Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of Just Wondering, Jesus and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich. Tom's posts appear via RNS.
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Why Christians Can’t Ignore the Mote in Their Own Eye
Despite the fuming of a former Republican governor, President Obama didn’t offend “every believing Christian in the United States” when he noted at a national prayer breakfast that we, too, “committed terrible deeds” in the name of our religion.
I, for one, was pleased to have us called back from the “high horse” that Christian religionists often occupy when criticizing other faiths while ignoring the mote in our own eye.
In our pursuit of religious victory, we Christians have at times been a scourge on civilization. We have slaughtered many, and not just centuries ago in a safe and distant past but still today.
We have served as apologists for slavery, apartheid, racial segregation, white terrorism of blacks in the South, suppression of labor, and repression of the poor and immigrant. Some of our misguided brethren are declaring war now on women and on gays, as if God’s promise to love all of humanity needed to be ignored.
We have winked at our own scandals while presuming to judge our neighbors for their flaws. We have sought special favors — such as tax exemption — and used the benefits to serve ourselves. With the world around us descending into violence and intolerance, we bicker about doctrine and property ownership.
Our hands are stained. Plain and simple.
Snowstorm May Lay Bare Our ‘Control Addiction’
Apocalypse or snowstorm? For a nervous few days, we worried that life as we know it in New York would be undone by a monster blizzard.
As it turned out, we didn’t get the feared 36 inches. But as we stood in long grocery lines and planned escape routes from work, we realized that not a single one of us — not even the mega-wealthy and mega-powerful in this mega-city — could control this moment.
For me, a blizzard would have imperiled my scheduled move Upstate on Jan. 29 and my scheduled flight to California next week and ensuing four-week pilgrimage driving east on two-lane roads, plans made over many months.
Now we could see our “control addiction” in action. Some believe control is the ultimate human addiction. Not caused by a chemical or harmful substance, but caused by the grand delusion that we are all-powerful, we are “masters of the universe,” as Tom Wolfe put it. Our wealth and our weapons can make life exactly what we want.
A Complicated World Intrudes Upon an Ideologically Driven Congress
While a new Congress relentlessly pursued its ideological agenda to trim government and reward its big-money patrons, a vastly more complicated world intruded:
- In Maryland, a bishop reportedly driving drunk struck a bicyclist, fled the scene while he lay dying and, according to some reports, returned only after a church official told her she had to do so.
- In Paris, a handful of religious terrorists defended the Prophet Muhammad by slaughtering the staff of a satirical magazine.
- In Nigeria, the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram intensified its systematic massacring of Nigerian citizens.
- In New York City, police officers wanting more respect from the new mayor waged a childish campaign of disrespect against the mayor and against the people of New York.
- In Washington, the latest jobs report showed more jobs being created but no gains in pay. That means the lower and middle classes continue to be dragged down by up-with-wealth political actions.
All this in a week’s time, all while Congress was pursuing a stale ideological agenda dating back to the 1930s. In that agenda, legislators would gut Social Security (take that, FDR), reward big oil with a new pipeline (thanks for the patronage, Koch brothers), chip away at Affordable Care (gotcha, Barack) and appease social conservatives.
They would treat the world as a simple place where government must shrink, people must suffer and the precious few must get richer.
The Birth of Jesus Is Not a Sweet Story
I had just started as pastor of a large church when a key leader took me aside and said I was free to preach about anything I wanted, except homosexuality.
He didn’t want to hear any sermons addressing the issue then dominating many conversations among Christians. Keep the topic in the closet.
Sixteen years before, in a town once governed by the Klan, a leader told me not to preach about race. Too many people remembered signs saying, “Negroes must be out of town by sundown.”
Many clergy have been told, in terms ranging from kindly counsel to peremptory demand, to “keep politics out of the pulpit.”
Many a mainline pastor will attest: The one topic that Jesus addressed more than any other — wealth and power — was declared off-limits in congregations that hoped to attract wealthy constituents and their budget-saving pledges.
Many churches gave up their ethical voice in exchange for money, the very trade Jesus warned us against. The issue wasn’t partisan campaigning or endorsing specific candidates — a clear violation — but any mention at all of race, sexuality, warfare or economic injustice.
As a reader recently wrote me: “I hear enough about blacks on TV.”
So it is that Christmas becomes a sweet story and a centerpiece for family love.
Will Faith Stay Safe or Stand Tall?
Early on the first Sunday of Advent, I logged in to Pandora and heard the familiar chant “Adoro Te Devote.”
As a child, I knew Thomas Aquinas’ beloved text as “Humbly I Adore Thee.” At that time, faith meant standing with my family in the family church and singing such hymns with devotion.
The joining in song and prayer drew me closer to God. Or so I thought.
Later, as my life became more challenging and as I entered a world that seemed largely untouched by faith — a world where hatred, greed, violence and arrogance had free rein — I wondered if faith needed to be something more.
More rigorous, perhaps, deeper than a child’s cozy feelings. Faith needed to embrace more than lingering echoes of days gone by. Faith needed to address today’s cruelties and sadness. Faith needed to confront warfare, prejudice and unwarranted privilege.
Can a Nation So Wounded by Its Divisions Survive?
Every now and then something scars the “national memory,” and we encounter ourselves as a single people. We grieve as one or we celebrate as one.
Those moments are rare, and maybe they should be rare. It would be artificial for a people as divided as we are to pretend to a national consciousness. We don’t agree on the facts, we don’t agree on our own history, we don’t agree on meaning and ethics, we don’t like each other, and we certainly don’t trust each other.
Now, to echo President Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg 151 years ago, we are met on a great battlefield of the wars we wage against each other. It isn’t a field in central Pennsylvania. It is the nation itself.
Cities are set to explode over worsening racial injustice and police misconduct. Football players get a free pass on domestic violence. Colleges shrug off epidemics of rape and cheating.
Banks and a small moneyed set wage unrelenting war on their fellow Americans. Descendants of immigrants turn against new arrivals and call it patriotism. Large companies like General Motors sell defective products. Lobbyists control our legislators, and they in turn deny votes and basic rights to certain citizens.
The question, then, is the one President Lincoln posed: Can a nation so wounded by its divisions, hatreds and manipulated fears survive? Are we setting the stage for even more repressive surveillance, even worse predations by the government-owning few, even more weapons in unstable hands, even worse despair among the many?
Can Commerce and Religion Go Their Separate Ways This Christmas?
I’ve decided not to worry about the earlier-than-ever start to Christmas commerce this year.
Shortly after Halloween, with hardly a nod to Thanksgiving, stores and advertisers began going full-bore on the supposed “Christmas package,” namely, gift-giving, family fun, decorating, and entertaining.
It’s sad — this annual effort to derive profits from a facsimile of a 1950s Christmas — but other things are a lot sadder: an elusive economic recovery, continuing gun violence, racial violence, religious extremism, mounting rage, and intolerance at home and echoes of the Cold War in Europe.
Let commerce tread the line between gauche and tacky — merchants have salaries and suppliers to pay, after all. We have a troubled world to care about.
The path to that care doesn’t go by way of Wal-Mart or Budweiser. It is God’s path, and it goes by way of anticipation, promises, prophetic vision, a birth, a life, a death, and over all of it a sustaining grace that cares little for our seasonal receipts but cares intensely about our lives.
Maybe it’s good that commerce has declared its independence from religion and decorum. That clears the way for faith to have its parallel season — not in competition with commerce, but as the deeper reality that commerce can never attain, the deeper meaning we yearn for.
Needed: A Progressive Christianity to Restore the Nation’s Civic Virtues
Election 2014: Something important has just happened.
Big money bought an election. Fear prevailed over confidence and loathing over reason. The majority chose not to vote, allowing a passionate minority — older, whiter — to change the balance of power. Attack ads drowned out issues. A broken political system tolerated cheating and bullying.
Most worrisome is the absence of the virtues that enable a democracy to function in a challenging world. Civic-mindedness gave way to clever voter-suppression tactics. Freedom of the press got lost in attack ads and deliberate distortions of reality. Respect for opponents is gone. So too is the search for common ground, competing ideas, confidence in the nation, confidence in government, confidence in the future. Gone, gone, gone.
How could this happen? Several reasons — from intellectual laziness to self-serving leaders. The reason that touches my world is the collapse of progressive Christianity as a teacher of civic virtues.
Progressive Christianity is only one voice on the spectrum of religious opinions. But over the years it has had a large impact in its insistence on honesty, fairness, tolerance and humility. Progressive Christians have fought slavery, racial injustice and oppression of the vulnerable. Our search for truth has allowed room for other truths, other voices — a critical attitude in preserving democracy.
When Christian Arguments Miss the Point
Like other citizens of our free land, Christians tend to divide sharply, predictably, and with heated language.
We disagree about almost everything, from cultural norms to attitudes toward wealth and power; from personal behavior to what Jesus intended.
To judge by our blog posts, our comments, our letters to the editor, and our remarks in public, we are appalled at what other Christians believe. How can this person have that viewpoint and still call himself a Christian? Does she not know that her words heap burning coals on her own head?
In view of our fiery words, you’d think we had explored the extremes of Christian faith and were shouting across a vast, unbridgeable chasm. In fact, we differ within a narrow spectrum, like those who debate Coke vs. Pepsi.
That narrow spectrum tends to be far removed from what Jesus actually said, did and expected. We argue about things that don’t matter because we can’t stand the things that do matter. We argue about sex, for example, in order to avoid the topic Jesus actually addressed, namely, wealth and power.
And when we do address wealth and power, we tend to affirm the individual’s right to have as much as they can get, even though Jesus said no such thing.
America Isn’t a ‘Christian Nation,’ and Never Has Been
Right-wing Christians and the politicians who pander to them like to say that the United States was, is and always should be a “Christian nation.”
Why, then, are they so obsessed about money and political power and so determined to make people afraid?
After all, Jesus spent an estimated two-thirds of his teaching time on wealth and power. His message was clear, if radical: Give wealth away rather than build bigger barns. Submit to others rather than seek power. Love your enemies rather than smite them.
Moreover, his one new commandment was equally clear: Don’t be afraid. Live without fear. Live in trust and confidence. Live in harmony. Make peace. But whatever happens, don’t be afraid.
Instead of preaching a gospel of self-sacrifice and generosity, right-wing Christians support the mega-wealthy who yearn to stifle democracy and move us further toward plutocracy: Keep the riffraff from voting. Keep alternative views out. Live in the bubble of like-minded people, not the marketplace of ideas and diversity where Jesus lived.