Reading Luke with Dr. Thurman: When God Sees You, Look Back

thurman .jpg

The Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman was a pastor to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Thurman was a pastor to King in every sense of the word, but today I want to talk about his influence as a pastoral theologian. A theologian whose thought animates as a pastor, gives the sense of a lived faith, a directional ministry, a spiritual connection to both God and humanity that becomes a raison d’etre. A reason for living. Perhaps even more than his own father, Rev. Martin Sr., or Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, who was King’s closest ministry partner from the Montgomery Bus Boycott on and pastored in Cincinnati at Revelation Baptist Church; perhaps even more than them was the influence of Howard Thurman on Dr. King. Thurman was the first ever African-American Dean of Rankin Chapel at Boston University. In 1944 he left a tenured position at Howard University to start the first truly multifaith, multiracial, intentional community, the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, which is still open today. Howard Thurman, whose book Jesus and the Disinherited inspired those like Dr. James Cone to develop what is now called Black Liberation Theology. Howard Thurman, the grandson of slaves, who helped Dr. King see Jesus as being bigger than Jim Crow. Howard Thurman, who spoke often of how he learned the truth about God from his grandmother, Nancy Ambrose, who learned it from a minister, who like her, was enslaved.

It was rare that enslaved preachers were allowed to preach in the open. Most often the Bible was controlled and interpreted by the landowner, or a local white preacher who was brought it. The message was always one of submission, of divinely-ordained bondage Reading the Bible on their own, or hearing it as told by another slave was considered dangerous; Christianity was used by slaveholders as a tool of oppression, but it was turned through righteous rebellion into a source of strength. Negro spirituals are the original texts of Black liberation theology, songs about deliverance at the hands of a faithful God. Religion can sometimes be a surreptitious act. Every now and again an enslaved preacher would get to take the pulpit publicly. This could put the preacher in danger if the wrong people heard God’s Word, if they actual heard it and understood that it was an indictment of them; they couldn’t punish God but they could punish God’s messenger. In the pulpit could be danger, but take the pulpit these preachers did. Miss Ambrose, years later, with young Howard at her feet and snapping beans, told him about one time when a minister said to us, You are not a slave. That is not who you are; you are a child of God. Thurman writes later in his life, “it gave to them a sense of roots that were watered by the underground river of existence.”

This unknown minister, in about a dozen words, was able to cut through the mental chains and provide a viable identity to rival the one constructed by the oppressor: You are not a slave; you are God’s child. I imagine this minister, who could not have known that these words would plant themselves inside the soul of the greatest pastoral theologian since Martin Luther, learned the revolutionary truth by listening to the stories of Jesus.

Once again Jesus is teaching in parables. Two men. One wealthy, dressed in the finery of purple robes. The other, clad in rags held together by pus from purple sores. One tended to in life by servants, the other by dogs. But then, the great equalizer. Death. Angels come not for the rich man, but for poor Lazarus who goes to be with Abraham. The wealthy man does not fare so well. To the underworld he goes, tormented and in agony. He calls across the divide to Abraham, asking for mercy, when he sees Lazarus. Lowly Lazarus. The rich man begs for help, but none can be forthcoming; not because Lazarus is unwilling, but because the actions of the wealthy man have fixed a chasm that cannot be bridged or traversed. His alienation is of his own doing; desperately wanting to save his affluent family members from the distresses, the moneyed man requests a messenger be dispatched by Abraham as a herald. Alas, the patriarch declines. God has sent more warnings that we can count, and it never does any good.

Imagine in the time of Jesus, being poor and hearing this parable. Yes, it might give a feeling of giddy satisfaction that bullies eventually get a comeuppance. Yes, it might help you feel that suffering does not have the final word. But underneath that, there is a profound message: God sees you. God does not see you as a mass of sores or one without two coins to rub together: God sees you are one to be carried away by angels. You are not a slave; you are a God’s child.

This parable often is interpreted as being about the afterlife; a continuation of the ideas expressed in Job and Daniel. A shining example that one reaps what one sows. And perhaps it is; there is certainly ample evidence for that being the case. But I think Howard Thurman would want us to see the underlying theology. First, it was the greed and selfishness of the wealthy man that contributed to and compounded Lazarus’ suffering. Each day one experienced plenty and the other want. Second, wealth and poverty did not prevent the men from dying. Nothing we do here can thwart our demises. Three, there should be no confusion about how to live. The wealthy man cannot claim ignorance, and neither can we. Moses and the prophets, understood here both as historical figures and also as metaphors for parts of the Hebrew scriptures, are available to all. We know that God requires mercy, kindness, compassion, and love. We know that we are our siblings’ keeper.

It might be argued that the theology here is straightforward: we should do nice things for others so we don’t go to hell. Again, maybe. But I think the message is more profound: we must be aware of the ways in which our behaviors might cause others to suffer. All of us, on some level, contribute to the suffering of others. That is just the nature of human experience. The question is, are we aware of it? Do we do it knowingly? Willingly? And how do we discern God’s presence in our lives? Or evaluate whether we are living authentically? Do we look at the wrong things and declare that we have God’s favor? Do we mistake temporary, material wealth with knowing that God sees us and we see God back? Because that chasm is ours to build. And while I don’t think hell is at the center of the earth and we go there after we die, I do believe that hell is very real. I believe that we create it here and now, and we do so with our words, thoughts, and actions; hell, as St. Augustine said, is distance from God. It means not being seen; it means believing lies about yourself and others. It means believing that you are a slave.

I don’t think that fearing hell helps us see God. Maybe it does for you, and if so that’s great. It doesn’t help me and I know that it doesn’t help a lot of others, and Jesus is in the business of helping people. I think that each one of us wants to feel valued. Understood. Loved. Most of us desire peace, comfort, adequate food, and a safe place to live surrounded by those we love. God helps us see that if this is our desire for ourselves, we must work in this world to make it possible for others. Wealth and poverty only exist in relationship with one another; we cannot get rid of one without addressing the other. And while the Bible is not a textbook on economics, it does contain truth about the dangers of greed and serving mammon. And these dangers have long-lasting effects that go on after our bodily deaths. God tells us this not so that we will fear, but so that we will love. Fully. Radically. Unabashedly. For that is the only way to cancel a chasm. Amen.

A Anno ad Bibendum

AA

 

Regular readers of the blog will know that I have a history of being very confessional in this space. Some unfortunate incidents over the past year culminated in my making a very public (and perhaps overly-dramatic) declaration that I was taking time to reconsider how much I share. Ditto on Facebook. I pulled back.

What I now share is the most personal thing I’ve offered since then: today is my one-year alcohol sobriety anniversary.

So, an asterisk before I move forward. I don’t actually know when my “true” sobriety date is, which is actually a really good thing. Two years ago I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and after years of trying I finally found the absolutely perfect therapist. I know projection onto your psychologist is not a good thing, but I love him. He is one of the most significant relationships in my life and I am able to write this today in no small part because of him. He is adamant that I not share his name, so I won’t. In the first 6-9 months, we focused on meds and sorting out the disorder. It then because obvious I had to quit because we spent almost every session talking about drinking because I was bringing it up.  My first attempt, I had about four months without drinking when I arrogantly thought that I could just have “one or two.” After a three day bender, I stopped again but refused to start counting the days. By the time I was encouraged to by others, I honestly couldn’t remember. So I picked this date as being the most logical knowing that the only count that ever is matters is that I never, ever have another day one.

I don’t really want to write too much about my drinking. I’ll share this: while it is now abundantly clear to me that an overwhelming reason for my history of substance abuse is my mental illnesses, I certainly lived fully into reckless behavior. I also have amazing memories that heavily feature alcohol; some of my favorite moments in life are with Mimi, in our favorite bars, pumping $30 into the jukebox, and hanging out all day. I miss that, and sometimes it is the hardest part; Mimi would NEVER ask me to break my sobriety. She has been awesome, and I have absolutely no problem being around her or others when they drink. But it is those memories that tug at me. Really, really good times. I sometimes lament that I’ll never have another one.

But that’s the disease talking. Let me be frank, I was a drunk. Again, it is not that I am dishonest about what I did and how I behaved, it is just I’m not at the point where I can joke about it. I can’t say I’m thrilled about many of the things I did when I was drinking, and I’m working on that stuff in therapy. I just can’t share it. It would be too much to have out there given the fact I pretty regularly have people who simply go off on me online; my darkest secrets will be shown light in other ways. However, I’ll say that I needed to quit drinking, and I know there are more than a few people in my life who are genuinely glad to see me one year without alcohol. I was always a lover when I got drunk, not a fighter. Except to myself. A depressive with a drinking problem is a depressive looking to die. At least, that how it was for me. My uncle committed suicide. So did my brother. I was just doing it more slowly.

I don’t go to AA. I don’t offer to be a mentor for anyone in their sobriety. At the encouragement of a few friends on Facebook, I wrote this just in case there is some reading who is looking for their last day one. Or someone who has some days behind them and are wondering if they can do it. Yes, you can. But I didn’t do it alone. I joined an online AA support group and read way more than I posted (actually, today I marked my anniversary, which was my first post since my introductory past nearly a year ago); I saw my therapist and didn’t lie or avoid; I had myself put on a medication that will likely cause seizures if I drink. The med is for my bipolar, but I sought out a specific side effect as a motivator. I told the bartenders at my local to not let anyone buy me drinks; to a key few, I asked them to grill me if I ever asked for a drink. I didn’t want to put it upon them to refuse me; I just wanted to give them permission to look me in the eye and say, “What’s up, Aaron? I know you don’t want to do this, so tell me what’s going on. Can I call Mimi?” I made them accountability partners.

Every morning I wake up and decide that I am not going to drink today. I might drink tomorrow, but not today.

Someone on the FB page gave me the best blessing: “Here’s to a life filled with 24 hours in which you decide not to drink.”

 

The Other Logan

richard .jpg

I am one of those guys who loves Gilmore Girls. And not just because Lauren Graham is almost completely and totally my “type.” She’s skinnier and taller than I generally date, but that wit and smile just melt me. After the fourth season, I distinctly disliked her character Lorelai, but it didn’t matter because there was Sookie. And Paris. And Lane. There was the whole town–very White town, to be sure–filled with people I’d love to sit and have tea with once a week. Plus, the troubadour is Grant-Lee Phillips and for ’90s indie rock geeks like me, this is gold, Jerry, gold!

And there was Rory. Rory with her books and her snark, her confidence that belied a deep hurt. Rory who was obsessed with coffee and food, and had the best repartee. Rory who was caught between a grandmother and mother who lobbed pithy, brilliant insults like water balloons. Rory who had a sweet first boyfriend Dean who did all the wrong stuff I did as well: get clingy, possessive, and give ultimatums. Made the relationship about him, not her. Rory then fell in love with the bad boy Jess, who I wanted to hate but just couldn’t because his mix of James Dean and Hunter S. Thompson made me want to be as cool, even though I am not.

Then there was Logan. I really, really dislike Logan.

Let me stop and say I know this is ridiculous. These are fictional characters. This is a world that is so far removed from what is really going on, it seems a waste of time and energy to even be writing this. I have a dissertation to write, and I am already stretching an extension farther than it should go. What I am writing is stupid and trivial, but somehow it feels important. My friend Shannon wrote a letter to Rory upon learning that there may be another “Year in the Life” episode. I’ll let you read that one for plot details. I love what Shannon wrote, but in the back of my mind I was thinking, “If she’s really pregnant by Logan, I have some words for him.” Shannon said I should write it, so I am.

Again, I know how trivial this is so if it irritates you, maybe stop reading? I’m not really in the mood for responses about how this is privilege or insignificant. I get it. But I can’t focus on the ugliness of the world all the time. Cool? Cool.

Logan,

I don’t like you and have said so for years. I imagine that you would have little use for me. I think the Life and Death Brigade is the epitome of rich people thinking they can throw money at anything, or that true adventure means being cultural tourists of the worst sort. You are entitled, arrogant, aloof, and a snob. I understand that your Dad is an ass. While my father is certainly not Mitchum Huntzberger, I know what it is like to have heavy expectations. Now, my Dad loves me and while I doubted it as a teenager, that was my baggage, not his. My heart does go out to you in some regards; your life has not fully been your own, so your acting out makes sense. But dude, you’re in your 30s. It is time to grow up.

I am a sober alcoholic and I have a sordid history with drugs. I share this because I don’t think that I am better than you, and I know what it is like to have lots of inner turmoil.

But you are a user of people. You use your money to get what you want; you use your troubles with Daddy to justify reckless and selfish behavior. You’re not deep, dude.You’re an ass. While you arguably are the one person who completely accepted Rory as she was through college and adulthood, you enabled her to avoid responsibility. You helped her to have an inflated sense of self-importance because you have one as well. You now are engaged to be married and Rory has a boyfriend she treats worse than I’ve seen in junior high relationships, yet you share a bed. I am not a sexual prude. I’m a pansexual pastor, brother. I like sex, what I don’t like is a complete and total disregard for others. Are you both so important, so deep, so misunderstood that you can be horrible to others and not face consequences?

Because there have not been consequences for either of you. Not really. And while you can continue to hide behind your money and your privilege, while you can continue to surround yourself with vapid, sycophantic people, you will not live a life worth telling. You, good sir, will have to accept that you played a big part in being another man who has sabotaged a smart woman. Rory is responsible for Rory, yes; but real relationships are about bringing out the best in one another, not pushing one another toward mediocrity. Your self-hatred and fear have disguised themselves as love, and I wish that Richard were still alive because he would put you in your place.

You are about to be a father, it looks like. You have helped actualize Lorelai’s worst fear, and I think you’ll end up being Christopher without the charm. You don’t have to be, though. You can break off your engagement. I’m not saying marry Rory, I’d honestly prefer if you didn’t but that isn’t my call. What I am saying is that you are unfit to be a husband or a father right now. And while very few people are ever really ready, you are starting with more deficiencies than most. You have shown again and again that you will put yourself first in every situation. You should know that money doesn’t buy love. It also doesn’t buy common sense or a moral compass.

Take this or leave this. I don’t know if I will watch the next season because I don’t really like any of you anymore. You seem so White. So removed. So self-involved that in my few hours of escape, I don’t want to see your world. We all love a good redemption story, though. Perhaps there is still a chance.

With really no affection,

Aaron

 

Testimony Against HB 36

 

equality ohio .png

My name is Rev. Aaron Maurice Saari. I was born in Bowling Green, Ohio in 1976. I have lived in Ada, Cincinnati, and Clifton; my home, though, is Yellow Springs. It is where I graduated from high school in 1994; where I graduated with a B.A. from Antioch University in 2002. It is where my wife helps her stepmother run a business that her father of blessed memory started over 20 years ago. It is where I grew up in a family business, the historic Little Art Theater. It is where I have pastored First Presbyterian Church since 2013. All of my education has been from Ohio schools. I hold two masters degrees from Xavier, where I have been on the theology faculty for a decade. I earned my Divinity degree from United Theological Seminary, which is also from where, God willing, I will have earned a doctorate by December 2018. My extended family is deeply rooted in Ohio. My late grandfather Ivan Maurice owned the Union 76 station in Urbana for nearly 40 years; my uncle’s law practice in the same town has been there for just as long. Both my mother-in-law and father-in-law are Methodist lay pastors to rural congregations in the Portsmouth area.  I offer all of this because too often I hear it said that anyone who raises their voices in opposition to legislation like HB 36 are people bussed in from out of state. Agitators from elsewhere. So let me make it abundantly clear: I am a Buckeye born and bred; I live here and I will most likely die here.

I do not have a political motive, at least not in the way that our secular culture defines political. I am not a Republican. I am only registered as a Democrat because we have closed primaries in this state and, frankly, neither party represents me but I have to go with one. I hold some views more in common with the Democrats than I do the Republicans because, I am sorry to say, the GOP to which my grandparents swore allegiance is long gone. But I am not a Democrat in any real sense. I am not here to advance a party platform or initiative. I am here to talk about how this proposed legislation is big government elbowing into the ecclesial matters of Christ’s Church.

With all apologies to my loving and wonderful wife, the single greatest joy of my life is being a Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Church of Jesus Christ. I have denominational standing in two Mainline traditions, the United Church of Christ (UCC) and the Presbyterian Church (USA). Within both of these denominations, there are pastors and laity who are divided on a large number of issues, including same-gender and same-sex marriage. In the past two decades, both of these denominations have lost parishes because of divisions on the marriage issue, but by now we have settled in to the new reality. Those who were going to leave have left. We have held denominational meetings on every level you can imagine, changing Constitutions, bylaws, books of worship. Protestant denominations look different than we did 50 years ago. There is none of us untouched by questions concerning our rights of conscience, our denominational obligations, and what the Word of God says or does not say. The Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, and even the Baptists have significant numbers of congregations across the country that reside on both sides of the divide. Christians talk to one another; granted, sometimes we yell when we should be praying, but we talk to one another about our differences.

We call this holy tension; we disagree on abortion, gun rights, the death penalty, immigration. But we know from the testimony of scripture in Galatians 3:28 that in Christ Jesus there is no true division. No Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free. We are all one. Now, I’m one of those Christians who believes Scripture matters; I try to follow what it tells me to do. Sometimes I get it wrong. I imagine if you are a Christian, you get it wrong, too. That’s the wonderful thing about grace. It is available to us all for when we get it wrong.

Most pastors are well aware of the free gift of grace, and we apply it to our own lives. We know that conflict is going to happen, so we try to make sure that Christ is present whenever it arises. Without any government intervention or mandate, my colleagues and I have brokered agreements. Those who do not wish to conduct certain weddings send the couples to me, to whom I never say a mumblin’ word about the pastor or the congregation who did not want to host their nuptials. No one holds animosity in their hearts; I feel blessed to have colleagues who are deliberate, honest, and loving even in the face of substantial disagreements. We don’t do this so that the other church doesn’t get sued, we do this because we believe in Jesus Christ and we understand that Jesus did not send people away. We might have legitimate disagreements about Scripture but we do not lose sight of whom we follow and for whom we work. We’ve figured this out on our own, all without government intrusion. And we are not unique. This has happened across Ohio and across the country.

House Bill 36 is an example of government overreach into the authority of Christ’s Church. And, frankly, it is insulting for me as one studying to be a Doctor of the Church that this body feels it has the right or authority to mettle in matters that are clearly ecclesial. This is a Church matter not a State matter.

No one can force any pastor to conduct a marriage they do not want to officiate. This proposed legislation is a solution in search of a problem. I have refused to wed couples because I did not believe they had been together long enough; I advised pre-marital counseling and never saw them again. I imagine they went and got married somewhere else; that’s the thing: We pastors do not make marriages legal. The State does that; we sanctify unions and you can’t purchase that with money. You can’t force it through compulsion or law. There are no legal grounds in the secular codes to provide recourse to someone whom I have denied covenantal consecration; the fact that I am not the only person in the State who can legally seal a marriage contract means that there is no irreparable harm to anyone if I don’t sign their marriage license. I appreciate the concern that seems to be undergirding this effort, but the truth is neither I nor any other pastor needs the legal protections that are being proposed by HB 36.

I fear another motive: defending against the so-called war on Christianity. I have already elucidated my credentials, so I am well within my purview to point out that the “war on Christianity” cry most often comes from pastors and communities that are non-denominational. I am not making any statements about the theology or authenticity of these churches; please hear that clearly. God meets people everywhere, and just because a denomination isn’t there doesn’t mean that God isn’t either. What I am saying is that the lack of a denominational structure shows itself at times like these. Many of the churches desiring HB 36 are not held accountable by national, governing, ecclesial bodies; they often have church structures that begin and end with a charismatic pastor, whose word is held second only to the Word of Holy Scripture. If this pastor says there is a war on Christianity, then the 2,000 members of the congregation have to think there is a war on Christianity. If pastor says pastor needs protection from compulsion to preside over marriages of gay people, then pastor needs protection from compulsion. But that doesn’t make it true; they don’t get to offer alternative facts.

Denominational structure requires Christians who may not agree on everything to work together; to work with each other across race and region, to look into the eyes of a sister or brother and see the image of God. Denominational structures help us love one another even if we don’t particularly like each other. What many of these nondenominational churches are doing, by coming to you and asking for such legislation, is getting big government to do what Church polity has been doing for 2,000 years.

Some of you may not have thought of this last point, but this proposed legislation will make it harder for me as a minister. Let me explain. There is no reasonable argument to be given that these legal protections are necessary. There are not hordes of gays, like barbarians at the gate, lining up to begin massive influxes into conservative churches in order to bankrupt them through lawsuits. Even the people who cite these fears have to admit that they are hypothetical, meaning that any law will be based upon the conjecture of a small group of people. Even if it were to occur that a couple or couples deliberately targeted for lawsuits a parish that did not wish to sanctify a marriage, there is no legal standing to lodge a complaint. These cases would be thrown out and with extreme prejudice. I can guarantee you, a large number of us who are pastors that do solemnize same-gender marriages would rally to the sides of our colleagues on the other side as it pertains to religious freedom. Again, this is what denominationalism does; it helps you to see God’s Church is not meant to be an echo chamber. I have colleagues that I have seen on the opposite side of a picket line as me on Saturday, with whom I have then worshiped on Sunday. We can figure it out. Pastors don’t need protecting, except from those things that will interfere with our ability to preach the gospel. If you vote for this legislation, what are you saying to that gay kid wanting to give Jesus a shot, or to that trans* woman of color who is looking for a safe space, or to any other person who is clearly being targeted by this legislation? You’re saying that the Church needs protection from them. You are saying that their love is a sin, and you don’t get to do that; that is not your purview. If you personally believe it is a sin, that’s fine but you do not get to use your privilege as duly elected representatives of the people to advance your religious beliefs. You do not get to vote for this and say you are protecting me as a pastor. You are not; in fact, you might be interfering with my ability to preach the gospel. First Presbyterian Church of Yellow Springs is the only More Light PC (USA) congregation in the Presbytery of the Miami Valley, meaning that our ministry is to provide safe, loving spaces for Christians who also identify as GLBTQ+.

I often tell my students at Xavier University that I may be terribly wrong about what I believe; that’s what faith does, or at least it does for me, it cuts down on the arrogant certainty that I sometimes display because I am afraid. So I try to keep my self-identification as simple as possible. I am a native Ohioan and a proud follower of Jesus Christ. You might not agree with my perspective on Scripture, but I hope you will respect me as an ordained minister. I am asking you to stay in your own lane. Do the work of the people; help us to repair our infrastructure, to address our heroin epidemic, help us find more money to help the people Jesus prioritized: the blind in need of sight, the deaf in need of hearing, the lame in need of walking, the poor in need of hope. In my view, HB 36 is a violation of the separation of Church and State; it is big government overreach; and it is unnecessary secular action where ecclesial structures suffice. And it appears to be political in motive. I leave you with the words of a colleague, a fellow member of clergy; if you won’t listen to me, perhaps you will listen to Rev. Billy Graham: “I don’t want to see religious bigotry in any form. It would disturb me if there was a wedding between the religious fundamentalists and the political right. The hard right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it.”

Thank you for your time.

Deporting White Jesus

no trump .jpg

(These are remarks given at a rally in Springfield, Ohio on 2/4/17)

There is no physical description of Jesus in the New Testament. Sometimes people point to Revelation 1, but if we take that seriously then Jesus literally has a two-edged sword as a tongue and furnace fires as eyes; I think more people would have written about his appearance if this was the case, don’t you. But they didn’t, and do you know why? Because in Jesus’ time, it did not really matter what you looked like, what mattered was what you said and what you did. That’s why the gospels report what they report: the sayings and deeds of Jesus.

In a way it is lamentable that we Christians did not follow the lead of our maternal faith, Judaism, or our sibling faith, Islam, and not try to capture the image of God in art. History might have been a bit less violent had we Christians been prevented from drawing Jesus. Maybe not. Now, as an avid collector of iconography I rejoice in the richness of religious art; I think we would be missing so much if we did not allow our spirits to express themselves through art. Think about it: every culture that has been touched by the story of Christ has fashioned a Jesus that looks like them. Dark skin, light skin; curly hair like wool or flaxen hair like wheat; wide nose, narrow nose; sallow cheeks, bearded cheeks; emaciated body, muscular body: Jesus has been depicted in just about every way imaginable. We humans have offered a response to the declaration of Genesis: we have created God in our own image.

Taken in isolation, this is not bad. We know from studies that seeing positive representations of someone who looks like you in television, books, films helps in the development of self-esteem and confidence. Seeing a representation of God that matches you, maybe not perfectly, but matches you in significant ways can have profound impact on your spirituality. But what if you are told that God doesn’t look like you? Specifically doesn’t look like you? And you have neighbors who say, God looks like US and therefore, we are better. Many of you do not have to imagine what it is like.

The European dominance within Christianity propelled a version of Jesus that is far removed from the historical person—a brown-skinned, Middle Eastern man most likely around 5’5”, who right now would likely be detained at an airport, was replaced in popular imagination by a fair-skinned, long-haired, blue-eyed, 6′ man. Now, in itself, the vision of a white Jesus is fine, as long as you recognize that it is not historically accurate, and if you accept that every other follower of Christ has the right to fashion an image of Jesus who looks like them.

But it is not okay when you take an imagined Jesus and through violence both physical and spiritual, try to convince the world that you are right. That Jesus does not look like the people you are oppressing in the name of God. Here’s what concerns me as a Christian pastor who is in intentional relationship with my Muslim siblings here in Springfield. We have Christians who claim to be biblical literalists, but they follow a White Jesus who allows them to be hostile to non-Whites. They celebrate Christmas, but somehow miss major elements of the story. In both Matthew and Luke, the hold family is acted upon by unjust governmental forces. In Matthew’s account, the family is in Bethlehem because Caesar is conducting a census; none of the family are Roman citizens, so this census is for the purposes of taxation and the glorification of the Emperor’s ego. Let me repeat that: It was a executive decree  that caused great upset in the lives of average persons for reasons that benefitted only a few.  Huh. I wonder what it is like to live in a place like that? An insecure, erratic, egotistical leader wreaking havoc in the lives of citizens and noncitizens alike for asinine reasons? Must be hell.

In Luke’s story, the family are fleeing the despotic Herod who kills all of the children under the age of 2 in his kingdom. As often is the case in ancient history, we don’t hear the stories of the families impacted. Of the mothers and fathers who screamed and begged as their children were being slaughtered because of the insecurities of one sad, old, pathetic man who wanted desperately to be liked. He is known as Herod the Great to history, but history is sarcastic. No one called Herod great but those made to by Herod. Herod’s whole life was about making Herod great again.

So regardless of the story you choose for your Christmas, whether you are Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant, you are faced with a brown-skinned family on the run from governmental powers, forced to rely upon the goodness and protection of those who were willing to risk themselves to assist.

There should be no reason to even mention race when it comes to helping those in need. But, sadly, this is part of White Supremacy culture. Jesus has been made White, and White Jesus is used to justify indifference or outright hostility to non-Whites. While I agree that God does not have a race, Jesus most certainly did. And it ain’t mine. No matter how you look at it—historically, theologically, ethically—there is no way to support anything but a brown-skinned, refugee Jesus who when he grew up said, “How you treat the least of these among you is how you treat me.” I now speak specifically to the Christians in the crowd: it is up to us to lovingly engage our fellow Christians in conversation and to dispel some of the misinformation out there. It is our duty to learn, pray, educate, and follow-up. We have to be present and we have to be willing to be uncomfortable; this is literally a matter of life and death.

I come to you today as a proud Christian pastor, and a staunch ally and friend to the Muslim community here in Springfield. I don’t live here or vote here, so I appreciate y’all letting me talk, but we are neighbors. These county lines were not drawn by us; these artificial separations can’t keep us from loving one another, from taking care of one another, from understanding that loving your neighbor means knowing your neighbor. To you, Clark County, I say that I am proud to be your neighbor, I am proud to stand here with you in solidarity with our most vulnerable, and to say that Allah means God, so may Allah bless you and may Allah bless the United States of America.

Biblical Literalism, Jack Bauer, and Trump’s EO: How Fear and Anti-Intellectualism Got Us Here

At Xavier University, everyone has to take a course called Theological Foundations. Theo 111. Instructors receive some general goals and objectives of the course from the Department of Theology, but the design of it is really up to each individual prof. At any one time, you could have 20 different sections of the course going simultaneously. I find that this is one of the strengths of the department: while everyone is required to take the class, there are a variety of options to help each student find the one right for them.

After a three year hiatus from teaching the class–last semester I taught Christian Doctrine I–I am back with a new subtitle for my Theo 111: God From the Margins. We began the class with an examination of the Book of Exodus. Last week while I was out for my doctoral seminars, we did our class units online. I had them watch two documentaries and then write a paper. We began the discussion today.

The first documentary is James Cameron’s The Exodus Decoded, which is even worse than you might think it is; the entire film is like two-hour clickbait. You’ll never believe what happened next!

bible clickbait .jpeg
The film is genius, though, in representing a fundamental problem we face in our society: the devaluing of the expert and the attenuating anti-intellectualism that soon becomes normalized. To wit, the very title of the documentary harkens to Dr. Robert Langdon and symbology, a totally made up field that apparently enough people thought was real to justify the writing of this article.

Treating the Exodus like The DaVinci Code just doesn’t work out well for anyone.

James Cameron and his partner Simcha Jacobovici, an investigative journalist, believe that their “outsider status” will help them to see past the limited orthodoxy of traditional scholarship and present–for the first time ever!–the true story of the Exodus. Indeed, they believe that the discussion is between those scholars who believe the Exodus is fact, and those who regard it as a fairy tale.

giphy (14).gif

Now, I gotta tell you that I just about have a stroke any time I hear someone say something this demonstrably false. It is something Trump would say. First, myth is the most ancient form of literature. Period. Oral storytelling and written language both begin with myth. Myths function on many levels, but in the main we can say that myths attempt to bring order out of chaos. In the deep, seemingly ceaseless mystery that is life itself, we require answers. We want to know who we are, where we came from, the purpose of life, the meaning of death, the possibilities of immortality; on some level, we human beings have been asking these questions–and more–and answering them through mytho-poetic language.

Fucking fairy tales don’t come along until the 17th century.

So while Cameron and Jacobivici interview scholars for this film, they undercut the scholarship with a wink and nod; when an Egyptologist says, We cannot just start moving events hither and yon; 10 years in one direction or the other is the most we can change dates, the esteemed filmmakers go ahead and move the dating of the Stele of Ahmose 100 years, and conflate an event in which people were expelled violently to the exodus of the Hebrews. In so doing, they have “proved” that the exodus happened in 1500 BCE, something those silly scholars couldn’t realize, but our plucky duo, with only a tube of chapstick and a dance belt, have managed to decode one of the greatest ancient mysteries. Yay! (I encourage you to watch only the first 10 minutes of the documentary, and then cleanse yourself with this erudite, documented, reasoned rebuttal.)

So why have my students watch something patently false? Well, I then had them watch National Geographic‘s The Exodus Revealed to see how science and faith can be treated responsibly, without each side feeling their disciplines have been cheapened. I see the comparison as a microcosm of what’s been happening in religion (and public conversations about expertise) since the European Enlightenment. Take, for example, the Jefferson Bible.  Thomas Jefferson employed the same basic philosophy that propelled Higher Biblical Criticism, primarily in Germany: that is, the Bible should be treated as any other text, and approached from a wide variety of perspectives. Such biblical criticism examines language, redaction, historical context, literature types, archeological evidence, theories regarding transmission, theological hermeneutics shaping the text, and a whole host of other details. Jefferson cuts to the quick by excising references to the miracles, Jesus’ divinity, and any other supernatural elements. Indeed, the proper title of the work is The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. Interestingly, a copy of this was given to members of Congress until the 1950s, with the practice periodically resurrected. There is debate regarding when it began.  For Jefferson, Jesus was a philosopher; his Bible thin, but filled with wisdom.

Meanwhile, there was an equal and opposite reaction in both Europe and the Colonies. With Enlightenment principles suffusing the founding principles of our republic and mandating a separation of Church and State, a distinct brand of anti-intellectualism began to gain steam. Dedicated study of the Bible, placing it on the level of Homer’s Odyssey or the Vedas, was seen as sacrilege; such endeavors were the tools of the ruling elite meant to pull God out of the hearts and minds of the average person. Biblical literalism emerged as the viable alternative; this made it accessible to everyman: while a scholar has to read thousands upon thousands of pages to gain even a modicum of expertise in the field, the literalist need only read the Bible for its plain meaning. It is either fact or it is a fairy tale.

Science cannot be removed from the equation completely, though. Nope. Not for those who have a disdain for scholarship and intellectual rigor. If the Bible is inerrant, then it must be science that is wrong; move a few decades here or there is essentially the same thing as moving a few millennia here or there. That may seem hyperbolic, but it isn’t.*  They play fast and loose with details that have been meticulously researched and discussed for decades by hundreds of exhaustively-educated scholars. Seriously. I could not cut it as a biblical scholar, at least not on the level of my colleagues. I am a pastoral theologian with significant training in biblical scholarship, and I have published peer-reviewed articles and a book on one specific text: the Gospel of Mark. Egyptologists, Hebrew Bible and New Testament scholars have language training and expertise that I couldn’t achieve.

The Exodus Decoded sets forth notions that have been debunked by scholars, but one will only know it if one bothers to read. So they present a “scientific explanation” to the exodus that gives fuel to the literalist who wants to play scientist and biblical scholar. They do not hold themselves to the scientific method, but require that any critics have as their base assumption the infallibility of the Bible. One can see how literalism and anti-intellectualism merge to form quasi-scholars, misinformed as they may be. The lack of universal, reasonable standards means that one can just shape any evidence to fit the thesis rather than developing the thesis based upon the evidence. Exhibit one: Ken Ham.

This phenomenon, in a nutshell, is the same as that going on in response to Trump’s Executive Order regarding Muslims.

Stay with me on this, please. Above the argument is this: the Bible is being made too complicated by a bunch of elite scholars who wish to convince you that you can never know God; Scripture is either fact or fairy tale. We know it’s fact, proponents say with a wink and a nod, so here’s so wildly dubious “evidence” to use, and you just go in there and demand that you be heard in the discussion. And when people ask you if you have read the established scholarship, denounce it as propaganda. Demand that your own evidence be considered, but don’t allow them to point to the already established scholarship. It is tainted. Because you are not brainwashed by the Academy, you can see the pieces fit together, so go right ahead and condescend to those who oppose you.

For Trump, it is this: those who say that Muslims from the 7 targeted countries have no reason to be targeted, given that there is zero evidence of any attack after 1975, are ruling elites who don’t understand the real situation. They are too stupid and politically correct to see that terrorists skip generations. They are already here and our inept government has not a clue! Haven’t you ever seen 24? We’ve gotta give Jack Bauer the help he needs in order to get a hold on this elusive terrorist threat. It doesn’t matter that people from all political perspectives who are experts in terrorism prevention are denouncing the move; it doesn’t matter that this sort of one-sided action, with no consultation with the legislative branch, is the mark of the insidious, dictatorial power President Obama was accused of wielding by the very people who elected Trump. None of it matters because truth is simple, clear, and brutal.

God wrote it, I believe it, that settles it. Muslims are terrorists because terrorists are Muslims.

Trump has already displayed an open disdain for intelligence experts; he has sided with Russia as it concerns the most recent presidential election, but he has already launched an investigation into the patently false, delusional claim that 3 million “illegals” (seriously; how is a person illegal?) voted, hence why Der Fewer lost the popular vote. His supporters believe that the media is biased and untrustworthy, largely because it does not support their guttural assessments of complex problems; it is easier to believe that minorities and immigrants are draining the government of resources than it is to acknowledge that other white men in positions of power have betrayed them, and that the forces of capitalism have long since become more protected by law than are individual rights; or that there is anything of worth to be found in academia. They do not believe themselves to be ignorant because there are enough sources that have elbowed their way into mainstream discussions that they are accorded the, “you have to consider the other side.” It has happened with Intelligent Design, despite it being smacked down by a Bush-appointed judge. It happened with the Tea Party claims of death panels, President Obama’s citizenship, sharia law in the United States, and a whole host of other nonsensical issues that have conspired to give mendacious lies equal weight with learned considerings.

Trump’s ban on Muslims–and don’t try to convince me it is otherwise, for the president himself said during the campaign that he would call for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims” (yeah, that’s from his own website)–feeds well into the Jack Bauer school of counterterrorism: based on intelligence information known by only a few, we must act swiftly and without political correctness to make the people safe. It is only softhearted and softheaded academics who will get in the way, but the real American patriots don’t have time for that; the threat is right among us, hiding in plain sight. And that threat is always Muslim and always brown- or black-skinned, despite all actual evidence to the contrary.

Clearly, this analysis is not exhaustive or definitive; I do not claim it to be so, but the progressions and developments are there for anyone to see. In the majority religion of this country, Christianity, the most popular and influential expression is decidedly anti-intellectual; it elevates social wedge issues by providing dubious scientific evidence that is used by adherents to distract and frustrate legitimate scholars (that Neil DeGrasse Tyson should be expected to answer someone like Ken Ham is downright lamentable); and it supports politicians who gleefully declare themselves “deplorable” and promise to rule as an id, proudly devoid of an ego or superego. The rest of us are seen as threats to the faith.

The truth is, the sort of ideas dominating in the religion and politics which have assisted and empowered Trump perish in academia not because of liberal bias; they don’t flourish because they are terrible ideas. The irony is that the scientific method itself prevents the very things that Trump and his ilk fear: ideology tainting or polluting facts. Any academic field worth its salt is based upon rigorous testing and verification, and includes voices from a wide variety of perspectives to deepen understanding. Without question, academia is imperfect. There are certainly prejudices and faults, but these often are exposed by people who believe in the pursuit of pure knowledge. Academia has put forth some awful ideas, to be sure; but invariably, they are rooted out because they cannot survive continued testing. If you want to eliminate, or at least reduce, ideology, subject the ideas to peer-review.

We find ourself in a place and time in which we have normalized willful ignorance, rewarding it with equal consideration to expertise; we decry the “political correctness” of calling racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and all manner of prejudices by their proper names–it ain’t Alt-Right, it’s Nazism–yet we accept the notion that it is elitist to say “you must know at least this much to enter this conversation.” Our president has only a passing relationship with facts, providing all the validation followers need to continue their assault on ideas at the expense of the most vulnerable in our society.

Idiocracy is a modern Remembrall, a prophecy understood only with the passing of time.

*The Exodus Decoded can be turned into a drinking game only if we want cases of alcohol poisoning, and there need be only one rule: drink each time some for of “it has always been a mystery, UNTIL NOW” is uttered. You’ll be shitcanned by the fourth plague.

And God said, “Thou Shall Not Strand Thy Neighbor at the Airport,” A Sermon

Read this: Luke 6:1-16

trump-refugees7.jpg

It used to be that the Sabbath was a big deal. It meant something. When the sun started plunging into the horizon, the streets would begin to empty. As the last vestiges of light seemed to meander from the west down to the east, only an isolated few figures could be seen, hustling home or to the synagogue. Anyplace, really, where God was invited in. Yup, used to be that Sabbath was done right. But not anymore.

Some things don’t change, and romanticizing the past is one of them. It’s almost hardwired into us. We’ve created our own “age.” Like the “bronze age” or the “iron age,” we wax philosophic about the “golden age.” The problem is, most of the time when we’re living through what will later become “the golden age,” we are distinctly unhappy; we think the times have gone crazy, and we reminisce about an even earlier period being the “golden age,” which itself was most likely, when it was no longer the future and not yet the past, deemed a terrible, horrible, no good, awful, bad age.

The opening illustration can just as easily describe the time of Jesus as it can be used to describe our own present day.

back-in-my-day.jpg

It cannot be said enough times that Roman occupation was brutal. Fear was the default emotion for most with their necks held down by the sandal of Rome. The late, great scholar Marcus Borg suggests that during difficult times strict adherence to Law becomes the vehicle through which people transform their fear into strength. Ideally, this points one toward compassion and a desire for loving community; but in the time of Jesus what emerged is called by Borg a “politics of holiness.” The theology held that strict adherence to Levitical codes would render first the individual and then the whole community clean; God would look favorably upon the people and smite Rome. This viewpoint was held in Jesus’ day by the Pharisees.

The Sabbath was perhaps the most important focus of the Pharisees. The Jewish people had literally fought—often through nonviolent resistance—for the right to practice their faith throughout Roman territory. It cost them in blood and taxes, but Sabbath observance was recognized and allowed. Therefore, it is understandable that they would want the people to recognize the depth and breadth of the sacrifices made by some so that all could continue to follow God. Because for the Pharisees it was in the communal, strict adherence to the Law that would bring about divine redemption.

Which brings us to today’s pericope. Cast your mind back, if you will, to last week in which we talked about how the Gospel of Luke is dependent upon the Gospel of Mark for its narrative structure. In other words, Luke—and Matthew as well, actually—used a copy of Mark in writing their own gospels. The material shared by these three, later called the Synoptic Gospels because they all see Jesus “with the same eye,” is termed the triple tradition. Last week, Luke deviated a good deal from Mark; the same is true for us today.

Sabbath controversy stories, like most stories about Jesus, have meaning much more often in the subtext. The so-called plain meaning of the text cannot necessarily be discovered through a literal reading. For example, think about the context of this first confrontation. Look at the setting: Jesus and his disciples are walking in grainfields, which is a violation in and of itself. In plucking the grain, they are harvesting; in rubbing the grain, they are threshing; in eating, they have prepared food: all violations of the Sabbath. Seems pretty straightforward, right?

But let’s ask a question: if it is a sin to be walking through the grainfields on the Sabbath, what are the Pharisees doing in there themselves? I mean, this is like the Robert Burns poem come to life: “If a body meet a body, comin’ thro’ the rye.” Some people will say that it is evidence that the Pharisees were corrupted and filled with demons, and to that I say hogwash. Utter hogwash. Both Jesus and the Pharisees were Jewish. They were beholden to the same codes and expectations, but interpreted them very differently. When we read of Jesus criticizing the Pharisees, it most often has to do with the ways in which following the letter of the Law squeezes out the Spirit of the Law and leaves people on the outside looking in. The Pharisees in return  regard people like Jesus as having prolonged the duration of Roman occupation because they do not show strict adherence to halakha, Law.

far-side

The Pharisees most likely are present in the grainfield as a storytelling device; their presence could be about innate and rank hypocrisy, but once again we should seriously question the historicity of this claim. If we dig deeper, we find better answers. In both Sabbath controversy stories featured in today’s pericope, the conflicts present the same question: what do you think is most important to God? Jesus asks: Does God want people to go hungry amidst an abundance of food? Of course not, he says, citing the example of David with the consecrated bread. Before healing the withered hand, Jesus asks: On the Sabbath, is it lawful to do good or to do harm, to save a life or to destroy it?

What do you think is most important to God?

The Pharisees followed a theology of fear, at least as they are represented in the story. We must cross every t and dot every i if we want to be safe and protected. We must separate ourselves from those we have deemed unclean. We must draw lines, demarcate what is ours and what is forbidden. If we do all of that, God will see that we are serious. It is a theology that regards other people as a threat; a theology that says one can simply look at another’s life circumstances and know where they stand with God. Sick, poor, lame, sinner. But it is a theology that makes sense, especially if you feel a nearly total loss of control in most areas of your life. This sort of theology provides purpose and comfort for those able to follow it.

But it is hell for most everybody else.

On the most sanctified day of the week, Jesus walks through grainfields. He waltzes all up and into a synagogue and heals a hand. Why? Because there is a need from people. Jesus believes that the restrictions of the Sabbath have become so onerous, so antithetical to their original purpose, the only way he can rattle people out of their stupor is to engage in some religious civil disobedience. He works on the Sabbath to show that God made the day for us, not us for the Sabbath day. The day of rest is meant to bring us together: to unite us with God, our families, our friends, our communities. To connect us to ourselves.

We hear a lot about making America great again. We hear people wax nostalgic about the “good old days.” The golden age. But the whole of American history is filled with horrors for a great many communities that are not within dominant culture. Slavery, broken treaties, governmental limitations levied because of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or creed (and if you seriously need links to prove any of what I just said, I suggest stepping away from Breitbart and turning off the Fox News). Yesterday, at airports around the world a politics of fear kept families from reuniting; it kept refugees who have been through ordeals most of us cannot fathom from taking one more step toward reclaiming their lives; doctors, scientists, translators, university professors, grandmothers, breadwinners, all human beings who have followed the rules and procedures, who have done what our Pharisees say to do, are living in chaos right now. This is not greatness. This is a politics of fear and death.

A mosque in Texas burned to the ground on  Saturday morning. Muslims living in our country, in our neighborhoods, are frightened and uncertain. I think it is time to walk through some grainfields and to start healing some hands. What this looks like for each one of us may differ; I have reached out to a local imam; he and I are meeting during the week to talk, to pray, to go to God for strength and solidarity. For you, it may be attending one of the actions that will occur in the coming days. For others, it might be giving money to aid agencies that can help people who will literally be killed if they return to their country of origin. It might be simply smiling and saying hello, as my colleague Rev. Bryan Fleet said at a recent Beloved Community Project event.

Right now, no intentional act of kindness is too small.

Today, Christian celebrate the Lord’s Day. It is both the first and the eighth day of the week, another of the many contradictions in our faith tradition. So, let us ask: what are God’s intentions for this day? What will our connections with and to both God and each other mean when we get up tomorrow? What will we do to keep walking through grainfields and healing hands? As Christians, we have a divinely-mandated responsibility to not turn away from injustices and oppression. We are commanded to not be afraid and are to step forward when stones are being thrown. We have a divinely-mandated obligation to not turn away from injustices and oppression; for our God makes it pretty clear what we are to do: build longer tables instead of higher walls. Amen.