The Ultimate Word

"The ultimate Word is not a paragraph but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is personal and relational, not propositional."

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki * God, Christ, Church, page 135

Monday, November 21, 2016

What to do about the "bubble" affecting the liberal elite

On Saturday Night Live this weekend, a popular skit was one of those mock-advertisements that the show executes so well.  This time, they were advertising a community of shallow, liberal-minded people, who can’t stand the oncoming reality of a Trump Presidency that’s bolstered by strong-enough majorities in the Senate and House of Representatives.  The proposal is a hipster paradise in Brooklyn, complete with surface-deep character and Disney-development, corporate prices, all within the safe confines of a literal bubble that keeps out dissenting opinions.

This concept comes on the heels of nearly two weeks of the so-called “liberal media” chastising liberal people for living in elite bubbles and being entirely unaware of the “real world” around them.

At this point, let me take a little step back.  First of all, let’s not kid ourselves.  This “liberal media” that people keep talking about is nothing more than a marketing invention of those on the far right to try to explain why facts and statistics don’t support their claims.  The “liberal media” is why the Oxford English Dictionary has given us a disturbing new word: post-truth.

They define post-truth as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”.

Post-truth is what happens when a candidate who is widely reported by independent fact checkers to be the most honest Presidential candidate in memory gets labeled as a liar, and a candidate who those same independent fact checkers discover to be one of the most dishonest candidates in memory gets a pass.  Post-truth is what happens when wide swaths of the populace decide that when a candidate says something they like, he’s telling it like it is, but when he says something obscene, he’s either being misrepresented, or shouldn’t be taken literally.  Post-truth is what happens when scientific realities are dismissed as ideology.  Post-truth is what happens when the insights of historians warning us about the similarities between our current politicalclimate and elected leaders and the rise of Adolph Hitler are ignored.

There is no “liberal media”.  The ones most widely decried as the “liberal media” are – to put real names to it – MSNBC and NPR.  While it’s true that MSNBC does tend to have a more progressive editorial bias than other commercial news networks, let’s not kid ourselves: their programming and news reporting over the past couple of years contributed mightily to the rise of Donald Trump as a serious candidate.  They loved the shock value that he brought to their network, and they capitalized on it to squeeze ratings out of us.  He was constantly covered, and rarely questioned.  Meanwhile, his main opponent, Hillary Clinton, was minimally covered in comparison, but nearly all of that coverage was devoted to questioning her and looking for scandals (which, let the record show, never materialized).  They bought in to the post-truth era wildly and eagerly.

NPR, on the other hand, has a reputation that is marred by the post-truth era.  Federal funding in support of public broadcasting is constantly endangered because politicians and members of the public on the right are quick to accuse them of liberal bias.  The problem, however, is that facts – real, tested, peer-reviewed, factual truths – tend to have a liberal bias.  If a network is reporting truth, and not just post-truth, those who only care about post-truth think they’re hearing liberalism.

It is a fact that the budget for the United States military is larger than the combined budgets of the next 9 largest militaries in the world.  It is also a fact that of those next 9 largest militaries in the world, 7 of them are nations that we consider to be our allies.  So, any reasonable analysis of the facts would suggest that we could drastically cut our defense spending, still maintain the most significant and powerful military in the world, and have funds available to provide much needed improvements to our failing infrastructure, support public education, provide a host of services that would strengthen and empower the struggling middle class, and still have room left over for tax cuts and deficit reduction.

EVERYONE can get what they want and live a better life.  But the military-industrial complex has defined the narrative through fear mongering to convince people of a post-truth reality that their lives would be endangered if we cut defense spending.  In fact, the only reason they oppose these cuts, however, is that it would cut into their exorbitant corporate profits.

These are the real costs of living in a post-truth world, and the “liberal media” isn’t doing anything about it.  It may be true (and I suspect it is) that most on-air personalities and behind-the-scenes content generators in the media do have a liberal bias.  Liberalism often accompanies education, and most people in the media are well-educated.  Even so, the bosses and shareholders benefit from post-truth broadcasting, and bosses and shareholders always win in the end.

So, enough of the “liberal media” and post-truth rabbit trail – let’s move on to what I’m really here to talk about: that bubble that I’ve been chastised for living in.

It is true that I live in a liberal enclave in the Northeast.  It is true that I am highly educated and have a decent job (though I’m not wealthy by any American standard).  All of this makes me a part of the so-called “coastal elite”.

But, when I say that I can’t believe that American would actually elect Donald Trump to be the President of the United States after the campaign of hate and division that he ran, that doesn’t mean that I’m a part of some bubble that I should get out of so that I can better relate to the “red states”.  I am educated.  I am a Southerner by birth.  I travel to and through those “red states” multiple times each year.  I have friends and family members who not only live in “red states” but who thrillingly embrace the post-truth reality.

I’m not in a bubble.  They are.

I understand their lives a lot more than they understand mine.  I can’t tell you how many times over the past two weeks I’ve heard my post-truth compatriots exclaim, “I just don’t understand why those people are so afraid!”  (Take a look at my previous post on this blog for some insight into that.)  When I’ve tried to explain it to them, or to explain why I’m angry that they voted for Donald Trump, I get talked down to, delivered phony rationalizations, and self-righteous ignorance portrayed as a virtue.

I understand them, but they show no interest in understanding me, my concerns, or anything other than post-truth assertions.  When I back up my claims with articles from reputable news agencies like the New York Times or the Washington Post, they think that a post from Brietbart is a fair refutation.  When I point to evidence from scientific journals and crime statistics, they fire back at me with the website, The Federalist Papers.

This issue here is not that we’re both in our own bubbles.  This has been the year of the false equivalency, and I’m on a crusade against them.  We’re not both in bubbles.  I’m in the world, and not just my corner of it.  I travel and read and talk to people who bring me new perspectives and learn and grow through the arts.  Meanwhile, they’re uninterested in anything BUT their corner of the world – as seen from only their perspective.  We aren’t just coming from two sides of the same coin.

And here’s the main difference between me and those people I know who are clinging to their bubbles: they want to trap me in their bubble – to make me live inside their narrow field of vision.  But, I want to make the experiences and opportunities that have so profoundly benefited me available to everyone.  I want everyone to have access to education and security.  I want everyone to be able to make their own informed choices, without being constrained by poverty or social standing.  I want everyone to be able to eat, and to have access to high quality medical care, and to be free from violence and oppression, and to have every opportunity that this world has to offer.

So let’s pop the bubble.  Not so “we”, of the “liberal elite”, can understand “them”, the “ignorant masses” – but so that understanding more generally can grow.  Let’s pop the bubble so that opportunity can be available to everyone, not just those of us already outside.

Like lancing a boil, it will probably hurt.  It’s already hurting me.  But it’s the only hope for our country to rid itself of the post-truth infection, going forward.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

My problem, of late, with the Second Amendment

We’re now a week out from the election.  My sadness and anxiety remains pretty high.  This isn’t just about having lost – whatever: sometimes we lose elections.  But this time, we’ve lost more than an election.  This time, it feels like we’ve lost a lot more.  I fear we’ve lost civility (though, let’s be honest – a significant portion of our country lost that long ago).  I fear we’ve lost security.  I fear we are set up now to lose liberty.

Being from the South, a lot of the people in my life contributed to this loss.  Many have been very vocal about it.  I lost a lot of people that I thought were friends before the election happened, and I’m losing more each day.

I know it’s been said a lot on social media, but it remains true: everyone who voted for the President-elect and who claims to have people in their life that they love who are not straight, white, evangelical Christian men needs to explain to those people how they could have let this happen.  Don’t tell me you support gay rights if you voted for Donald Trump.  You don’t.  Your vote proves it.  Don’t tell me you oppose white supremacy and white nationalism if you supported Donald Trump – you were willing to look away from the overt racism that was at the center of the political rhetoric this year.  Don’t tell me you’re in favor of “Religious Freedom” if you support Donald Trump – that shows that you only support your own narrow freedom of religion, and that you intend to limit everyone else’s freedom.

There was a lot at stake in this election, and we lost.  We lost a lot – a lot more than just an election.

One of the most upsetting things that I’ve seen in the aftermath of this election is people comparing my fear now with the disappointment they felt in 2008.  I’ve seen it several times.  People have argued that their fear that “Obama would take away the guns” is the same as the fear that I have, and that people of color have, and that non-Christians have, and that women (at least women who support the rights of women) have.

I don’t know what to say to such irrationality - to such blind selfishness and insensitivity.  The media and public opinion have been quick to accuse those of us on the left of being “out of touch” with the concerns and values of “real Americans” (people who don’t live in major cities or on the coasts).  Maybe it’s true - maybe I am out of touch with them.  But it’s also true that those people are out of touch with my concerns and values.  And I’m a “real American”, too.

I can’t imagine how so many people can think it’s the same thing for me to legitimately fear losing actual civil rights as it is for conservatives to fear losing their guns.  I just don’t know how to respond to that.  Is my right to housing and healthcare and marriage and getting and keeping a job and not being imprisoned for sex between consenting adults and providing a loving adoptive home to otherwise unwanted children the same as their right to own a gun?  I don’t think so.  No one is, or has ever threatened those rights of the dominant classes.  Only people who are marginalized on the basis of race, sex, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, gender identity, or religion seriously face those threats.

What about the broader rights that we all – not just already marginalized people – risk losing?  Top Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway has been seen since the election threatening people who speak out against the incoming administration.  Is it okay to exchange your right to own guns with everyone’s right to free speech and to be informed by a free press?  To make that exchange would be shortsighted, at best, and it would very likely prove to be foolish.

But, if you want to talk about the Second Amendment, let’s talk about it.  I’m all for enforcing it.  The Second Amendment states:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

It’s terrible language.  If I handed in a paper to a professor in a college class with a similarly constructed sentence, I would receive a bad grade.  It’s easily confused, because it doesn’t actually say anything that makes sense.  But, for some reason, in our national discourse, we’ve addressed this confusion by simply ignoring the first clause and abiding only by the second clause.

But what would it mean if we understood the second clause in the context set up by the first clause?  This would mean that the right of the people to keep and bear arms is not to be infringed BECAUSE it is to exist as a part of a well regulated militia.  Right now the militia – the would-be military of the people – is barely regulated at all.  There’s no rational argument to be made that it is “well regulated”.  If you want to support the Second Amendment, then support all of it, not just the part that lets you exercise your unfettered fetish for instruments of destruction.

Before you start squealing about your degraded Second Amendment rights (which is untrue), why not address all the other rights that actually are in danger of being degraded?  We know they’re being degraded, because the President-elect has promised to degrade them.  We know they’re going to be degraded because the Republican controlled Senate and House of Representatives have promised to degrade them.  We know they’re going to be further degraded because we’ve been promised Supreme Court appointments who will further degrade them.  We know they’re in danger of being degraded because the appointments to high office that the President-elect has already made are of people who have made a life out of degrading the rights of marginalized people (i.e. the new “Chief Strategist” for the White House, Steve Bannon, is a man who might as well be the PR director for the KKK.  This is not a man who can even laughably be thought of as looking after the rights of disenfranchised people).

Your fetish for guns is not in danger of being limited.  It never has been.  I wish to Almighty God that we could elect people who would put an end to and walk back the arms race in this country, but it hasn’t happened yet in my lifetime or in the generations before, and I don’t see it happening anytime soon.

So,  my real problem with this fixation so many people have on protecting the Second Amendment is that it seems to be at the expense of all other freedoms - many of which are already threatened or already denied - and it ignores actually implementing the Second Amendment.   PLEASE stop telling me that your irrational fears in 2008 are the same as my fear now.  No one threatened your civil rights.  The people who have been raised to unprecedented power in the past week got there by promising to threaten my civil rights and those of a lot of other people.  I am afraid.  I would be stupid not to be.  I fear that soon, even your guns won’t be enough to protect any of us.  The threats this country faces are only beginning to come into focus.  Silencing us is both dangerous and every bit as un-American as the promises that got us here.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Political theology

Pentecost 26, Proper 28C

Let us pray.  Almighty God, bless us all with the ability to hear and to speak your wisdom.  Give us the courage that comes from of an assurance of your presence.  Empower us to act in your name, as you would have us to do.  Amen.

I’ve been struggling this week with what to say today.  How does a preacher – one called to be the spiritual leader of a congregation of God’s people – speak to the events of this week?  With every expectation that there are people in this parish celebrating the outcome of the presidential election, as well as people in this parish who are mourning and fearful as a result of it, where can I find the word of God?  How do I avoid that most stinging insult that people often lob at preachers: that of being “too political”?

The fact is, I can’t.  What we do in church is public theology.  It’s not just about personally held beliefs, but publicly proclaimed beliefs.  And I’m not the only one doing the proclaiming.  Each of you is publicly proclaiming your Christian faith by being here.  You’re public proclaiming your faith by kneeling to pray and standing to come to the altar.  Your participation, in your words and in your actions, is public.  Our theology is being practiced publicly, and public theology is political.  It is saying something about who we are and what we believe.  It is publicly proclaiming what we believe to be good and just and right, and those are political proclamations with political implications.  In fact, if you were to go to a thesaurus and look up synonyms for the word “political”, one of the words you would find would be “public”.

So, as people who practice public theology, we have to accept that political belief is a part of it.  We are political animals.  It is in our nature as social creatures.  For me to ignore the actions of a week so obviously centered around political activity, or for me to obfuscate or to dance around it, would be dishonest, and it would be a dereliction of my duty as your priest.

So let’s talk about politics.  Political realities have public implications for Christians.

This week, our country elected a leader who made isolating, blaming, and punishing some members of our society a hallmark of his campaign.  That campaign, and the media that fed it, normalized childish name-calling, sexual assault, and hate speech.  As a result of this, incidences of hate crimes, violence, and threats that had been rising before the election, have now spiked.  On Wednesday morning I began hearing stories of children bullying with impunity, Muslim women having their hijabs ripped from their heads, gay and lesbian people being told that their marriages would soon be revoked and that they should be murdered, women being threatened and assaulted, black people being threatened, buildings being vandalized with slogans like “Make American White Again”, swastikas, and disgusting racial slurs painted across the sides.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has been registering hate crimes like these for decades.  This week – between Wednesday and Friday - more than 200 hate crimes and incidents of bias-based intimidation have been reported to them.  This is one of the largest spikes that they’ve seen since they began tracking these things.

And these stories aren’t just coming from the Deep South.  I know we like to think we’re somehow beyond these kinds of things in the northeast, but we’re not.  These are stories from all across the country, including very near here.  Some of these stories are coming from within very progressive strongholds like New York and California.  This isn’t something far off, but right here – in our own communities.

Many people have seen this election not just as a crush to the “establishment” or as an expressed desire for us to engage in reasonable political change, but as validation for their meanness.  This is not to say that everyone who voted for the President-elect was intending to vote for discrimination or for increased hate crimes.  I'm sure that's not the case.  But it is true that this is what we've got.  And as a result, many people - myself included - are now afraid for their lives, their safety, and their liberty.  This is not an occasion of merely bemoaning how “divided” we are, or acknowledging that we have disagreements that we should work through.  This is not about some benign difference of opinion.  This isn’t about sore losers.  Some people are actually being targeted, in real ways, for persecution.

And it’s not that the President-elect or this election caused these ideas, but he and it did embolden them.  The rhetoric from the far right in this election legitimized the hatred and the exclusion and the desire to harm that has already existed in the shadows.  We’ve now just shined a light in those shadows and given them the legitimacy of a larger stage on which to act.

In times like this, as a devoted Christian and a priest, one of my first instincts is to turn to Holy Scripture for some assurance, and the Christian message always is that we are called to take sides.  If you follow Christ, then you are on the side of the oppressed.  In order to follow Christ, you have to stand up for the persecuted.  The church hasn’t always been very good at that.  We’ve often, instead, preferred to protect our own power and privilege.  But, despite that history, we still are called to act on the side of Christ – on the side of those most easily cast aside - in the present.

Hear, again, the words of the gospel from last Sunday – the ones that guided us as we went into the election: “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man… surely your reward is great in heaven…”

And in case once wasn’t enough, the Gospel reminds us again today: “they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify… You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”

It’s a pretty dismal picture.  But in the end it is at least another reminder that God is on the side of those that hurt and suffer the most.  “Not a hair of your head will perish.  By your endurance you will gain your souls.”

So, given all of this, how are we to be Christians now?  The epistle today calls us to spurn idleness.  This is no time to sit idly.  To be the people of Christ requires that we be people of work – people who won't stand still, or look away in the face of oppression and suffering.  It's a call we hear again and again.  We cannot have faith without works, for it is no faith at all. 

Regardless of who you voted for last week, our job is now a lot harder.  My job was not to tell you how to vote.  That’s done now, and even if I had done that, I doubt it would have seriously swayed anyone.  But it is my job to remind you of your calling as Christians: and that calling is and always has been to be on the side of God and to stand with those who are suffering.  To be the hands and feet of Christ in the world by alleviating suffering wherever you can.  It’s my responsibility to remind you of the vows we recited here just last week in our baptismal covenant: that we would seek and serve Christ in all people, and love our neighbors as ourselves; that we would strive for justice and peace among all people, and that we would respect the dignity of every human being.  We promised to persevere in resisting evil, and to repent when we fail.  We promised to use not just our words, but our lives to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ.  And we also promised to keep praying.  To keep worshipping.  We promised to remain in this communion, and to keep coming to be nourished for the work by the bread and wine of the Holy Eucharist.

In other words, we promised to keep engaging in public theology.  We promised to not let our faith be a secret, or merely some personal act, but to use it publicly, and yes, even politically.

People are suffering, and if we ignore it – if we sit by idly in the midst of it – we can’t call ourselves Christians.  If we rest on our own comforts and privileges without using them to help those Jesus described as the “least”, then we’re not standing where God would have us stand.

It’s not “too political”.  But it is who we’ve been called by God in Christ to be.  Whether you are celebrating the election this week or mourning it or even fearful because of it, there’s work to be done now.  There are people suffering and we are called to stand with them and to help.  So let’s get to work.  Let’s follow Christ.  Amen.

Sunday, November 06, 2016

We need some saints

**NOTE:  I'm trying something new this week - an audio recording.
I hope you like it!  I'm also including an alternate audio source, as the YouTube embed may not work on all operating systems.

All Saints' Sunday, Year C

In the name of God: who was, and who is, and who is to come.  Amen.

I feel like it’s almost out of the “golden oldies” at this point when I tell you about my travels in my sermons, and particularly about my trips to Africa.  But the fact is, I learned so much on those trips, and broadened my world view so much, that they keep falling into my reflections and revelations, even these years later.  So, I hope you’ll indulge me again this time.

As I was reflecting on All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days this week, my mind wandered back again to my first trip abroad, when I studied in Ghana several years ago.  We were studying the links between African American spirituality and indigenous African spirituality.  One of the truths of religious practice is that it is a study in evolution.  As we grow, as we gain new experiences, and we hurt in new ways and celebrate new things, our spirituality also grows and matures.  And this isn’t just a process that happens in the course of our lives, but over generations.

Christianity was born as an Eastern religion – more similar to what we think of as Asian religious practices in its beginning days than to our more familiar Western practices that we associate with the church today.  But as the first Christians carried our faith around the world – both through benign migration, and even sometimes through aggressive enculturation – our faith changed.  And these changes in faith are never just a one-way street.  Even if one culture “wins” the culture wars, both – or even all – of the cultures that are involved rub off on one another.

So our faith became a “Western” practice as it moved into Europe – taking on the cultural tones of each culture that it encountered.  We can see that even in our own parish logo.  The symbol for the Trinity that we use is influenced largely by Celtic tradition.  That symbol existed in Europe before it was appropriated by Christianity, but Christians found something of value in it, and ascribed to it the symbolism that it now holds for us.  This is a normal, and beneficial part of the migration of any faith, and certainly is a huge aspect of our own Christian faith.

The same is true of the interactions between Christianity and African cultures.  As African descended people began spreading around the world – most notably through the transatlantic slave trade – Christianity influenced Africans, but the indigenous spiritual practices that they held also influenced Christianity.

On my course in Ghana, we were studying these roots.  Native African spiritual practices are deeply rooted in some of the earliest and oldest spiritual practices found in all of humanity.  Because, for so much of history, much of Africa remained significantly isolated from much of the rest of the world, their practices remained relatively stable and unchanged by outside cultural influences.  They held on, even after Western religious traditions had largely complicated their own earliest influences.

One of the key features of indigenous African spirituality that we studied had to do with ancestor veneration – the practice of revering and even worshipping an individual’s or community’s ancestors.  That’s a spiritual practice that is key to most religions – certainly in their earliest days – but that becomes more complicated, and less observable as a religion develops.

In our faith, that practice can be seen in what we honor today: All Saints and All Souls.  We honor and revere those examples of the ages, whom we call saints, who have paved the way for us to be the Christians that we aspire to be today.  Even beyond that, we honor and revere all those souls who have gone before.  We pray for them, we remember the ones we can, and we honor the reality that they had a hand in bringing the faith of the ages down to this present time and to us.

We’ve complicated the system, and applied our own theology to it, but it’s really no different in its essence from the same sort of spirituality practiced by our African brothers and sisters through the ages and even today.  We do it differently.  We explain it differently.  But we believe many of the the same things.  And our prayers today, on this All Saints’ Day, represent one of the closest points of contact between all of the religions of the world.  They are prayers that attempt to connect us with the ones who have gone before and led us to this present age.

Part of why I’ve been thinking about this is because of this tense election season we’re in.  Among my friends and family members that I’ve spoken with (and I’ve even seen it in myself), emotions are running hot.  People’s feelings are being described in terms of anger…  Fear…  Anxiety…  Not the kinds of emotions that we would hope would guide us in our decision-making or our national life.

Thank God we’re coming to the end of it, but I fear that its influences on our national psyche will remain long after Tuesday, no matter who wins.  Our collective conscience has been hurt, and we could use the guidance of the ancestors.  We need a few saints to show us the way.

That’s where Jesus comes in – himself more than a saint, more than an ancestor, but one whose words are handed down to us through those saints and souls who never fail us.  Listen to what they tell us he said:

"Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
"Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
"Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
"Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you… Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.”

They’re telling us how to live.  They’re telling us how to keep the faith.  They’re telling us not to be weighed down by the worries of the world, because the hope we have in Christ is that more is beyond the horizon.  They’re reminding us to honor the blessings of those less fortunate, when we encounter them, and even when we are them.  Because blessing doesn’t always look the ways that we had hoped or expected that it would.

And finally, “Love your enemies”.  That’s the last word.  That’s what it means to be blessed, and also what it means to be a blessing.

In a season in our common life when enemies seem more obvious than not, remember the words of the ancestors.  Remember the wisdom of the saints.  Remember the commandment of our God.  Love your enemies.

We need some saints and ancestors to guide us, and by the grace of God, they are here.  We have some apt guidance from them right here.

As you prepare to vote, let the words of this Gospel lesson be your prayer.  Read them as you stand in line at the polls.  Remember what it means to be blessed, and what it means to be a blessing.

And remember them again as the next days and weeks unfold.  We’ll need a lot of reminding.  There’s a lot of healing left to be done.  But we’re not doing it alone.  We have the saints of the ages, our ancestors, showing us the way.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.