Satan Declines to Endorse Donald Trump

The world’s first political consultant sat down recently for a rare interview. Here is a partial transcript.

Satan, I know that spreading evil in the name of God throughout the world keeps you awfully busy. Have you taken any interest in the presidential elections in the United States?

Of course. Where there is power, I take an interest.

Do you have a favorite presidential candidate? 

It is too early for me to tip my hand, but I will say this. Vladamir Putin and I share many common interests.

 Are you saying you endorse Trump? Putin speaks highly of him.

As Scripture says, I am more subtle than that. I cannot help but like Trump. He promotes bigotry, lies skillfully, belittles others, and worships money and power. All of that is in line with my agenda. His desire to kill innocents gives me a shiver of satisfaction.

But, you’re not ready to endorse him?

I am not laughing with delight as when the music died, but I am smiling. His plan to ban Muslims from the land of the free and the home of the brave certainly caught my attention. It is so perverse I cannot help but lust for his soul. And his fragrance, have you smelled it? Essence of musk with traces of burning sulfur and brimstone. Exquisite. And yet, I have reservations.

What would those reservations be?

I have this nagging feeling that he is too perfect. I suspect he is pandering to the evil voting bloc.

You don’t think he really believes what he says?

I do not care whether or not he believes it. He might, he might not. My concern is that if he is elected, he will start making deals with people other than me. As a candidate, he serves my purposes deliciously. As a president, he would be unpredictable.

You are afraid of Donald Trump?

Not afraid, just aware. I am concerned that, given a position with more power than he has now, he might stage a coup and claim my throne as Prince of Darkness and Father of Lies.

 

Donald Trump, my Presbyterian brother

In my little Presbyterian corner of the Christian community, there is much hand-wringing over the nation’s leading demagogue describing himself as a Presbyterian. “He’s not actually on the rolls of any Presbyterian church,” we are quick to say. The talking heads on cable TV demand that we moderate Presbyterians renounce the demagoguery of the Donald, but they will not give us any airtime to do so. “We don’t need some Presbyterian clergy person to tell us what a Presbyterian is, we have Trump the Presbyterian and he’s much more entertaining than you.”

trumps-macys-new-yorkOur Stated Clerk even sent the Donald a letter earlier in this primary campaign season reminding him that the Presbyterian denomination’s actual position on refugees and immigrants stands in opposition to his campaign rhetoric. As far as I know, he has not responded, not even a tweet.

We can see where this is going. There will soon be long news programs on the inherent racism, sexism, and Islamophobia in the Presbyterian DNA going back to John Calvin and John Knox.

With Trump as our loudest un-appointed spokesperson, Presbyterian Churches will be the target of vandals who spray-paint “DOWN WITH PREDESTINATION!” on our church doors. Men wearing khakis and blue blazers will get harassed by the TSA at airports and Presbyterian women will have to surreptitiously remove their James Avery Presbyterian symbol nose rings before they leave church for Applebee’s Sunday lunch. The Unitarians will hold vigils in front of Presbyterian Churches with signs that say, “Dump Trump!” “Denounce the Demagogue!” and “Presbyterians, Go Back to Scotland!”

O.K., that probably will not happen.

But, since I cannot seem to convince the world that Trump is not one of us, I have decided to embrace him as a brother, and explain him to the world.

He is the greatest performance artist ever.

Some have speculated that he’s secretly trying to get Hillary Clinton elected, but I think it goes much deeper than that.

Donald Trump gets easily bored with the shenanigans of most rich men. Trophy wife? Done that. Conspicuous consumption? Been there. Reality TV show? Tired of it. Run for president? Now, that sounds like fun.

This campaign is the uber-rich man’s version of the redneck’s famous last words, “Hold my beer and watch this.”

Trump will soon reveal that his campaign is pure satirical theater, a performance artist’s pièce de résistance. He is actually still the liberal he used to be and his rhetoric on the campaign trail is a work of art designed to reveal the darkest part of the heart of America’s soul. Total depravity is the only Presbyterian doctrine that is provable with evidence, and Trump is generously providing us with all the evidence needed to convince us of The Truth.

“You think racism is no longer an issue in the U.S.? Watch this!” And his poll numbers climb as he insults Mexicans and encourages beating up an African-American man.

“You think sexism is fading away? Watch this!” He insults women and his poll numbers climb.

“You think we’ve come a long way since we interned the Japanese in 1942? Watch this!” And he proposes banning entry to the U.S. for Muslims. When asked “even those returning from overseas deployment in our armed services?” his spokesman replies, “All of ‘em,” and his numbers continue to climb.

Serious people say, “This is not funny anymore,” but like all edgy comics, once he has made everyone uncomfortable, he’s just getting started.

By the time he finishes this campaign, he will have given it his all. He will have fully developed the character of the American Demagogue and no matter what he says in the future, no matter how many times he protests, “It was art! Art, People! When the Donald does performance art, he does it better than anyone has ever done it before!” he will never be able to separate himself from this role. As Captain Kirk is to William Shatner, as Archie Bunker is to Carroll O’Connor, the American Demagogue of the 2016 campaign will be Trump’s career-defining role.

He will have sacrificed everything for this role, his energy, his reputation, and his future career as a performance artist. (But not much of his money, he wouldn’t go that far). But, he’s done it all for his country, to bring us to repentance, to hold up a mirror and show us what we’re really made of. “You think you’ve come so far,” his performance tells us, “but you ignore the fact that you have perfectly normal looking people walking around who will cheer when someone with money and a bunch of bravado says we need to institute a religious test for travel into this country. Wake up, people! Make America great again! Repent of your racism, your nationalism, and your Islamophobia!”

Just you wait and see. This has to be what he’s doing. He can’t possibly be serious, even if he is a Presbyterian. But, he’s not. No, really. He’s not.

Peace, peace, when there is no peace

As I write this, another mass shooting is underway, this one in southern California. At the same time, I have my Bible open to write a sermon for the second Sunday of Advent, the Sunday on which we light the candle of Peace.

candle-11797-1024x576How does one preach the Prince of Peace when violence surrounds us?

We  begin with a Gospel of peace that blossomed in defiance of violence.

Jesus was born into a world infected with the darkness of oppression under Herod, Pilate, and Caiaphas, names that struck terror in the hearts of all who lived under their jurisdiction.

We cannot ignore, however, the Christian church’s perpetration of violence in the name of the Prince of Peace. From the crusades to the support of slavery and opposition to civil rights, the Church has shown itself capable of profound faithlessness while only a remnant had the courage to defy the culture of violence.

So, while we speak with one foot on the path of peace, we speak with the other foot in the culture of violence. Though it is in complete opposition to the words of Jesus, the culture’s message is seductive, telling us that the only solution to a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. And we are the good guys, right?

To quote Jesus, “No one is good but God alone.” (Luke 18:19)

I want to make sense of the violence that surrounds us. What is the motive, or agenda, or diagnosis of a perpetrator? What led him (or them) to pick up a gun and start shooting people? Were the victims chosen, or just random?

But, there is no real sense to be made.

Mass shootings emerge from reactivity, not reason.

When we can make no sense of violence, we can still defy it. We can use all our gifts of love and reason to work to build a more peaceful world to hand off to our children and their children.

In the depths of despair after the death of his wife and the terrible injury of his son in the Civil War, Longfellow wrote these words even as the war continued:

And in despair I bowed my head;

“There is no peace on earth,” I said;

“For hate is strong,

And mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:

“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;

The Wrong shall fail,

The Right prevail,

With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

We lift our prayers for the victims of violence. If, however, those prayers absolve us of our responsibility as Christians to be the presence of peace in this world, then we have only half-prayed. The other half of a prayer for peace is to serve the Prince of Peace.

Without faith that the Ground of All Being will ultimately bring peace, defiance looks very much like denial.

Denial ignores evil in the world.

Defiance works against it with the confidence of the children of God.

On our own, our efforts as peacemakers would be futile. With God, all things are possible.

Hauling on the reins of the Runaway Christmas Stagecoach

runaway-stage

The twinkle lights will soon be strung, and the greenery with red bows will be hung, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, and the lectionary serves us up . . . Apocalypse.

“signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”

What’s up with that?

To most twenty-first century residents of the industrialized world, apocalyptic imagery just sounds weird. Whether from Revelation or Daniel or from this little apocalypse in Luke, the words just sound creepy and strange. Their misuse as texts of terror in the hands of charlatans and theological terrorists who want to frighten their followers into submission simply adds to the sense that these passages serve only the delusional among us.

What we find, however, among Christian communities who live under the threat or reality of violence and sudden death is that these apocalyptic passages are not texts of terror but of hope.

For Christian communities historically in South Africa under apartheid or today under ISIS rule in Iraq or Syria, the end of the world in a violent conflagration does not seem to be the stuff of an over-active imagination; rather, it seemed or seems the most likely outcome. The only question is when, and nobody knows the day or time.

That is the kind of situation that produced apocalyptic texts–Jeremiah’s community under attack from the Babylonian empire, and Luke’s community under attack from the Roman emperor. Destruction seemed inevitable. The only question was the day or time.

So, in hauling back on the reins of the runaway Christmas stagecoach, the church hopes to slow us down just long enough that we can listen. We don’t have to listen long to the news to hear the voices of our brothers and sisters living in an apocalyptic nightmare.

If we turn off the news and listen, we may even hear the voice of our neighbor, a friend who lives in her own little exile of loneliness; we may hear the voice of someone who lives in his own impending apocalypse of financial ruin or deteriorating health.

We may even hear the voices of doom in our own lives.

So, what then?

Beneath all the noise of the secular Christmas machine, the Bible calls out this word with a still small voice: hope.

The event we are preparing to celebrate is more than the birth of a very special baby to a poor Jewish couple in a stable in Bethlehem. The event we celebrate is incarnation. It is God becoming human flesh.

Here we have scripture written by people who can see the end of the world as they know it from where they stand; and still, they see reason to remain faithful and hopeful.

The extraordinary proclamation of Advent is that no matter how deep the darkness, no matter how cruel our adversaries, we are not alone in this world. We live in a world into which God has come in human flesh in Jesus Christ, and a world into which God enters still.

Refugees, Reactivity, and Jesus

Hello, Friends. I’m back, after a long hiatus from blogging. I’ve been working on a few life goals away from the computer this year, but now I’m settled back in to our home in Sherman, Texas and serving a church part-time in nearby Whitesboro. Beginning today, I’ll be blogging about once a week with a post each Wednesday evening. With the recent attacks in Paris and Beirut, and with the refugee crisis intensifying, I have been thinking a lot about emotional reactivity and its relationship to the practice of faith.

Nature provides us with a part of our brain that reacts instantly to a perceived threat with an instinct to fight, flee, or freeze. That part of our brain has been provided to save us when there is no time for reasonable thought or moral judgment. A striking snake, for instance, will trigger a reaction in us that will be faster than our higher brain could possibly handle. We do not observe the snake and say to ourselves, “Hmm, that snake is in a striking posture. It has the triangular head typical of many poisonous snakes. Let me look closer and see if it also has the elliptical pupils of a venomous snake or the round pupils of a non-poisonous snake. Ahh, it does have all the marks of a venomous snake. I think I will move out of its way.”

By that time, of course, we would have a viper hanging from our nose.

Refugees, however, are not snakes. The reactivity that serves us so well when we do not have time to think or make moral judgment can derail our attempt to be faithful followers of Jesus. My own denomination, the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A., along with most major Christian denominations, has been active in refugee resettlement since our nation began, but especially in the aftermath of the World Wars and the devastating wars and genocide in Vietnam and Cambodia. The biblical mandate to care for the refugee carries with it challenges that the reactive part of our brain cannot handle. It requires reason and love to be the one out of step with a fearful and reactive society; to be the Samaritan who stops to help the Jew, the Egyptian who welcomes the fleeing Joseph, Mary, and Jesus, the rebellious daughter of the pharaoh who pulls Moses out of the river and raises him as her own.

In times such as these, the verse from Hebrews 13:2 printed on the banner that hangs in the front of our sanctuary calls us to a deeper love and faithfulness, a love and faith that conquers all fear: Remember to welcome strangers, for by doing so some people have entertained angels without knowing it.Version 2

The Offense of Liturgy and President Obama’s Prayer Breakfast Speech

A young woman who grew up Christian but had never attended a Reformed or Presbyterian service came with her friends to a church I served. She told me later how upsetting she found the unison prayer of confession:

“We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done; and there is nothing good in us.”

While the rest of us took the words for granted, they took her aback. She looked up from the worship bulletin and scanned the congregation, all of whom were praying aloud. “I couldn’t believe all these people were admitting this in front of God and everybody!”

To many of us in a liturgical Christian tradition, the attack from the Christian right on President Obama after his prayer breakfast speech last week left us baffled. Former governor of Virginia Jim Gilmore has written that President Obama’s speech was “the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime.”

Further, he said that the president “offended every believing Christian in the United States.”

Here are the offending words of the president:

“Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history,” he told the group, speaking of the tension between the compassionate and murderous acts religion can inspire. “And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.” [Quoted from the Washington Post online]

Response from the Christian right ranged from “that was a long time ago,” to “the Crusades were justified,” to SBC president Russell Moore’s “The evil actions that [Obama] mentioned were clearly outside the moral parameters of Christianity itself and were met with overwhelming moral opposition from Christians.” Well, no.

Most of the offense seemed to come from the fiction that President Obama had intimated that Christianity and ISIS are morally equivalent.

While much of the hysteria can be written off as political crazy talk that naturally emerges when reactionaries hear the speech of a Muslim Atheist Kenyan Communist Black Panther Terrorist-sympathizing leader of the free world, some of it comes from a genuine difference between liturgical and non-liturgical Christianity.

Those of us in the Reformed tradition, especially those of us who are faith-descendants of John Calvin (who did not burn Michael Servetus at the stake, that’s a nasty rumor–he just approved of it after the fact) confess our sin each week in response to the words of Scripture,

“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make God a liar, and his word is not in us.”

The universality of sin, especially idolatry, stands at the center of our worldview.

The fact that Christianity has been distorted throughout history (and continues to be distorted to justify murder, kidnapping child soldiers, and discrimination) comes as no surprise to Calvinists. Humans being what we are, we will use every force for good, whether religion or science or psychology as a tool to serve our own ends.

In the Christian tradition that does not include a regular confession of sin, such an examination of our own religion’s history could sound weak and even treasonous. Eric Erickson’s language reveals this profound difference when he writes “When we possess Christ, we possess truth.” In the non-liturgical and fundamentalist Christian tradition, Christ is a tool or even a weapon to be possessed to give us an advantage over others. Rather than a guiding light, Jesus becomes a heavy flashlight to be wielded against opponents.

When one’s own desires stand at the center of faith rather than God’s, whether one’s desire is a ticket to heaven, winning an argument, winning an election, or making more money, that religion becomes self-serving and idolatrous. The words of Jesus and the prophets (“love your neighbor as yourself,” for instance) can get hammered into the oddly-shaped space in the heart of the self-centered pilgrim, but they will not find room to take root and grow.

Self-satisfied Christianity insulates its adherents from those who believe differently. “You seem like a nice person, too bad you’re going to hell unless you believe the same thing I do” tends to put up a wall against authentic and mutual friendship with anyone devoted to a different religious tradition.

For those of us who have Muslim friends, the fact that ISIS and Al-Qaeda are misusing Islam for their own ends is self-evident. Only someone who has no close Muslim friends could believe that Islam is, at its root, more violent than Christianity and that all Muslims are potentially dangerous.

For those emotionally cut off from actual Muslim people, violence in the Koran defines the religion of Islam in a way that violence in the books of Judges and Revelation, for instance, do not define Christianity.

The president’s point, almost lost in the kickboxing match of political competition for the victim badge, seems so obvious. It is, however, no less offensive to us righteous sinners now than when Jesus first said it: “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?”

Inerrancy is Heresy.

Inerrancy is heresy. Here are five reasons to reject it.

In the past, I have rolled my eyes or shrugged and walked away whenever someone in a theological discussion spoke of the Bible as “the inerrant Word of God.” I have assumed that this relatively new idea (codified in the Chicago Statement of 1978) would eventually collapse from the weight of its superstitious, idolatrous, intellectually untenable and dishonest presuppositions.

No doubt, it will, eventually.

In the mean time, it leads the Church and the world astray.

While I do not advocate burning anyone at the stake, I do think it is important to wall off, take a stand against, and defeat destructive theological ideas.
st-joan-of-arc-execution-1431
Here are five reasons we should argue against biblical inerrancy as forcefully as possible.

1. Inerrancy is an insidious form of idolatry. In claiming that the Bible is “the inerrant Word of God,” the doctrine of inerrancy claims perfection for something we can see, feel, read, and hold in our hand. It reduces the Creator of the World to a golden calfskin book.
2. Inerrancy is intellectually untenable. It reduces faith to Mark Twain’s description of “believing what you know ain’t so.” Contradictions between different accounts of the creation, the birth of Jesus, the crucifixion, the flood, and other important biblical narratives can be easily understood and appreciated through an historical approach to the development of these stories. Insisting on their literal accuracy requires an intellectual sleight of hand that blocks off the reader from the spiritual richness of the voices of our ancestors in the faith.
3. Inerrancy is superstitious. It places belief in a magic book rather than the grand and holy Mystery to whom the Bible points.

4. Inerrancy assumes that the Holy Spirit is dead, that nothing more can be revealed, that no ethical, moral, or theological progress has been made since the last word of Scripture was written around the end of the first century or beginning of the second. The doctrine of biblical inerrancy leads the non-believing public to assume that biblical inerrancy is a central tenet of the Christian faith, and that being a Christian means being against the equal rights of LGBT people, against women’s autonomy, and looking to the Bible for literal and accurate information about science and history. A century and a half ago, those who held to the precursor of inerrancy, biblical infallibility, led some Christians to use the Bible to justify slavery. While I would not argue that the American Civil War was a religious war, I can argue that the Bible became a weapon in the hands of those who waged an economic war and appealed to biblical infallibility in the verse “Slaves, obey your earthly masters.” (Ephesians 6:5 and Colossians 3:22.)
5. The quest for certainty shuts down the gift of human creativity. The appeal to the inerrancy of the biblical text reflects a need to achieve certainty about great mysteries that can never be fully known. Describing the text as sacred, holy, unique, and Spirit-breathed recognizes the deep mystery historical and contextual reading of the Bible leads us to explore and engage. It opens us up to deep understanding of the witness of our ancestors in the faith as we continue to seek the Spirit in our own lives. Claiming inerrancy or infallibility places a worldly standard on the text that it does not claim for itself. It shuts off the creative human spirit, the unique gift that has led to ethics, moral vision, and art.

To be clear, I am not arguing against the authority of Scripture in the life of Jews and Christians. I am arguing in favor of it.

I am arguing that the doctrine of biblical inerrancy has distorted the Christian faith, fed the delusions of violent mental illness, provided a (false) theological foundation for terrorists to bully, enslave, and kill in the name of God, and distracted the Church from its mission of loving God, loving our neighbors, proclaiming the Good News in word and deed, and making disciples.

Leftover Pieces

Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. –Luke 2:19

The Reverend Dr. Luke Harris and his wife Sarah knew what the two men who came to their door would tell them that Sunday afternoon, Christmas Eve of 1967.

Sarah had seen them first.

“Here they come.” Her voice, calm and even, surprised her.

Luke opened his mouth to reply, but his chin shook, so he clamped it shut.

Sarah had sat in silence in the living room all afternoon with a book in her lap, but she had lost her place hours before. The room had darkened as evening fell, but neither she nor her husband had turned on a light.

Sarah was not sure how long she had been staring out the window when the men arrived. Walking in step between the snow banks on each side of the walkway, wearing dark uniforms with medals on their chests, they marched up the steps onto the porch. They halted at the door. They could not see her in the darkened room, but she saw them standing at the door in the glow of the porch light. One of the men, a corporal, probably not yet twenty, looked as if he had never yet needed to shave. He looked at the other one, the chaplain, and Sarah wondered, when she saw the way he looked to the chaplain for guidance, if maybe this was his first time. When the chaplain nodded, the boy raised his white-gloved fist to knock, then held it in position for a second. So quickly one might have missed it, the boy crossed himself; not a full forehead to umbilicus, shoulder to shoulder; just two fingers, up and down, side to side, like a prayer mouthed but unspoken, not even whispered.

Sarah, as Protestant as any, nevertheless joined him in silent prayer, her eyes wet, but open.

The boy knocked. Neither Luke nor Sarah moved.

Until I hear them say the words, David still lives, Sarah told herself. She and Luke sat in the darkness and kept their son, their only son, alive for just a moment longer until the corporal knocked again. Luke answered the door and their lives changed forever.

“Regret to inform you, . . . killed in action, . . . . sorrow for your loss . . . grateful nation,” the memorized words, spoken as a recitation, ran together.

After they left, Luke exhaled. “Well,” he said, “That is that.” He donned his overcoat and gloves. He looked at his wife who had not moved from her chair. “Will you worship tonight?” he asked.

Sarah wiped her tears and looked up at him. “Yes, of course,” she said.

Luke preached the Christmas Eve sermon he had prepared in the days before the visit of the two men. The words he had written did not sound familiar, even as he spoke them. He knew then that his life would be divided in two: life before David’s death, and life ever after.

At the communion table, he broke the bread, poured the wine, and inhaled deeply the aroma of the elements before he spoke the liturgy. “broken . . . take, eat . . .poured out . . . drink ye all….” The memorized words, spoken as a recitation, ran together.

After he had spoken the benediction and extinguished all the candles, he did not wait at the door to exchange Christmas greetings with his congregation. He did not want to put them in that position of saying two such incongruous things: “Merry Christmas, sorry for your loss.” He did not think he could bear it.

He hung his robe in the closet of the church study, closed the closet door, turned and looked around at the spacious room; the shelves of books, the oak desk and chair, and a cushioned chair where parishioners in need of comfort had, for a dozen years, found refuge in his counsel. He sat in the parishioners’ chair and could not remember if he had ever sat in it before. It was lumpy, not at all as comfortable as he had expected.

People would refer in the future to this moment as “his decision.” It was not a decision. It was a revelation. It was as if an angel appeared before him, but stood in silence, as if it had forgotten its opening line, “Fear not.”

Luke was sore afraid in the darkness of this revelation. When the curtain pulled back, he saw the place where his faith had lived, and it was cavernous and dark and hollow, like a sanctuary after a wedding, emptied of life after everyone has left for the reception.

It took him all of Christmas Day to pack his books.

He loaded the black Underwood typewriter into the car with the boxes of books. He returned to the study one last time and sifted through the drawers of the oak desk for anything that might be important. He found a plastic bag with some small black screws left over from the last time he had cleaned the typewriter, but he threw them away. He always seemed to have pieces left over.

By the end of January, he found a job teaching undergraduate Hebrew and Greek in a liberal arts college far from their upstate New York roots. Luke and Sarah settled in to a small town in the Texas Hill Country, not far from San Antonio. They began a new life together, the life Luke called, though only to Sarah, “the life after death.”

Sarah found a church, but Luke rarely attended. He spent his Sundays gardening when the weather allowed, and reading when it did not. The wheel barrow he bought at the hardware store shortly after they arrived in Texas came in a box. After assembling it, he wheeled it around to the back porch where Sarah was reading in the sun. “Only two pieces left over,” he said, unable to hide the pride in his voice.

The wheel wobbled, but Luke did not mind. “That’ll have to do,” he said, and for eight years it did.

It came to pass that on Christmas Eve of 1975, Luke had two things he was required to assemble:

One of them was a sermon, and the other was a bicycle.

Why he had agreed to preach on Christmas Eve, he could not fathom; but, he had begun to suspect that it was a conspiracy between his wife and his friend. His friend Ian, who taught biblical studies, had set him up.

“Immanuel is a small congregation between pastors,” Ian had said. “I would preach there myself if I hadn’t already committed to Kerrville.”

“I don’t preach anymore,” Luke said. “I don’t even know what I believe anymore.”

“For God’s sake, Luke,” Ian said. “You know you don’t preach your own faith. You preach Christ’s faith. Just read the story. Tell them what it says. Throw in a Greek word here and there, it will impress them.”

“I just don’t think . . .” he objected, “that I would be up to it. Especially on that night.”

Ian interrupted him, “Pull out an old sermon. Touch it up, if you want. This congregation is a handful of saints so solid in their faith you can’t do them any harm. Just tell them the Christmas story, light the candles, celebrate Communion, and sing Silent Night. They have it all memorized by now, they just want to hear it again.”

Luke opened his mouth to object again, but Ian stopped him. “I would be eternally grateful,” Ian said.

Whatever Luke did or did not believe by then, he did believe in doing things for a friend, especially a friend who had done so much for him; who had warmly welcomed Sarah and him, even with their Yankee accents and Northern reserve.

He had only one more objection. “I don’t have a robe anymore,” he said. Luke had left his black Geneva gown in the church closet back in New York.

Ian waved his hand as if brushing away a bit of dust. “I have one you can borrow.”

And so, Luke sat in his home study at his old Underwood typewriter on Christmas Eve morning and stared at a blank sheet of paper. By the time Sarah brought him lunch, the paper had begun to stare back at him, blankly.

At two in the afternoon, he opened his Bible to the Gospel According to Luke and began to type. “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus . . .” He hit the return handle on the typewriter and the carriage flew off of the typewriter across the room and landed on the floor.

He stared at the carriage lying in the corner, then looked back at the remains of the typewriter in front of him, and the black inky ribbon that floated to the carpet between one and the other. Had it been red or green, he thought, it would have been festive.

A memory emerged, like a dream that returns in the middle of the day: a little plastic bag with two small black screws. The leftover pieces had caught up with him, even as he knew they would.

Luke opened his file cabinet and found an old Christmas Eve sermon manuscript. He folded it up and stuck it between the pages of his black leather Bible.

“It’ll have to do,” he said, because he still had to go back to his office and pick up the robe Ian had left for him.

And, since it was Christmas Eve, he had to go downtown and buy a Christmas present for Sarah. It was not that he had procrastinated; no, it was part of his plan. She wanted a bicycle, she had pointed to a bicycle in the window of Treadwell’s hardware shop, and that is exactly what he planned to buy for her–not a boxed up bicycle from the back that he would have to assemble, but the very bicycle in the window.

When he arrived at Treadwell’s it was nearly four o’clock on Christmas Eve, so he delivered the pitch he had prepared: “I’ll give you $20 extra for the bicycle in the window already put together.” The young sales clerk, a girl named Maria who lived down the street from Luke and Sarah, said, “I don’t really have the authority to do that.”

She called Mr. Treadwell at home. He stood firm. “That’s a man’s bike in the display. Luke needs a woman’s model for Sarah.”

So, instead of a bicycle, Luke bought a big box full of bicycle parts.

“Don’t worry,” Maria said. “I put together the bicycle in the window. It only takes a couple of hours.”

Luke sighed with a prayer too deep for words as he loaded the box into the trunk of the Monte Carlo and headed for his office. He found there the robe Ian had left for him; Ian’s extra robe; his white robe. And, Luke had not thought about the fact that Ian was over six feet tall and Luke was not. Their students exaggerated, but only a bit, when they called Ian and Luke “Goliath and Zacchaeus” whenever they walked across the campus together. The robe would swallow him, but when he tried it on and looked in the mirror, he sighed, “It’ll have to do.”

Luke arrived home just in time to change clothes so Sarah could drive them across town at six o’clock for the seven o’clock service. Luke went through his mental list: Bible, old sermon manuscript, church address, robe. He plowed through that nagging feeling that he had forgotten something, and got in the car.

Sarah drove as night fell and a light fog settled over everything. On their way, he remembered. “I was supposed to bring communion bread,” he said. “That’s what I forgot.”

Sarah sighed. “I’ll go get some bread. You go sit down in the church and get focused. Go pray until the service starts. I’ll be back soon. Something is bound to be open.”

Luke stepped out of the car at the corner and watched the taillights of the Monte Carlo fade into the foggy night. He did not wait until he was sitting in the church to begin praying because when he looked up, he saw the choir already gathered outside the front door. He heard organ music. He prayed, “God help me, I thought it started at seven!” and ran across the church yard, pulling on his long white robe at the same time.

“Sorry I’m late,” he said, as he pushed through the choir and took his place at the front of the procession. The choir broke into “Angels We Have Heard on High,” and the procession moved into the church and the man next to Luke, eyes wide, asked, “Who are you?”

Luke began to introduce himself, to say, “I’m the preacher tonight,” but when he looked at the man next to him at the front of the procession and saw that he wore a robe and an intricately embroidered stole, his words caught in his throat. He looked up at the front of the church and saw a statue of the Virgin Mary.

This, he realized, is not a Presbyterian Church.

The question still hung in the air, “Who are you?”

That was when the first miracle of the night arrived. His sense of humor, long buried in a fog of grief, returned.

“I am an angel of the Lord,” he told the astonished priest, “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” By this time, they had reached the chancel and Luke spotted the side exit. As he glided toward it, hoisting his flowing white robe to keep from tripping over it, he turned and called to the priest, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward all.” With that, he dashed out into the night. He crossed the street where the plain white prairie gothic church stood waiting. The sign in front announced candlelight and communion at 7:00 pm.

Stepping inside, he caught his breath and greeted the puzzled man who handed him a worship bulletin and a candle. The man stared at him from windblown hair to white robe that dragged on the floor, and back up to the sleeves that covered his hands.

“Merry Christmas,” they said to one another in unison.

When the service began, Sarah had not yet returned. Luke preached with an eye on the communion table which had a chalice and pitcher, but no bread, and an eye on the door at the back, where, any minute, he knew, he hoped, he prayed, Sarah would walk through with the communion bread.

He spoke slowly and drew out each dramatic pause to give her more time.

When he reached the end of the sermon, the congregation sang “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” As the last chorus began, Sarah stepped in, carrying a basket of bread, and came, faithfully, down the aisle and up to the communion table where Luke took from her the basket with bread wrapped in a white napkin.

As the congregation sang, “O come, let us adore him,” and Luke placed the bread on the table, Sarah mouthed something to Luke. What was she saying? “Took the bus?” He wondered if the Monte Carlo had broken down and she had to take a bus and that was why she had taken so long.

When he lifted the cloth from the bread, it came to him. She had not said “took the bus.” There were no busses running on Christmas Eve. There were, in their little town, no grocery stores open after 4 p.m. on Christmas Eve. She had gone all the way back to their house and found the only bread they had, far back in the freezer, left over from summer.

She had said, “hot dog buns.”

bread-and-wineThough she had cut them into neat little cubes, she left one of them sitting on the top, unbroken. The second miracle of the night arrived when he looked out over the congregation and recited the invitation to the table, “This is the joyful feast of the people of God.” Something fell into place; something fell back into place that had been missing since the two men had visited that Christmas Eve eight years before. It began with an overwhelming sense of gratitude when he looked at Sarah with her mischievous smile; it grew into his own barely stifled laughter when he looked at the neatly cubed hot dog buns on the communion table and thought about the befuddled priest across the street.

All the absurd pieces of his life, and his son’s death, came together for just a moment when he broke the bread and poured the wine and he knew, deep in his bones, that this story was for him. God had become flesh and blood. And though Luke had long ago memorized the liturgy of the table, it did not feel rote. The words did not run together, but instead they soared around the sanctuary and landed somewhere deep within him.

For a moment, the space thinned between heaven and earth. That vast emptiness between this broken war-torn world where death reigns and God’s new creation where love conquers all, filled with hope, and peace and joy.

That night, after Sarah fell asleep, Luke rose quietly from bed, padded out to the garage, pulled the box of bicycle parts from the trunk of the car and went to work assembling Sarah’s present by the light of the Christmas tree.

Maria of the hardware store had not been far off. After two hours, Luke had assembled a bicycle.

With only two parts left over.

One of the parts looked like a heavy-duty bobby pin and the other resembled a thick paper clip. Luke considered his old mantra, “That’ll have to do,” but the vision of his typewriter in pieces haunted him.

It was midnight when the third miracle of the night arrived.

Luke read the directions, all forty-two steps.

He found that he had put everything together just as the directions described. At the very end, after step forty-two, Luke read, “When the bicycle is fully assembled, you will have the two parts pictured, a cotter key and a chain clip, in duplicate. Place them in a safe place where you can find them when the original pieces wear out.”

Luke sat by the Christmas tree with the leftover pieces in his hand, and remembered the story he had repeated that night in church. He remembered how the words of the shepherds amazed all those who had gathered around the newborn baby Jesus. Nobody, including Mary, knew quite what to make of the words of angels and shepherds that night in Bethlehem.

But Mary kept all these things, these absurdities, these puzzles, these leftover pieces, and treasured them, pondered them in her heart.

Is American Idealism Obsolete?

I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.–Matthew 25:25

From a family systems theory perspective, we can hear two different conversations occurring over the recently released torture report. One conversation is self-differentiating and the other is reactive. The self-differentiating conversation can help us think through our nation’s moral and national security priorities. The reactive conversation dooms us to name-calling, reinforcement of social and political divisions, circular arguments, and a spiral of ever-increasing anxiety that helps nobody except those who sell advertising on fear-mongering news shows. [No link necessary. You know who I mean.]

In both conversations, we hear voices in favor and voices opposed to the interrogation methods used on detainees outlined in the report.

In a reactive conversation, people speak and act out of their automatic reflexes, especially fear.

In a self-differentiating conversation, people speak and act out of a clearly-articulated moral framework.

In the reactive conversation, even when the participants appeal to reason, they construct reasonable-sounding arguments to support their emotional reaction to the report. Whether one responds with revulsion to the reports of forced rectal feeding and freezing to death a man whose affiliation with terrorism was never established, or with anger that the report was released because it fans the flames of our enemies’ hatred, the argument that follows will be constructed from the foundation of that reflexive feeling. Cherry-picking facts always reveals an emotional reaction rather than a thoughtful self-differentiated argument. Evidence that supports that feeling will be included and evidence that supports the opposite will be dismissed or ignored.

The self-differentiated argument begins with identifying a moral framework and ethical foundation and builds a position and a proposal for action on the basis of that foundation.

john-stuart-mill
John Stuart Mill argued in favor of human liberty based on a cost-benefit analysis. His mentor in utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham, advocated abolishing physical punishment, but called the theory of natural rights “nonsense upon stilts.”

For example, arguing in favor of the use of any means necessary to extract information from detainees, a self-differentiated argument begins with John Stuart Mill’s utilitarian moral framework. It builds its argument on the postulate that the ultimate goal of government is the protection of its citizens. Since that goal stands supreme over all else, the argument over the use of torture emerges as an argument over whether or not torture is effective in extracting actionable intelligence from detainees that will give the CIA the ability to catch enemies or prevent plots against the U.S. from succeeding. Killing or torturing some innocent people is the necessary price of attaining a greater value.

John-Locke-7
While Locke agreed that a government’s role was to protect its people, he argued in favor of natural human rights rather than Mills’ and Bentham’s utilitarian cost-benefit approach.

Within this same utilitarian moral framework, the argument against the use of torture argues that the cost is greater than the benefit—that the use of torture yields very little if any actionable intelligence and that it yields a great amount of misinformation from detainees that just want the torture to stop so they say whatever they believe their interrogators want to hear. Further, the utilitarian argument against torture claims that the use of torture fans the flames of hatred against us and puts our own citizens who are prisoners of war at a higher risk of being subjected to similar treatment at the hands of our enemies.

The argument that I made in a previous post stands on a different moral foundation, a moral framework elucidated by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, based on traditional Jewish and Christian religious values and shaped by the humanists of the Enlightenment, both Christian and secular, especially John Locke. On this moral foundation, I argue (along with John McCain) that the ultimate goal of our government and its agents is to act out of the moral foundation of our country: that all people are created equal, endowed with certain unalienable rights, and entitled to due process in the quest for justice.

In the self-differentiating approach to argument, the position we ultimately take requires two steps: first, articulating the ultimate value on which we stand, the utilitarian commitment of government to protect its citizens at all costs, the commitment of government to act out of its foundational values of human rights, or something else.

Second, the self-differentiating realm of argument weighs the evidence of whether torture serves each framework—whether it makes us safer, if one stands on the utilitarian argument, or whether the interrogation techniques used by the CIA violate our nation’s moral foundation, if we stand on the human rights argument as the ultimate value.

Here are the questions I invite you to consider:

  1. Are we too far gone toward reactivity and societal regression as a nation to have a self-differentiating conversation?
  2. Is the idealism of the American revolution (equal rights for all people) obsolete in a day when terrorism rather than tyranny threatens us more?
  3. From what ethical foundation other than utilitarianism and universal human rights might we find common ground in our national conversation on torture?
  4. How do you know when a conversation has become more reactive than self-differentiating?

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Torture, the Constitution, and The Pirate Code

 

Jesus asks, “What does it profit those who gain the whole world but lose themselves?” Luke 9:25

The Torture Report summary released earlier this week lays out an argument that torture, or “enhanced interrogation techniques,” did not work, that the intelligence gained from torture had already been obtained by other means. Former Vice-president Cheney appeared on television to argue that “enhanced interrogation” produced actionable intelligence that led to the capture of our enemies.

Because this page is about theology, ethics, and biblical interpretation, I want to raise a different question: does the quest for security trump every ethical concern? To put it another way, have we sold our nation’s soul in our quest for national security?

I use the word soul in its most inclusive sense, both spiritual and secular—our nation’s essence, her identity shaped by values and history, her ideals described in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Pledge of Allegiance. If we betray those values, that all people are created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights, that everyone is entitled to due process and protection from undue search and seizure, that we strive for justice for all, not just our own kind, what is left of our nation’s soul?

Recent text book wars in Texas have swirled around the question of Moses’ influence on the constitution. Perhaps the more urgent question is whether or not we will abide by our constitution’s values whether they came from Moses and Jesus or John Locke and John Stuart Mill or the Code of Hammurabi.

In arguing that the ends justify the means, the former vice-president and the FBI director imply that those of us who advocate applying the Constitution’s values in even the most extreme and difficult circumstances are unrealistic idealists. Values are all well and good, but our security must come first. If torture provides us with more security, we are obligated to use it, they argue, and we should be grateful to those who carried out their orders and those who issued the orders to administer torture.

jollyroger I laughed at the scene in Pirates of the Caribbean when the pirate captain takes a prisoner who had asked to parlay. “You can’t do that,” the prisoner argues. “It’s against the Pirate Code.” The pirate captain says, “the Code is more what you call guidelines than actual rules.”

Is the Constitution nothing more than the Pirate Code? Is it to be thrown out when it does not meet our immediate needs?

I’m not laughing now.

Among those who argue against torture on our behalf is John McCain, a hopeless idealist who has been called much worse. Having endured torture himself as a prisoner of war, and endured vicious political smears from members of his own party, McCain has had a broad range of experience in which to consider both the effectiveness and morality of torture. Here is a paragraph from his speech on the floor of the Senate this week:

[I]n the end, torture’s failure to serve its intended purpose isn’t the main reason to oppose its use. I have often said, and will always maintain, that this question isn’t about our enemies; it’s about us. It’s about who we were, who we are and who we aspire to be. It’s about how we represent ourselves to the world.

“We have made our way in this often dangerous and cruel world, not by just strictly pursuing our geopolitical interests, but by exemplifying our political values, and influencing other nations to embrace them. When we fight to defend our security we fight also for an idea, not for a tribe or a twisted interpretation of an ancient religion or for a king, but for an idea that all men are endowed by the Creator with inalienable rights. How much safer the world would be if all nations believed the same. How much more dangerous it can become when we forget it ourselves even momentarily.

“Our enemies act without conscience. We must not.”

What do you think? If living by our values endangers our security, should we ditch our values? Does national security trump the constitution and the human rights that it advocates? What, if anything, can or should we do to prevent our national leaders from authorizing torture in the future?

If you would like your free copy of “Cheaper Than A Seminary Education,” a 45-page e-book on reading difficult passages of Scripture in context, sign up for my weekly newsletter here. If you decide it’s not for you, you may unsubscribe at any time.