Saturday, June 5, 2021

Rethinking Gun Control

I became a pacifist in 1968 as a result of reading the Sermon on the Mount. Naively I thought Jesus meant what he said. I took Jesus at his word and did not understand why all Christians were not pacifists. My ethical stance was sincere enough to convince a draft board to issue me Conscientious Objector status in 1971. 

My youthful idealism moderated over the years as I came face to face with the horror of gun violence, especially the mass murder of three children in our church in Massachusetts. I knew immediately that if I had been present at the crime I would have done anything to stop the murder, including killing the shooter or die trying. While preparing the funeral for those children, I realized I was not the pacifist I thought I was.

Consequently I reread 20th century Christian theologians’ response to Fascism. I pondered anew Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian Realism. I came to understood why Dietrich Bonhoeffer decided to become part of a plot to assassinate Hitler. I embraced Just War theory. Yet I have always refused to explain away Jesus’ nonviolent ethic of the Sermon on the Mount with clever hermeneutics. I live in the tension between the words of Jesus and trying to stop evil.

In a similar fashion I have long advocated gun control. Not the banishment of all firearms but careful regulation of them. I learned to handle a firearm when I was ten years old, and I was a riflery instructor during my teen years at a summer camp in New Hampshire.  I know how to use a gun. It was only a few years ago that I was deer-hunting in Pennsylvania.

I am a supporter of the second amendment. But I do not think that the second amendment was intended to allow mass murderers access to semi-automatic weapons so they could kill children more efficiently. I also believe that followers of Christ are called to a higher standard than the US Constitution – namely the New Testament teachings of Jesus.

I relate this personal history to explain why after more than fifty years I am reconsidering my position on gun control. The reason is the dramatic rise of anti-democracy forces that are gaining power in our country. They are threatening these United States of America and our freedoms.

The January 6 attack on Congress was a tipping point for me. I suddenly realized that the forces of tyranny could overthrow our democracy. We had a president who tried to overturn a legal election. He continues to speak against the legitimacy of our elections and courts. His followers are undermining voting rights in several states. At a QAnon convention over Memorial Day weekend they talked about a military coup to reinstate the former president.

It doesn’t help that I am presently watching the Hulu television series based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, which takes place in New England. It feels eerily prophetic. The fictional conservative Christian nation of Gilead was formed through orchestrated attacks on Congress, the White House and the Courts. In the light of the recent attack on the capitol, with participants calling for the execution of the Vice President and Speaker of the House, the Republic of Gilead does not seem so fictional.  

For that reason I am reconsidering my stance on gun control. The Religious Right is well armed. They are strong advocates for the second amendment, interpreted to mean unfettered access to firearms. As much as I disagree with their politics, I am starting to agree that the rest of us need access to all types of firearms to protect ourselves from them!

If Christian Nationalism gains power, it is only a matter of time until they deny their enemies access to firearms in the name of “law and order” and national security. Those who seek to preserve freedom will need to be just as well armed. That does not mean I am buying an assault weapon anytime soon. I would not know how to use one anyway. But I am sure there are a lot of people who believe in our democratic form of government who do know how to use them.

Our nation is at a crossroads. Anti-democratic authoritarians could take over my country, just like they are taking over my party. If that happens, ordinary Americans will need to defend themselves against them. More importantly we will need to defend those who cannot defend themselves. True Christianity is more about defending others than self-defense. It is loving one’s neighbor as oneself, including neighbors who have been declared “sinners” by the culture warriors. Jesus, after all, embraced sinners.

I pray that the current situation does not degenerate into armed conflict. We need to do everything we can do to prevent that from happening. But it is certainly possible. It was not that long ago that regional differences in our country erupted into Civil War. It could happen again, especially if voting rights are denied and elections are overturned or rigged. That seems to be the present political strategy of the anti-democracy movement.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Advocates for freedom and human rights for all people need to be prepared. If history has taught us anything, it is that we cannot be na├»ve about people’s willingness to lie and cheat and commit atrocities in the name of God and country. The debate about gun legislation is no longer just about stopping crime or mass shootings. It is about preventing our country from falling into the hands of domestic terrorists. May God help us.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Memorial Day 2021

Memorial Day is a day aside to remember the sacrifice of men and women who have laid down their lives in battle protecting our country. We celebrate Memorial Day this year at the end of a deadly pandemic. This year I remember not only soldiers who died in war, but those who died on the frontline fighting what our former president called the “invisible enemy” of COVID 19.

At least six hundred thousand Americans have died in this war in the last year and a half. That is nearly as many as died in combat in all American wars combined (666k). More than 3,600 U.S. health care workers have perished on the frontlines in the war against COVID. That is more than died at Pearl Harbor or September 11. Let us remember them.

There are those who downplay their sacrifice, who undermine and thwart the efforts of healthcare providers. Some people ridicule the advice of the CDC and NIAID, calling the coronavirus epidemic a hoax, refusing to wear a mask or receive a vaccination for political reasons – not medical ones. Our country asked us to sacrifice a little comfort and convenience in this war, but many refused. They chose ideology above protecting Americans.

America is still at war. Like WWII after D-Day but before VE Day and VJ Day, the tide of the war has turned, but the war on COVID is not over. People are still dying. People are still fighting on the frontlines, while others party like it’s 2019. The war is not over till it’s over. Eight thousand people still die of COVID in the world every day. Healthcare workers are still risking their lives to care for these people.

Let is remember our fallen soldiers who died on the battlefield fighting a military enemy. Let us remember those who have died in hospitals fighting a viral enemy. Let us remember our healthcare warriors this Memorial Day. Let us honor their sacrifice. Let us remember that this war is still being waged in hospitals around the world. They are also heroes this Memorial Day. Let us honor and remember them.

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Please Resuscitate

Recently I spent the night in the hospital for observation. While preaching a sermon last Sunday I had the classic symptoms of a heart attack. I got through the worship service but immediately drove to the emergency room. I jokingly explained that I had an allergic reaction to church! Two of my kids later suggested the Almighty was giving me a nudge to stop preaching! The hospital checked me out, including a COVID test, EKG, blood work, and a stress test.

My heart is confirmed to be fine. The episode appears to be a recurrence of labyrinthitis (inflammation of the inner ear), complete with cold sweats and vertigo. When this happened several years ago it permanently damaged the vestibular nerve in one of my ears. I was unable to walk unassisted for weeks. It gave me sympathy for people using walkers and canes. Because some symptoms persist I have an appointment with my primary care physician next week to assess the situation.

This blog post is not meant as a plea for sympathy. It is about something the hospitalist asked me in the ER. He asked if I wanted to be resuscitated. I quickly replied, “Yes, please!” The question was disturbing. Was he really considering letting me die? Would he ask that question of a 40 year-old man? Is this what ageism looks like? I have no other life-threatening disease. In his eyes am I an expendable old codger not worth reviving?

When I was being discharged the next morning, someone from the hospital came to my room and asked me all sorts of questions, obviously meant for the elderly. Do I live alone? Can I take care of myself? Are there stairs in my home? Can I navigate them? Do I get enough to eat? (Too much!) Do I feel like anyone is trying to take advantage of me? Do I feel safe? I can’t remember all the questions (Oh, oh!) but I know some had to do with elder abuse.

I am glad the questions are asked. They are necessary. But it made me feel old. It was then that I realized that I was being perceived as an elderly person. As somebody’s parent or grandparent. In retrospect most of the people who cared for me in the hospital were younger than my children, including my doctors. A youngster came into my room, and I thought he had wandered away from his mom. It turns out he is a medical student.

So, do I want to be resuscitated? Yes, please. I am only 70 years old, and I plan to be around for a while longer. I am quite healthy for my age. There may come a time when I will say “No” to that question. If I have a painful fatal disease, for example. I am an advocate for death with dignity, the right of people with a terminal illness to die on their own terms.  When the time comes, I have no desire to linger. Pull the plug. It is all spelled out in my advance directive.

Until then, please see me the same as you. Not old or young or middle-aged. Just a person … and more than a person. The Self within does not age. The brain and body may grow old but the Spirit is ageless. These bodies and brains are not who we are. They are just the momentary expressions of the Eternal that inhabits all of us.

Look into my eyes and you will see yourself. Look into your soul and you will see God. We are Spirit enfleshed in aging bodies. When the body returns to dust, then the Spirit returns to God. That is what the aged author of Ecclesiastes wrote. 

When you see yourself in me, then you can see God in all people – old or young, male or female, gay or straight, conservative or liberal, black or white. Then you can love your neighbor as yourself. We are one. We are ageless. 

So unless my physician advises otherwise or something happens between now and the end of the month, I plan to preach the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend. We will see if God gives me another nudge. If you happen to be present and see this body sprawled at the base of the pulpit, consider this an invitation to use that CPR training you received. Please resuscitate.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Quitting Politics

I am finished with politics. I’ve had enough. I hung on through 2020 election, but the anger, intolerance and partisanship did not end with the inauguration of a new president. In fact it has gotten crazier than ever. Many Americans have become detached from reality as they embrace conspiracy theories and find any excuse to attack political opponents and mindlessly submit to confirmation bias. Fake news has evolved into alternative reality. It seems impossible to discuss topics rationally with anyone that does not already agree with you.

Americans have been led to believe that when it comes to governing our country we must choose between competing ideologies: liberal or conservative, blue or red, Democrat or Republican.  Even when we declare ourselves to be “independent” or “undeclared,” people assume we harbor unconfessed political bias that must be ferreted out. It is assumed that everyone and everything is political. Politics rule America.

I am opting out this binary mindset. I quit. I officially declare myself to be apolitical. That does not mean that I will not vote. I will vote my conscience. As always I will vote the person and not the party. I will continue to voice my convictions about ethical and social issues facing American society. I will take a stand on national policies. But from now on I will have nothing to do with political ideology. I will make decisions and cast my votes based on spiritual principles.

I will use two criteria. One is the adage that was popular in Christian circles in the last century: “What would Jesus do?” I will answer that question by examining his words and actions in the gospels. When discussing the sale and use of handguns and assault weapons, I would ask, “What would Jesus carry? What would Jesus sell?” When it comes to treatment of persons whom establishment religion considers “sinners” I would ask, “How did Jesus treat them?”

The second criterion is that I will treat others as if they were Jesus. Jesus taught, “As you have done to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you have done it to me.” If it were the Holy Family fleeing a murderous dictator at the US southern border, would I turn them away? If it were Jesus on death row, would I execute him? If it were Jesus needing healthcare, would I be the Good Samaritan and foot the bill, or would I turn aside? If I were a baker would I refuse to bake Jesus a cake?

People will surely insist that this is too simplistic. It is not practical. People will argue that Jesus’ teachings cannot not be used as a blueprint for social or national policy. I reply, “Why not? Because the politicians say so? Whom should we listen to? Jesus or politicians? Should not Christians act like Christians? Why should political party affiliation be allowed to trump our spiritual identity?

I reject the idea that obeying Jesus is impractical or idealistic. I will no longer be defined by the opinions of political pundits, liberal or conservative. I will be defined by my commitment to Jesus Christ.  People would ask, “What if everyone did what you are suggesting? What would become of our country?” I respond: How wonderful it would be! The whole nation living in unconditional love! What an impact that would have on our country and the world?

Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to one, and despise the other.”  I cannot serve both Christ and Caesar. Those who executed Jesus declared, “We have no king but Caesar!” I declare that I have no King but Jesus. 

Jesus said, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's.” I am Christ’s – body, soul, and spirit. No part of me belongs to Caesar. I am not beholden to any political party or ideology. For that reason I will make every decision based solely on the guidance of the Living Lord Jesus Christ. Goodbye, politics!

Friday, April 2, 2021

The Meaning of Easter

This weekend Christians will gather in person or virtually to celebrate Easter. I will be worshipping at an outdoor sunrise service on a Florida beach, singing “Alleluia” as the sun rises above the eastern horizon. Easter will be interpreted differently depending on the pulpit, the preacher, and the congregation. Many will address the nature of Jesus’ resurrection.

Some Christians take the Easter story literally, and others interpret it spiritually. Conservative churches insist on a physical resurrection of Jesus from the grave, quoting the risen Christ of the Gospel of Luke. "See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself; touch me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have."

Progressive Christians may present a more spiritual interpretation of the event, quoting the description of the resurrection given by the apostle Paul. “It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. So it is written: The first man Adam became a living being; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit…. Now I declare to you, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.”

Christians argue over which interpretation of the resurrection is the earliest and most authentic. There was room for both interpretations in first century Christianity, and that remains true today. What is important is what Easter means. For me it means two things.

First, it means that death is not the end. What we really are does not die. Christian philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote: “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” I would go further. We are not human beings; we are Being expressed as humans.  

Second, awareness of our true nature can be known in this physical lifetime. That is the reason that the resurrection stories include the physical element. Eternal life is not an afterlife experience; it is a present life experience. We do not have to physically die to know eternal life; we know it now. Jesus taught, “The kingdom of God is within you.” Paul wrote; “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.”

Easter is the most important holiday on the Christian calendar. It is certainly important to me. Even more important is knowing the reality of Living Christ every day. As the hymn says, “You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart!”

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Recognizing Religionism

There is an ongoing conversation about racism in our country, and rightly so. Our country has a long history of racial prejudice … and white denial of it. Racism is a serious problem in our American culture, including church culture. The church has historically been part of the problem, and it has an historic opportunity to be part of the solution. Yet if recent statements and decisions by the Southern Baptist Convention are any indication, many Christians are not making use of this opportunity.

There is another conversation that is not being held at all. It is about religious prejudice. It is religionism. Unlike racism, you may have never heard the term. What is religionism? Religionism is prejudice based on religion. It is often accompanied by racism because religious groups tend to divide along ethnic and racial lines.

Racism believes that one race is superior to others. Religionism believes that one religion is superior to others. Racism and religionism often go hand in hand. White racists believe that whites are superior to nonwhites. Christian religionists believe that Christianity is superior to non-Christian religions.  When these two join together you get the KKK burning crosses and white Evangelicals waving Confederate flags.

There is prejudice in many – although not all - religions. There is the widespread belief that one’s own religion is superior to others. Religions tend to see their teachings as true and others as false. Sometimes adherents of a particular faith claim to be a chosen people, divinely selected for special privileges in this life and the afterlife. Adherents of other religions are labeled false teachers, heretics or evil. Religionists believe that God will punish them in this world or the next.

I am most familiar with Christian religionism, but it is not unique to my faith. In Arab countries it is Islamic religionism. In Israel it is Jewish religionism. In India it is Hindu religionism. In Myanmar it is Buddhist religionism. It has been the cause of countless holy wars and acts of religious violence, from the Crusades to the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center to the 1/6 attack on the US Capitol. It is the reason the founders of these United States fought to keep religion separate from government.

The problem facing religion in the 21st century is not just the resurgence of extremism, fundamentalism and fanaticism. The problem is more foundational than fringe elements. Religious prejudice is at the heart of many religions and taught in many scriptures. The biggest problem concerning religionism is that we do not recognize it as a problem. In this way religionism is similar to racism. 

As a Christian I can see it most clearly in my religion. Christians today prefer Jews over Muslims, since our scriptures assert that the Jews are God’s chosen people. There was a time when Christianity was rife with anti-Semitism, but now Christians seem to be overcompensating for past sins. Christians favor Israelis over Palestinians, even Palestinian Christians, which is ironic. They try to outdo each other in their support for the nation of Israel. Christians say that the Old Testament gives the modern state of Israel the divine right to the land of Palestine, while we ignore the rights of people who have lived on that land for millennia.

In a similar fashion Christians consider ourselves “the people of God” in accordance with the New Testament. The inference is that adherents of other religions are not God’s people. Some American Christians expand this preferential identity to include the United States as a “Christian nation.”  That is the heart of the resurgent Christian Nationalism in our country. 

Many Christians are adamant about their unique place in American society, complete with special status and privileges. Any infringement of Christian privilege in order to make room for the freedom of others is viewed as persecution of the church. We want prayer back in public schools, but we would not tolerate Islamic prayers offered in our schools. We do not see that as hypocrisy.

American Christians feel it is their right to legislate Christian morality – outlawing abortion, the teaching of evolution, and same-sex marriage. The decline of Christian influence in our culture is perceived as a moral and spiritual crisis for America. It is remedied by praying for religious revival and “taking America back for Christ.” It is no accident that Billy Graham called his evangelistic meetings “crusades.”

When are we going to recognize the problem of religionism in our churches, our country and the world?  When are we going to talk about the need for a new reformation that eliminates religious prejudice from Christianity?  When will we admit that the problem of religionism is as serious as racism … and that they are inextricably related? There is only one race, and it is the human race. All peoples are one Humanity. There is only one religion, and it is Truth. All religions partake of one Truth.

I am a Christian. I have been a professional church leader all my adult life. I am deeply devoted to my faith and to Jesus Christ. I also admit that I am blind to the full extent of racism and religionism in my own heart and my church culture. Yet I dream of a Christianity free of religionism and racism. I dream of a gospel of unconditional love being preached from Christian pulpits in our land. I know I will not live to see that become a reality, but I pray that one day my grandchildren will see it come to pass. 

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Cycling through Lent

The Christian year revolves around two cycles: the Advent-Christmas cycle and the Lent-Easter cycle. Being a Christian is like riding a bicycle (bi-cycle) which carries us through the year.  One of these cycles has to do with light and the other darkness.

Advent-Christmas is about birth and light. Light comes into the darkness in the birth of Christ. Lent-Easter is about the darkness of the death of Christ, which culminates in the light of Easter dawn and resurrection.

Christmas originally fell on the Winter Solstice, the moment when days began to get longer, when light begins to triumph over darkness. Easter falls at the time of the Spring Equinox, the beginning of spring in the Northern Hemisphere, when day and night are equal.

Both religious cycles are related to the interplay of day and night, light and darkness in nature. These liturgical cycles are the equivalent to the Yin Yang symbol of ancient China. The yin yang is a visual expression of duality within a wider all-encompassing unity. The cycles of the Christian year communicate the same thing.

Lent is a meditation on duality and nonduality. One interesting aspect of the season is that the forty days of Lent do not include Sundays. Sundays are feast days in the midst of a season of the fast days. They are oases of light in the darkness, like the circles of light and darkness in the Yin Yang symbol.

Like the Yin Yang symbol, the cross is a symbol of light and darkness, good and evil. The Cross is an instrument of death. Yet the empty cross is a symbol of resurrection – because Jesus is not on it. The crucifix, the cross with Jesus still on it, did not become a symbol of Christianity until the Middle Ages and never became the symbol of Protestant Christianity.

Both the Cross and the Yin Yang express duality encompassed by a greater unity. The Cross is more ancient than Christianity or the Yin Yang, and is found across cultures. A cross unites the four cardinal directions. It unites up and down, left and right. It unites heaven and earth, humans to humans, and humans to all things. It represents both divine and human love.

I find the Yin Yang symbol as powerful as the Cross. The movement of Yin-Yang communicates the ever-changing association of good with evil. This is on my mind a lot this Lent. The ongoing political and social strife in our American society disturbs my peace of mind. Sometimes I find myself thinking about it at night as I lay down to sleep.

At such times I have taken to picturing the Yin Yang in my mind’s eye. I picture the light and dark as the interaction between conservative and liberal, Republican and Democrat, justice and injustice, right and wrong. Of course both sides of the political spectrum see themselves as good and their enemies as evil. That is why this symbol is so useful. It helps me see the two as relative. There is not one without the other.

In my mind’s eye the two sides of the Yin-Yang are like the storms on a weather map. From a higher perspective, good and evil are storms in the human psyche and human society. There is no such thing as good and evil outside of the human mind. Humans create these categories, and they become very real to us. So when my mind is disturbed by what is happening in American society and in the world, I let the Yin Yang bring my mind into a state of equilibrium, and I fall asleep.

In a similar way Lent helps me see the forces of good and evil as part of a greater whole. When Christians observe Lent we enter into the passion play of good and evil. In the end history is part of a bigger unity. Duality is viewed in the light of nonduality.

Lent is not just about giving up something – like sweets, meat, or television - for 40 days. It is giving up duality. It is seeing the Risen Lord in the Crucified One. It is seeing both aspects of Christ in the One Reality that we call God.

Lent is seeing ourselves in the story of Jesus. It is seeing the story of Jesus in the human stories playing out in our society and the world. It is not just an ancient Bible story. It is the Bible story reflected in newspaper stories about good and evil. It embraces all things in a deeper unity. It is resting in the peace that Christians call the Will of God. Lent is a pilgrimage into the heart of nonduality.