Monthly Archives: January 2012

Peculiar Menagerie: Sheep, Snakes, Wolves and Doves…

(This week’s post provides a faithful Christian critique of this year’s election contest. This will be a special monthly blog feature during the 2012 election season.)

‘See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.’ (Matthew 10:16 NRSV)

Jesus’ statement to his disciples is a provocative one. After calling all the disciples to the task of following him, he commissions them to drive out demons and heal whomever they encounter. He gives them further instruction as to how they should conduct themselves. Those instructions include teachings on how to behave in various villages, what to take on their journey and how to act if they are not received. His concluding statement is the quoted text, “I am sending you out as sheep among wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

The metaphor is simple yet powerful. Disciples are easy pickings for wolves, unless they exercise the wisdom of serpents. If they are not careful of where they step and how they act in the world, then they can bring unnecessary attention and drama to themselves. It could even lead to their demise. Jesus’ admonition is both a warning and a statement of ontological truth. It is a warning to be attentive to the dangers of the world and all that belongs to it. It is an ontological statement, because it says something about the makeup of a disciple’s character. The disciples are in dangerous territory, yet the exercise of mental discipline and behavioral restraint mitigates the challenges .

These words of Jesus still apply to the disciples of today….

This year is a pivotal year in our nation’s history. While this statement might be one of the most overused statements in recent times (for a number of reasons), it is particularly true in this present moment. Sure, the nation has to choose a president and members of Congress. And true, we will decide the country’s direction and the leadership we want to have. But more and more this election is about the moral makeup of this country. This year’s election will define the nation’s character and soul. Who are “We the People” going to be?

The portrayal of cultural issues and the context of our current social discourse are conducted in a narrowly constructed binary fashion. Politics and the corresponding partisanship virtually define all issues as being this or that: Liberal or Conservative, Republican or Democrat (despite the rise of Independents), Red or Blue, pro-immigration or anti-immigration, pro-life or pro-choice, homophobic or pro equal rights. Listening to political speeches and pundits serves as a profound lesson in reductionism. Every policy question is a moral choice about the future of the nation and the quality of life in America. Life, for the political actors (and I do mean actors), is always reduced to who is on what side and the position they are advancing. The effect is a limiting of life’s diversity to one extreme on the other. For me, it is maddening to see life boiled down to these false dichotomies…

The truth of the matter is that life is always more complicated than any of the arguments of political ideologues. A simple example of the contrived political arguments can be seen in Newt Gingrich’s statements regarding child labor and the work ethic of poor urban children. (Digression: I would explain his perspective a little further but you must be on the lunar colony that he proposes building to not know about his perspective on this issue. See link). Frankly, you cannot get more out of touch with the complexity of life and willfully perpetuate myths about poor children (which has increased significantly in the last decade). His comments assume that poor “urban African-American children” are offspring of lazy, drug-addicted parents with no sense of purpose. This paints that segment of the population in such a way that it becomes easily digestible in the binary code of this-or-that. Simply disgusting

The reality for poor parents of all ethnicities in America is much more complicated and diverse than any one career politician (regardless of political party) could ever grasp or articulate in a sound bite. My own experience of working with the poor of our community involves dealing with parents who have strong values and an even stronger commitment to providing a loving and stable environment for their family. Sure, many of them augment their income with government assistance and other non-profit help but, most of the parents I work with are dedicated to their children and work two or even three jobs to keep food in cupboards, lights operable and heat on. They are not all drug addicts or convicts, but some are. Some have made bad choices, others are victims of circumstance. Life is varied and difficult amongst the wolves and not everybody understands the comfort of being in the sheepfold with Jesus

Regardless of the mistakes and shortcomings that are all a part of everyone’s life, I have seen parents of the poor pass strong values and a healthy work ethic on to their children in ways that the parents of privileged children seem to neglect. I have seen the children of limited means learn to become effective participants in society through mentorships, education and study, familial love, and yes, even through hard work. It is clear through my experience, that limited binary thinking is not equipped to define the diversity of life that we encounter as disciples. Life is too expansive for red and blue prisms to view the world. I like to think many of the professed Christians who are in politics understand this dynamic of life and infinite complexities. Sadly, I also think I am wrong…

The real challenge for us this 2012 election season is living faithfully with Christian values, while maintaining a discerning attitude toward the partisan ideologues that have painted the world in stark black and white terms. The Rev. Adam Hamilton, pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, wrote a book entitled Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White: Thoughts on Religion, Morality and Politics (check it out my reading list). In it, he argues that the politically divisive issues of our time are not ever as simple as the partisans on either side define them. There are always subtexts, caveats and loopholes that make life much more complicated (and interesting) than the simple binary code of our discourse. For Adam, the color is gray, which is indicative of dullness or neutrality. For me, natural colors are a metaphor for the diversity of life itself. The color may not be gray, but instead a cacophony of color as a rainbow. regardless of the color scheme, the text codifies the idea that millions of other Christians in America share; quite simply the world is a much more complex place than black or white divisions.

I am asking that Christians who seek adherence to their faith and faithfully exercise their civic obligation to think about what they hear this year (and every year). I challenge you to see the world in a shade of gray. Life isn’t just a rich or poor, pro-life or pro-choice, straight or gay, Republican or Democrat, Christian or everybody else choice. There are colorful areas in the middle, where life thrives and flourishes. Faith lives and thrives in these areas and not in the concrete gray of our ideological bunkers. Disciples in Jesus’ day (as it is in ours) are to “be wise” and “cunning” in the exercise of faith. We must be ready to continue carry on living amongst the wolves of institutional maintenance and binary thinking. It is a thinking and critiquing Christian that glimpses a vision of truth…

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Filed under 2012 Election, Christianity, Discipleship

Discerning the Crowd from Disciples

Jesus withdrew with his disciples to the lake, and a large crowd from Galilee followed. When they heard about all he was doing, many people came to him from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, and the regions across the Jordan and around Tyre and Sidon. Because of the crowd he told his disciples to have a small boat ready for him, to keep the people from crowding him. (Mark 3:7-9 NIV)

As a local pastor serving a congregation, I often run across the most peculiar of human behavior. I’ve seen children fight at funerals and laugh at suffering. I’ve seen church bullies who dominate meetings and intimidate members. I have seen people invited to the parking lot to “continue” contentious conversations. Many years ago, after one particularly aggressive confrontation between two parishioners in which an argument devolved into cursing and threats of bodily harm, I overheard one of them say, “that is not my style, I am a Christian.” To which the other also said they were Christian, but they still were going to “kick their ass”. After some, shall we say, “vigorous and spirited” pastoral intervention, I calmed the parties down and got them to go home. Later, reflecting on the events, I found it curious that both members situated themselves in the Christian experience and validated their behavior because of (or in spite of) the label Christian.

More recently, I have witnessed instances in society in which the behavior of various churches, communities, politicians and commentators are identified as “Christian”. This identification infers that their shenanigans are representative of practitioners of the faith. Whether it is the hatred of the now infamous Westboro Baptist Church or the political ads of Rick Perry, (in which he touts his Christian identity as much as car makers tout the voice recognition software in their latest model vehicles), the behavior tend to range from the extreme to the absurd. Their behavior means I have to spend time explaining to my non-christian friends all the various reasons why they are not really Christian, even though they say they are. These incidents constitute symptoms of an interesting phenomenon that exist our culture. This phenomenon assumes that Christian identity is universally expressed and politically monolithic and yet somehow only personally experienced.

This ideological myth furthers the idea that all American Christians share the same “values driven” motivation and subsequently share the same politics. The myth is furthered through the various coded mainstream cultural dictates that prescribe proper Christian behavior. You know, Christians are loving and soft. Christians will convert you at all costs. Christians don’t believe science. According to those dictates, Christians think with their hearts (to the exclusion of their minds), are fiercely patriotic (almost xenophobic), promote American theocratic structures, vote solidly Republican, and unequivocally support Israel. This monolithic portrayal of the faith is born in the modern political Conservative Christian movements of the 1970’s and 1980’s (Google Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson). With intense political interest and a dogged determination, the Christian Right, as it is known, rebranded Christianity for the mainstream culture.

The issue is not that the nation is religious (because it is and yes I said it), but instead it is that the mainstream culture of the society goes to great lengths to categorize everything in the society- to which religion has become a victim. People, ethnicities, economic classes, geographic origins are all subject to pop culture and media classifications like black upper-middle class or young-urban-chic. Those societal dictates also regularly define what the appropriate expression is in the Christian tradition. In spite of this caricature, history tells us of a long tradition of Christian activism that encompassed a whole host of ideas- liberal and conservative. Many abolitionists were Christians. Educational reformers were often rooted in Christian ideology. The civil rights movements that lasted throughout the 19th and 20th century are rooted in Christian ideals, but were historically criticized at the time as being leftist, and Communist. It wasn’t until the rise of the Christian Right that the rebranding of American Christianity was packaged as an exclusively right-wing phenomenon. To be Christian is to be Republican and to be liberal is to be atheist (or at the very least agnostic).

Fundamentally at the heart of the Christian identity myth is the idea that religion is a private and personal decision that is not open to communal interpretation except when it comes to political discourse. Promulgated by the media, portrayals of American Christianity have often been caricatures of political extremes or extraordinary examples of religious bigotry and bias (see Quran burning pastor or Westboro Baptist, etc.). The hundreds of thousands of Christians that are not gun-toting, conservative minded, Creationist, Biblical-Fundamentalists rarely get a hearing in the mainstream culture and media. These Christians abhor the politics of the religious right as a litmus test for true faith in Jesus Christ.

If there is a litmus test for the Christian, then perhaps the passage from Mark sheds light on what it might look like. The gospel of Mark mentions a nameless, faceless crowd that follows Jesus wherever he goes. Whenever he enters a town or performs a miracle, this crowd shows up. Sometimes clamoring for more, sometimes cheering him on, the crowd lives and breathes on Jesus’ activity. Jesus on several occasions even tries to escape the crowd, (as in the above passage) often to no avail. The gospel writer Mark however makes two interesting suppositions. First, there is a distinction between the crowd and the disciples. We see intimate activity and teaching occurring with the disciples. We are privy to all of the emotions and connections that occur with relationship in Jesus, because of the disciples. The crowd gets none of this Jesus. The crowd is kept at a distance and receives some teaching, but not necessarily the intimacy of relationship with the Christ. Secondly, Mark portrays the crowd as being present in a different form at the foot of the cross. When the climate changes and the political winds shift against Jesus, the crowd shows its fickle nature and turns violent. The crowd becomes the mob that chants, “Crucify Him, Crucify Him!” (Mark 15).

What is my point? Everyone that follows Jesus is not a disciple. Everyone that claims Christian identity does not intimately know his ways. Some folks are just in the crowd. The identity of a Christian manifests in the behavior of the proclaimed Christian. There are many church members who are members of the crowd and not disciples. There are many folk outside of churches who are disciples because they think the church is the crowd. Disciples seek understanding and are looking for deeper relationship. Crowds go where the action is. Disciples may not get it right but they grasp a life with Jesus as being a member of purposeful community. The crowd goes along to get along. Disciples are characterized by their love and compassion for all God’s creation. Crowds are fickle and can quickly turn in on those who do not meet their expectations.

Visions of truth can appear once we become self-critical and reflective as individuals in faith communities, neighborhoods and families. This reflectivity helps us to always examine our position in relationship to Christ. When politicians, celebrities, laymen, clergy, (or even when we), proclaim our faith, the Marcan dichotomy between crowds and disciples is present. Instead of being static in our relationships with Jesus, maybe we drift in and out of the Marcan crowd that follows Christ. Sometimes we are as close as the women with the issue of blood; other times we are far and distant as the north star. And for that reason, we must take care in looking at our behavior and the behavior of any of those who claim to be part of the Christian tradition. We are not vigilant so that we may judge or exclude, but we are vigilant so that we can do better. So be mindful of who you call a Christian and who calls you one. Somebody is just in the crowd and somebody’s stealing away with Jesus…


Filed under Christianity, Gosepls

Manufactured Memories….

But take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life; make them known to your children and your childrens children

Deuteronomy 4:9

This Martin Luther King Holiday will be the first holiday with the new memorial on the National Mall. I recall all the fanfare and excitement as the initial plans for the dedication were taking place last summer. I recall all of the Facebook photos of family members and friends standing in the shadow of the magnificently imposing stone structure. I still have friends now who return again and again to the mall to walk around under King’s shadow and marvel at the wonder of the achievement of finally having a memorial to his work. I, am not among them. I have never been to the memorial and am still somewhat hesitant in visiting. I know, I know, how can you be a Black Baptist Preacher and not visit the nation’s only historical marker to…… a Black Baptist Preacher (and to the legacy of Civil Rights in America)? Glad you asked……

Memorials, why they serve to preserve our collective history, do not always effectively convey historical truth (see scandal of the misquoted speech). That is to say, the history behind the man or woman who is eternally preserved in stone is sometimes conveyed through the prisms of convenience and relative truth. Memorials are pieces of art, teaching tools and establishment symbols all containing relative meaning for those experiencing their grandeur. For example, the Jefferson Memorial, while it is dedicated to one of our “Founding Fathers” and stands as a sign of his central ideology toward freedom, reminds some of the slaveholding hypocrisy of this nation. The Lincoln Memorial stands as symbol of the power of unity as displayed in the Union of “these United States” over the differences that separate us. For others, the memorial stands for emancipation and freedom from slavery. Memorials and monuments mean different things to different people, that is the strength of having memorials. It is also their weakness. For subjective truth can quickly devolve into a relativism that makes symbols mean just about anything you want them to. Specifically, memorials can be made to mean just about anything when placed in the hands of the right (wrong) individual.

My ambivalence to the King National Memorial is more concretely rooted in the fact that the memorial doesn’t connect with the memory of Dr. King as I have come to know him. I understood Dr. King to be about action that leads to societal change and prophetic accountability. I understand his legacy to be one of service to all humanity. The challenge of the memorial’s construction and dedication reminded me that a different reality is at work. Very recently, it dawned on me that I didn’t know him. I never did. All I have known of him was what I have been told. Everything I have known about Dr. King has been through the lenses of those who have carried their own understanding of him. I do not have personal knowledge. I didn’t see news reports about his latest rally. I didn’t attend a church where he preached. I have never heard his voice on live broadcast.

This revelation is not anything new. I had it a few years ago while attending a conference seminar in which the topic of living in a world in the “Post King Generation”. I learned from that conference that there is real power in how we remember what God has done. The text from Deuteronomy reminds us of just that. As a part of the restatement of the legal customs of ancient Israel, the writer admonishes us to take care to remember. We are neither to forget or let others deny what God has already done in the life of the community. I see this as a very important concept for our nation as a Christian in the world. It is not just the act of remembering that is important, but also how we remember that is inferred. The story has to be told but we need to take care in telling the whole story, anything less is called propaganda. Erecting monuments and statues, reciting speeches and offering books critiquing legacies are all ways of remembering. While these ways of remembering are appropriate in certain arenas, the biblical text questions us: “Is that the careful expression of remembrance or merely one of convenience?”

Fast forward to summer of 2011. As a proud member of the Post King Generation, the idea of not knowing Dr. King became all the more poignant as the imposing stone structure took shape along the Tidal Basin in DC. I regularly wondered, how the legacy of a prophet could be enshrined alongside monuments to war and aggression? A man who stood for justice and used this very site as a backdrop for calling the nation to task, now stands eternally as part an object of civil religious pilgrimage.

In the days after the completion, but before the dedication, groups of people from all walks were streaming by news media and television cameras. All of which praised the memorial’s construction. I vividly remember watching members of Dr. King’s fraternity (the organization key to the development and building of the memorial) stream by, along with throngs of tourists and some journalists excited about what this new memorial would mean in of the nation. In the interim, what have we done to drive closer to the vision that Dr. King had for this nation and the world? It would seem to me that the legacy of any memorial to “the dreamer” is far outweighed by the capacity of those who believe in enacting the dream to bring about systemic change. In this way, we take care to remember Dr. King’s work because we pick up where he left off. We become part of a memorial that serves to make a more perfect union, instead of using the symbol of stone and words to manifest dreams of our own design.

The danger of the memorial (without action) is quite simply the usurpation of the legacy of Dr. King. To be sure, Dr. King is part of our national heritage and therefore belongs to the nation, but his message was uniquely prophetic against the practices of the nation. A proud American, he spoke against the status quo and the established ways of national policy, political engagement and social mores in order to provide a much needed morality to the social discourse. Today, when free-market capitalists and conservative pundits use the national heritage in the person of Dr. King to further sell their “dreams”, we risk losing the values Dr. King embodied. When big box retailers have “King Holiday Sales” and many Americans still struggle to see the relevance of the holiday, the memorial has no meaning and we have yet to live into the dream.

My vision for truth this Martin Luther King Holiday is for all of us to read more than just the “I Have a Dream Speech” and know he was a “great man”. There was more Dr. King wanted to say and more he wanted to do. There was his stance against the Vietnam War, the Poor People’s March and his aggressive campaign for equality and justice as fundamentally American. Before we sound horns and pat ourselves on the back for what we have done in this memorial, let us complete the work that he started in building a better society. In that way, we become the memorial that honors his life…


Filed under Civil Religion, King Holiday, Sacred Memory