You Know, the Lines?

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20 Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23 Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor. 27 “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.28 Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” 30 Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31 Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people[a] to myself.” 33 He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. 34 The crowd answered him, “We have heard from the law that the Messiah[b] remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?” 35 Jesus said to them, “The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. 36 While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.” (John 12:20-36)

 

A theology of the cross can be difficult for some of us. Progressive Christian pastors often have congregations that feature–if not heavily–congregants who have been abused by religion. Congregants who are giving religion and God one last chance. Congregants who recall the blood of Christ being thrown upon them with words of derision, splattering them with judgment and calls to repentance for being who God made them to be. A theology of the cross sometimes elevates a bloodthirsty God, a God in search of atonement that can only be wrought by God alone. A frightening God that an increasingly diminishing few want to worship or know.

We cannot remove the cross from our theology, though. And we cannot shove it to the side. We might make our theology cross-adjacent, but we cannot have a Christian faith that is not rooted in the cross. It is a paradox that many of us in the Progressive movement live each day. We acknowledge that the cross is our symbol, our avatar, our universally recognizable sign. But what does it mean for us? The signal communicates, but what?

The Gospel of John does not feature the agony in Gethsemane. Rather, there is an almost stream-of-consciousness monologue by Jesus that gives way to a dialogue with God, who answers in thunder or in the tongue of angels. God’s message is always up for interpretation, it seems. God speaks to humans, but Jesus has to interpret. Not just in word, but in deed. Like the seed that falls to the ground so that it may be lifted up, Jesus directs himself to the cross.  In the midst of darkness, Jesus on the cross is the light. The three uses of the Greek word hysoo (to lift up) let us know very clearly that Jesus is connecting his going to the cross with human salvation. Grains fall down, fruit rises up. Jesus goes down in the underworld, ascends into the heavens.

So this passage goes toward our soteriologies, regardless of who we are as Christians. Theories of salvation may come from us grudgingly, but come they must. Historically, there are three ways to fit within atonement theology. The first is the classic ransom theory: Jesus pays our debt to be released for sin and death; the second is substitutionary atonement, holding that Jesus goes to the cross for us as God’s sacrificial offering; and the third, which resonates most deeply with me and is prevalent in Eastern Christianity, is the “moral influence of atonement” theology, which sets forth the idea that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross provides a model of behavior and reveals the depth of God’s love for us. But none of those really seem to fit with John’s passage.

We should remember that at the basis of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic experience is the idea that the relationship between God and humans has been ruptured. It is in need of repair. There is hurt on both sides, and reconciliation is hard. The break-up was messy. Accusations have flown across space and time; misunderstandings have abounded. But we want to get it right. We want this relationship. So does God. As hard as it might be for some to accept, God has made some mistakes. God has changed God’s mind. God has made some promises not to do certain things again. John’s vision of the cross points us toward mending the fences, patching the holes, putting new wine in new wineskins.

That sounds pretty, but what does it really mean? It means that we see Jesus as that single grain of wheat that falls to the ground so that it might lift up much fruit. We are the fruit; we who gather together in this crazy thing called community, who pledge ourselves to love and compassion, to walking together through the travails of life. It also means that we have the responsibility of deciding where our line is; you know, the lines? The line that if we cross we know we must be willing to die. That line that defines what we will accept on one side and what we will not on the other. That line that triggers in us a dedicated response to be willing to put our lives at risk.

Now this sort of language can be terrifying, especially in the wake of another terrorist attack and growing rates of religious fundamentalism throughout faith traditions. John is not rallying us to take up arms. But John is asking us to know who we are, to know who Jesus is. Jesus, who loved so radically and fully that it became a threat to the ruling powers. Jesus who transgressed lines both social and religious to live in relationships with everyone, most especially those who are cast aside by the ruling interests. Because it was that which ultimately killed him; the commitment to be in solidarity with others.

We have to face the cross at some point, and not just one day a year. We have to face the cross in significant ways before we can be lifted up. The cross is a not-so-gentle reminder that there are important issues at stake. The whole of our theology as Christians hangs in the balance. Who is this God we serve? Who is this Jesus we follow? What is the point of this brutal death? And how do we discover love as a result. We must know this before heading to the cross on Friday. We must know this to get us through the hours until Easter morning. We must know this when we cry out that he is risen, he is risen indeed. There’s a lot at stake.

So let us pray.

 

 

Daryl Dixon is not a Disciple; a Death Mark is a Hard Thing

 

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Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”(He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 10 So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, 11 since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus. (John 12:1-11)

For those of us who follow the lectionary, the second day of Holy Week is rather disappointing. We are in Year C, so Luke is the controlling gospel. And we just had Luke’s version of the anointing two weeks ago. So it feels kinda strange, being asked to grapple with the text once again. “Haven’t we already milked this one for all its worth?” I want to ask the lectionary editors. “Couldn’t we have done a bit better for first steps into the most holy of Christian weeks?”

Perhaps. But the text is here, albeit John’s version, and as a dogged supporter of lectionary preaching and lectionary congregational consciousness, I submit myself–and you, my faithful readers–to the tale once again. We’re in Lazarus’ house and once again we are reminded that Jesus has raised him from the dead. Now that’s gotta be an awkward dinner party, doesn’t it? I mean, how do you talk to a dead man who is no longer dead? And it’s not like Lazarus is a Walker; Daryl Dixon is not a disciple. We are faced with the living specter of death. We wonder is that spilled perfume is more intentional than Mary is letting on. Lazarus was in that tomb for four days. There was no embalming fluid then, and the Jews did not mummify. The elements would have taken their toll on Lazarus’ body. Yet, Jesus is there, eating and talking as always. Jesus does not let small things like body odor get in the way of a meaningful relationship.

And, of course, we have to tackle the Mary/Martha dichotomy again. That tired trope that too oft was repeated to women of past generations: you are either a Mary or a Martha, a nun or a housewife. You tend to the men or to the Body of Christ. But I want something more. Something deeper. Something more significant. I want the chutzpah of Mary. A Mary who, without any forewarning, takes an obscene amount of nard and pours it extravagantly at Jesus’ feet. Without permission, without deferring, without thinking of the possible waster, she pours and pours and pours. She pours so much that it becomes and affront. A sign of irresponsibility. It is an action of a woman living on the brink, so overtaken with love and compassion that she shuns the prohibitions regarding her hair, loosening it upon Jesus’ bared feet in front of man and God. A sensual act. A bold act. An act that Jesus does not shun but accepts and defends when detractors speak up.

There he is. Judas. Our old friend. (Click the link for the genius that is Yvonne Elman, Carl Anderson, and Ted Neely.) A man remembered as a traitor, although the Greek text never calls him that; described as a thief by Luke and John, but not Matthew and Mark; a man who yells at Mary, although the scene is described as being between an unnamed woman and all of the disciples in Mark. Judas who becomes the whipping boy and the incarnation of evil in the later gospels, but is depicted as a concerned disciple in the first, and even given his own gospel by the Gnostic traditions. Judas, who will create so many problems for us on Thursday–notice that we never mourn his death? in fact we celebrate it, a detail discussed by me in a 2008 documentary–stands now as one who seeks to control the extension of grace. He uses the plight of the poor as justification for his own desire to control the distribution of goods. Sadly, Judas stands as a stark reminder of how our own charity can sometimes be acts of appropriation and control. No, poor people. We’ll tell you what you’ll eat, where you’ll sleep, and what you are allowed to do. Our money gives us power, and out power allows us to control money. Judas is here with us on our second day of Holy Week. He’s not going anywhere yet.

Our beloved Jesus reminds us that the poor will always be around, a line that far too often is mistaken to be a tacit assent to a stratification of classes. I do not read it that way (to be sure, my reading is informed by so many other sources that I can’t even begin to link them all, so just know that I am not claiming a unique reading). Jesus is reminding us of Deuteronomy 15, in which God’s covenant people are charged to not allow poverty in their midst. If there are those who go hungry, or have no homes, or lack clothing, that is not God’s failure. That is ours. God has given us all we need to care and provide for one another. The discrepancies between the rich and the poor or not the result of God’s will, but rather an ignoring of God’s commandments. We are our brother’s and sister’s keepers.

But all of this was covered a few weeks ago, God! What is it you want us to see?

Ah. There it is. That passage that was left out last time. That little detail that comes to mean so much to us as we get deeper into the week. Poor Lazarus has a death mark on his head. He should be getting into the Falcon and heading to another galaxy. A death mark is not an easy thing to live with. (Yeah, I’m a really, really big dork.) Lazarus is a walking example of what radical grace can do. A grace that is like the perfume that Mary cascades over Jesus’ feet. A grace that fills the room with a sweet smell and attaches onto clothes and hair and skin; a smell that won’t wash off, and that carries with you for days. Weeks. Months. A grace that begins to rub off on others and impacts them as well. That kinda grace, that can make you a target. People often don’t know what to do with a person who was dead but now is alive. We’re almost more comfortable with living zombies. We’re more used to slowly dying rather than fully living. Lazarus is an indictment upon the choices of others. His chutzpah is almost as great as Mary’s. Just who does he think he is, this Lazarus. Walking around all resurrected and filled with grace.

There is a cost. In order to be resurrected you must first die. Death is not easy. Death is not comfortable. But a meaningful death can lead to a significant life. Amen.

 

Cloak Sunday Somehow Doesn’t Have the Same Ring

Cloak Sunday Somehow Doesn’t Have the Same Ring

  

28-31 After saying these things, Jesus headed straight up to Jerusalem. When he got near Bethphage and Bethany at the mountain called Olives, he sent off two of the disciples with instructions: “Go to the village across from you. As soon as you enter, you’ll find a colt tethered, one that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it. If anyone says anything, asks, ‘What are you doing?’ say, ‘His Master needs him.’” 32-33 The two left and found it just as he said. As they were untying the colt, its owners said, “What are you doing untying the colt?” 34 They said, “His Master needs him.” 35-36 They brought the colt to Jesus. Then, throwing their coats on its back, they helped Jesus get on. As he rode, the people gave him a grand welcome, throwing their coats on the street.
37-38 Right at the crest, where Mount Olives begins its descent, the whole crowd of disciples burst into enthusiastic praise over all the mighty works they had witnessed:

Blessed is he who comes,

the king in God’s name!

All’s well in heaven!

    Glory in the high places!

39 Some Pharisees from the crowd told him, “Teacher, get your disciples under control!”

40 But he said, “If they kept quiet, the stones would do it for them, shouting praise.” (Luke 19:28-40; The Message)
Did you catch it? Or rather, did you catch the lack of it? The very thing for which this day is named is missing. No palms? No palms!!

Some scholars actually take umbrage to the mention of palms in the first place; only John makes the waved fronds from palms (likely Judean Date Palms) and the waving of palms is associated with Sukkot, not Passover. Perhaps picayune issues go the average reader, but I mention them only because we’re in fraught territory. 

So no palms. Just cloaks. But think of that; a garment that was central to ancient life. A garment that provided warmth, that folded could serve as a bag or a tarpaulin; a garment that could make a tent or a makeshift pillow. For those present, it is a sign of fealty. Of recognition. Of joy.

John Dominic Cossan and Marcus Borg, in their excellent book The Last Week, paint a potent picture: Jesus riding in on a colt and being heralded as the king of peace; on the other side of Jerusalem, Pilate arrives amidst forced cries of acclamation from the oppressed and the sounds of marching Roman centurions prepped for a week of increased presence. 

The joy that spontaneously arises from the earth stands in tension. The stones have no cloaks but they shan’t be silenced. Creation itself sings forth, silencing the blaring trumpets of the strutting, conquering powers.

In the shadow of the cross God demands we first see light. Yes, a difficult week awaits us. It is patient, looming like a specter and growing more insistent with each fleeting minute. 

But not yet. Now, joy. Songs. Waving and laying, marching and affirming. 

Thanks be to God. 

Beyond Godwin’s Law

 

Hitler and Goebbels brightened

Comparisons to Hitler are tired. And they are used so much in contemporary American politics that the reducto ad Hitlerium argument actually has a name, Godwin’s Law. Most of us agree that unless you have spearheaded a genocidal campaign that ends in the deaths of millions and the forced subjugation of Europe, you’re not Hitler.

Unless you kinda are.

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Adolf?

Hitler had to become HITLER, the poster child for evil and political oppression the world has promised will never happen again. From his days as a corporal during World War I, after a failed career as an artist, Hitler nursed an illogical antisemitism and helped form the basic political platforms of the nascent National Socialist German Workers (Nazi) Party. Capitalizing on the fears of the populace, taking advantage of an always vacillating economy, and clearly identifying an enemy with vague promises of making Germany Great Again, Hitler and the Nazis managed to win seats in the Reichstag over the course of a couple elections, catapulting Hitler into the limelight and resulting in his appointment as Chancellor to Hindenburg’s presidency. His unreadable book Mein Kampf clearly set forth his plans, and was required reading for all of Germany. Much like the Bible, the book sat in homes untouched. Often people say that there was no way to know in 1933 what 1943 would look like; hogwash. One can almost imagine Hitler saying, if asked about his plans for Germany, “Buy my book.” Trump’s equivalent, set forth in all of his books, is “truthful hyperbole.” Essentially, if you make the claim big enough, the exaggeration is not really a lie because somewhere, under all the fatty bluster, is a kernel of truth clinging to itself for dear life. (Shameless plug, buy the books my mom and I wrote on Hitler and World War II; they have all the best words.)

But a despot cannot rise to power without some significant manner of support. Sure, political executions and control of the military are key–and Hitler did that in spades–but there has to be buy-in, at least early on, from the people. There has to be the notion that some sort of revolution is happening in which those frequently disenfranchised are being empowered, and that they are given carte blanche to deal with their enemies.

Dateline, Paris. 1938. Low-level functionary Ernst vom Rath is assassinated by a Polish Jewish teenager born in Germany, Herschel Grynszpan,  who has been living in exile. Upon learning that his entire family had been turned away from the Polish border as they tried to escape the Nazis and convinced that the execution of a German diplomat would bring worldwide attention to the plight of the Jews in Germany, Grynszpan forms and carries out his plot. Vom Rath lingers for a few days, and dies on November 9, the 15th anniversary of the Munich Beer Hall Putsch.

Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels seized upon the opportunity. He had successfully led the efforts to purge Jews from public life. The death of vom Rath led Goebbels to ask Hitler if he could unleash the SA upon the innocent German people. Hitler agreed. From Goebbels’ diary:

In the afternoon the death of the German diplomat vom Rath is announced. That’s good…I go to the Party reception in the old Rathaus. Terrific activity. I brief Hitler on the affair. He decides: allow the demonstrations to go on. Withdraw the police. The Jews should feel the people’s fury. That’s right. I issue appropriate instructions to the police and party. Then I give a brief speech on the subject to the Party’s leadership. Thunderous applause. Everyone dashed to the telephone. Now the people will act.

What Goebbels set forth as the “action of the people” was actually a coordinated, deliberate, and violent action perpetrated by the Nazi paramilitary wing, and resulted in the deaths of at least 91 Jews, the arrest of over 30,000, and the destruction of Jewish businesses, synagogues, hospitals, schools, and apartments across Germany and Austria. The night of terror has become known as Kristallnachtor Night of Broken Glass. Any doubts about the Nazi plans were dashed on that night.

Remember, though, the leadership claimed that they had no responsibility, that it was the actions of the German Volk rising up and making Germany great again.

 

Herr Drumpf

Appearing on CNN on March 17, Trump said, “I think you’d have riots. I think you’d have riots. I’m representing a tremendous many, many millions of people.” When pressed about the word “riot,” der Fooler retorted, “It’s not riot as in a negative thing like what we’ve seen in the past, it’s the fact that you have a large amount of people that will be very unhappy. I don’t think they would sit there and resort, in fact I know they would not resort to violence, I know they would not do it. However, they would make sure their voices are heard, that they can’t be ignored.”

Set aside the fact that there is absolute hypocrisy in Trump’s denunciation of the Black Lives Matter movement for their protests and uprisings. Do we really think that Trump is not calling for violence if he does not get his way?

Words. They mean things. And while it is getting tiring to hear comparisons of Trump to Hitler almost every day, as someone who knows a great deal about the Nazi rise to power and the propaganda methods utilized by Goebbels, it is chilling to me the direction that Trump is taking his rallies and his message. While I never want to play the role of prophet or prognosticator, I fear that someone will die at a Trump rally. I fear that his armed and angry supporters will take to the streets and target mosques, minority owned businesses, the homeless, and anyone who does not raise their right hand and pledge to vote for Trump. Trump claiming that he will not lead the riots seems about as credible as Goebbels claiming Kristallnacht was the spontaneous actions of the people. Trump will continue to act like he is innocent and above the fray, all the while sending not-so-coded messages to his followers. Why, just today three people in Milwaukee were killed for the crime of not speaking English.

Stay tuned, y’all. This is not going to be fun.

Bernie of Nazareth

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Preamble

This is a rare request blog; rare only because I have so few readers, and most of them are not champing at the bit to set me to task. However, a good friend who happens to be incredibly knowledgeable about religion and Scripture asked me to take up the crossovers between Bernie Sanders and Jesus. How could I say no?

I have to offer some caveats, though. because this is the sort of blog that could offend a whole bunch of people and actually get me in some trouble if I don’t set forth ground rules. First, I am writing as a private citizen who is guaranteed the right to freedom of religion and the right to participate in the American democratic process. I happen to be a pastor at a very specific place, but my words in no way, shape, or form represent an official or unofficial position of the United Church of Christ, the Presbyterian Church (USA), More Light Presbyterians, the Presbytery of the Miami Valley, or First Presbyterian Church of Yellow Springs. Full stop. Second, while I voted for Bernie Sanders and continue to support him, I am not “endorsing him” as a pastor or even as a Christian. My reasons for supporting him are (almost) purely political, although I would be lying if I didn’t say that my religious principles influence my needs from a political candidate. And finally, my comparisons between Sanders (I-Vermont) and Jesus (I-Nazareth) are meant to be interpreted within the larger gestalt of Evangelical Christianity in the United States, in which Bernie’s Jewishness has been identified as somehow unacceptable for a president.

Setting Up  the Argument

John Dominic Crossan, in a career spanning five decades, has argued that Jesus’ talk of kingdom (hereby referred to as kin-dom) was a specifically political act that posited a foundational question: “What would it look like if God sat on the throne of Caesar?” Ever since I encountered this idea during undergraduate studies, it has stuck with me. From the language of “Lord” to presenting Jesus as the King of the Jews, the gospel writers are pushing readers to engage in compare and contrast: where kingdoms of humans (Roman or American) favor the wealthy, oppress the poor, and subjugate the many, the kin-dom of God privileges the poor, liberates the oppressed, and offers freedom to all who are repentant and desirous of transformation. While reasonable people can disagree about the timing of Christ’s promised kin-dom (here but not yet, I like to say), it is clear that Jesus’ good news was in no small way about the radical turning over of power structures that humans put in place which create an “us and them” dichotomy. And while, in my opinion, too much of Christianity has focused on a confession to blood atonement theology and a looking to the next world, there can be no doubt that Jesus provided (through his life and work) an example of how followers can address the systems that keep people in physical, economic, mental, spiritual, and emotional chains.

Finally, before turning to the 5 points I will highlight, I want to pause and say that comparisons between an American politician and a Jewish man billions follow as Messiah are flawed from the start. There are things I would say about Jesus–Lord, Savior, Son of God–that I would never say about Bernie, and vice-versa. So if your inclination is to want to attack this blog for its underlying chutzpah, don’t. I get the weaknesses, but I again reiterate the purpose: to show that Sanders is actually very close to the social message of Jesus. I’m also not arguing the viablity of his plans; rather, I am pointing out the crossover between Gospel requirements and Sanders’ own political platform. I’ll also note that I provide very substantive, scholarly evidence for my claims in the links. If you come at me without having read the links, I’m going to know.

Prison Reform

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.  All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats,  and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;  for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’  Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?  And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’  And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’  Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels;  for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,  I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’  Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:31-46 NRSV)

Jesus does speak of a kin-dom not of this world, one that will be ushered in by his Parousia (second coming), and will feature a judgment based upon specific criteria. While I could highlight numerous platform proposals of Bernie Sanders that would address each of the issues elucidated by Christ, I want to focus on prison, because it is an issue close to my heart. It is well known that the United States leads the world in prison population; that our rates of incarceration have increased by 700% since 1970; that disproportionate numbers of Latino, Black, and poor White persons are incarcerated with increasingly punitive sentences,  despite evidence that rehabilitation programs are more effective in preventing recidivism; and that many longtime prisoners have few to no visitors, increasing their isolation.

I attended Ecumenical Advocacy Days in Washington D.C. in 2015; the topic was mass incarceration, and there I was met by members of law enforcement, the legal community, and religious leaders who are dedicated to reforming our justice system. The biggest roadblock right now? Private, for profit prisons. In some cases, like in my home state of Ohio, these prisons threaten to sue their city or state where they reside if the units are not at capacity, putting pressure on politicians to support judges, District Attorneys, and country prosecutors who keep the school to prison pipeline going.

Bernie Sanders is for the elimination of private prisons immediately, and sets forth a systematic analysis of how racial, economic, and family justice are derailed by the monied interests that see the continued incarceration of Black, Brown, and poor Whites as good business.

Universal Healthcare

And as he sat at dinner in Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples—for there were many who followed him. When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”  When Jesus heard this, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” Mark 2:15-17)

Most often, this passage is used in the context of discipleship; Jesus has just called to discipleship Levi the tax collector, and Jesus is being questioned about his choice of company. Clearly, the overt claim here is that Jesus comes to those who are set aside by common wisdom and practice. Those who are already taken care of are taken care of; Jesus is concerned about those who are left out. It is not an irresponsible reading to point to Jesus’ example of a physician’s duties. He or she is to go to the sick. Not the sick who can afford it; not the sick who have the right paperwork; not the sick who have proved themselves worthy; not the sick who have behaved in a way found acceptable. The sick. Full stop. Period.

Bernie Sanders calls for universal healthcare and declares it is a fundamental human right that comes from simply being a human person. This, to me, sounds like a secular way of saying that the right comes from God, and that we all as beings created by God have the right to healthcare.

For those who think this is a stretch, that’s fine. But I will point out that Jesus spent a vast majority of his time healing those the priests refused or could not heal. And he did so in violation of the law and cultural norms. Jesus put himself on the line to help the sick, and we cheapen the historical Jesus’ work if we claim that healings are merely signs of his true identity and not an indication of his priorities. If we espouse imitatio Christi, that should logically extend to creating an accessible system in which the sick can get to a physician.

Economic Justice

By some estimations, there are over 2,000 verses in the Bible concerning money. Jesus was especially critical of the wealthy, arguing that humans cannot serve both God and Mammon. From the Parable of the Sower to the Sermon on the Mount (or Plain) , Jesus was quite clear that economic disparity is not acceptable to God. In fact, the oft-mentioned destruction of Sodom was not the result of homosexuality, but rather greed and indifference to the plight of the poor. I’ll be honest and say that anyone denying this very basic point–that Jesus set forth a preferential option of the poor which arose from his confession of the Jewish God–is studying a Christianity I have never met. I suggest they follow Joel Osteen and his church of good feelings and large bank accounts.     

Bernie’s “one issue” (sic) is economic justice. It accounts for many of the planks in his platform, from the right to an education to expanded access to loans to start businesses. Now while Jesus spoke about how money can become a deity unto itself, thereby keeping people from serving God, and did not speak specifically about startups and reasonable interest rates from poor and minority applicants, let us think about the underlying assumptions of Jesus’ words. Money itself is not the problem. The problem comes in its use and in its hoarding. We are not to store up treasures here on earth, but rather in heaven. Recall our first passage; Christians believe that there will come a time in which we will be judged, and the criteria are clear: Did we assist those who needed help? In our capitalist system, money is one of the easiest and most readily-available ways for the economically wealthy to assist the poor. It seems clear to me that Jesus calls for us to do so. Sadly, private charity is not enough. Bernie’s call for the government to do so seems pretty much in line with Christ to me.

Regulation of Economic Centers

I’m treading dangerous water here because we are comparing apples and oranges. There was no notion of Church and State in the ancient world. There was the Roman Empire (during Jesus’ lifetime) and their occupation of Israel. Jews were allowed to practice their religion only because Rome understood preventing them from doing so was simply not worth the hassle. Jews were very good at uprisings, both violent and nonviolent, and were willing to die for the Torah. Some Rome just threw some more taxes at them and left the Sanhedrin in charge, with a Roman procurator coming in from time to time to make sure everything was in order. Of course, the soldiers never left.

The Temple itself was the center of Jewish life. It was like Wall Street, the National Cathedral, Harvard, and Piccadilly Circus all rolled into one. There has been much written about Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple; his overturning of the tables was meant to send a message, but what?

It seems unlikely that Jesus was objecting the Temple itself being a place of commerce and meeting. Jerusalem, since the time of David, was a neutral political and religious capital meant to provide the disparate tribes a “national” identity. Solomon’s Temple, destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BCE and rebuilt and dedicated in 515 BCE, was a wonder of the world and attracted visitors, thereby assisting in the economic viability of the Temple and the people of Jerusalem. Jesus does not object to economic transactions on the face; what he does object to is the corruption that kept the average person from having access to God. According to Jewish law, a number of relationships or realities could not be set right without a sacrifice offered by and blessings bestowed by a priest. Roman money was not allowable in the Temple, as it contained a portrait of Caesar and was considered a graven image. Therefore, a Temple currency had to be used. There was usury by the shulhani, money changers, that could sometimes price people out of the market. The practice was legal, but disproportionately hurt the poor.

Bernie is for the breaking up of the big banks and prosecution of Wall Street speculators who greedily bend and break the law without any ramifications. Bernie is metaphorically going into the economic center of the United States and is overturning the tables, shouting that the people’s house is one for all, not just the few.

Children

“Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” (Mark 10:15)

This is again a slightly slippery area. Jesus is clearly speaking about how one should receive God. Here, the example of a child is used. It is important to note that during Jesus’ time, there was no notion of childhood as we have it now. Children were to be seen, not heard. Children were regarded as little adults. They had no rights. Their lives were often filled with sickness and loss.Once children reached around the age of 10, they began to enter adulthood. We in the first world really don’t understand the ways that childhood functioned in the ancient world, but let us try. Jesus is using the example of a rather marginalized figure; the child had not reached the age of religious accountability, and the child could not produce a full day’s work.

Children were economic, spiritual, and emotional investments. No one is suggesting that parents in the ancient world did not love their children. Of course they did. But life was shorter and more brutal then. Attitudes and notions about responsibility and utility were different. Children had to be educated, trained, fed, and protected.This is what Jesus means when he says that we have to receive the kin-dom like a child. We have to understand our dependence upon God, our need to be protected and nurtured and educated. We are fooling ourselves if we think we can do it alone.

Bernie prioritizes programs for children that enable them to be productive, educated, contributing citizens. He sets forth ideas to address child poverty, skyrocketing prices of childcare, and nutrition. He believes that the better a child starts in life the greater the chances that he or she will succeed. If the children are going to receive the kin-dom, there better be something there to help them.

Conclusions

Truth be told, I wrote this article because I was asked. I think my points are solid and fair, but I fear that the piece will be misunderstood. I’m not suggesting a theocracy. Far from it. I don’t think the United States is or ever has been a Christian country. I also live a contradiction; I am invested in this world but have a deep belief that this is only a step on a much longer journey. I understand that we cannot perfect our society because we are fallible, selfish, flawed individuals. But I believe we are capable of great things for the whole of humanity. We are failing in that charge now. In very big ways. To me, Bernie is the closest thing to a “Christian” politician I have ever seen. I do not want to put that label on him, though, because he is not Christian. And he need not be. And these ideas that he sets forth do not have their basis in Christianity, at least for him and a lot of his followers. They don’t need to. But I see the connections and I will not deny that my faith informs some of my political stances.

So take this for what it is worth. I am open to reasonable discussions, but I have been pretty straight-forward with the flaws of my presentation, and also honest about what it is and is not meant to do. To the friend who requested it, thank you! You helped me think through these issues a little more deeply.

The Curse of Caring

 

 

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Recently, a good friend of mine who is a psychologist–we’ll call him Dr. S–solicited volunteers for a diagnostic questionnaire he had put together. Curious, as ordination required me to take almost every available test during my discernment process, I agreed and took the test. I put it out of my mind until a couple days ago, when in my inbox appeared the results. Scanning it, I immediately wanted to accuse him of wicked magic because, frankly, Dr. S. is really good at what he does and I was suddenly looking at myself in statistics form.

Let’s be honest. A blog like this is really an exercise in narcissism. I post my (mostly) learned thoughts on subjects and send it out into the interwebz, putting links on my Facebook and Twitter feeds hoping people will read my musings. I have a small, but regular following. Mostly people I know, or who know of me because of my ministry work. I do assiduously attempt to deconstruct this ego in order to be clothed in Christ . It is tough to do, especially when God has given one an emotional makeup like mine.

According to Dr. S’s analysis, my Affect Intensity (how I feel things) is high; my positive and negative are both high, but my guilt is off the charts. Like, crazy high. Like I should be Jewish or Catholic high. Dr. S writes,

Your affect intensity was high across most subscales. This means that you respond to the world around you with more emotional intensely than most people do. In other words, this means that what most people believe to be moderately stimulating in feeling, you tend to experience as highly stimulating. You scored high in both positive and negative affect, meaning that you likely experience both positive and negative emotions crisply and can be subject to acute bouts of strong euphoria, as well as sadness, depression, or fear. It is vital that you consider working on lowering the amplitude of your affect to stay centered and calm. People with a high affect intensity profile are subject to cyclothymic patterns of feeling (the roller coaster of highs and lows). 

So, basically, I am kinda like Yoda in that I feel the emotional and mental pain around me in acute ways. But here is where it gets interesting. I score really low on the Mindfulness scale, which means that I feel stuff but I can’t always sort out what it is in the moment. Which is why I am sometimes a real asshole on Facebook or email, because I have all these feelings and I don’t pause to process and I just shoot off at the keyboard. Because I don’t like conflict, I rarely shoot off at the mouth, unless it is a justice issue. And then I have my Jesus cape on and all bets are off.

Why do I share this, other than a desire to be like and understood by people, which is another pathological need I am addressing in therapy? I share because it is Lent, a time when we Christians enter into the fullness of myriad emotions. We stand at the cusp of Palm Sunday. A day in which we lay down our cloaks or wave our palms, a day in which we shout or sing along with the stones because the Prince of Peace is making his way into Jerusalem at the same time that Pilate, with his earthly powers and methods of death, is marching in the other side of the city. Lent, the time when we prepare ourselves for the upper room and Gethsemane, the foot of the cross and the sealed tomb. It is a time when we are to feel.

But what is emotion without awareness? What is the good of feeling if we are not aware of that which we experience? On Sunday, we will be told by Jesus that no efforts of human beings could stop the stones themselves from singing; that Creation itself cries out for peace and love, compassion and justice. Let us not be so overwhelmed with our own feelings that we do not pause to understand what God is saying, what God is directing, what God is revealing.

Hey, Pastor: You’re Doing it Wrong!

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“Bernie Sanders, who doesn’t believe in God, how in the world (are) we going to let Bernie — I mean, really? Bernie’s got to get saved, Bernie’s got to meet Jesus. He’s got to have a coming to Jesus meeting.” –Pastor Mark Burns at a Donald Trump rally  

Most of us who went to a real seminary–unlike Pastor Burns, who went to the pay-for-the-paper Andersonville Theological Seminary to earn a “Master of Ministry” degree, whatever the hell that is–learned very quickly that there are certain things we should never do. Telling a Jew that she or she needs Jesus is at the very top of the list. Seriously. There are few things that are more historically loaded or fraught with pain than Christians forcing Jesus on the original sons and daughters of Abraham. For details, read James Carroll’s amazing book, Constantine’s Sword, or, I dunno, watch five minutes of any documentary on the Shoah. Es no bueno.

But the problem goes deeper than ancestral memory. It is not a matter of politeness. Christians that try to force the Jesus issue forget that Paul told us Judaism is just fine on its own, the problem is our lack of discipline (see Galatians); Christianity is largely for those of us who cannot live the 613 commandments set forth in the Torah. We forget that the first revelation of God was to the Jewish people, and while we don’t need to act like the younger sibling–God loves us all equally, thank you–we would do damn well to remember from whence we came. No Judaism, no Jesus. No Jesus, no Christianity. No Christianity, no Islam. It all is a package deal. We’re not enemies. We’re not competing. Christianity does not have a stranglehold on the truth, and we most certainly don’t have God’s trademark. There is more out there than us.

Gone are the days in which we need to constantly talk about Jesus because the gospel needs to be spread around the globe. Do we seriously think there are people out there who have not heard of Jesus? There are underground churches in North Korea. We’re not dealing with a world bereft of Jesus. The message is out there. So that means that our charge is different. It means that we have to actually start living the principles we espouse and stop shouting through megaphones that people are going to hell.

Pastor Burns represents everything I cannot stand about the popular face of my faith tradition. He has no real education. His “Bible Studies” are laughably simple and self-serving, devoid of any real understanding of the Scriptures. His homepage has a “Donate” button as large as my head, and his main purpose seems to be making money. The image of a wealthy Christian pastor screeching that a culturally Jewish public servant like Bernie Sanders needs Jesus is part of the reason that people go running away from religion. If a good, decent, giving, compassionate person like Senator Sanders is somehow deficient, then I fear for the state of my own soul.

So, pastors. Let’s stop this stuff. Now. Let’s think before we speak, and if we are really concerned that a person needs Jesus, don’t we think that God is in a better place to make that happen than are we? Let’s just stick with the whole “loving each other” thing and leave the other stuff to God.