here for my previous sermon on Jonah.



Happy MLK Day!

Truth comes from surprising places.  The following exert comes from Phil Davis, a hedge fund trader with a social conscience.  There are classic quotes, plus video and commentary worth reading today.



Happy Martin Luther King Day!

It's Martin Luther King day so the markets are closed.

It's a good day to read his "I Have a Dream" speech – really is amazing when you think of the great social change in this nation that was set in motion by one man with a vision.  Here's a great video of the actual event.

It is a testament to the power and effectiveness of Dr. King's movement that, even to those of us who were alive at the time, it seems like it must have been another world where a man had to speak out against such injustice as if it wasn't obvious to the majority of people that segragation, whether by law or by practice, was an outrage.

Sadly, many of the lessons he taught us have already been forgotten, some great quotes:

  • Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon. which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals. 
  • Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him. 
  • It is not enough to say we must not wage war. It is necessary to love peace and sacrifice for it
  • The hope of a secure and livable world lies with disciplined nonconformists who are dedicated to justice, peace and brotherhood. 
  • Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.   
  • Never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was legal.
  • We will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.
  • The past is prophetic in that it asserts loudly that wars are poor chisels for carving out peacefultomorrows.
  • A nation or civilization that continues to produce soft-minded men purchases its own spiritual death on the installment plan.
  • A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom.
  • One of the greatest casualties of the war in Vietnam is the Great Society… shot down on the battlefield of Vietnam.
  • Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men.
  • Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universalquest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.
  • Take the first step in faith. You don't have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.
  • The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.
  • The time is always right to do what is right.
  • Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.
  • Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
  • If physical death is the price that I must pay to free my white brothers and sisters from a permanent death of the spirit, then nothing can be more redemptive.

Dr. King also had a sense of humor

  • I want to be the white man's brother, not his brother-in-law. 
  • It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that's pretty important.  

It is very important to remember that people do, in fact, have power.  Last year we had the "Arab Spring" where protests eventually toppled dictatorships.  Maybe this year will be Europe's turn – not so much political dictatorships as economic ones.  Have the 99% slinked away, never to borrow the wealthy again or are they merely hibernating for the Winter?  

Did Doctor King Imagine, almost 50 years ago, that the lines in 2012 would no longer be drawn between black and white but between rich and poor.  Who will speak for the downtrodden masses in the 21st Century – how does one represent the bottom 99% when the smallest bit of fame is likely to take the speaker out of their ranks?  

Fortunately, President Romney will put a stop to all this nonsense:  


"Here I Am, Lord." - 1 Samuel 3:1-10 [11-20]


(I'm slow this week getting a sermon out because I'm researching the career of Samuel.  His entire career is speaking truth to power.  What does this say to those of us who feel called to preach? I'm sharing some opening thoughts this morning and finishing up on Saturday.)


Any time I don’t like my job I remind myself that there are worse ways to make a living.  When I was exercising at the gym this week I saw an entire show dedicated to dirty jobs on the Discovery Channel.  A guy named Mike travels the country to see a new dirty job every week, which seems like a dirty job in itself.  On the website you can track his exploits, and while some jobs are predictable, like road paving, cleaning fishing boats or Port-a-potties, you might not think about being a fireworks manufacturer.  Imagine working all day with several tons of black powder in the room and you have to move slowly so you don’t set off any friction sparks.  Did you know manufacturing tofu was dangerous?  Think about how hard the spongy curd is to cut.  Lots of tofu cutters lose finger tips.  Or what about being a Veterinarian’s Assistant?  You are always the one catching holding down whatever animal needs attention.  (Remember Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom?  Jim was always the guy wrestling with the boa constrictor while Marlin Perkins sat in the helicopter talking about how important it is to have insurance.)  So if you are having a bad day at work, tune into the Dirty Jobs on the Discovery Channel. 


Dirty jobs were on my mind because I felt terrible for the prophet Samuel in today’s First Reading.  It turns out being a prophet is not as inspiring as the song “Here I Am Lord” makes it sound.  Being buddies with the Holy Spirit is on par with manufacturing Roman Candles.  Samuel’s first message from God is an oracle of doom against Eli, the chief priest, and his boss.  We are never told Samuel’s thoughts about all this, whether he liked Eli or if he was afraid.  Samuel left no writings like many other prophets, he just does what needs doing.  Imagine God calling a small servant boy to deliver the power priest this message.  Couldn’t God have worked up a burning bush for Eli or a clap of thunder to chasten the priests wayward sons?  Why young Samuel?  Perhaps the clue is the phrase, “The Word of the Lord was rare in those days.”  Maybe no one else was listening. 


Listen to the reason for judgment on Eli’s house.  The priests sons, Hophni and Phinehas,  are blaspheming by eating the choicest parts of the sacrificial animals, the parts that are to be given to God (1 Samuel 2:12-17), and Eli has failed to restrain them. Even when confronted by those who are offering the sacrifice, the sons of Eli refuse to give the fatty parts of the animal to God.  This may sound like an obscure sin to you, but my assumption is that it is probably symbolic of many other abuses of power.   Their appetites lead them to abuse their power, give insult to God and put their own desires above the needs of the people they serve.  That is the problem.


Eli’s house falls dramatically.  The Philistines attach Israel, and Hophni and Phinehas are killed in battle, and the precious Ark of the Covenant is taken.  When Eli hears the terrible news, he falls over backwards, breaks his neck and dies on the spot.  Hophni’s wife goes into labor, and just before she dies, she names her son “Ichabod” which means “the glory has departed.”  (Can you still hear the fading chorus of “Here I Am Lord?”  The story is spoiling the whole song for me.)  This first episode foreshadows Samuel’s whole career, because he is the prophet who speaks truth to power.