On Nov. 28 Dylann Roof announced that he will represent himself during his upcoming trial, and his attorneys will serve only as his stand-by counsel, reports CBS Channel 5 News from Charleston, S.C. Roof made this announcement during the trial’s jury qualification process. Roof is accused of fatally shooting nine African-American parishioners in their church — the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston — after they met for a bible study.
Hosea 11:1-11, by the force of prophetic imagination, takes us inside the troubled interiority of God. It does not, however, start there. It begins, rather, with an external encounter between God and God’s people, Israel. The poetry is cast in the imagery of “father-son,” with God cast as father and Israel cast as son. (It could as well have been cast as “mother-daughter,” but that would not happen in that ancient patriarchal society). The imagery of “father-son” was operative in Israelite imagination since God’s first declaration, “Israel is my first born son” (Exodus 4:22). Status as first-born son carries with it immense entitlement, but also inescapable responsibility to uphold the honor of the father and the family.
Was it Jesus who said, “No greater love has anyone than this, to sit through a school board meeting?”
No, actually that was me. I whispered it to my wife as we sat together for several hours at a recent meeting of our local school board. On the agenda that evening was the adoption of a proposed district-wide gender expansive policy to protect transgendered and gender non-conforming students and bring the district in line with the U.S. Department of Education's directive on Title IX and recent legal precedent.
If we were to go by the titles of books about leadership, we might be tempted to imagine that good leadership is a matter of following the right set of instructions. And this might work if we could all agree what good leadership is. The roiling presidential season just might suggest otherwise.
God’s call of Elijah was an invitation to a beautiful divine/human partnership of faithfulness and faithful service. It was based on a three-point contract: HO-GO-LO.
“HO” indicates that God had to get his attention. It was important for Elijah to know who was calling him, to whom he was accountable, under whose guidance he was to serve and upon whom he could depend for direction, protection, and provisions.
I love Saint Mark. I truly do. But if the apostles were in a line-up and we threw Mark in there with them, I wouldn’t be able to tell him from second Judas. Frankly I wouldn’t be able to identify half of them. At this point, some folks have likely paused to Google, “there were two Judases!?"
A recent study published by the Pew Research Center offers some interesting data about economic inequality in the United States. In 1982, the top one percent of families took in 10.8 percent of all the pretax income. The bottom 90 percent got 64.7 percent. By 2012, it was 22.5 percent for the top one percent and 49.6 percent for the bottom 90 percent. In a more disturbing trend the top one percent owned 35 of all the personal wealth in 2010. The bottom fifty percent owned just five percent.
Have you ever read scripture from an agrarian perspective? We tend to read scripture with an anthropocentric perspective, but what if we read it with the land and animals in mind first? In her book An Agrarian Approach to Scripture, Ellen Davis invites us to consider reading Scripture with the land and animals at the forefront.
The presidential race has invited all kinds of rash predictions. “If that candidate gets elected, it will be a disaster.” “If that candidate is president, I will move to Canada.” In each case, the prediction of a future disaster is supposed to convince us to act differently in the present. “The election of a certain candidate would be so awful, that we must stop it. Or I’ll move to Canada.” Key parts of our political discourse are predictions of a dire future if a certain candidate is elected.
Recently, a friend emailed me that their twenty-three-year-old son had attempted suicide. The young man had been found fairly quickly, but due to the nature of his attempt and his severe depression, he is now in a hospital's psychiatric ward. My friend asked, “How did it get so bad and I didn't know?” She is trying to process guilt and anxiety about what might have happened. Her son is getting the help he needs, but it’s a long journey back to health and wholeness for the entire family.
The story of Jesus’ passion and death has stirred my imagination since I was a child. In an act of profound mystery, Jesus walks towards the conflict swirling around him. Jesus accepts his arrest and does not raise his voice. His willingness to embrace the consequences of truth-telling leaves him silent in the face of his accusers. His judges repeatedly say they can find no fault in this man, but the people want more. They want someone to blame.
There is a story in our family lore that during a contentious presidential campaign a few decades ago my father refused to drive his mother, my grandmother, to the polling station on election day. She was voting for the opposing candidate and he didn’t want her to cancel out his vote. Though contentious at the time, it is a story that still evokes laughter in our family each time it is retold. And don’t worry — grandma eventually got a friend to drive her to the polls.
In this season of Lent, Isaiah 55:1-9 may be a sobering text for us. In this election season amid shrill or buoyant rhetoric, we may not notice that there are real choices to be made — even as Jews in ancient Babylon were confronted with real choices of a most elemental kind.
My wife and I are beginning to start the process of buying a house for the first time. For better or for worse, we have become regular viewers of HGTV’s line of television shows that target would-be home consumers just like us. There’s Fixer Upper, Flip or Flop, Property Brothers, Love It or List It, and…boy, could I go on. On the one hand these shows give us an interesting entree into what’s possible when it comes to buying and renovating a house. They may expand our vision so we don’t get stuck on things like existing wallpaper, old carpet, or hideous paint color. But, as I’ve come to understand the (very predictable) arc of these shows, I’m also struck by their danger. They’re basically “Keeping Up with the Joneses” on steroids.
I must confess that I am an African-American woman, a Christian woman, a woman who believes there is more than one path to God. Working in the Black Lives Matter movement with people of many faiths, I get a little fidgety when I hear the words “confess that Jesus is Lord and believe that God raised him from the dead.” I think, “Hey, what about my Jewish friend Stef? She is not confessing the Lord-ship of Yeshua/Jesus. What about my friend Hussein? Is he not saved?” I just don’t like it.
The gospel account of the transfiguration of Jesus comes at a time when we desperately need its powerful message of encouragement. Our nation is in the midst of an epidemic of what I call “a degenerative discouragement syndrome”. The news cycle enumerates a list of issues and concerns which seem to resist remediation or repair.
AN UNUSUAL TITLE recently caught my eye at the library. The book is called The Moral Molecule: How Trust Works, by Paul J. Zak. An economist with obvious interests in biology, psychology, and religion, Zak’s numerous experiments demonstrate that when someone is shown a sign of trust or when one’s empathy is engaged, a certain molecule called oxytocin surges in the brain and blood.
“When oxytocin surges,” says Zak, “people behave in ways that are kinder, more generous, more cooperative, and more caring.” In other words, they follow the Golden Rule of treating others as you want to be treated. Zak eventually demonstrates how oxytocin can work within economic systems, which reminded me of a children’s song we sang at a church I used to attend in Chicago: “Love is like a magic penny. Hold it tight and you won’t have any. Lend it, spend it, and you’ll have so many they’ll fall all over the floor!”
And that reminded me of research I had done on the early Jerusalem church in the book of Acts. If there ever were oxytocin surges, it must have been at Pentecost and in the days and years of the shared economic community that followed!
Two summary texts describe the common life shared among these earliest believers: Acts 2:44-47 and 4:32-37. The first tells of their daily life together, distributing possessions, worshiping in the temple, and eating a daily communal meal in various households. The second passage describes the renunciation of private ownership. Believers sold their land and homes and gave the money to the community to be distributed “as any had need” (4:35).
Why did they do this? Wasn’t it impractical and more trouble than it was worth? Didn’t they soon have to cope with cheaters like Ananias and Sapphira (5:1-11) or complaints from Hellenist widows (6:1-6)? Didn’t that radical idealism soon peter out and people go back to their former lifestyles?
Interpreting through middle-class mirrors
My research on how these economic texts have been interpreted throughout Christian history was eye-opening. Ever since market capitalism arose in the 14th century, many commentators considered the communalism of the Jerusalem church to be unrealistic. For example, John Calvin, a 16th century community organizer, writes in his Acts commentary that he had to “properly” interpret communal sharing in 2:44 “on account of fanatical spirits who devise a koinonia of goods where all civil order is overturned.” He especially criticizes the Anabaptists of the time, because “they thought there was no church unless all mens’ (sic) goods were heaped up together, and everyone took therefrom as they chose.” Instead, Calvin recommends that “common sharing ... must be held in check.”
The rise of historical criticism during the 19th century in the West led to much skepticism about the accuracy of biblical texts. Luke wrote decades later, scholars asserted, idealizing the early church in Acts. The Jerusalem believers were very poor and had to help each other out, so Luke turns this grim picture into a Golden Age of sharing. In his 1854 commentary, Edward Zeller maintained that Acts 1 to 7 was full of legends and fictitious stories that Luke himself created.
The conservative reaction to such skepticism was to affirm the historicity of the early chapters of Acts—but to see this as a socialist experiment that soon failed and was never tried again. Its failure was confirmed by the poverty of the Jerusalem church in Acts 11:27-29, where the disciples at Antioch decided to “send relief to the believers living in Judea.”
No doubt these notions about the community of goods in Acts 2 to 6 prevail in many churches today. But both perspectives get it wrong because scholars and laypersons alike read these texts out of their own economic situation—Western capitalism. For middle and upper-middle classes (from which most biblical scholars emerge), capitalism has worked well. As a political and economic system, it has staunchly opposed Marxist and other ideas of socialist communalism, often perceived as “godless.”
This hostility has made it almost impossible to view the socialism of the early Jerusalem church as a positive development or one that survived more than a few years. For example, G.T. Stokes’ 1903 Acts commentary in the English Expositor’s Bible series declared that the Jerusalem experiment was a socio-economic disaster that should never have happened. One of the evils it produced, according to Stokes, was the conflict between the Hellenist and Hebrew widows in Acts 6:1. Stokes assumes they were destitute widows fighting over poor relief. Reflecting Victorian class distinctions and paternalistic attitudes, he asserts, “No classes are more suspicious and more quarrelsome than those who are in receipt of such assistance ... Managers of almshouses, asylums, and workhouses know this ... and ofttimes make bitter acquaintance with that evil spirit which burst forth even in the mother church of Jerusalem.”
There is so much arguing over boundaries. Should we welcome refugees from Syria, a nation torn by civil war and terrorism? How should our society respond to others who have immigrated here without government approval? Although immigration from our southern border has declined over the past decade, some public leaders applaud the contributions of undocumented Americans while others spell out the risks they bring. Do we consider immigrants likely contributors or potential criminals? When activists proclaim “Black Lives Matter,” the counter-point “All Lives Matter” looks like an attempt to hush a legitimate complaint about policing and criminal justice. I catch myself needing some of those noise-canceling headphones.