Saturday, May 10, 2014

A Christian Nation

In January of this year, while speaking at a luncheon of a religious organization, the chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court asserted that the First Amendment right of religious freedom applied only to Christians, and did not apply to Buddhists and Muslims, noting that "they didn't bring the Koran over on the pilgrim ship."

This is probably an extreme example of one of the conceits of the religious right, which is that the United States was founded by Christians for Christians, and that our laws and policies should be based on the Christian faith.  However, like many beliefs of the religious right, it is based purely on wishful thinking with no basis in historical fact.

It's true that "In God we Trust" is the official motto of the United States, but that was only adopted in 1956.  The phrase did not appear on any money until 1864.

The Pledge of Allegiance as it was composed in 1892 and adopted by Congress in 1942 did not contain the phrase "under God."  That phrase was added by Congress in 1954.

Most significant is that in 1797, just seven years after the Constitution of the United States was ratified, the Senate unanimously ratifed, and President John Adams signed, a treaty with Tripoli which contained the following Article 11:
Art. 11. As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,—as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen [Muslims],—and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan [Muslim] nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.
 The apparent purpose of this article 11 was to assure Muslim nations that United States had no intention of engaging in any religious wars and that there was no reason why the United States would not peacefully co-exist with Muslim nations.

Which is quite a contrast to the rhetoric that is often heard from the right, many of whom might be described as Islamaphobic.

Sunday, April 20, 2014


I recently read a suggestion that people who go to church only on Christmas and Easter should be called "Chreasters" and not "Christians."

There's a certain amount of humor in that, but to me, also a certain amount of sadness.

When I was a Presbyterian, I grew to dislike Christmas and Easter services, because they were always too much.  Too many people, too many flowers, too many hymns or anthems, and too many words in the sermons.

And the sermons were almost always boring.  After all, how can you explain the inexplicable?  Births and deaths are the great joys and sorrows in life, and also the great mysteries.  We don't know where we came from, or where we're going.  So, after you've said, "Jesus is born!" or "Christ is risen!", you've pretty much said it all.

So I feel a sadness for people who think of Christianity as the flowers and songs and hoopla that are Christmas and Easter, and miss everything in between.  They focus on the birth and the death, and don't hear about the things that Jesus said while he was living.  Which is a shame, because Jesus said some very interesting things.

The emphasis on the birth and death of Jesus is also paradoxical when you consider that Jesus came to be regarded as the Savior or Messiah because of his teachings, and yet his teachings have nothing to do with his birth or death.  As I've pointed out before, the "Christmas story" appears in only two of the four gospels, so two of the gospels considered the circumstances of Jesus's birth to be so unimportant as to be not worth mentioning.  And the stories that are told in Matthew and Luke conflict with each other.  But not even the authors of Matthew and Luke went so far as to claim that Jesus ever said anything about his own birth.  So there is a narrative disconnect between the Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke and the telling of the ministry of Jesus.

In the gospels, Jesus also says very little about his own death and resurrection.  Obviously, they hadn't happened yet, but if the great message of Jesus was to be his death and resurrection, you'd think he'd have laid the groundwork a little better.  Instead, the teachings and parables of Jesus seem to be about living, and not about a life after death.

Yes, you can find some passages in which Jesus seems to be talking about his resurrection, or is reported to be talking about is resurrection.  For example, look at Mark 8:31-32:
"The he [Jesus] began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be reject by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.  He said all this quite openly."
And that's it.  The author of Mark claims that Jesus talked about his death and resurrection, but couldn't report what Jesus actually said.  Which is weird.

There are similar passages at Mark 9:30-32 and Mark 10:32-34.  Very abrupt, very conclusory, and not connected with any parables or other teachings.  Jesus is reported to have explained what was going to happen, but not why.  Which seems to have been very short-sighted of Him.

What we "know" about the "why" of the resurrection we learn from the writings of Paul, and not the sayings of Jesus.  Indeed, much of what we call "Christianity" is based on the teachings of Paul and not Jesus.

But I digress.

So, when I was a Presbyterian, my favorite Sundays were the Sundays when nothing was happening.  On a rainy Sunday in October, you could enjoy a quiet, simple service, with a thoughtful sermon about the nature of forgiveness, or what it means to love our neighbors, or why we should love our enemies.  Things that might actually affect our lives, or at least how we think about our lives.

Which is probably why I'm now Quaker, because that's what most meetings for worship are like.  We don't have songs or sermons or responsive readings, so there's even less going on than in my stereotypical Presbyterian service in October when nothing was happening.   A Quaker service is just time for quiet prayer and reflection, and there are often thoughtful messages about forgiveness or love or how we think about our lives.

Not at all what a Chreaster would want.

Saturday, December 29, 2012


Following the Newtown, Connecticut (Sandy Hook Elementary School) shootings, I saw several reports and commentaries that referred to the shooter, Adam Lanza, as "evil."  This struck me as strange, because I never thought of him as evil.  Disturbed, unhappy, or perhaps even defective, but never evil.

So what is "evil"?

I might think of a complete sociopath as evil, but I usually reserve the use of the word "evil" for institutions or large groups of people who are either inflicting intentional suffering on others or who are completely indifferent to the suffering that they are causing.  So (for example), I consider the policies that led us to imprison people at Guantanamo Bay to be more evil than the people imprisoned there.

But that's me.  Others think of evil differently.

And that's the point.  "Evil" is the word we apply to the bad things that we fear the most.

Which brings us to A Course in Miracles.  The introduction states that:
The course does not aim at teaching the meaning of love, for that is beyond what can be taught. It does aim, however, at removing the blocks to the awareness of love's presence, which is your natural inheritance. The opposite of love is fear, but what is all-encompassing can have no opposite.
I don't fear individuals, because I can see something of God in them, which is another way of saying that I can love individuals. 

I don't see God in institutions or policies, and I can't love a government.  And so I fear the sufferings that groups of people can inflict.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Stand Your Ground

The Trayvon Martin killing brought publicity to Florida's "stand your ground" law, which was the model for similar legislation that the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) had been promoting in other states.  (ALEC has since abandoned its endorsement of "stand your ground" laws.)

"Stand your ground" laws eliminate the common law (sometimes statutory) duty to retreat when attacked.  If you are attacked or threatened, your first thought should be to get away from the danger.  Only if you can't get away are you allowed to use force to protect yourself.  (You're also allowed to use force to protect others, but that's a different issue.)

"Stand your ground" laws are favored by Republicans and conservatives, who often identify themselves as Christian and promoting Christian values, but "stand your ground" laws may be the most un-Christian laws of the modern era.  (I refer to the "modern era" in order to exclude slavery from consideration.)

Jesus said that "if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also."  (Matt. 5:39)  If that brief admonition were re-written to conform to "stand your ground" principles, it would become "if it looks like someone is going to strike you, don't duck or retreat, but strike him first."

But the "turn the other cheek" admonition is about more than violence and our reactions to violence.  It is about our ego and insults to our pride, and the spiritual peace that comes from giving up your pride.

Jesus is talking about being struck on the right cheek, not the left, which makes a difference.  If someone who is facing you slaps your face, and he uses his right hand, he's going to strike your left cheek, not your right.  For a right-handed person to strike the left side of your face, he would have to strike you with the back of his hand, and not his palm.  Giving someone "the back of your hand" meant the pretty much the same thing in Jesus's time as it means for us.  (It was probably worse then, and more insulting.)

So, what Jesus is saying is that, if someone insults you, or even injures you, don't retaliate.  Take the insult, and take another if the other person wants to offer another.  Give up your pride and your sense of righteousness.

"Stand your ground" laws say the opposite of what Jesus said.  Those laws say that, if you're threatened, you don't need to run away.  You don't need to be a coward.  You can maintain your pride and righteousness by using force, even killing the other person if needed.

"Stand your ground" laws therefore represent the triumph of pride and ego over peace, or even common sense.  Truly a most un-Christian law. 

Monday, September 5, 2011

God and Weather

In another blog, I suggested (tongue-in-cheek) that the current drought in Texas might be God punishing Texans for being anti-gay.

This was in response to (among other things) Congressional Representative (and Presidential candidate) Michelle Bachmann's statement last month that:

I don't know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians. We've had an earthquake; we've had a hurricane. He said, 'Are you going to start listening to me here?'

Last Sunday, on Meet the Press, Bob Schieffer asked, "[D]o you believe that God uses the weather to send people messages?"

Bachmann replied:

I believe in God. I'm not ashamed to say that I believe in God. I'm a woman of faith, and a woman of prayer. But the comments that I made right then was a metaphor, that was very simply what I was doing.

But does Michelle Bachmann believe in Jesus, and what would Jesus say?

In explaining why we should love our enemies, Jesus said:

He [God] causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

(Matt. 5:45)

If you believe in the words of the Bible and the words of Jesus, then no, God does not use the weather to send people messages.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Parent Metaphor

In my own thinking about God (or the Divine, or whatever word we want to use), the metaphor that I have found to be most useful is the metaphor of the loving parent, because it carries with it the idea of unconditional love.

A truly loving (and wise) parent will not try to control a child's life, and will not try to control what they do or who they love. They will not plan paths for their children, but instead allow their children to go their own ways.

This is very much the imagery that Jesus was drawing upon when he called God "the Father." For example, in the "Parable of the Prodigal Son" found in Luke 15:11-32, what was the plan of the father for his son, and how did he try to control or guide his son's life? The answers are none, and he didn't. When the prodigal son asked for the share of the property that would be his someday, the father gave it to him, and there's no mention of any arguments or questions. And then the son left. Once again, no mention of what the father might have said. And then, when the son had wasted all of the money and had returned home, the father greeted him without questions or recriminations. Unconditional love.

But we also have to raise that bar a notch or two because when we're talking about the difference between God and Mankind, we're not talking about the (metaphorical) difference between a parent and an adult child, but the difference between an adult and an infant. (For a sense of the gulf between God and Mankind, read the diatribe that God addresses to Job in chapter 38-41.)

So when we ask about God's "will" or expectations for us, the best metaphor is that of a parent whose small child has gone to the backyard with other children to play. Does the parent care if the children play hide-and-seek, or cops-and-robbers, or cowboys-and-indians? And does the parent really care whether the child plays the role of the seeker or the sought, the cop or the robber, or the cowboy or the indian?

That's my response to people who ask if God could really love Hitler. If we really are as children to God, then Nazism was just another childish game, and God loves his children regardless of what games they have decided to play.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Nine Billion Names of God

"The Nine Billion Names of God" is the title of a science fiction story I read years ago, the details of which are not relevant to this message, except that it described a religion in Tibet which believed that God had a specific number of names (about nine billion names), and that the purpose of mankind was to write out all of those names.

I thought about that story after driving with a friend, because I pointed out a red-tailed hawk that was sitting on a fence-post at the edge of the road and I was surprised that my friend didn't really seem interested. I can understand someone not wanting to spend time learning about birds, or spend time looking for them, but it puzzled me that someone wouldn't want to admire and learn about a magnificent, beautiful bird that was sitting in plain sight by the side of the road.

In thinking about my own attitudes, I realized that I felt a certain obligation to learn about the animals and plants around me. I can't know God directly, and I can't understand all of creation, but the least I can do is learn the names of the living pieces of God that are around me.

It started with birds, and I've always been pretty good with trees. Lately I've started trying to identify wildflowers, so I'm now learning about Spreading Dogbane, Cow Vetch, Yellow Spearwort, and Pickerel Weed, among others.

I'm thinking that next I'll try to identify different kinds of mosses, lichens, and fungus.

And I'm hoping that the total will be fewer that nine billion.