Springtime for Liberal Christianity: A Quick Response

I'm glad to see NY Times conservative columnist engaging liberal Christianity. But there are a couple things he misses:

"Douthat's title, "Springtime for Liberal Christianity" is more correct than his column. Most of his critique was true of the progressive churches a decade ago, but decline has brought reform. The most read progressive Christian voices like Brian McLaren, Diana Butler Bass, Marcus Borg, Jon Dominic Crossan, are all doing biblical studies and touting a Christianity that is deeply spiritual as well as politically engaged. At the congregational level, there has been a renewal of liturgy, spiritual practices and prayer. Many progressive congregations have also seen issues like gay marriage as pastoral issues, wanting to fully include all people into the life of the congregation. More than a third of my congregation is GLBTQ, so it is not just a political abstraction. 

So it is Springtime for progressive Christianity, but the green shoots are not simply political coming back into fashion, it is the death and resurrection of Christ being lived in new ways in the church.

Read Ross Douthat's full column here.

Bill Maher and Michael Moore just don't get progressive religion...

Michael Moore and Bill Maher are still missing the point. Many of us are both liberals AND Christians or Jews or Muslims. We do take on the extremists in our sermons, and feed and house the homeless, fight for GLBTQ people, and yet Bill continues to paint all of us with the same brush. Maher's critique of Islam paints Malala Yousefzai, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, with the same brush as ISIS. Neither Moore or Maher seem to get that many of us act for love and justice BECAUSE of our religion.

Here is Moore's full defense of Maher's argument with Ben Afleck:

By Michael Moore (@MMFlint)

Bill Maher is a friend of mine. He stood up for me when I was attacked after my Oscar speech (given on the fourth night of the Iraq War, a war Bill publicly opposed while 70% of the country, including the majority of Democrats in the U.S. Senate, supported it), and I stood up for him when ABC fired him and cancelled his show when he attempted to stop the hysteria and fear-mongering after 9-11 -- resulting in the Bush White House publicly ordering him to watch what he says -- or else. When Bill got his HBO show, he went on a 7-year tear against the Bush administration and became one of our most unapologetic and unrelenting voices against the insanity being shoved down our throats. 

I, for one, am glad there's at least one top comedian who isn't afraid to say the word "capitalism" or give credence to the good of socialism.
You may not agree with Bill on everything. Yet I'm guessing you love it when he goes after the Uterun Police/Protectors of Child Rapists (also known as The Vatican), or when he brilliantly satirizes the crazy Christian Right which has controlled much of our politics for the past 33 years. I certainly do. 

But when Bill goes after Islam, or crazy people professing to be Muslim, we grow uncomfortable. Why is that? Because when he bravely ridicules and attacks Christian assassins of abortion doctors who cite the Bible as justification for their evil acts, we heartily applaud him. But when he mercilessly stomps on Islamic assassins who cite the Koran, we grow uneasy. Why the switch on our part? Is it because Bill doesn't just stop with the Islamic assassins -- he thinks anyone who follows the Koran is a bit nuts? Or the Bible or the Talmud or the... you name it. He thinks it's all coo coo for cocoa puffs. 

I have, when I'm on Bill's show, told him there are far more examples historically of the death and destruction that Christians have brought to the planet, from the Crusades to the Inquisition to the wiping out of Native Americans to the Holocaust. But he points out that, in truth, the Jesus followers seem to have taken a break lately in their genocidial lust -- and that the debate should be about the present; i.e., which religion is now doing most of the terrorizing?

Though I would maintain that it is still the Judeo-Christian West whose armies and banks and institutions keep much of the third world under a heavy economic boot, resulting in a lot of hunger, suffering and death, Bill asks, "If I draw a cartoon of Jesus in a dress, will Christian leaders issue a call to assassinate me?" 

I can't speak to Bill's drawing skills, but it's safe to say that in the USA he can draw whatever he wants. In fact, other than those murdered abortion doctors, a hundred bombed or ransacked Planned Parenthood clinics and a few people like me, there are not many activists or artists who have to worry about Baptists blowing up their homes. Sinead O'Connor was not beheaded for beheading a photo of the Pope on NBC. Your middle name can be 'Hussein' and you can still win the state of Virginia if you're running for President. 

Sure, I can make a daily list of all the horrible things so-called Christians still do in this country. Rarely, though, do their actions involve decapitation.

But if you're a Dutch filmmaker who makes a movie about violence against women in some Islamic countries, or if you're a Danish cartoonist who draws an image making fun of the Prophet -- well, you are then either shot to death or you are now in hiding.

So if Bill is taking the same exact position liberals usually take whenever we see free speech being threatened, or women being abused or people forced to submit to fundamentalist dictates, why then is he facing any criticism for speaking out against these wrongs? When Christians do these things we speak up -- loudly. So why not speak out when Muslims do it? 'Cause it's none of our business? Isn't it?

I think I may have a couple answers as to why some liberals are uncomfortable with Bill's humor when it comes to Islam:

1. We have witnessed, since 9/11, Arabs and Muslims in this country undergoing huge amounts of prejudice, bigotry and sometimes outright violence. This sickens us (as I know it does Bill). So we are extra sensitive to what sounds like, as it goes through the liberal filter in our ears, any "anti-Arab" comments. We don't want to hear anything even remotely anti-Muslim. But we have to be careful that this doesn't stop us from listening to legitimate criticisms about things that go on in the Muslim world. I just think that, due to our illegal actions (invasions) of the past decade, our government lacks any moral authority on this and should be forbidden from any attempts to "fix" those problems. 

2. Liberals are intensely fed up with these two wars against mostly Muslim populations (not to mention the indiscriminate drone strikes on at least four other nations). And now the party that won the elections last Tuesday would like a war with Iran. An ignorant American public was manipulated with fear and lies to start and maintain the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars -- and that manipulation continues today in order to justify things like the mass spying by the NSA on our entire citizenry. When the Cold War ended (25 years ago today in Berlin), the defense industry went berserk with worry that their salad days were over. A new enemy was needed. Arab terrorists fit the bill perfectly! Not only has the defense industry since thrived, a whole new fake industry has arisen -- the Homeland Security behemoth. As our infrastructure, our freedoms and our middle class vaporize, billions are spent as a grossly out-of-proportion response to a few shitty disasters. 

So we liberals don't want to hear another word about an "Islamic threat" or some non-existent Iranian nukes or... or whatever! We know we're being set up to get behind another war effort, another arms race, another diversion intended to make the point-one-percenters even filthier rich -- and the rest of us distracted with false fears and hatreds. 

I don't even know if I want to see Jon Stewart's new film about the Iranian who was unjustly imprisoned. WHY not? It's a true story! It happened! But the liberal panic button says this film will be used in ways to pump up fear of Muslims. At the very least, it will be the first thing Jon Stewart has done that the Republicans will like. So does that mean he shouldn't have made it? 

Two weeks ago on Bill's HBO show, he had on the wonderful Palestinian writer Rula Jebreal. They had a good and testy back and forth (Bill often has Muslims who disagree with him on his show, like the great Ben al-Afleck). Rula was giving it to Bill pretty hard, but when he paused and asked her if he were a Muslim, living in certain Muslim countries, and he walked into the Men's Club one day and announced he was now a Presbyterian, would that be ok? She paused, and then said "No."

Comedy is and should be a dangerous business. Those comedians who play it safe are far less interesting, less funny and, frankly, are often boring. Those who are willing to take their comedy to the Line That Shall Not Be Crossed -- and maybe step over it from time to time -- are the ones we are drawn to. But in order to encourage them to take those chances, we have to give them some leeway, give them a break when, in our mind, they've crossed that line. To not do so is to encourage them to go toward the bland, the passe and to the non-offensive. Those comedians like Bill Maher who are willing to take the risk of being the court jester -- saying the things that the rest of us are often thinking (or wish we were thinking) but are afraid to say -- should be supported, not silenced. 

Michael Moore

Election Thoughts - Christians Need to Speak with Distinctive Voice


I will be glad when this election is over, not because I hate politics, but because I am politically passionate.  I am a news junkie and the internet is a dangerous, time-sucking place for me.  I grew up in Iowa and I thought it was normal to meet Presidential candidates.  My mother has shaken hands with every Democrat running for President since 1968.  She has regularly called me with tidbits like “Joe Biden stands to close to people when he talks, he invades my personal space.”  My father, who was a Republican, ran an air charter business, and back in the 70s and 80s he regularly flew candidates around the state.  He loved Bob Dole and Tom Harkin, because they were both ex-Navy pilots.  Dad would let them sit in the pilot’s seat and give them flight instruction between campaign hops.  I was a reporter for my college radio station during the 1984 elections.  My press pass got me on to George McGovern’s jet in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, with only five other reporters.  At the end of the press conference he turned to me and asked if I had a question.  I have no idea what I asked, but I remember his warmth and humanity. 

By age 21, I was completely jaded and cynical, and quit my reporting job.  I decided to go to seminary because I wanted to change the world, not report the play-by-play. 


As a pastor who believes in the Great Commandment to love my neighbor as myself, I find engagement with world and social activism to be an essential way to love my neighbor, and those who don’t want politics from the pulpit might as well cut out of the Bible the Magnificat, the Sermon on the Mount and all the major and minor prophets.  At the same time, I believe that too many pulpits have defined themselves within the narrow confines of transitory political positions rather than transcendent divine ideals, sounding more like the Republican or Democrat Party at prayer, rather than independent voices proclaiming God’s justice and reconciling love for all humanity. 


Last October 7, ironically on World Communion Sunday, a group of more than 1000 clergy joined in to the 4th Annual Pulpit Freedom Sunday, for the purpose of endorsing political candidates, and to challenge tax laws that prohibit churches and other non-profits from engaging in electoral politics.  Now folks, I don’t think being a non-profit should constrain me from preaching as a prophet.  But I don’t see endorsing candidates as all that prophetic.  As the Christian Century lead editorial said last week, “When the church has nothing more to say than what could be said in a political stump speech, the church has surely lost its distinctive voice.  It also has forgotten that people come to church wanting and needing something quite different from the campaign speeches and ads they they’ve been hearing all week.”  I agree wholeheartedly.   http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2012-10/stump-sermons  . 


I was often asked to run for political office, but I always refused because I felt like it would limit my freedom as a change agent.  Throughout our nation’s history the pulpit has always been ahead of the ballot box.  The Beecher family, Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe (who was the best preacher of the whole clan) were a decade ahead of Abraham Lincoln in forming the abolitionist movement.  Walter Rauschenbusch, the Baptist Social Gospel preacher in Hell’s Kitchen, was a generation ahead of Roosevelt’s New Deal.  Martin Luther King, Jr. preaching won the day for the Civil Rights movement, and Lyndon Johnson followed in his wake. 


I will be glad when this election is over because we need to move on to more serious business.  I am tired of a vision divided between red states and blue states, weary of candidates who think only in terms of black and white, but speak in shades of grey, while trying to convince us they are purple, when the color I really want is green.  Political debate in the America is like the argument of an old married couple.  Each side knows the others lines and once the argument begins it has logic of its own until it plays out.  When tempers flared my Aunt Ike would head for the pantry and Uncle George for door, each shouting their last words.  George would bang the door shut just as the first pot hit.  Aunt Ike would clear the pantry, and he would stand outside singing at the top of lungs until she was done.  That passes for political debate in America too.


Monday night’s Presidential debate on international affairs was like the conversation couples have after a big fight (like the second debate) where tough issues get avoided and swept under the rug, trying to seem reasonable.  I kept thinking, “When will they talk about Global Climate change?  What about the European debt issues?  There was a little lip service to women’s development issues, but it is pointless unless contraception is readily available and women can control their own reproductive health. 


Instead we were subjected to discussion who will keep us safe from Al Qaida?   Which candidate can make the US military the most cost-effective killing machine.  Oh, and jobs, jobs, jobs.  I can’t wait till those jobs assembling IPhones come home, so my children can live in a dorm room with 5 other people, work 12 hours a day, for a subsistence wage. 


We need to transform the conversation.  Let’s get creative and redefine the parameters.  This conversation is fearful and stunted.  For example, there is a non-military way to confront Al Qaida.  No one predicted the Arab Spring.  Six month ahead of the Tunisian uprising I read one hedge fund manager saying that global climate change and drought conditions, was increasing commodity and food prices.  He predicted that several governments would fall in countries where people lived near subsistence.  Islamic nations border on the most arid climates in the world.  Arab Spring was the tip of the melting iceberg, because these countries are most vulnerable to climate change.  No amount of aircraft carriers or Predator drones are going to make the world safe when the problem is food insecurity and crushed aspirations.  We need to proclaim the wise stewardship of God’s creation as the primary security to create peace and freedom from want.


Let’s also transform the conversation about women’s empowerment in the poorest and most populous nations.  Subjugation of women keeps birthrates high and wastes human potential.  Without sustainable birthrates, our planet’s resources will be overrun.  Technology will not save us as we reach the frontiers of sustainability.  Supporting women’s education and reproductive health freedom solves many problems at once.  If you want to stop militant Islam in a generation, focus on women’s empowerment.  I trust Islamic women to stop groups like Al-Qaida in its tracks, not the US Joint Chiefs of Staff.  It will be a hard internal struggle much like women’s suffrage and equality has been in our own country, but I say put our policies and money behind Islamic women.


My first sermon hear on July 15 said that preaching needs to be a conversation between pastor and congregation.  What we do on Sunday morning is a holy conversation where we all listen to God.  My job is to be the discussion starter, and then listen carefully.  This is not just an internal conversation.  We need to change our community and global conversations about our future, and ensure sure God’s love and hope for the world plays a part.  The church’s worldly role must stop defending our turf and invite people step on our grass, and maybe plant a few trees. 


I want to celebrate efforts you are already making in this direction.  Several people on the Peace and Justice Committee registered 90 people to vote.  If even half of them vote, that is remarkable.  If 300,000 churches across America did that, there would be 27 million more registered voters.  Thanks for doing your part.


Last Wednesday, more than 50 people came to First Church’s Ballot Question #2 panel, and more than half the people were not from our congregation.  The panel was excellent and afterwards people from all opinions thanked us for providing a forum, because the issue is being lost in the wider election din.  Dr. Shaun Charest said afterwards this was the most enjoyable debate where he has spoken, because he did not feel under attack and enjoyed listening to the other side.  Let’s recover the Congregational Meeting House tradition and make our sanctuary a safe place of respectable discourse.  The congregational and Baptist church traditions are one of the last spaces where there is real grass roots democracy and problem solving.  Let’s be experts at creating real dialogue, model it in our behavior together, and for the surrounding community. 


We have 5 people going to Haiti this year.  We raise support for people in Haiti and show our love and solidarity by raising money for schools and other things needed.  But equally important, we need to hear the voices of God’s people in Haiti.  What can they teach us about God’s love, and about how we need to live God’s people in global community?  How will this mission experience change our conversation about being church?

Irish Peace Activists Found Not Guilty

SwordintoThe "Pitstop Ploughshares" were charged in 2003 after disabling a US Navy plane bound for the Gulf at Shannon airport.  The five defendants protested that Ireland was a neutral country and should not allow US warplanes to pitstop on the way to Iraq.  Exerts from the defense attourney were posted at Commondreams.org and are worth reading:

"The final summations of each defense counsel urged jurors not only to ask whether the defendants were right to take action, but also ask why it is that the rest of us haven't acted. Mr. Nix, praised by the prosecutor as "the last of the great orators," noted that the prosecutor had characterized the action of the defendants "political" as if that were a bad thing. "I'll tell you of someone who made a great political speech," said Mr. Nix, "the greatest political speech of all time and that's Jesus Christ." He went on to quote the Sermon on the Mount to the jury. I could hear the pencils stop scratching, see the jaws drop all around the courtroom. It was an awe-inspiring moment. The shock was yet to come.

Mr. Nix told us he had recently been in a park where he'd listened to children laugh and shout as they happily chased ducks and each other around on the green grass. He thought a sound of universal happiness must be the sound of children playing.

But now his tone darkened. "Now Lebanon is burning," he thundered. "Today, children swimming in a pool were bombed. A swimming pool is now filled with burning children. This is war."

He concluded, " What will rise you to action?"  Perhaps we are all on trial as this war spreads.
For more on the Pitstop Ploughshares see Peace on Trial.

NY Times Ignores Anti-War Position at WCC

Hello everyone. Sorry I have missed my lectionary posts for a couple of weeks. I hope to get back on track for Lent with a series on Victor Frankl and the problem of suffering.  Meanwhile, I have just a few quick words about how the New York Times covers religion.   The Times has consistently ignored Christian statements against the war in Iraq while Pat Robertson keeps making the front page with any ridiculous thing that comes to mind, whether it means assassinating Chile's President or proclaiming that God caused Sharon's heartattack as punishment for moving settlers out of Gaza.  Why has the NY Times chosen to focus on this headline:

Conflicts Cited at Christian Conference

and this one:

Orthodox Ties to Catholics Seen as Vital 

instead of this one:

Church Alliance:  Washington is 'Raining Down Terror' with Iraq War

Continue reading "NY Times Ignores Anti-War Position at WCC" »