False Prophets

Rembrandt_Harmensz._van_Rijn_-_Jeremia_treurend_over_de_verwoesting_van_Jeruzalem_-_Google_Art_Project

Rembrant, Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem

I’ve been thinking about the question of how, in an era of “fake” news, “alternate facts,” and conflicting discourses, one discerns truth from falsehood. It is actually quite an important question, because few of us want to go down a wrong path or be deceived or deluded.

Warnings abound in the scriptures about false prophets along with instructions about how one may discern them. While many of today’s voices are not claiming to be prophets, they are attempting to convince people to believe a certain narrative, and to respond in certain ways based on that belief. They may not claim the label, but they are functioning in the role, even if they do not invoke religious language.

One passage on which I have particularly reflected is Jeremiah 6: 13-15

13 “From the least to the greatest,
all are greedy for gain;
prophets and priests alike,
all practice deceit.
14 They dress the wound of my people
as though it were not serious.
‘Peace, peace,’ they say,
when there is no peace.
15 Are they ashamed of their detestable conduct?
No, they have no shame at all;
they do not even know how to blush.

I notice at least several things here that bear on our contemporary concerns:

  1. Do people have a significant financial interest that is tied to their message? In today’s world, this could come in the form of significant followings that garner advertising dollars, or campaign contributions, or donations to a cause, or a business seeking an “inside” or “preferred” track.
  2. The fact that a person is in a religious office or invokes religious language does not mean their message is true. Jesus warns of “wolves in sheep’s clothing” (Matthew 7:15). Jesus actually describes them as ravenous wolves. Sadly, religious offices and language can be used to exploit people for one’s own purposes or gratification.
  3. Is there a demonstrable pattern of deceit on the part of the speaker, apart from their message? Jeremiah says that they “practice deceit.” In Jeremiah 23:14 (NRSV), Jeremiah describes the false prophets of Jerusalem as “walking in lies.” As children, we may have been taught that when we tell a lie, we make it harder for someone to know if we are telling the truth. If there is a demonstrable pattern of lying in action and deed, we should be even more reluctant to credit a message from such a person as truthful.
  4. They refrain from confronting hard truths that point out flaws, indeed sins, in their hearers lives, or minimize their seriousness. I’ve written elsewhere (and prior to our current administration) that we have dressed the wounds of racism and our treatment of native peoples as though these were not serious national sins. False prophets assure us that there is nothing really wrong with us, that we are all basically good people, and that no serious amendment of our lives is required. Sometimes, such messages are accompanied with the scapegoating of others who are “them,” outsiders in some way on whom we may conveniently place all the blame.
  5. They tell us life will be all right, that we will have peace, even if we are in imminent danger. That’s what we want to hear, after all, isn’t it? In Jeremiah’s day, people were longing for liberation from the yoke of the superpower, Babylon, and the false prophets said it was coming soon. Jeremiah took to wearing a wooden yoke to symbolize this domination. When a false prophet broke the yoke, Jeremiah replied that God would replace that yoke with one of iron (Jeremiah 28).
  6. They are shameless. Dictionary.com offers the following synonyms for shameless: brash, wanton, improper, bold, rude, audacious, flagrant, brazen, outrageous, high-handed, unabashed, immoral, unprincipled, abandoned, arrant, barefaced, brassy, cheeky, depraved, dissolute. While the term “hypocrite” is not on this list, the fact that the moral character of these people is distorted enough that they flaunt what most people are ashamed of means we should not look for truth from this person.

It is noteworthy that Jeremiah, and other true prophets like Elijah, were far outnumbered by false prophets. It’s not popular, and sometimes dangerous, to tell the truth. Indeed, one thing that may distinguish true prophets from the false, is that their message has been personally costly (as opposed to the “gain” of false prophets).

Scripture provides two other important criteria that distinguish false prophets.

  1. A prophet is false if what they prophesy does not come to pass (Deuteronomy 18:21-22). No matter our efforts to defy or deny reality, in the end, we either live by its truth or find ourselves false to our loss. We may say gravity does not exist, but our denial of its reality will be readily and lethally exposed if we step into the air from a tenth story window.
  2. Prophets are false even if what they prophesy comes to pass if they lead us to believe in what is no god (Deuteronomy 13:1-5). For the Christian, if a message invites us to put ultimate allegiance and trust in anyone or anything else than the Triune God of holy love and saving grace through Christ, whether it be ourselves, a political party or figure, a religious teacher, or anything else, that message is false.

I’m not going to point fingers, and I would ask in commenting that you refrain from this as well. Usually, we don’t point fingers at those whose messages we listen to, but rather at the “other guys.” What I might suggest instead is that we use the criteria above to honestly evaluate those to whom we listen. What matters most is that we discern whether those we listen to are telling us the truth. If we are people who teach, or blog, or editorialize, and seek to persuade others, we do well to examine ourselves by these criteria.

At the end of the day, to build our lives, or to build our nation on lies is a perilous undertaking. To speak falsehoods is even more perilous. Jesus warns that on the day of judgment we will give an account for every careless word (Matthew 12:36). He warns that if our words or lives cause a “little one” to stumble, it would be better to have a millstone around our neck and drown ourselves in the ocean than face God’s reckoning (Matthew 18:6).

This is not a game.

Are Humanities Degrees A Dying Breed?

A J Gordon Chapel Gordon College

A. J. Gordon Chapel, Gordon College. Photo: John Phelan [CC BY 3.0] via Wikimedia

Gordon College announced recently that it was eliminating chemistry, French, physics, middle school and secondary education, recreation, sport and wellness, Spanish, and social work as separate majors, and combining philosophy, history and political science into a single department. This will mean the cutting of 36 faculty and staff positions.

Several small liberal arts colleges have faced closure, and one senses that the move on Gordon College’s part is to avoid a similar fate. Between 2012 and 2015, the number of bachelors degrees in the humanities dropped by nearly ten percent.  By contrast, degrees granted in engineering, science and health and medical sciences have increased.

Much of this is attributed to a rise in the number of jobs related to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)-related disciplines. Not only do majors in these fields preclude major in the humanities for all but the most motivated students, but the course loads in these majors are driving the reduction of what we called General Education courses, those that provided the necessary number of student hours in these humanities courses.

In my work in collegiate ministry with graduate students and faculty, most of those I know in the humanities are working as adjunct or contingent faculty, as tenured faculty positions dry up. They are lured to grad school by a love for literature, or history, or philosophy, and the chance to dig more deeply into what they love on fellowships or tuition waivers and stipends for teaching introductory courses with undergrads. They are actually low-cost labor. Then, as they wrap up four to six years of study with a dissertation, they go onto a saturated job market competing with several hundred others for every open tenure track position, often settling for those adjunct or contingent faculty positions. Many times they have to pay their own health benefits out of salaries that place them below the poverty line. Some find other ways to leverage their talents in industry, teaching high school, free-lancing or other jobs related, sometimes tangentially,  to their field. And some are baristas, or food truck vendors.

While it saddens me to see people who do not find jobs in the fields they love, most end up living satisfying and interesting lives. What saddens me more is the message many others are buying into in preparing for work in STEM fields. These are often sold as the training needed to fill the jobs that fuel the American economy. The message seems to imply that the purpose for which the emerging generation exists is to be fuel for our economic machine, or maybe a cog in the machine–until the machine replaces them! I find myself wondering how long people will settle for this before waking up to the fact that they know how to make and do, but have no idea why they are making and doing, what kind of world they are making and doing in, whether their making and doing is something good and worthy to give one’s only life, and how we arrive at this place in time and this kind of society.

A good liberal education helps people explore all these questions, and consider whether the answers of others address the questions of the day. I wonder sometimes whether the effort to eradicate what was once a staple of education is a recognition of the dangerous character of such an education. It fosters the asking of hard questions of oneself and one’s society. Questions people ask. Questions cogs do not ask.

I asked the question of how long it would take for people to wake up to what they’ve missed or lost. I suspect some never do, the amusements and distractions of life precluding such awakenings. Others get twenty years into a career only to discover that they have no clue why they are doing what they do other than that it pays well.

Writing a blog, and curating a Facebook page devoted to book, reading, and ideas, I interact with a diverse community of people for whom ideas and history, literature and art matter. They have discovered that making a life is far more important than making a living. They want to understand not only how to do things, but to make sense of their place in the world and this particular time in its history. Some have always understood this. Others fought to this realization later in life.

It makes me wonder whether at times humanities courses are wasted on the young. I wonder whether one answer to declining humanities enrollments is offer courses for those who later on in life realize what they have missed. Perhaps this accounts for the popularity of things like The Great Courses.

Why do I value the humanities? I could come up with profound answers but the truth is, it comes down to some good teachers who opened up the fascinations of history, the profound questions raised in great works of literature and philosophy and the passages of Augustine and Calvin that made my soul soar. There were also those in the sciences whose larger perspective on life looked beyond how things work to explore why we can understand these things and why they seem so beautiful, why the world is a place of wonder.

I realize as I muse on these things that I have no clue what the answer is to the decline in humanities enrollments and the curtailment of humanities programs. The most that I know to do is to keep affirming the richness and goodness and beauty of the fruits of these disciplines: literature, history, philosophy, political thought, art, music, and more. I don’t know that I can be a good teacher, but I hope I can celebrate those in print who have been good teachers to me and say, “look at this.”

Why Libraries are Worth Our Support

Rose Reading Room

Rose Reading Room, New York Public Library. Alex Proimos from Sydney, Australia [CC BY 2.0] via Wikimedia.

Right now, libraries in many parts of the U.S. are facing cuts to funding. The most visible case of this is the New York Public Library, which while not technically facing a cut is only receiving an increase from $387.7 million to $388.8 million, which given inflation and increased demand for services, amounts to a cut. High profile figures, including Sarah Jessica Parker have joined the fight to increase library funding in the different boroughs of New York City.

I think libraries are one of the best deals out there today for those who pay taxes. I only occasionally borrow books at the library, but even my occasional borrowing, if I consider the retail price of the book, more than offsets the portion of my taxes.

My basic argument for libraries is that they are one of the most powerful weapons we have for sustaining our democracy, particularly given the growing income disparities in our country.

  • They provide online access, computer terminals, and printing facilities for those who cannot afford these.
  • They offer books for children who cannot afford them, fostering literacy at the most critical time of life.
  • They provide resources for job searches, and often basic courses in job-seeking, and computer literacy that is fundamental for many workers.
  • Many offer homework assistance for students and language assistance for immigrants wanting to learn English.
  • Libraries make available expensive manuals and reference materials for those who by necessity are do-it-yourselfers.
  • Many offer help with college admissions tests, helping to offset the advantages that more affluent students have with test prep courses and other assistance, legal or illegal, in getting admitted to colleges.

In addition, libraries offer so much at no cost to patrons simply for personal growth and entertainment–books, recorded music, videos in both physical and e-formats. They offer a range of programs serving every age group from children to seniors for personal enrichment. The demand for all these services continues to rise, often meaning personnel in the libraries are trying to stretch funding to acquire materials, and often the same people are working harder and longer–many of whom hold at least masters degrees in library science.

Librarians also are increasingly have to cope with the social challenges of our age. Librarians may be the first to spot child abuse. In urban centers, librarians often serve patrons who are homeless, chemically dependent, or mentally ill. In some instances, librarians are the first to respond to a drug overdose and many are trained to administer Naloxone.

All this is to say that I am proud to support the library in my community and extremely impressed with all that they accomplish with our tax dollars. I would venture that this is true in most communities. Why not take time to thank a librarian this week? And if there is a tax issue on the ballot, the best way you can say thanks is to vote yes. It not only is a great bargain (often less than your Prime membership, and certainly your cable bill), but it is one of the best investments I can think of in sustaining our democracy.

 

Why I’ll Be in Church This Sunday

Inside_Church_view

Inside Church view at Water Baptism. Photo by Agapeoc [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia

There have been a flurry of reports and articles about the decline in church membership and attendance. The only category that seems to be rising is the “nones,” those who claim no affiliation, even if they would consider themselves “spiritual.” My work takes me into a number of different congregations, and my own sense is that there are more empty seats in recent years, bearing out what these studies are saying.

I could speculate about the causes, and many have, but I have no clue what is happening, to be honest. Maybe you do and can enlighten me. It also strikes me that it would be easy to throw programs and gimmicks at this. I’m not sure this would help. Gathering for worship is probably one of the most voluntary acts in modern life–one that comes more out of reasons of the heart than any effort to compel attendance. I may have to show up for work, or class, or weekly book group, or music rehearsal. Not so for worship in most cases.

So why will I be in church this Sunday?

Some is simply a matter of habit. I’ve been in worship most Sundays since I was probably about five years old. But habits are not necessarily bad. Habits of self care are good for my health and hygiene. I have to admit that I don’t always enjoy exercise. But exercising has become a habit. A habit with good consequences.

Gathering for worship has the good consequence of reminding this person who can all too often consider himself the center of the universe that God is, as well as the wild truth that the God of the universe is crazy about us pea-brained human beings. It is a relief to go to a place where you discover again and again that you are loved “just because….” The readings, the hymns and songs, the prayers, the confession all remind me of these bedrock truths that ground my life.

A statement out of Fleming Rutledge’s Three Hours grabbed me. “There is no other way to be a disciple of Jesus than to be in communion with other disciples of Jesus” I decided, maybe surrendered to relentless pursuit is a better word, to follow Jesus many years ago. Ever since, Jesus has been pulling me out of my propensity to go it alone–self-sufficient and self-protecting. Gathering with people, I would probably no more choose than the family I was born into, pulls me out of myself–to teach a class of giggly elementary school girls and rowdy boys, to pray for someone’s aunt I’ve never met, and to go through all the good and rough seasons of life with people who in time become dear brothers and sisters in Christ, and no longer just that person so different from me. It is odd how showing up with others, and for others over a few decades can change us.

I actually believe, when I recall it, that worship is about God coming and speaking to his people each week. It can come through a hymn or song, or a prayer. Often it comes through a pastor’s message. Maybe we are more blessed than we know to have a pastor who I believe tries to listen to God and what God wants said from the scripture for the week. Often, I discover that there is a sacred sense that is quite different than the common sense I live by.

Incidentally, I think showing up can encourage the pastor. I’ve been on the other side of the lectern and a room full of attentive people encourages one’s heart. Each of us matters. In some ethnic communities, there is a sense that the sermon is as much the congregation’s responsibility as the preacher’s. That’s what “call and response” is all about.

Also, I believe a church is a group of people on a journey together. Sunday isn’t just about listening for some personally inspiring thought. It is also about listening to the One who wants to help us navigate the journey together and knows the road. Church is about listening for what the Guide would say to us. This pulls me out of what I want for this group into what God wants.

In a society that seems to increasingly lodge its hope in political, media, business, or sports heroes, all of whom sooner or later are shown to have clay feet, worship reminds me that there is a kingdom that is not of this world, a perspective that comes from somewhere else, and a time frame of eternity that ought shape our lives.

Finally, gathering with other Christians in a local congregation reminds me of all the places this is happening around the world, and that “love one another” has a much larger scope that transcends national boundaries, and ethnic groups, and social classes. This past Easter Sunday, I arrived at church stunned by the bombing of Sri Lankan churches, and concerned for the safety of two Sri Lankan friends. I was reminded of the global family I was part of who were gathering time zone after time zone across the planet, and in this moment, sharing in the grief of Sri Lankan believers.

That solidarity in our community results in practical partnership with a collection of other local congregations, teaming up to host a community garden, food pantry, medical clinic, and to collect supplies for school children, infants, and even pets in low income households. Together, these churches and other community groups saved a local wetland from developers. Gathering Sunday by Sunday moves us to pray globally and act locally each week.

For these reasons, and perhaps more, I will be in church this Sunday.

 

 

Learning About Your Home Town

vintage youngstown postcard

Vintage postcard of the downtown Youngstown, Ohio skyline

For the past five years I’ve been on a journey of learning about the place where I grew up, Youngstown, Ohio. You can read all about it if you click “On Youngstown,” where all my posts, and readers’ comments may be found. Recently, I’ve talked to several friends who have been inspired by these posts and have begun researching and writing about the towns where they grew up and their own memories of that experience. Based on my own experience, it is something I would highly encourage.

It has brought back a number of good memories of people, places, and experiences that shaped the person I’ve become. It has afforded chances to express gratitude to some who are still living, and chances to honor those who have passed. Remembering has again and again brought a smile to my face, particularly when some long lost memory surfaces. Sure, I have some bad memories as well. I tend not to write about those online, but to understand how these have shaped me as well brings the gift of self-understanding.

I’ve discovered how much I did not know about my home town–and that I’m not alone. It’s odd that with all the things we learn in school, we don’t learn about our home towns, especially when the names of places and the places themselves often have such interesting stories behind them.

Writing about this online has brought me in touch with a whole community of people from my home town from high school classmates to people I’ve never met, but who share the same experiences of people and place. Often, they remind me of things I’ve forgotten about, or in some cases never knew.

And that leads into another reason. Learning about one’s home town is like a real-life detective story. One fact sparks a question, or another memory, and chasing that down usually leads to two or three others. That’s why five years have passed and I’m still coming up with new ideas.

Your memories are history. If nothing else, it is family history, and other relatives may appreciate it. But I’ve found myself consulting oral histories to learn about everything from pizza recipes to working conditions to local traditions. Local history is a collection of personal histories.

I think learning about a place fosters love for it. I think that can be true of the place where we grew up, and if we’ve moved, the place where we now live. Learning about a place and recalling our own memories of that place are what makes it special to us. Sadly, I think it is possible to live in places without caring for them. I don’t like to think of the consequences of that when it is true of most of those living in a place.

How might one start? I’d suggest starting by thinking of all your favorites: foods, activities, music, hangouts and other places, people. It might help to think through the seasons of the year, or different periods of your life: early childhood, elementary school, middle and high school, post secondary school, etc. Probably as you start writing or recording your memories, questions will occur to you: where did that name come from, why are so many things named after this person, how did my town get its start, how did it grow? Or pick one aspect of your home town that interests you, and try to find out all you can about it.

Where do you go to find answers to what you don’t know? It has been fun to build a library of books about my home town and you might look online for what has been written about yours. In some cases, you might even find free works online in the public domain. Google is amazing for searching down online resources. Beyond this, if you really get into the local history, your local historical society (most towns have them) or library can be a trove of resources. Becoming a sleuth chasing down your questions is part of the fun!

If you do this, I’d love to hear from you, and compare notes. I’m sure each of us will think our home town was the best. And we will be right.

 

WWJDO?

 

Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Merchants_Chased_from_the_Temple_(Les_vendeurs_chassés_du_Temple)_-_James_Tissot

James Tissot, The Merchants Chased from the Temple. Public Domain via Wikimedia

Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. (Matthew 21:12, NIV)

 

This verse was in the Palm Sunday reading at my church this past Sunday. I should mention that my reflections here may bear scant resemblance to my pastor’s sermon, so this only reflects the workings of my mind, not what my pastor had to say (which I also remember!).

I was thinking about some of the recent “What would Jesus…?” slogans. There was “What Would Jesus Do?” complete with bracelets. Later on, some environmentally oriented Christians started a campaign with the slogan “what would Jesus drive?”. This verse inspired me with a new one: “who would Jesus drive out?”

The context is that Jesus is standing in the temple courts. More precisely, he is standing in the court of the Gentiles–the closest that Gentiles  who are “God-fearers” and want to worship Yahweh are permitted to come. The sellers provided a service for Jews who wanted to offer sacrifices, providing a money exchange (probably at a tidy profit) into the approved temple currency. Then they sold birds and other approved sacrificial animals for those who didn’t want to transport them long distances. There was probably a calculation that this was a convenient location. The Gentiles, if there were any who were interested, were considered unclean. They should be glad they are even allowed here, amid the bargaining and calls and cries of the birds and animals–and all the smells of a barnyard. Not exactly welcoming for a Gentile wanting to worship Yahweh. I suspect a more than a few turned away.

Who did Jesus drive out (WWJDO)? It was those whose presence and actions turned spiritually hungry outsiders away from God. It was those who, by their actions, made God their exclusive preserve. We might be troubled by what seems an act of anger, but the focus here is an act that sets things to right, and communicates God’s displeasure with their exclusionary actions.

Strictly speaking, there is no longer a physical temple or a “court of the Gentiles.” The only temple now is the people of God (1 Peter 2:5). So who would Jesus drive out, today?

It would seem to me that it is any whose actions turn people away from Christ and the people of God. It might be intentional or unintentional. I suspect in suggesting this, you may already be composing a mental list of those Jesus would drive away. I have to admit that this is where my mind went when I heard these ways.

Of course, everyone on my list was someone else. I was notably absent from the list. And I started to wonder about that:

  • I wondered about who it is I’ve welcomed and who I’ve ignored.
  • I wondered about whether there are some groups I’ve written off as unworthy or uninterested in God.
  • I wondered if at times I’ve only planned for or reached out to those “like me.”
  • I wondered if I’ve been content with having people at my dinner table and leadership “table” who are like me.
  • I wonder if there are those who have turned away from considering Christ because of what they have seen of my life.

Would I be among those Jesus would drive out? It seems that Lent, and particularly Passion Week is a time for self-examination rather than finger-pointing. It is a time to ask, are there things that I am blind to that are driving people away from God, and could drive me away as well? From what must I repent? Where have I been justifying myself?

What is clear is that Jesus wanted to include far more than those he drove out (who by no means were permanently excluded). The verse Jesus quotes is Isaiah 56:7, which says, “For My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples.” Jesus is the one who welcomes those who say, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13). He is the one who promises rest to the weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

Who would Jesus drive out?

Choosing Barabbas

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PD-US, “Give us Barabbas” from volume 9 of The Bible and its Story Taught by One Thousand Picture Lessons, edited by Charles F. Horne and Julius A. Bewer, published in 1910.

But the whole crowd shouted, “Away with this man! Release Barabbas to us!”

Luke 23:18, New International Version.

We’ve just come through a weekend that began with the submission of the Mueller Report and concluded with the Barr summary. I will not be discussing this report, of which most of us still know very little. Rather I want to discuss a more basic reflex of the partisans of our national political discussion.

Those who identify with the president seem to feel that their hero has been vindicated and already are thinking about what could be done under his leadership with four more years to “Make America Great Again.”

Those who identify with the other party in our national political discussion are already in a vigorous quest to find the person who will lead them, and the nation out of what they see is a political wilderness. There are quite a cast of rivals: Amy, Andrew, Bernie, Beto, Cory, Elizabeth, Kamala, Kirsten, Jay, John D, John H., Julian, Marianne, and Tulsi. Joe Biden is still considering as are a couple of mayors and several others.

It is going to be an interesting two years.

What I want to focus on is our quest for political messiahs. I want to propose that when we pursue political messiahs, no matter the party stripe, we are choosing Barabbas.

The reference goes back to the gospel Passion narratives.  The Roman governor, Pilate, under pressure to kill an innocent man, Jesus, tries to find an out with a practice of granting the release during the Jewish Passover festival of one of the prisoners sentenced to crucifixion. As an alternative to Jesus, Pilate offers an insurrectionist, someone who had challenged Rome’s rule, perhaps a political messiah to some. Pilate obviously miscalculated the crowd’s loyalties. They ask for the insurrectionist and murderer rather than the healer and teacher whose worst act was clearing the temple and preaching of a kingdom not of this world.

Then, as now, there was a hunger for political leadership that would help a nation realize its hopes and dreams, in this case political independence from the Roman empire. Now we want leaders who will guarantee religious freedom, economic greatness, health care for all (or not), green policies (or not), welcoming immigrants and refugees and/or protecting our borders, and on and on. I don’t necessarily think it a bad thing to aspire to many of these, but I’m troubled by the messianic dreams that we require our politicians to feed that they will inevitably disappoint. They will no more bring in religious, economic or social utopias than did Barabbas bring an end to Roman rule.

When we look to political leaders to be our messiahs, we are choosing Barabbas, and Barabbas will fail us.

The other thing I want to propose is that we cannot choose Barabbas and Jesus. This is particularly addressed to those who identify as Christian–of any stripe. Essentially, the act of putting hope in any political messiah is to say, “away with Jesus!” What concerns me about the political idolatry in many of our churches, whether of figures on the right or left, is that we are giving an allegiance to others of which only Jesus is properly deserving, and neglecting the political order of which he is the leader. When we surrender the church to be in the vanguard of an earthly political order, we forsake the priorities of Jesus’s political order, one that transcends nation, economic status, age, gender, ethnic background and one that promotes, not division, but justice and healing of these fault lines, creating “a beloved community,” in the words of Dr. King.

Finally, I would have you think of this. When we seek political messiahs, we not only choose Barabbas, we “crucify” Jesus. While we cannot physically put Jesus to death, when we claim to be followers of Jesus but seek political messiahs, we often turn others away from Jesus. It is striking that “nones,” the religiously unafilliated, are now the largest single group in the US, tied with those who identify as Catholic, and greater than Evangelicals who are second according to the most recent General Social Survey.

This is not a call to give up political engagement, but rather to re-order our allegiances. Instead of viewing political leaders, particularly presidents, as messiahs, could we not return to simply viewing them as public servants serving the public good? I would suggest that at best, the public good is a proximate good. Utopias of the right or the left are dangerous, in my view, and may end up as tyrannies. Might we not, instead, look for those who might serve well and leave things a bit better than they found them?

It also strikes me that when we stop looking for messiahs, we stop looking for charismatic figures. We look at character–for measures of integrity, courage, wisdom. We look at demonstrated capability and convictions. We also remember that all human beings are at best “magnificent ruins.” We stop putting them on pedestals only to knock them down.

Whether we embrace Jesus or not, might it be time, and past time for us to stop choosing Barabbas?

A Lament for a Divided Church

Rembrandt_Harmensz._van_Rijn_-_Jeremia_treurend_over_de_verwoesting_van_Jeruzalem_-_Google_Art_Project

Rembrant, Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem

How long, O Lord?

How long will you endure a divided American church?

We were divided over slavery.

We were divided over suffrage.

We were divided over Civil Rights

We were divided over the Vietnam war.

We are divided today.

We travel the world on missions trips;

and fear the immigrants and refugees from those countries.

Pro-life Christians against Black Lives Matter Christians.

We complain about polarized politics and the death of civility;

And mirror those divides every Sunday while worshiping one God.

We pray “thy kingdom come” and pledge allegiance to various powers and parties.

We remember the broken body of Jesus, saying it was once for all;

And blithely continue to rend his body on earth.

We stand over the broken body giving thanks

For our freedom to worship.

How long, O Lord?

Who Are We Protecting?

In recent years, it has become common place to point the finger at the Catholic church with regard to sexual abuse by clergy. Well, this week Protestants discovered the “log in their own eye” with the Houston Chronicle report on sexual abuse within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).The article featured a mosaic of mug shots representing a portion of the 220 who worked or volunteered with the SBC who were convicted or pleaded guilty to sex crimes. The investigation reported over 700 victims, many of which were minors, which, if it follows the pattern of other investigations, may be the tip of the iceberg.

Similar to other sexual abuse scandals the article traces a pattern of ignoring victim reports, protecting perpetrators, and refusing to make reforms that would protect children from these sexual offenders. Tragically, in the case of some pastors, even after convictions, they were able to secure pastoral roles in other churches, even nearby churches.

Sadly, I don’t think we are going to be eliminate patterns of sexual brokenness that lead to sex crimes. A highly sexualized culture and patterns of dysfunction in families suggest to me that churches and other ministries will continue to need to take measures to protect against predators, and others who violate boundaries of trust. Churches are “target rich” environments for predation, bringing adults and children together, often in relations of trust and privacy.

It seems that in all these scandals, there has been a systemic blindness to the clear teaching of Jesus:

“And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” Matthew 18:5-6

I grew up singing “Jesus loves the little children.” It’s that simple. The priority in our churches must be to love and protect our children. To fail to protect our children may well be to cause them to stumble–indeed many who have been abused have turned away from the faith. It seems there are some basic steps we can take.

  1. Break the silence. The worst assumption we can make in churches is “we all know each other and none of us would do something like this.” Candid education of every one, dealing with the signs of abuse, and how the whole church can be involved in preventing abuse, may deter potential abusers. Making clear a commitment to child safety and the practical steps the church takes in its children and youth programs sends a message that “we are committed to the safety of children.” It may even encourage parents of young families to come to your church!
  2. Screen all pastoral candidates, staff, and volunteers who work with children. One of the problems in the SBC was the refusal to track sexual predators. Applications, references and background checks may seem burdensome but they are a small price to pay and they say “we are committed to the safety of children.” I personally felt better about my son’s involvement with Boy Scouts when I learned I needed to undergo a criminal background check to volunteer with our troop.
  3. Train volunteers who work with children with periodic refreshers. Establishing clear protocols of appropriate and inappropriate contact, how to recognize signs of abuse, and how to keep children safe are important, including how children are released to parents or caregivers.
  4. It may seem burdensome, but the rule of an adult never being alone with a child makes sense. It was a rule for which I was grateful when I worked with Scouts, as much a protection for me as for the boys I worked with.
  5. Have a clear policy of how suspected abuse is dealt with, including implementation of your state’s mandatory reporting requirements. Physical or sexual abuse of minors is a crime. All of this makes it clear that abusers will not be shielded and that the priority is the safety of children. In all the sexual abuse scandals, the problem wasn’t merely that abuse happened, but that deliberate steps were taken to protect the abuser, and the reputation of the institution, instead of the abused child or youth.

Certainly there is more to be said about this. But is it so hard to say in our religious institutions that ensuring the safety of our children takes priority over protecting individual or institutional reputations? Jesus doesn’t need us to protect his reputation; he needs us to protect his children. Period.

Toxic Masculinity?

we believe the best men can be gillette short film youtube

Screen capture: Closing image of “The Best Men Can Be”, Film by Gillette via YouTube

The internet blew up this past week over a video Gillette released titled “The Best Men Can Be.” It may go down as a courageous effort and a bad business decision. As of this writing, the video has been disliked by nearly twice as many as liked it.

I find that reaction puzzling, understandable, and disturbing.

The video shows images of bullying, sexual harassment, condescending behavior toward women, and a row of men behind barbecue grills chanting mantra-like “boys will be boys.” as one child beats another up in front of them. It shifts to a multiple screen portrayal of media coverage of #MeToo, and then to a call for action, a challenge for men to be their best selves, to hold each other accountable to a higher standard in their treatment of women and to call each other out (“not cool”), to help each other resolve conflict peacefully, to intervene when witnessing bullying, to empower one’s children, and to be models to the next generation of men.

The reaction is puzzling. Do we really dislike the message that men should act with integrity, courage, respect, and as positive role models of the same to their sons and other boys? Can we really justify bullying, violence, disrespect of women under the catch-all justification “boys will be boys?”

The reaction is understandable. This has been the ideal of masculinity going around for a long time. I grew up with it. Men were supposed to be tough, and you showed it by picking on “weaklings,” or by pretending you were tough so that you wouldn’t get picked on. Women existed to gratify your pleasures. Real men don’t show feelings or weakness.

The reaction is disturbing. It tells me that this version of masculinity is alive and well. You lash out when criticism gets too close for comfort. And it appears there is a significant amount of that discomfort.

It troubles me when…

  • we confuse bullying with courage–the courage that goes into battle, that fights wrongs, that protects the vulnerable.
  • we teach that resorting to violence is better than the calm word, or knowing when to walk away.
  • we justify objectifying women with looks, catcalls, gropes, and more rather than respecting their dignity as unique and gifted persons capable of running companies, outrunning us in some cases, and perhaps saving our lives.

So we have a society where most of the perpetrators of gun violence are men, mostly young men. So we have a society where men’s stoical determination not to show weakness drives them to an early grave from hypertension, heart disease, and a host of other ills. So we have a society where far too many of those who father children are AWOL when it comes to helping raise them. All of this seems like “toxic” masculinity to me, not good for men or those around them.

Some of the reaction to the ad arises from a perceived “war against boys and men.” I get that, and if you only watched the first part of the Gillette ad, you might have the same reaction. If even half the claims of #MeToo are warranted (and I suspect the percentage is far higher) it is hard time to feel good about one’s gender if you identify as male.

What I appreciated about the ad is that it went beyond “these guys are bad” and”I’m not that guy” to affirm models of masculinity that show true strength rather than posturing. It models calling each other to higher standards of respect toward women, of father’s empowering their daughters, of acting with courage and decency in front of one’s son. What the critics of this commercial miss, in my view, is that none of the positive models are sissies but people who act with strength. It’s not a put down of men but a call for men to step up.

A number of those who read this blog are believing Christians, and some of you may disagree with me. The question I have is, do you think Jesus is a model of true masculinity?  I think of the incident where Jesus’s followers are “chest bumping” over who is the greatest among them–typical toxic masculinity. Jesus replies:

“…whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant,  and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:43b-45)

Do we consider Jesus weak because he defines greatness in terms of servanthood, and his own mission as one of serving? Jesus says this as he is walking to the city where he will be betrayed, arrested and killed. Do we not consider perhaps the ultimate show of courage to be when someone gives their life for another? Is this not great strength? Is not every other act of service willingly given to one’s partner, one’s children, one’s colleagues, one’s community, likewise an act of strength?

I think it is something like this that Gillette means when it speaks of “The Best Men Can Be.” The cynics just consider it an advertising stunt. If so, it is probably a failed one. I’d rather call it an instance of corporate responsibility as a purveyor of men’s products. I’ve been shaving with Gillette razors since I started sprouting facial hair. I have Gillette razors in my medicine cabinet. I have no plans to stop using them.