Helpful or Not?

by Karen Richter

I’ve been mulling over the words sacred and secular lately. Just yesterday a member of my congregation described themselves as “a pretty secular person.” I’m sure I blinked, eyes wide because I have zero poker face skills. How could this person – no matter what theology or philosophy – who I have experienced as chock-full of passion and integrity, be secular? And now that I think about it, how could a person whose faith compels them to act in ways contrary to justice, compassion, and peace be sacred?

What do these words even mean? Is the distinction helpful any longer, if it ever was?

In high school choir, we sang sacred music.  Just a side note, because surely you were wondering, my favorite piece was John Rutter’s For the Beauty of the Earth.

We also sang secular music. Here’s one I remember that you probably recall as well.

Why is a song about connection and longing and common humanity labeled secular just because God isn’t mentioned? And surely, if we thought about it, we could think of religious songs that are so soaked in nationalism, exclusivism, and fear that the word God sours in our mouths as we sing.

I’m always suspicious about either/or choices, and the sacred or secular choice is no different. Questions worth asking always have more than two potential answers!

In this holiday season, we so often get pulled into irrelevant discussions about what is appropriate as part of our Christmas celebration and what isn’t. Mistletoe and holly, yule logs, decorated trees, candles… these treasured traditions all originated in pagan winter celebrations. Contemporary questions abound as well… Santa during church events? Starbucks cups? Church on Christmas day?  How do we choose what to affirm and what to discard? What goes and what stays?

It all stays. It all belongs. If incarnation means anything at all, it means that the false dichotomy of sacred and secular is revealed as illusion, forever broken down, shattered completely, and re-formed as part of a blessed whole.

You belong too! Merry Christmas and peace in 2017!

5 Bad Theologies You Might Be Living Out

by Karen Richter

I taught a class a couple of years ago called Everyday Theology.

The main idea for the class was that we are always living out our theology. With every little decision, we are revealing what we value and the concepts we believe to be true. The most interesting part of the class was talking about and revealing some concepts that are not based in reality – what I am calling here ‘Bad Theologies.’

Of course, I’m using the word theology to mean something both bigger and more mundane that the academic discipline of study about God. By theology, I mean those often invisible ideas and assumptions that permeate our thinking about what is real, how we know what we know, and how we are must live. I hope you’ll get a feel for what I mean by exploring this Buzzfeed-style Top 5 list.

1. Cheap Karma

Dietrich Bonhoeffer talked about Cheap Grace… in my own parlance, this is a way of misunderstanding God’s grace that ends up meaning that everything is just okie dokie. Cheap karma is similar in that it takes a religious concept that has value and turns it into a greeting card.

Cheap Karma is that idea that good things happen to people who do good things. The corollary is more dangerous – that bad things happen to people who do bad things.

Occasionally, it works (maybe just often enough to reinforce our cognitive prejudices): you are cut off in traffic by a person driving dangerously and a mile later you see them pulled over by the highway patrol. “Ha! Karma!” you think. But the idea that you do good things for a reward is really awful.

Plus, there are lots of people suffering in the world that surely don’t deserve it. Karma of course is a Hindu belief that the universe works in logical, cause-and-effect ways over many years and many, many lifetimes. Cheap karma is just a “what comes around, goes around” falsehood.

I lost my phone last summer at SeaWorld with my Girl Scout troop. My co-leader (a lovely non-traditionally spiritual person) suggested that we might think positively, sending good vibes to the universe that would bring my phone back to me. I explained that my philosophy is more akin to “it is what it is” and our spirituality consists of our response to life as it is. We had our different responses to the minor crisis of my lost phone. Maybe chance; maybe my friend’s good vibes… but a kind person shipped my phone to me the next week. So it’s possible that I don’t know what I’m talking about regarding Cheap Karma.

2. American Exceptionalism

I won’t say too much about this one, except that if you think the USA is somehow a shining city on a hill on a mission from God… you need to pay closer attention. My first exposure to this Bad Theology was in high school when an evangelical youth pastor explained to me that America is now God’s Chosen People. Even at that tender age, I could smell something.

Because it’s an election year, we’ll see this particular theology left, right, and center – so to speak.

3. Transactional Salvation

This one is a biggie.  The crux of the idea is that God requires something specific from us in order to escape the fires of hell.

For some evangelicals and fundamentalists, it’s the Sinner’s Prayer or ‘inviting Jesus into your heart’ or a personal relationship with Christ as Lord and Savior.  For Catholics, the requirements are more subtle and more complex.  But any kind of thinking that involves I do/choose/perform/pray/vote/act a certain way to get heaven/blessings/grace from God is a nonstarter for me.

Sometimes at Shadow Rock we call it “gettin’ your ticket punched” or Fire Insurance.  Two huge problems with this particular Bad Theology:  1) it totally discounts and misunderstands the nature of Ultimate Reality or in traditional language, God’s grace and 2) after folks get their ticket punched (or pray the magic prayer or whatever), they tend to stop growing and learning.

4.  Redemptive Violence

The Myth of Redemptive Violence might be THE Bad Theology.  It’s everywhere.  The premise is that violence is useful, even NECESSARY, for problem-solving.  For the background and history of redemptive violence, see Walter Wink.  For an on-the-ground feel for it, check out Batman, Rango (it’s particularly obvious in this movie), or any superhero movie or any children’s cartoon ever.  “Good guys” use violence to defeat the “bad guys.”  But if both sides are using the same violent methods, who can tell the difference?  That’s why it’s so useful to get an intuitive grasp of this through fictional settings.  It’s less jarring than looking at the newspaper, where the same exact thing is happening.  I’ll start with two problems with this Bad Theology as well:  1) it keeps us from looking at more peaceful and creative ways to change bad things and 2) if we make good things happen through causing pain, it makes us more likely to assume that God does the same thing..

5.  Certainty

Human beings, in my estimation, are most likely to go off the rails when we think we have it all figured out.  When we imagine that the universe works in a certain way through certain rules that we can grasp with our gigantic frontal lobes, we are foolish.  Things change.  Perspectives can be radically dissimilar.  There is so much we don’t know.  Yet at the same time, humans are meaning-making, meaning-grasping, meaning-creating creatures.  THIS IS WHAT WE DO.  We make rules, draw conclusions, see patterns.  So it’s possible that I’m being too harsh on the species.

Religion and faith and spirituality are the sources for much good in the world… when they are grounded in reality.  This Top 5 is just a start. Where do you see people – even yourself – living out Bad Theology?

Restacking the Stones: one prophet’s lessons for revitalization

by Rev. Dr. William M. Lyons, Designated Conference Minister

Preached February 14, 2016 at Congregational Church of the Valley, Scottsdale, AZ

“On the tenth of Tevet, 425 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar [King of Babylon] began the siege of Jerusalem.

“Thirty months later, in the month of Tammuz, after a long siege during which hunger and epidemics ravaged the city, the city walls were breached.

“On the seventh day of Av, the chief of Nebuchadnezzar’s army, Nebuzaradan, began the destruction of Jerusalem. The walls of the city were torn down, and the royal palace and other structures in the city were set on fire.

“On the ninth day of Av, toward evening, the Holy Temple was set on fire and destroyed. The fire burned for 24 hours.

[Jewish] “Sages taught: When the first Holy Temple was destroyed, groups of young priests gathered with the keys to the Sanctuary in their hands. They ascended the roof and declared: “Master of the World! Since we have not merited to be trustworthy custodians, let the keys be given back to You.” They then threw the keys toward Heaven. A hand emerged and received them, and the priests threw themselves into the fire (Talmud, Ta’anit 29b).

Everything of gold and silver that still remained was carried off as loot by the Babylonian soldiers. All the beautiful works of art with which King Solomon had once decorated and ornamented the holy edifice … [t]he holy vessels of the Temple that could be found… The high priest Seraiah and many other high officials and priests were executed. … Many thousands of the people that had escaped the sword were taken prisoner and led into captivity in Babylon, where some of their best had already preceded them. Only the poorest of the residents of Jerusalem were permitted to stay on to plant the vineyards and work in the fields.

“Jeremiah, [who prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem], also promised that the Jewish people would return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple.”

Today’s reading from Ezra 1:1-4, 3:1-4, 10-13 is the beginning of that story.

“Thus says King Cyrus of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem in Judah. Any of those among you who are of his people—may their God be with them!—are now permitted to go up to Jerusalem in Judah, and rebuild

God works in and through people not like me.

I notice first in today’s text that God speaks to people of different political and religious and ethnic and cultural heritages than the ones described in Scripture as Israel. God’s speaking isn’t limited to me, or people like me, or my religion, or my country, or my friends.

God has a long history of transforming people once enemies into friends. God has a long history of speaking through people and nations that appear on the list of ‘not God’s people,’ people we may have placed on the list of ‘not friends’ or even ‘enemies.’ God is at work in people not like me, in nations, cultures, and religions not our own, in circumstances apart from the expected!

Ezra 2:59ff tells the story of a group of people who wanted to go with the Jews to Jerusalem – people whose spirit God had stirred for the endeavor – but who could not prove that they were Jewish. These people, too, became part of the most important resource in accomplishing God’s tasks: people. Think of it, the all-powerful God who spoke into being the universe, the earth and everything in her, repeatedly chooses to work through people to accomplish the divine will rather than to speak it into being. And God was willing that any person who responded to the Spirit’s stirring should be included in the work of rebuilding the Temple.

What a powerful lesson for us in today’s world! In this time of hate and discrimination disguised as religious freedom, in this time of anti-Muslim vitriol, God’s speaking isn’t limited to us – to Christians, to evangelical Christians, to Americans.

In Ezra’s day, God proved that God is not limited to the religion or the followers of the religion revealed in the Judeo-Christian sacred texts. What would have happened if Ezra had taken the position that God could only speak through him, or people like him, or people of his cultural, religious, or national heritage? God’s activity in the world to bring us Jesus, divine activity that we celebrate this Advent season would have been halted in its tracks!

Essentials need immediate tending; everything else can wait awhile.

In the second year after their arrival at the house of God at Jerusalem, …10 When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord,

In the second year, not the first, not immediately. Later. After a time for adjustment. Lesson #2: Essentials need tending to immediately. Everything else can wait awhile. Sacrifices burned on the altar from the very beginning; in fact, sacrifices by ones who remained in Jerusalem probably never stopped. But the extras, like maintaining the building that was the Temple itself, could wait. 70 years it waited. And 2 more years it waited. Finally, after folks had established themselves in the new land, the new culture, the new religion, in their homes with their families, then they began work on the structure that was the Temple.

The first thing the returned exiles [did was] rebuild their own lives. They [did] not go straight to the task at hand. This is significant because it implies that God is interested in re-establishing people’s homes before God’s own temple. The priority is not to focus on the bricks and mortar of our faith, but in the re-establishing of right relationships with each other. [Families and the] community come first.

There is always a debate in doing mission work as to whether to fix people’s relationships with each other, with the land, with health or with justice before doing any work reconnecting people with God and faith. This story of Ezra seems to suggest that grounding ourselves in good relationships with each other comes before whatever the task at hand might be.[1]

The future isn’t supposed to be like the past.

The future cannot be like the past; it’s not supposed to be. Most of the people who had been taken into exile by the Babylonians had long died. Their children had children. And those children had children. While some of the exiles returning had seen Jerusalem in its last days, the majority of the people returning with Ezra were one or two-generations-removed from the Jerusalem and the Temple they were hoping to rebuild. Most of them had never lived in Jerusalem or sacrificed at the Temple or even seen the house of God they were commissioned to rebuild! It had been 70 years!! In terms of the Exodus story, that’s twice as long as it took the generation whom Moses led out of Egypt to die in the wilderness.

In that 70 years, without access to the Temple or the Altar, the Israelites had become the Jews. New traditions that weren’t in their Bible had developed. New theology and interpretations of Scripture had arisen. Judaism had been conceived. Of course the future was going to be different.

But that didn’t stop some people from grieving a past they couldn’t recreate instead of celebrating the future that they had the chance to birth.

10 When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests in their vestments were stationed to praise the Lord with trumpets, and the Levites…with cymbals, …11 and they sang responsively, “For [God] is good, for [God’s] steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.”

And all the people responded with a great shout when they praised the Lord, 12 But many of the priests and Levites and heads of families, old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house, though many shouted aloud for joy, 13 so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard far away.

Ones who were grieving their inability to return to the past forgot that rebuilding is never about returning things to exactly the way they were. Rebuilding is about being sure the best of how it was shapes how it will be. And in our text the author says the ability to make that distinction is what separates ‘old people’ from ones who remain ‘young at heart’ forever.

The Jews in Ezra’s day were called to determine what it meant to live into a new future that God was actively creating in their midst. But what that future would look like was only beginning to emerge when the exiles returned, and with mixed results. The former glory of God’s presence and of the temple was lacking in this new iteration of the temple according to some. The new temple, moreover, was to be under the patronage of a foreign ruler (Cyrus), not an autochthonous ruler like Solomon or David. And finally, whereas Solomon’s temple was built while his kingdom was militarily strong (2 Chronicles 1:14-17), the new altar was established while this small band of Jews was still under threat (Ezra 3:3). The future, indeed, would not be the past. What gives continuity to the past, present, and future, however, is the faithfulness of God.

To be vital, to be faithful to the person and work of God, Ezra and the exiles had to see themselves and the events in their lives as God at work in their midst for their day.

Rebuilding is resource-intensive.

Rebuilding is a resource-demanding endeavor. Vv. 2-3 list people as the most important of those resources; v. 4 reminds us that rebuilding takes money and goods. Cyrus’s decree is honest about the investment rebuilding requires:

and let all survivors, in whatever place they reside, be assisted by the people of their place with silver and gold, with goods and with animals, besides freewill offerings for the house of God in Jerusalem.”

…everyone whose spirit God had stirred—got ready to go up and rebuild the house of the Lord in Jerusalem. All their neighbors aided them with silver vessels, with gold, with goods, with animals, and with valuable gifts, besides all that was freely offered. King Cyrus himself brought out the vessels of the house of the Lord that Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from Jerusalem and placed in the house of his gods. King Cyrus of Persia had them released into the charge of Mithredath the treasurer, who counted them out to Sheshbazzar …All these Sheshbazzar brought up, when the exiles were brought up from Babylonia to Jerusalem.

Churches evolve over time. People who are a church mature and die, and join as new members and move away. Children grow up. Pastors leave and pastors arrive. With those events, the ways in which a congregation relates to one another and relates to God evolve too. And every so often a decree comes forth, a door open for a church, in a big way, to be reconsidered, revalued, repurposed, reorganized, revitalized, re-resourced, rebuilt, and yes, sometimes even reposed. Every so often God stirs spirits for a new work. People are called to make choices about how they will, or if they will, participate in the make-over. Choices need to be made with intention and with prayerful discernment about what parts of the past and its traditions are so important they will be carried into the new future, and what parts of the past are ready to be laid to rest in order to realize that new future.  The question, then, is if and how you will be a resource for what God is actively doing among you.

God is at work in people not like me, in nations, cultures, and religions not our own, and in circumstances apart from the expected!

Essentials need immediate tending; everything else can wait awhile.

The future cannot be like the past; it’s not supposed to be.

Rebuilding is a resource-demanding; it takes everything all of us bring to the table.

How are these lessons from Ezra playing out in your life? In the life of your church? How can these lessons empower us to do new ministry that leads people to life-transforming experiences?  Will you be a contributor or a complication to the rebuilding effort? Amen.

 

[1] Spill the Beans. Issue 17, p. 23

 

 

The Three Great Pathways that Jesus Chose but Many Christians Have Missed

by Kenneth McIntosh

pew religious landscape 2007 vs 2014 pie charts

I came across this pair of pie charts on Facebook last week and immediately noticed that those who are “religiously unaffiliated” claim as much of the pie as any other group. At 23% they are virtually tied with Evangelical Christians (24%), just ahead of Catholics (21%) and decidedly ahead of Mainstream Christians (15%).

Despite this trend, I still hear respect for Jesus—in popular culture, on social media, and in private dialogue. It would seem that much of the world agrees with that famous saying of Mahatma Gandhi, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike Christ.”

As people who identify by that word “Christian” it behooves us to ask: Where do the two part ways? Why do so many people like Christ but not those who bear his name?

The passage of Scripture that begins this season of Lent—the Temptation of Jesus in the Wilderness, as recounted in the Gospel of Luke—may be one good place to answer those questions.  When tested, Jesus chose three great paths to freedom—ways of living that characterized his life. When similarly tested, many of his followers have failed to choose the same pathways; and I have to confess that I also have at times failed to choose these directions of freedom.

When we hear the word “temptation” most of us think of various vices; the temptation to have an affair, or to become an addict to alcohol or—less severely—the temptation to eat donuts for lunch. This Gospel story corrects that notion. Vices, per se, are not the greatest evil. The real temptation in life is to forget who we are. The devil keeps challenging Jesus, “If you are God’s child.” And he keeps challenging on this point just before Jesus is about to set about his great life work.

You and I need to keep our eyes on the prize, to remember what the real goal of life is and what real failure is. Failure is not downing shots of vodka, watching dirty pictures or emptying a box of Twinkies (although we may be prone to all three of those things if we believe that we have already failed). Failure is forgetting that we are God’s children and failure is forgetting that we have an incredible mission to love and restore all of God’s creation. To forget our identity in God, and to forget our glorious mission in the world—that is what it means to give in to temptation.

The first temptation is for Jesus to turn stones into bread (which is rather compelling after fasting for weeks on end). It is the allure of materialism, the belief that our happiness comes from things. Of course, physical things are not bad in themselves; we are indeed material beings inhabiting a material world. Food, clothing, shelter—these things are good. For that matter jewelry, perfume, a membership at the gym, or a prize collection of baseball cards can all be good as well. The problem is when we forget the relative importance of things versus love; when we forget that the things we own say little about our Divine identity and purpose.

We in the wealthy developed nations fall most easily into this pitfall because we have managed to attain so much. It’s been calculated that if everyone on earth used up the same amount of raw materials, fuels and so-on that the average American consumes, it would take four worlds to sustain the earth’s population.

When Jesus retorted to the tempter, “Humans shall not live by bread alone,” he affirmed the pathway of Simplicity –of being content with fewer things, and with things that matter more. That’s a great recipe for a life that depends on a vital connection with God, and that enables all of God’s other creatures to live in peace alongside of us.

The next temptation is that of coercion. The devil says, “I’ll give you power—let me show you how.” This is upping the temptation scale; the first temptation is rather lame, materialism appeals to humans at the level of the reptilian brain stem, the animal nature. Coercion is a better temptation for brighter people, because bright people know the world is askew and wish to change it—and if we can knock the world into shape then everyone will be happier. That’s how the devil presents the case.

Beginning with the Emperor Constantine in the fourth century, Christians have chosen the way of coercion. Today, half of the candidates for the US presidency in 2016 embrace that same path of coercion. We will make America a Christian nation…we will make people follow Christian principles. The way of coercion—this is what Gandhi had in mind when he said “I like your Christ…but your Christians are so unlike him.”

Jesus, in contrast, chooses the path of Service. God knows that people transform not because they are forced to do so, but because they see examples of sacrifice. Ultimately, the way of Jesus is the way of the cross—the way of costly love. This is why Mother Teresa is so well loved, and Franklin Graham…less so.

The devil’s final assault is the temptation of privilege. Can’t you just hear the devil saying, “Hey, Jesus, why don’t you throw yourself off the top of this tall building? Ordinary folk, they’d fall and end badly. But you’re special. Angels will catch you—won’t that be cool? Won’t people just be so impressed with you?”

You don’t have to spend long in the corridors of Christian influence before you can spot the temptation to privilege and fame. It may not be stated so bluntly, but I’ve sure caught the tone of Christian messages that say, “I’m really exceptionally cool and successful—and you can be too if you come to my church.”

But Jesus responds by choosing the way of Humility. We are called to the spirit of Jesus “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,  but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant(Philippians 2:5-7, ESV).  No one in history has had a more perfect God-consciousness than Jesus, yet he chose to live as a very ordinary Middle Eastern peasant, subject to all the hardships of common humanity. And today, despite the increase of those who are spiritually unaffiliated in North America, some 2 billion citizens of earth still own the name Christian, having been influenced by the suffering servant.

As we begin the season of lent, perhaps we should not think so much of what we can “give up,” as much as we should think about the life-ways that Jesus chose. Take a moment, and cement in your mind the three choices that Jesus made in the wilderness: Simplicity, Service and Humility. Ask yourself: what can I do to walk on these paths during this Lenten journey?

Are Followers of Jesus the Kind of People Who Put Someone to Death?

by Ryan Gear with Greg Parzych, Esq.

In the most recent Democratic debate, Rachel Maddow asked Hillary and Bernie if they support the death penalty. Each, an agnostic and a Methodist, presented thoughtful but differing answers. As we approach the season of Lent, Americans who desire to practice a Jesus-inspired spirituality are once again presented with the opportunity to consider whether or not we should support the death penalty.

The U.S. is among the last countries on earth to retain the death penalty. Of the 195 countries in the world, the United States is one of only 36 countries (18 percent) still enforcing the death penalty in law and practice. In 2013, the U.S. was the only country in the western hemisphere to carry out an execution. Pharmaceutical companies in the European Union are no longer supplying U.S. states with certain chemicals after they discovered their medicines were being used to put inmates to death.

We are known by the company we keep, and the list of 10 countries executing the most persons annually is one many Americans are not proud to make. The U.S ranked fifth in the number of executions worldwide in 2013, behind China, Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. The other countries rounding out the top 10 are Pakistan, Yemen, North Korea, Vietnam, and Libya.

The majority of executions in the U.S. take place within a small number of states. In 2014, U.S. states executed 35 persons, with 80 percent of these executions taking place in Missouri, Texas, and Florida. Texas has executed, by far, more inmates than any other state (522 since 1976), comprising 37 percent of all executions in the U.S. Since 1976, 81 percent of all U.S. executions have taken place in the South.

It is worth noting that the Catholic Church opposes the death penalty, as do most mainline Protestant denominations. Evangelicals, not so much. The National Association of Evangelicals continues to support capital punishment.

There is a difference between denominations and the people in the pews, however. As of November 2014, 67 percent of white evangelicals and 64 percent of white mainline Protestants support capital punishment, compared to 36 percent of Black Protestants. While only 13 percent of the U.S. population, African Americans make up 41 percent of death row inmates, calling into question the racial fairness of the entire justice system.

Among U.S. Christians who support the death penalty, however, there is a startling disconnect. When asked, “Would Jesus support the death penalty?” only five percent of Americans said He would. This means that a significant portion of Christians in the U.S. approve of doing something they don’t think Jesus would do.

In addition to this, there is one other glaring reason Christians should ask serious questions about the death penalty —

Jesus, Himself, was executed.

The cross was the Roman equivalent of our electric chair or lethal injection. Rome wanted to be tough on crime, and Jesus was a poor man from a nowhere town who noisily cleansed the Temple as an act of protest against religious corruption. Pontius Pilate viewed Jesus as a disruption of his iron-fisted order and quickly handed down the sentence of death. What killed Jesus was a lethal cocktail of politics and religion.

My friend Greg Parzych is a criminal defense attorney in Arizona. Greg regularly feels the weight of another human being’s life in his hands, as he often represents clients who are facing the death penalty. He feels the burden of knowing that a jury will decide whether his client lives or dies based (hopefully) on the evidence and mitigating circumstances he presents to them. Therefore he has a unique, up-close-and-personal view that many of us will never experience.

I asked Greg to share his thoughts about capital punishment, and I’m thankful that he obliged:

Renewed discussion regarding the death penalty is occurring in the United States after the botched executions of Clayton Darrell Locket on April 29, 2014 in Oklahoma and Joseph Rudolph Wood III on July 23, 2014 in Arizona. Death Penalty discussion often focuses on the possibility of the execution of the innocent, or the method of execution, or the pain and suffering of the condemned vs. the pain and suffering of the victim.

However, any discussion of the death penalty cannot ignore two factors that have always been involved in the imposition of the death penalty — politics and religion. Both play a major role, and both present inherent dangers.

In 1972 the United States Supreme Court, in effect, suspended the death penalty in Furman v. Georgia. The Supreme Court held that the imposition of the death penalty was wantonly and freakishly imposed, comparing it to being struck by lightning. The suspension of the death penalty was short-lived, however.

In 1976 the Supreme Court, in Gregg v. Georgia, held that the state of Georgia’s new death penalty scheme was constitutional. Since Gregg v. Georgia, the United States has executed over 1,400 individuals. Georgia’s revised state statute in Gregg legislated objective criteria to direct and limit the imposition of death and allowed consideration of the character and record of the defendant. It is in this consideration of the character of the defendant where the inherent danger of religion and politics is most prevalent.

In a normal guilt or innocence phase of a jury trial, jurors are to determine facts, and, from those facts, determine if the state has proven a defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. In the sentencing phase of a death penalty case, however, jurors are to determine life or death.

In doing so, jurors are instructed to consider aspects of a defendant’s character to determine if there are any factors in fairness or mercy that may reduce the defendant’s moral culpability.

Determining who should live and who should die is a moral decision, an individual and personal moral decision. And as such, religion plays a major part. Unlike a guilt or innocence phase of a jury trial, in the sentencing phase, jurors are told that they should not change their individual personal beliefs solely because of the opinions of the fellow jurors. Each individual juror must make his or her own moral decision. Terms and phrases such as fairness or mercy and moral culpability inevitably invite religion into the life or death consideration.

The problem in death penalty cases is that a person whose moral and religious beliefs forbid them from imposing a death sentence cannot serve on a death penalty case. Yet those whose religious and moral beliefs allow for the imposition of death routinely sit on death juries. “Death qualification” as it is called, stacks the deck for death. “An eye for an eye” may not necessarily prohibit you from serving on a capital case but a belief in the sanctity of all human life most certainly will.

Despite the use of objective criteria in determining who should live or die, the decision of who lives and who dies is obviously subjective. The question becomes, “Should we as a society be making the decision of who lives and who dies?” Who is smart enough to not only decide life or death, but to decide what should be considered in making that determination?

Research is actually being conducted to determine a “Depravity Standard” in an effort to give jurors “guidelines” to help them make the life or death decision. Researchers are actually trying to quantify and qualify “evil” to aid jurors in imposing death sentences. In effect, they are trying to give scientific validity in death sentences and thereby add a level of comfort to those who impose a death sentence knowing “science” backs their moral decision.

Politics, of course, also plays a major role. The death penalty has and always will be politicized. It can certainly be argued that the higher the media attention in a murder case, the greater chance the state or federal prosecutor will seek the death penalty. “Tough on crime” wins elections, from local elections to presidential elections. In 1992, then-Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas returned to his home state in the middle of his presidential election campaign to make sure the execution of Ricky Ray Rector took place.

Many in Arkansas opposed the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, not because of what he did, but because of who he had become. Ricky Ray Rector was convicted of killing two men, one of whom was a police officer. Before being apprehended, Rector shot himself in the temple. He survived his self-inflicted gunshot wound, which in effect destroyed his frontal lobe and severely impaired his mental capacity.

For his last meal, Rector put his dessert, pecan pie, aside, telling guards he was saving it for later. Despite Rector’s clear impaired intellectual mental capacity, he was executed on January 4, 1992. Then Governor Clinton used the publicity of the execution to show he was not “soft on crime.” Many believe that this may have been a turning point in the presidential election.

The debate and discussion of the death penalty must continue as long as the United States continues to execute its citizens. But the debate and discussion must be an informed one. The debate must include the practical effects that politics and religion play in the imposition of the death penalty — and the inherent danger of both.

As we approach Lent, Americans who claim the Name of Jesus must ask ourselves how the crucified Lord views capital punishment. When considering the use of the death penalty, perhaps the question is not, “Does the convicted deserve to die?” Perhaps the question is, “Are followers of Jesus the kind of people who will put someone to death?”

Gregory T. Parzych, Esq. is a graduate of Marquette Law School and has practiced criminal defense in Arizona since 1992, representing capital defendants for two decades.

United Church…of Christ

by Tyler Connoley

I’m sure you’ve had this happen. Someone asks what church you belong to, and you tell them you go to Such-and-So United Church of Christ. They respond, “Church of Christ. Is that the one that doesn’t have instruments?” Then you try to explain that the United Church of Christ is different. We’re progressive and inclusive. You begin telling them about the history of the UCC, how we we trace ourselves to the Congregationalists, and the Evangelical and Reform, etc. Their eyes glaze over, and they say, “Oh look, there’s Mary, I’ve been meaning to talk to her.”

Ron Buford taught me a trick that made it so this never happens to me anymore. He said to say, “United Church” then pause and say, “of Christ.” Ron has a passion for the UCC and our uniqueness, and he said this way of saying our name emphasizes that uniqueness. (It’s also because of Ron’s influence that our current UCC logo has those two phrases stacked in different fonts.)

As I’ve learned to say United Church . . . of Christ, it’s helped me to think more deeply about our identity in the UCC. We are a united church, and we are of Christ. Both of those things are important to our identity.

As a non-credal church, we value our theological diversity. We embrace gay Christians and Christians who think gay relationships are a sin. We allow for many different ideas about the divinity of Jesus. Even our identity as a Just Peace Church is rooted in our commitment to be a United Church. When General Synod was asked to declare the UCC a pacifist denomination in the 1970s, they commissioned a study. At the end of that study, the General Synod decided that our diversity required us to acknowledge multiple theologies around responses to war. We committed ourselves to working for Peace with Justice, and allowed individual members to decide what was right and wrong for them.

Some people have difficulty with our identity as a United Church. I had a seminary colleague who was troubled by being part of a denomination that ordained clergy to serve as military chaplains. This person ended up becoming Quaker, valuing theological purity on issues of war over the UCC’s diversity.

On the other end of the spectrum, we are also “of Christ.” We celebrate lots of different ways of being Christian, but we still unite in a desire to follow Jesus. Rather than emphasize a diversity of religions, as the Unitarian Universalists do, we have chosen to stand within one particular tradition.

One of my heroes, Huston Smith, is an expert in world religions, but continues to identify as a Christian. To those who like to dabble in lots of different faith traditions, he says, “If you want to find water, stand in one place and dig as deep as you can.” That’s what being UCC is for me. I certainly find wisdom in other religions, and value my interfaith partners. However, I’ve chosen to stand in one place and dig as deep as I can, rather than dig shallow holes in several different religions.

When people ask me what the United Church of Christ is, I don’t say we’re the most-progressive Christian denomination — even though we’ve certainly led the way, on issues from ordaining women to civil rights. Instead, I tell people we’re the most-inclusive Christian denomination. We are as inclusive as one can possibly be, while still holding onto the Christian tradition. We are the United Church . . . of Christ.

Ancient Bible Reading and Today

by Kenneth McIntosh

Faithful to our ‘God is still speaking’ faith, we read with the Bible in one hand and our smartphone in the other. This week, news on the phone practically screams with agony; multiple shootings, a presidential candidate blaming an entire religion, and—a poignant twist—a Dutch video in which people read from the Bible, claiming it’s the Quran, and listeners hearing the violent verses are fooled. In the midst of such troubling times, I’ve been working hard to complete The Celtic Study Bible: Gospels. Curiously, that work does intersect with the headlines.  If believers in the modern and postmodern eras had followed ancient principles of Bible reading, we might be better off in 2015. The following is excerpt from the (unpublished) Celtic Study Bible.

Eucherius (380-449) of Gaul wrote a book titled Formula for a Spiritual Understanding which influenced Celtic Christianity. Eucherius invites readers “to see through the surface (historical) level of Scripture to its ‘higher’ spiritual meaning.” The Apostle Paul can be cited to support this view “for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor.3:6). Such a metaphorical reading of Scripture is indeed pervasive in the Bible.

For some Early Christians there was a pressing reason to adopt this method of interpretation—they were trying to save the Old Testament. Marcion (85-160) a Christian living in what is today Turkey, noted that the Old Testament God did things which seem unworthy of the God revealed in Christ. Could God who demanded genocide of unbelievers (1 Samuel 15) be the same as God who loves the world (John 3:16) and is love (John 4:8)? Could the same Divine Spirit command “Do not leave alive anything that breathes” (Deuteronomy 20:16) and then speak through Jesus’ lips saying “Love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44)? Marcion had a simple answer—do away with the Old Testament.

Origen (184-254) a Christian scholar living in Alexandria Egypt agreed with Marcion that some Old Testament portrayals of God are unworthy of God. But Origen defended the Old Testament by interpreting the genocide passages symbolically. Origen wrote: “If the horrible wars related in the Old Testament were not to be interpreted in a spiritual sense, the apostles would never have transmitted the Jewish books for reading in the church to followers of Christ.”  A century later, Augustine likewise used symbolic interpretation to deal with troubling Old Testament passages. How could God say to smash the heads of Babylonian infants (Psalm 137:9)? Augustine explains “the ‘infants’ of Babylon were not literal children but rather the vices of the Babylonians.”

In our time, Marcus Borg was an important recent scholar in the field of Jesus and the New Testament, and a defender of symbolic Bible interpretation. Borg called metaphor the more-than-literal meaning of language. John Dominic Crossan, another major figure in contemporary Jesus scholarship, likewise says, “My point, once again, is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.”1

The Bible is critiqued today for the same reason that it was questioned in the second century—the malingering shadow of its violent passages. At a time when the world is reeling from religious terrorism, it is tempting to dismiss all religious Scriptures that portray God as demanding the slaughter of innocents.

Philip Jenkins, Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University, questions whether the Quran endorses violence more than the Bible? He answers in the negative: “If the founding text shapes the whole religion, then Judaism and Christianity deserve the utmost condemnation as religions of savagery.” He goes on, however, to note, “Of course, they are no such thing; nor is Islam.”2 As Jenkins points out, Abrahamic religions each have Scriptures that can be used to promote violence or peace, and if they are to result in peace then the teachers of religion must learn to talk about violent passages constructively.

Jenkins reminds us that in the accounts of Old Testament Genocide “we have a constructed narrative in which particular authors and editors have taken a story and framed it in ways that made sense to them. It is a story with a point or theme, and one that is aimed at a particular audience.”3

Investigating the conquest of Canaan, archaeologists find evidence that differs from the Bible tales. “Archaeologist William Dever concludes that … evidence ‘supports almost nothing of the biblical account of a large scale concerted Israelite military invasion of Canaan.’”4 So why would the Bible writers exaggerate tales of how they exterminated their enemies, down to the noncombatants? The Bible was mostly written after the Babylonian exile and Jews were wondering: how can we make sure history does not repeat for us? To ensure Israel’s future purity, the Bible writers portrayed a golden age of Israel, before they fell into God’s disfavor. This golden age was marked by absolute loyalty to God’s commandments. The wars in Canaan were portrayed as the utter extermination of everything that did not faithfully worship God, as an illustration of the way that faithful Israel should expunge everything ungodly from their midst.

The Bible stories of genocide were composed to point to a larger truth—the need to utterly eradicate idolatry—rather than a straightforward recounting of history. Thus, the best current scholarship supports the instincts of the ancient interpreters; the Bible stories of genocide were intended to be understood for their spiritual meaning rather than taken as literal history.

So there are compelling reasons—both the symbolic nature of many Bible passages, and the continuing need to properly interpret violent passages—that commend the ‘more-than-literal’ reading of Scripture. An ancient form of Bible reading could help us create a less-violent future.

 

1 James F. McGrath, John Dominic Crossan on Literalism, Patheos, June 14, 2014,
http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/2014/06/john-dominic-crossan-on-literalism.html

2 Philip Jenkins, Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses (New York, Harper Collins, 2011), 13.

3 Jenkins.,210.

4 Jenkins.,57.

image credit: Ken McIntosh

 

Brian Swimme and the Celebration of the Sanctity of Earth

by Amos Smith

Brian Swimme teaches cosmology to graduate students at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. Swimme often reiterates that the underlying reason that people abuse the earth is that they don’t think that it’s sacred. Swimme’s emphasis is the marriage of Religion and Science.

Swimme says when we look deeply into our 13.7 billion year “cosmogenesis” that we cannot help but be filled with awe. The fact that the Big Bang happened is in itself a profound improbability. No known laws of probability can account for it. It is both a sacred and a scientific miracle.

Swimme has produced a twelve part DVD series called “Canticle of the Cosmos,” which has been distributed worldwide. His work is most influenced by the French Jesuit, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who believed that everything in existence has a physical as well as a spiritual dimension… The Universe is in a deep process of transfiguration. Love, truth, compassion and zest—all of these divine qualities are embodied in the universe.

Swimme seeks to place scientific technology in its context of the infancy of the earth community as it struggles for reconnection to its sacred source. For Chardin and Swimme the human being is the current culmination of a still-evolving universe.

For Swimme the ecological disasters that happen on our planet take place because the cosmos is not understood as sacred. A way out of this difficulty is a journey into the universe as sacred. Swimme is a mathematician by training, who seeks a larger, warmer, nobler science story. The story of the Universe should not just be a collection of facts. It should sweep us into a grand world view, including meaning, purpose, and value addressed by world religions.

Swimme thinks that the popular view is that the earth is like a gravel pit or a hardware store, that the earth is just stuff to be used—that consumerism has become the dominant faith, which exploits the riches of the earth. His fundamental aim is to present a new cosmology that is grounded in contemporary scientific understanding of the universe but nourished by ancient spiritual convictions that the earth is sacred. “Indeed God saw everything that God had made and it was very good. (Genesis 1:31)”

I like Swimme because he offers a sacred understanding of the Universal Big Bang, which is the larger context of the Christian Big Bang. The Universal Big Bang is a miracle of science. The incarnation, which is the Big Bang of Christian tradition for me, is the miracle of faith. That through Christ, God is with us!

Your Hyphens

by Karen Richter

I am a woman-wife-mother-introvert.

multiple religious belonging - intersectionality
Whooo are you?

I am a democrat-progressive-child advocate.

I am a Christian-universalist-meditator-educator.

We all have many layers of our identity, different roles emphasized at different times or in different settings.

Later today at Shadow Rock UCC, people interested in the idea of people identifying with more than one religious tradition will be gathering.  Some will be folks who themselves identify as Christian-Buddhist or church-attending Jew or Muslim-Christian or Sikh-Wiccan.  Other participants will be religious leaders who want to prepare their faith communities to better meet people of faith who claim a variety of backgrounds.  Some – like me – will be curious and eager, coming with questions and assumptions about what this might mean to the future of faith.

Yesterday, I saw a video online about a Palestinian woman who is striving to be an active participant in the struggle for Palestinian identity and liberation as a woman.  Activists often call this ‘intersectionality.’ I found this definition (thanks Google!) of intersectionality quickly, but I didn’t really need it.  It’s one of those things that you know when you see it.

Intersectionality (or intersectionalism) is the study of intersections between forms or systems of oppression, domination or discrimination by examining the complex multiple facets of identity of an individual such as race, gender, class, sex and age.

My best understanding of intersectionality is that society often appears to ask people to choose and prioritize from among their identities.  Are you advocating for families or union workers?  Are you representing African-Americans or women?  Intersectionality pushes back against this phenomenon, instead recognizing that people crave space to be their whole selves… bringing every bit of their identities and experiences to bear on issues and decisions.

So, why are we even a little bit surprised when this idea of wholeness and recognition and valuing unique experiences breaks into religious communities?  Maybe a Christian-Hindu should surprise and challenge us no more than a Native American feminist.  Don’t we want churches to be places where people can be their whole selves and be welcomed?  Don’t we want more genuine people in the world?

These kinds of developments remind me that as a species we are still growing, maturing, evolving.  It’s exasperating!  And it makes me hopeful for the future.

The gathering begins at lunch today.  Join the conversation.

Why I’m Absolutely a non- Absolutist

by Kenneth McIntosh

I just returned from the Parliament of World Religions in Salt Lake City. My wife and I agree it was the greatest show on earth. From Friday through Monday 10,000 people gathered from 70 nations to share lives and faith. There were plenary sessions packed with great speakers like Marianne Williamson, Karen Armstrong, Jane Goodall, Alan Boesak, Brian McLaren, Katherine Hayhoe, Jim Wallis and speakers that readers of this blog might not know by name, but who are leading figures overseas and in their respective faith communities. There were hundreds of workshops, of every imaginable sort. I got to experience Matthew Fox’s Earth Spirituality rave service, a Jain discussion of countering violence, a talk on how to convince religious skeptics on climate change, and an improvisational and interactive theater piece on how ISIS twists the Quran. I also saw our own Southwest Conference pastor Teresa Cowan Jones share how Sacred Space works to fulfill the goals of the Compassion Charter, and my friend Professor Elizabeth Ursic led a very moving service of worship to God in her feminine nature. Every day, Sikhs from around the world worked hard to feed 5,000 people –for free—in a very dignifying way, with delicious Indian vegetarian food. The grand finale’ service was in the Mormon Tabernacle, filled with saffron-robed monks and turbaned Sikhs mingling with LDS members in their ties and suits. The presentation was a 3 hour extravaganza with everything from a bagpipe band to Chan Buddhist drumming to Indian Sitar and Thai dancing and the Bahai and Mormon choirs. I posted on Facebook, “This is what Heaven is going to be like.”

So what was the takeaway from all this (besides being totally overwhelmed)? This extended weekend renewed my sense of hope, truly. For some time previous, the violence, prejudice and arrogant tone of our country’s troubles had been chafing at me. In truth, I was becoming desperate—and therefore rather shrill about things myself. What I saw was community —formed of the unlikeliest allies. I realized there are enormous numbers of good-willed people from all the world’s religions, all working for similar positive goals—to end discrimination against women, to reduce violence, to save the earth. I know we’ve been doing our part in the UCC, but we’re really rather small at under a million members. It’s wonderful to see that we’re just part of an amazing puzzle, that can interconnect and work shoulder-to-shoulder with a huge variety of sects around the planet (I’m all for good sects).

I also picked up a new word that’s going to stick in my vocabulary (and hopefully my heart). That is Anekantavad. It’s one of the three major tenents of the Jain religion. The Jains, founded by Mahavira at approximately the same time as his near neighbor Guatama Buddha became enlightended, have not killed animal or human for 2,500 years. This is possible because of adherence to the “three A’s:”

Ahimsa = Non-violence

Aparigraha = Non-attachment

And…

Anekantavad = Non-Absolutism.

I noticed in their workshop that the Jains shorten their non-absolutism to Anekan. I’m a bit relieved, because there is something in the tongue that dislikes spewing out five-syllable words. Three I can handle, and I can remember the shortened version by thinking of Anikan Skywalker (perhaps a name chose by George Lucas because Anikan starts out understanding the Jedi way of Anekan, then abandons it for the absolutism of the Dark Side?

At the workshop Anekan was defined as “Realizing that you are never 100% totally right in anything that you believe, and those who oppose you are never 100% totally wrong.” Now believe me, this is not how I was disciple into my faith. Coming from a Calvinist Evangelical background I heard over and over that non-absolutism was the worst possible thing that anyone could embrace. “God said it and that settles it.” “Open your mind too far and your brains will fall out.” “If you don’t believe it all you’ll end up with nothing.” “Doubt one word in the Bible and you’ll slide all the way down the slippery slope until you reach hell at the bottom.” But now…it’s happened. I realized this past week how vital Anekan/ non-absolutism is, if we’re to make any progress in the world.

As long as two people are absolutely convinced they are entirely right on a topic, there is no room for peace between our positions. Embracing Anekan gives me a tool to flex and move toward the other, and might enable an opening for them to walk through and meet me. The first step is to critique my belief: does my position have to be utterly rigid? Then I can mirror the other’s thoughts—even if they present themselves as enemy. I can begin to see how I might look unreasonable, dangerous even, to them. And I can see why they hold to the things they adhere to so strongly. Yes, perhaps they are bound by greed, fear, lust, the need to control….but all these are simply mal-adaptations (or over- compensations) of basic human needs for safety and agency.

So I see a person wearing a confederate flag on their t-shirt. My normal reaction is to immediately think judgmental thoughts. “They’re a racist” and they’re probably also (fill in a series of negative and judgmental blanks at this point).  But by Applying Anekan, I can try to perceive where there may be elements of good in that person’s choice of apparel. They might not associate that symbol with slavery (though I know historically that was its genesis). They may take pride in their southern state community, may have seen their neighbors pull together against odds. That flag has always been associated with their civic life, and they feel comfort and attachment with that association. For that matter, maybe they’re just straight males of a certain age with pleasant memories of watching Daisy Duke ride along in the General Lee—with that flag on top. Who knows?

If I label that person “racist” out the gate, then I am unlikely to have any good effect conversing with them—if I come in knowing “they’re just bad, or crazy” I’m not likely to win them over on any point, and why should they respond well to me? But what if I try to seek a common humanity between us? I might say, “You look like a person with some strong connection to your community —where do you hail from?” I might just say “It’s a nice day, isn’t it?” This would not be in any way an endorsement of the awful dark history connected to that symbol, nor would it overlook the fact that he may indeed be wearing that symbol to denote hatred. But even with the worst sorts, Anekan opens up the possibility (even if it is slim) of a transforming relationship. What if more people had chatted with Hitler and encouraged his pursuit of art when he sat on the streets of Berlin with paintings that no one would buy and slid over the fulcrum point into hatred and fanaticism? What if someone looked past the brown shirt and saw the eyes of an artistic soul that was turning to stone inside?

And here’s the funny part. My Jain brothers and sisters have given me something that—rather than destroying my faith as a Christian—enables me to live out my faith in a much better way. When asked the greatest commandment in the Torah Jesus didn’t go off talking about the slippery slope or the inerrancy of Moses or the danger of brains falling out of heads. He simply pointed to love—of God and of others. And the fact is, if I assume I’m totally correct and unmovable in all my beliefs, then I’ll never be able to move onto the ground where I can see my enemies as people of value. I cannot love them. Despite everything I’ve been told, non-absolutism is the way to love like Jesus.

I absolutely believe in non-absolutism.

Oh, wait. That’s a contradiction. “You can’t absolutely believe in non-absolutism” I got them from an apologist years ago. Well, I’m learning that “both-and” thinking is on a higher plane than “either-or.” Both-and allows things in the universe to move more freely. And many Christians believe a number of things that non-Christians find contradictory: like the Trinity, or death-that-leads-to-resurrection.

In the Star Wars Cycle, Anakin loses his faith in Anekan and goes over to the absolutism of the Dark Side—the Sith pursuit of ruthless greed and power. He loses his ability to see through his natural eyes, seeing the world only through a life-sustaining helmet. But at the very end of life, he chooses to remove that mask, deciding instead to embrace commonality with his estranged son. He ends his life redeemed. I hope I can remember to keep taking off the mask and seek the common humanity of everyone I face. Anekan / non-absolutism rocks.