Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Blogless in Sandwich

Twice in the past week people asked me why I have not written a blog post recently. Others have said the same thing in recent months. It is not that I don’t have anything to say. It is just that my thoughts are not publishable.

I have written articles and never posted them. Sometimes they were printed in the local newspaper in the religion column I write for. But hardly anyone reads that, so it is almost the same as not publishing them!

Some of my articles are still sitting in a folder on my laptop. Others I deleted after writing, being too controversial for a small town pastor to voice publicly. Still others disappeared when my hard drive crashed a few months ago. I see that as divine intervention.

I have been thinking a lot about persecution of Christians in the world. The destruction of ancient Christian communities and public executions of Christians have been weighing heavy on my heart. I have been thinking about the rise of Islamic extremism. I have been watching with concern the marginalization of religion and the eroding of religious liberty in our country.

I have been thinking of the growing crop of presidential hopefuls. (Lord, save us from them!)  I have been thinking about the ruling class in America. I am increasingly disgusted with the two main political parties, and I wonder how anyone can believe in them anymore.

I have been increasingly amazed by the senseless tripe that is paraded as news on the major networks. Every channel runs exactly the same stories, with the same footage. They run the same stories night after night. New, unique, and important events are happening every day in the world, and they are ignored by the media.

You see? That is why I have not written anything. I get upset. I feel like I am in a Wachowski movie. I have chosen the red pill, and sometimes wish I had taken the blue one. Life is so much easier when you believe whatever you want to believe. I have also been reading the novels of Philip K. Dick recently. That does not help.

I am increasingly dismayed at Christian religion in America - mainline Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, and evangelical Christianity. The anti-scientific bias in Christianity – liberal and conservative - astounds me. The narcissistic introversion of popular spirituality amazes me. The cultural captivity and herd mentality of both progressive and evangelical Christianity repulses me. Where is Kierkegaard when you need him?

You see, I am already saying too much. I probably should have kept some of those thoughts in the folder on my laptop. Anyway, this is why I have been blogless. Now you know. But who knows? Perhaps this post will be the beginning of a change.  

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Rise of the Planet of the Nones

New research released a month ago by the Public Religion Research Institute shows that the religiously unaffiliated are now the largest “religious” group in the United States.

Nationally those who respond “None” to religious affiliation surveys are 22%. White evangelical Protestants come in second at 18%. White Mainline Protestants are third at 14%. White Catholics are 13%, followed by Black Protestants and Hispanic Protestants, both at 8%. All the rest are 5% or under.

In thirteen states the “Nones” comprise the largest group, including in New Hampshire. In fact among all fifty states New Hampshire is second only to Oregon in having the highest percentage of “Nones.” 

In the Granite State 35% are unaffiliated, 28% are White Catholic, and 16% are White Mainline Protestant. White Evangelicals come in fourth in New Hampshire at 9%.  All the rest of the groups are 2% or under.

Of course I could argue with the way the groups were divided along racial and ethnic lines. (For example, I don’t see Black or Hispanic Protestants as religiously different than White Protestants!) But no matter how you look at it, I am part of a minority group.

On the world scene the situation is much more serious. It is open hunting season on Christians of all kinds as persecution and destruction of historic Christian communities accelerate.

Back here in the United States, there is no persecution of Christians. Just an ongoing loss of numbers, power, prestige, and influence. And that is alright. Many Christians bemoan the ongoing cultural shift and wring their hands in despair. I kind of like it, as long as it does not turn into intolerance.

To tell the truth I never cared for the so-called “glory days” of American Protestantism, as my church in Lowell, Massachusetts, used to call the 1950’s and 60’s. I grew up in that era. I remember those days well, and I didn't like them. That was the type of Christianity that I, like so many Baby Boomers, rebelled against.

It was the time when pews were filled, and Mainstream Protestantism had power and influence. If you wanted to get ahead in business or society, you had to be a member of a church. That is no longer true. Good riddance. It fostered a hypocritical form of Christianity.

Nowadays it is counter-cultural for a person to be a part of a church. That fits me better. It is now culturally “in” to be a skeptic, agnostic, atheist, or at least “spiritual but not religious.” Although recent studies have shown that this last group is actually better described as “neither spiritual nor religious.”

Christianity has always been at its best when the underdog.  That is why it thrived in the first three hundred years of the Christian Era. Only when the Roman Emperor Constantine decided to make Christianity the official religion of the empire in the fourth century, did the real problems begin. Masses of people joined the church for reasons other than religious conviction.

That was the downfall of the Christianity. Since then believers have always been “a church within a church.” Nowadays people come to church for much better reasons. Sure, there are those who come mostly for the social dimension, and that is fine. We all need community and friends. But there is now a much more sincere search for, and finding, a sense of the Presence of God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit, than ever before.

So I will not complain about the Nones or their growing numbers. It just means there are that many more people to reach with the gospel.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Unloving Wall

I have been following the election in Israel, and it has caused me to think back to the times I have visited the Holy Land. It has been many years now since I traveled to Israel. The last time was in the year 2000. I still have a sun-faded cap with the words “Jerusalem 2000” on it. There are many reasons I have not returned, but now I have one more. It would break my heart to see the wall.

I am referring to the security wall built between Israel and the Occupied Territories. Israel had already built a wall around the Gaza Strip in the 1990’s, but now a wall has been built around the whole West Bank. It is a serpentine scar on the landscape of this beautiful land.

In 2013 a 145 mile fence was constructed at the Egyptian border, and a new fence was built in the Golan Heights at the border with Syria in the same year. Now all that remains is to construct a barricade at the peaceful border with Jordan. Then the Israeli fortress will be complete.

I have been told that this wall adjoins Tantur, the Ecumenical Institute where I and my whole family lived for a semester in 1991.  In those more peaceful times we had only hand-thrown stones, rubber bullets and tear gas to contend with. Yet we were unafraid to walk regularly over the border into Bethlehem.

We used to walk unobstructed from our flat at Tantur into Bethlehem to shop for pita bread and fruit at a nearby market. We would walk past Rachel’s tomb, all the way to Manger Square to visit the Basilica of the Nativity, the traditional site of Jesus’s birth. That experience made such an impression on me that every Christmas Eve I still remember the smell of the incense in that church.

To take that journey into Bethlehem now, one would have to go through a military checkpoint.  My experience contrasts sharply with that of my brother-in-law, who is presently visiting a Jewish settlement on the West Bank. I have urged him repeatedly to visit the site of our Savior’s birth, but it is not as easy as it used to be. Here is a Christian walled out from a holy site.

Robert Frost wrote, “Something there is that doesn't love a wall, That wants it down.” That something that doesn't love a wall lives in me. Part of me want to shout a paraphrase of JFK, “Ich bin ein Bethlehemer” and Ronald Reagan, “Mr. Netanyahu, tear down this wall.”

Robert Frost wrote:
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.

The stated purpose of the wall is to wall out terrorists. They say it has worked, pointing to the fact that there has not been a suicide bombing since 2009. If I was a Jew in Israel, I might see the wall this way also – as a protection from terror. But I know that something there is that does not love a wall, that wants it down.

I also know that the wall has stopped ordinary commerce and interactions between Palestinians and Israelis. Palestinians are severely restricted in their travel to Israel.  Israelis are banned from entering Palestinian cities in the West Bank. Many young Israelis have never met a Palestinian face to face, and vice versa.

This lack of social contact between the two peoples breeds ignorance, which breeds fear and hatred, which breeds violence. It is easier – on both sides - to dehumanize a faceless, nameless enemy, whose only identity is formed from our own imaginations and government propaganda. Perhaps the wall has decreased one type of violence, but I fear it is also planting the seeds of another type of violence.

Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

I pray for a ground swell in the Holy Land.