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Zombie Religious Freedom

Article-2107630-11F49603000005DC-463_468x403Talaag Elbayomy, a recent Muslim immigrant to the United States, was watching a Halloween parade in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania with his nine-year-old son.  Suddenly he saw a person dressed as Mohammed, but as a zombie.  Since depictions of Mohammed are against the law in his country, he believed it was his duty to stop this blaspheme, and to show his son that he was a devout man.  So he confronted that man, ripping the sign “Zombie Mohammad” off him and pulling off his beard.  When Ernest Perce called the police to report an attack, Elbayomy readily agreed, thinking that Perce would be arrested for portraying Mohammed, but was shocked to find out he was being charged with assault

At trial, we learn that Perce is active in the American Atheist Society, and his chapter was in the parade to express their negative views on religion.  Next to him was another man posing as “Zombie Pope” (who was not attacked since Rick Santorum was campaigning in Iowa at the time.)  Judge Mark Martin has ignited a religious freedom controversy by ruling that the evidence does not reveal an assault, then lectured Mr. Perce for his conduct:

Having had the benefit of having spent over 2 and a half years in predominantly Muslim countries I think I know a little bit about the faith of Islam…. Before you start mocking someone else’s religion you may want to find out a little bit more about it. It makes you look like a doofus… In many Arabic speaking countries something like this is definitely against the law there. In their society in fact it can be punishable by death and it frequently is in their society.”

Atheists are upset at the ruling because Mr. Perce was expressing his freedom to portray his views about the nature of all religion, not just Islam, and has now had thousands of death threats from Muslims around the world.  Many Muslims see the incident as further proof that Americans hate Islam, and the verdict comes during a time that Afghans are protesting US soldiers burning four copies of the Koran (ironically and tragically,  protests include suicide bombing that destroys lives.)   Christian conservatives view the ruling as evidence that Muslim Sharia law is coming to America and that we will be overrun and become an Islamic State (governed by Barrack Hussein Obama, who is still not a Muslim.)   


I wonder if all sides are becoming zombies regarding the freedom of religion.  We are much removed from the historical reasons that gave birth to this religious freedom, but our nation’s founders were more familiar with the devastation of the 30 Year War, which wiped out half the male population of Germany.  The Spanish Inquisition, Cromwell, repression of Anabaptists and Puritans is what motivated many people to come to America.  This is why the freedom to practice your own religion without threat was enshrined as a Constitutional right. 


While the law may protect our rights, it is our character that truly preserves religious freedom.  Without mutual respect, a willingness to understand, and ongoing dialog; religious freedom is devalued.  Indeed, all freedom requires corresponding responsibilities.  Just as the freedom of speech does not give us the right to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theatre, religious freedom that only leads to shouting matches is equally dangerous. Given the current public religious acrimony and intolerance, why would a new Muslim immigrant be expected to understand the freedom of religion? 


Martin Luther, who could be quite bombastic himself at times, did set forth some important ideals that we would do well to remember today.  In a letter to Pope Leo X, “The Freedom of a Christian,” Luther wrote on the nature of religious freedom on the eve of his expulsion from the Roman Catholic Church.  Luther said that each person is by office at once a free lord who is subject to no one, and a dutiful servant who is subject to everyone.  Only through these twin paradoxes, Luther insisted, can we "comprehend the lofty dignity of the Christian."  Luther believed that the point of having freedom was to use it well, being freed from the bondage of sin to serve one another in love.


Luther’s admonition to use our freedom well in the service of others is a valuable reflection for Lent.  We are truly free to love much in Christ’s name.  Religious freedom not only protects us to believe as we chose, it gives us space to love as we are called.  If our freedom to worship only gives reign to speaking intolerance, then true freedom is lost. 


Mark 1:40-45 - "Be Made Clean!"

Two weeks ago I joined the ranks of people succumbed to a bug going around.  I’m not sure why we call getting sick “a bug” but it did feel like an infestation.  My skin got hot and prickly, my muscles began to ache as if I had been working hard, wrestling with an attacker.  It was like I had a miniature ant colony or a hornet’s nest taking residence in my chest, infesting my vocal chords. 

I must admit it made me mad, because  I confess that I had been feeling a bit self-righteous since I generally survive the flu season unscathed.  I was taking pride in the fact that other people were succumbing all around me with their coughing, runny noses and going home sick, while I moved among them untouched, above it all!  I credited it to the fact that I work out, eat a very healthy diet and deal with stress, so that I am not susceptible to the plagues of other mortals.  So when I got sick, it felt like a failure.  I was human again. 


After three days in bed, I reintegrated gradually into society, getting a haircut on Saturday afternoon.  I was careful not to shake anyone’s hand, and watched carefully the coughers and sneezers in the waiting area before choosing a seat.  I have joined the Purell crowd, regularly performing ritual purification to avoid further uncleanness to my body.  The most difficult part was going to dance class, thinking about touching everyone, with 20 people there.  Someone was bound to be a leper.  One moment, I had to sneeze, and I suppressed it while I tried to figure out what I should cover my mouth with, because you hold people in the dance position and the instructor has us rotate through partners, thus assuring complete cross-contamination.  If I dared sneeze, everyone would look at me as the leper in the group, coming to make them all unclean.  So I have now lost my excessive pride as one of the healthy few who never succumbs to the bugs of winter.


I can have greater sympathy now for the leper who approached Jesus.  In doing some research this week on leprosy, it was commonly understood that a variety of skin ailments, known in Hebrew as tzaraat (pronounced sara’at), were caused by immoral behavior.  Skin rashes, bald spots and boils were classified in Leviticus as “spiritual diseases.”  The Talmud regarded tzaraat as a punishment for several possible sins, chiefly for an uncontrolled tongue or malicious gossip, but possibly for a vain oath, illicit sex, excessive pride, miserly ways, or even murder.  The cure for these various skin diseases was to see the priest for proper repentance and ritual cleansing.  One practice was to sacrifice a bird, drip its blood in water, and then the afflicted but repentant person would be sprinkled seven times to be made clean again.  So lepers were not just shunned because they might be contagious, they also deserved their ostracism, because they may have been seen as unrepentant sinners who refused to come to terms with God.


Notice that the leper who comes to Jesus says to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.”  (Mark 1:40)  Being made clean is not just about sickness to health, it is a ritual word.  It is being made whole to God and reconciled to community.  You may also perceive that Jesus does not talk with the man about repentance, but has pity and touches the man saying, “I do choose. Be made clean!”  (Mk. 1:41)  Jesus has no conversation at all until after the man is healed.  Then he asks the man to go make the traditional offering with the priests, in gratitude to God; and he asks, in futility, that the man say nothing so that Jesus does not get swamped with crowds. 


If we compare other encounters Jesus had with people who wanted something from him, Jesus often engages, challenges, forgives or even argues with them.  He doesn’t just heal all comers without comment.  He forgave a man with a withered hand before healing him.  When the Canaanite woman asks for healing for her daughter, he at first rejects her because she is not of the same faith.  .  He tells a lame man to pick up his bed and walk, asking him to take action on his faith, and in one of my favorite healing stories, he says to a lame man by the pool of Bethsaida, “Do you want to be well?”  When the rich young ruler asks to be a disciple, he challenges him to sell all he has and give it to the poor.  He tells another man “let the dead bury their own dead.”  To the woman caught in adultery, he takes on her accusers and when they leave, he says she is free to go, but commands her to sin no more  Jesus does not respond to every person in the same way, so what can we discern in this story?


I venture that Jesus simply didn’t see anything unclean, sinful or deficient in this man with leprosy.  Unlike Leviticus, and the prevailing attitude of his day, Jesus did not see illness as punishment from God.  Some things are simply misfortune, not judgment.  Bad things happen to good people.  The rain falls on the just and the unjust alike.  We wish that Jesus was around to reverse every misfortune, but God loves us in the midst of all things.  Paul often prayed that his “thorn in the flesh” be removed and healed, but when it wasn’t he did not doubt whether God loved him.  Some things you just have to live with.


The attitude that misfortune is the result of sin or punishment from God still prevails today.  In the rhetoric of presidential primaries, those who are poor are talked about much like lepers.  Rick Santorum said, “I don’t to make  black people’s live better by giving them someone else’s money, I want to help them earn their money, so they can go out and provide for themselves and their families.”  Newt Gingrich has echoed the same sentiment, calling President Obama the “food stamp” president.  I would love to hold just one of the seemingly hundreds of presidential debates in a housing program like Hillcrest House, where I work, where every single person gets food stamps.  I would like them to see some of the 40 percent of Americans who have jobs and still collect food stamps, because work does not guarantee a decent living in our new low wage environment.  I would introduce them to a man named Nick, who has been looking for work for six months, and recently did a free brake job at Midas to show his skills off and try to get a job.  We do not have over 8% unemployment and hunger in America because people are lazy, but because there are not enough decent jobs.


According to the United States Department of Agriculture (based on a study of data gathered in Fiscal Year 2010), statistics for the food stamp program are as follows:[14]

  • 49% of all participants are children (17 or younger), and 49% of them live in single-parent households.
  • 15% of all participants are elderly (age 60 or over).
  • 20% of all participants are non-elderly disabled people.
  • The average gross monthly income per food stamp household is $731; The average net income is $336.
  • 35% of participants are White; 22% are African-American, not Hispanic; 10% are Hispanic; 2% are Asian, 4% are Native American, and 19% are of unknown race or ethnicity.[14]


It is true that some people are scamming the system and making money off food stamps, and I think this kind of fraud should be stopped.  JP Morgan, one of the largest banks in America, distributes the debit cards used by food stamp recipients, and reports a profit of over $5 billion last year from the program.  Where is Newt when you need him to stop this kind of excessive welfare give-away?


The Jesus we see in Mark’s Gospel was not focused on finding ways to blame people for their circumstances, but rather the one who offered healing.  His words, “Be made clean!” is both the hope of the suffering, and a direct challenge to those who stand above others in judgment to also clean up their act.


Weekend Review: The Swerve, New Christianity and Preparing for Lent

As a reader, I am a cross-trainer.  I’m never happy with just one book, and often I will have four to six books in various stages of attention.  (Thank God for Kindle so I don’t have to carry them all!)  It should be no surprise that I don’t finish everything I read.   Right now two excellent books are capturing my attention and will figure prominently in my preaching through the rest of Epiphany and Lent.  The first is entitled “The Swerve: How the World Became Modern” by Stephen Greenblatt.  Greenblatt shares how an ancient book entitled “On the Nature of Things” by Epicurean philosopher Lucretius stimulated his love for literature, and also possibly helped trigger the Renaissance when it was rediscovered in the 15th century.  A troubling part of “The Swerve” reveals how much ancient literature was destroyed when Christianity became the official religion of Rome in the early 5th century after Christ.  In 391 AD under Theodosius, the magnificent Alexandrian library, which housed a tremendous wealth of the world’s knowledge, was destroyed and many of the philosophers were put to death for “pagan” teachings.  Christians were especially hard on Epicureans for their teachings that pleasure and the pursuit of happiness were the goals of life.  Even though Lucretius and other philosophers were actually quite sober and intellectual people who believed happiness stemmed from a life well lived, they were labeled as promoting debauchery and their countless works were destroyed for all time.  Christianity absorbed much of Hellenistic philosophy; Plato’s concept of the soul, Aristotle’s view of God as the Prime Mover, and the Stoic’s moral rigor and self-denial.   But the majority trend of Christianity as it developed into the Middle Ages (often Dark Ages) could not reconcile a crucified and suffering Savior with anything of the Epicurean pursuit of happiness.


It is serendipitous that I am also reading “A New Christianity” by Brian MacLaren.  His thesis is that we must begin to think of Christianity in a new way to be faithful to the Jesus of the Bible.  Jesus’ true message has been distorted by Greco-Roman culture that was focused on empire, blood and conquest.  The patriarchal culture of Rome drove out the egalitarian spirit of Jesus from Christianity, and we were left with a fear of Hell and a culture of sacrifice, suffering and asceticism.  MacLaren seeks to scrape away this ancient dross and awaken a more loving, graceful and egalitarian Christianity that is faithful to the biblical Jesus.  Instead of focusing on heaven and hell, “A New Christianity” recovers Jesus central command to love. 


The themes from these two books are moving me to think about Lent, which is a time of soul-searching and spiritual reflection.  Where has my own faith been too narrow, and unwilling to hear uncomfortable truth?  Are there ways I distort the truth, and fail to listen for the true Spirit of Christ in my prayers? In what way do I need to revitalize Christ’s true message in my life, learning to love again with all my heart, soul and mind?  




This week I have selected a few article that raised issues that I feel challenge us to reflect on the place of the church in the modern world.  We live in a more pluralistic world where we cannot take the support of the culture for granted.  The New York Times recently reported on a devisive religious freedom issue in Cranston, Rhode Island where I young woman who is an atheist took legal action against the school because of a prayer that has been in the auditorium since 1963.  The article saddens me because I believe our faith should be strong enough to endure a pluralistic society, where we do not have to have our faith promoted in the public schools to survive.  Early Christians did not need to have prayer in public schools to spread their message and neither do we. This kind of angry, defensive reaction will just create more disillusioned people who will move towards secular philosophies because the church seems like a bunch of intolerent hypocrites.  Let's make sure we have really got prayer back into the church, before we get worried about the schools.


Speaking of angry, intolerant Christians, what is going on in Kansas?  Kansas House Speaker Thomas O'Neal emailed the following message about President Obama:

Let his days be few; and let another take his office


May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow.

May his children be wandering beggars; may they be driven from their ruined homes.

May a creditor seize all he has; may strangers plunder the fruits of his labor.

May no one extend kindness to him or take pity on his fatherless children.

O’Neal forwarded the prayer with his own message:

“At last — I can honestly voice a Biblical prayer for our president! Look it up — it is word for word! Let us all bow our heads and pray. Brothers and Sisters, can I get an AMEN? AMEN!!!!!!”

I do not think most Christians would agree with such violent and intolerant veiwpoinys, but we have allowed intolerant Christianity to take the center of the public square without significant opposition.  We bemoan losing a generation of young people, and try to figure out  way to do better marketing or outreach, but what is really keeping a generation away from the church is that so many people associate Christianity with intolerance.  That is a key evangelistic issue facing congregations.  


Speaking of President Obama, here are a couple of articles related to religions that I saw this week:

E.J. Dionne writes that Obama should have done a better job handling the issue of contraception reimbursals for church employers.   However, I firmly agree with the President's message at the National Prayer Breakfast that Jesus would probably tax the rich.

The rich should pay more not only because "I actually think that is going to make economic sense, but for me as a Christian, it also coincides with Jesus's teaching that ‘for unto whom much is given, much shall be required,'" Obama said at the Washington Hilton, delivering remarks at an annual event that every president has attended since Dwight D. Eisenhower.