God-talk and Moral Values
Sojomail - November 9, 2004
|QUOTE OF THE WEEK||^top|
Commit your way to the Lord;
Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him;
Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath.
- Psalm 37:5-8
|BATTERIES NOT INCLUDED||^top|
God-talk and moral valuesby David Batstone
Over the past week a bevy of pundits in the national media have sought to make sense of the "moral values" indicator that emerged as a crucial deciding factor in the election. No doubt about it, abortion and gay marriage were wedge issues that separated the sheep from the goats (or more accurately, the elephants from the donkeys) in the voting booth.
We would misunderstand the debate on faith and values, however, if we limit our gaze to specific moral issues. It's also critical to examine the theological worldviews that stand in conflict and guide people of faith in divergent directions.
Many evangelicals and Catholics, for instance, report that they voted for George Bush because they perceive he has a personal faith in Jesus Christ. John Kerry talks about faith; George Bush professes it. Kerry looks to faith to inform his perspective, Bush asks God to guide his steps.
Perhaps an example will help to further illustrate this point. I shared the podium at a conference in Switzerland recently with a man who works in the banking industry and identified himself publicly as a Christian. A week or so later I wrote to him, saying that it was wonderful to meet an individual who shares my engagement in the world of business and seeks to follow the path of Jesus. He responded by e-mail a few days later with the following: "On our commitments, just a clarification. My commitment is not merely to the 'path of Jesus' but also and primarily to Jesus Himself."
Why did he get nervous with my language? He is suspicious that a rational application of Jesus' teaching will take priority over a direct experience of the Almighty. In other words, Jesus is more than a great teacher, but the very presence of God.
Why, in turn, do I get nervous when I hear his response? All too often I have seen a "personal relationship with God" used to justify behavior that is a radical departure from the life of Jesus. Of course, I believe that a personal experience of God's grace is a foundation of the spiritual life. But I also believe as a Christian that I only deepen my own spiritual experience when I follow the path of Jesus.
Case in point: George Bush believes God told him to level a military strike against Iraq. Once such God-on-one directions are accepted, there is no common ground for moral discussion. After all, maybe God is speaking to him in a manner unique to his own mystical experience. That, to me, represents a dangerous theology. It places an individual's own God experience outside of the shadow of the cross.
On a different vector, it is now clear that both conservatives and liberals see morality as public. It is strange, though, how uniquely they apply their values. Conservatives tend to be economic libertarians - that is, individuals and corporations should be free to practice their economic lives without government intervention. Hence, they revere tax cuts practically as a faith issue. Conservatives do not trust individuals to make moral decisions with their bodies - elevating same-sex marriage, abortion, euthanasia, and stem-cell research to be the central tenets of "family values."
Liberals are all in favor of regulating economic activity, on the other hand, in large part because they do not trust the avarice of either individuals or corporations. Yet they tend to be libertarians on social values, convinced that personal moral behavior that deals with sex/body is no one's business but their own. How do conservatives and liberals make sense of these contradictions in their own positions?
On yet a third vector, people of faith do not understand God operating in the world in the same way. The vast majority of fundamentalist and evangelical Christians see themselves embroiled in an apocalyptic battle against evil. They are on God's side, and they are fighting Satan's emissaries in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Hollywood.
Progressive Christians do not shy from a spiritual battle against those forces that do great damage to human dignity and the environment. But they do not see history as inevitable, nor is God hell-bent on bringing about the end of the world. While specific acts can be called evil - for instance, the massacres in the Sudan - they do not aim to color a map of the world into two hues, the children of light and the children of darkness.
All to say, Christians in the U.S. today do not simply disagree on a hierarchy of values. They read the Bible quite differently and express their faith in Jesus in radically distinct ways. I award Thomas Friedman, columnist of The New York Times, with the pithy phrase of the week past: We are "two nations under God."
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. - Matthew 5:9
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Sojourners in the news
With your support and encouragement, Sojourners has been able to continue to provide America with a broader biblical vision of "moral values" in this election year and beyond. Values may be a hot story now, but be assured that long after this election we'll continue to declare that poverty, war, the environment, and ALL threats to human life and dignity are moral values that must be addressed by our churches and our governments.
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Syllables of the Perfect Word: Advent Reflections 2004 available from Pax Christi USA, the national Catholic peace movement.
|RELIGION AND POLITICS||^top|
"A wonderful roadmap to follow during the difficult journey through God's Time. Contemporary events make Professor Hill's treatment all the more compelling and his evaluation of popular biblical interpretations all the more urgent." - Mike McCurry, White House Press Secretary (1995-98); Senior Advisor, Kerry Presidental Campaign (2004)
"In God's Time not only makes eschatology understandable to laity but explains why it's important to every Christian in today's world. And Hill writes beautifully." - Fred Barnes, Executive Editor, The Weekly Standard
Find out more about In God's Time and other exciting adult education courses for your church at www.WesleyMinistryNetwork.com.
|ON THE GROUND||^top|
Women wage peace in Sudanby Elizabeth Palmberg
Drawing on her experiences working in the refugee camps of Darfur, where more than 1 million non-Arab villagers have been driven from their homes, Maha Sheriff makes an impassioned plea for international groups - which have so far focused almost exclusively on aid distribution - to draw on and strengthen Darfurian women's groups. Only in this way, she argued from personal experience, can aid workers get accurate reporting of rapes and of women's real needs.
'We are all human beings'by Sheila Provencher, Christian Peacemaker Teams
"We're sorry that the baker spelled the word wrong," smiled Um Yousif. "But at least it is a big WELL."
Unfortunately, things are far from well. Um Yousif does not leave her house, not even to buy groceries. Fear of violence and kidnapping reigns.
"I do not think it will get better, even after our elections," she said. "It will only change when the Americans leave. So many people just cannot bear that the American army is here. If they leave, there is no one left to fight. It could get better within months."
She paused. "But my heart feels for the American soldiers and their families. So many killed. They are human beings. We are all human beings."
American soldiers and fighter pilots poised to attack Fallujah will be able to kill people only because they are trained to see "insurgents" or civilian "collateral damage." Our government and we ourselves even tend to refer to the human beings in the armed forces as "troops" or "casualties."
If Christianity - without losing its soul - is yet to avoid losing touch with the world, it must constantly update itself by dialogue with all the intellectual currents of today. To this end, the author proposes a necessary two-way dialectic between theology and the world, an ongoing dialectic ultimately essential to both church and world. $25 hardcover. To order call (313) 624-9784. Dove Booksellers, 13904 Michigan Avenue, Dearborn, Michigan, 48126. http://www.dovebook.com
Electoral map quest
Electoral maps got you seeing red? Here are a few alternative visions of the American electoral cartography - some statistical, some satirical, some historical, and some purple.
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Brad Shumate, pastor of Portland Community of Christ, Portland, Oregon, writes:
As pastor for a largely liberal congregation, I sat staring out my office window Wednesday morning, November 3, after the elections. Utterly stunned by the election outcomes and the obvious revelation that it had far more to do with "moral values" than the fact that Bush had waged an unjust war, was spending the country into the ground, and had effectively propagandized fear on so many other issues and fronts, I had absolutely no idea what I was going to say Sunday to my congregation. Jim Wallis' remarks ["Progressive faith did not lose this election," SojoMail 11/3/2004] lifted me out of my post-election stupor. His comments reminding us that it was Kerry and the Democratic Party running in this election, and not the vision of progressive, prophetic faith, helped me mobilize. "Moral values" has been hijacked for now. Kerry's vision and that of the Democratic party was indeed incomplete in this past campaign. A more complete and compelling understanding will emerge and, as Wallis counseled, people of progressive prophetic vision will be needed to fill in the missing pieces. To that end shall I be working.
Lyall Mercer, pastor of Twin City Church, Bloomington, Illinois, writes:
A number of my views conflict with yours and I have traditionally been in the "evangelical conservative Christian camp." However, in recent times God has been taking me on a journey and I wanted to thank you for the contribution of SojoMail to my faith journey. There are a number of issues where I am very much at odds with many of my conservative friends - including the death penalty and the Iraq war, simply because I cannot justify the support of these issues with scripture. I am confused as to why those who claim to believe in the sanctity of human life (and I am against abortion, by the way) do not extend this to the barbaric death penalty. Equally, I find the silence of my conservative Christian friends deafening when it comes to those innocent people in Iraq who are being killed. I have gained a great deal of compassion that has allowed me to influence those in my fellowship, and I believe that I present a balanced, biblical viewpoint of many issues to those in my congregation.
Your e-magazine helps provide me with this balance, and I wish that more conservative Christians would challenge their thinking and open their minds to the fact that hearing different views is not only healthy, but may be a way God uses to take us to new levels in our relationship with him.
Dale Perkins writes from Victoria, British Columbia:
I cannot believe the calmness of your commentary. Am I to understand it as an inflated sense of Christian fairness and balance, or do you really not believe that the future of this planet has been put in peril by the machinations and extremism that have coalesced around President George W. Bush? To listen to his self-righteous pronouncements of being a "shining beacon of freedom" in the world is to make one wonder if there is no limit to U.S. chauvinism. And the remarkable thing is that there are so few Christians in the U.S. who are declaring that the emperor isn't wearing any clothes. Rather than balance we need to see moral outrage from our Christian brothers and sisters, and I had hoped to hear as much from Sojourners.
Greg Bilbrey writes from Robinson, Illinois:
Reading the blogs and other online comments posted by those on the losing side the day after the election, I was struck by the bitterness and rage directed toward evangelicals. If this mood is widespread, Sojourners' "God is not a Republican...or a Democrat" initiative is even more important after the election than before. People have to learn that evangelicals are not monolithic, and that we don't all conform to the caricatures and stereotypes that have often been all too close to reality. The poisonous reaction I've seen is even more evidence that the pursuit of political power by the evangelical church has done untold harm to the gospel.
Eric Getty writes from Springfield, Massachusetts:
I appreciate Jim Wallis' reminder that, as prophetic Christians, we cannot place our hope in any political party. However, I do not believe that Sojourners' perspective on the elections has been truly radical. In spite of your profession of political independence, it seems to me that you have hesitated to bring any strong criticism to bear on the Democrats or their candidate, John Kerry...until after his chances of winning the election were past. On the one hand, I believe the Democrats are the worse for your lack of boldness - if our prophetic voice is in any way redemptive, we should hope that our hearers would be challenged to act more in accordance with biblical values, and perhaps have a better chance of appealing to religious voters. On the other hand, we must never lose sight of our own vocation as Christians to be God's people - to model among ourselves an alternative to the world's way of power politics and violence. This is the calling that we are to live out as a challenge to both Republicans and Democrats, who are both, in the final analysis, cut from the same cloth of Western liberalism, nationalism, militarism, and consumerism.
Peter Barraclough writes from Sheffield, United Kingdom:
I listened with great joy to hear Jim Wallis make a truly Christian commentary on BBC Radio 4 this morning. It was so good to hear an American Christian champion the cause of peace, justice, and life on the British media when most of the attention is on the trigger-happy "religious right." The reputation of American evangelicals is detrimental to the cause of Christ here in the U.K. and I fear that we evangelicals over here will start getting tarred with the same brush, but Jim did a great service to the church here in the U.K. by what he said this morning.
Patti Flanagin writes from Cleveland Heights, Ohio:
It is disturbing that so many people look to the government to provide moral structure for the country through ever more restrictive laws, rather than understanding that the morality of the U.S. is comprised of the values and virtue of each individual and how those values and virtue are lived out in every community.
Frankly, I believe that the free market/corporate-defined culture is largely to blame for the degradation of U.S. society. I find it disturbing that citizens talk about moral values while enthusiastically supporting the very corporations that are in large part responsible for this social degradation. The steady diet of death, cheap sexuality, and coarse language pouring across our airwaves is not good for anyone. Yet every day, we Americans let these huge corporations determine, create, and spread an increasingly debased version of popular culture through our public airwaves, where it contributes to the cheapening of human life and the elimination of civil discourse.
If people want to vote their values, shouldn't they also vote with their pocketbooks? Turn off your TVs and radios, go out into your community, and lead by example!
Elizabeth Entwistle writes from Oneonta, New York:
With abortion a divisive issue in this election and among the readers of Sojourners, I have some practical advice: those concerned about abortion should do something to address its root causes. In doing this, both pro-life and pro-choice advocates could unite to work for positive change that creates a woman- and child-friendly society. Both women's and children's lives are valuable and we cannot have a continual argument over which one of them is more important.
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